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Guanajuato’s Indian Chapels

I’ve been twice to see the Indian chapels outside San Miguel de Allende. It’s fun to jump in the car on a weekend morning and head to the nearby countryside for a minor morning of sightseeing. I took very few notes, so if you’re looking to write your thesis on these charming little remnants of 17th and 18th-century ecclesiastic history, you’d better start Googling.

I can, however, tell you a little about the tiny, one-room chapels. They were built to catechize rural Otomí Indians reluctant to embrace the Catholic faith in New Spain. Other indigenous people were eager to worship Jesus, Mary, and the saints, but they lived far from the city. According to an article in La Atención, San Miguel’s bilingual weekly rag, 240 of these chapels were built. Today some are used as granaries, storage sheds, and even houses, others are locked up or in ruins.

In an effort to promote rural tourism, the government has reportedly invested some two million pesos to restore seven of these colonial cuties. Local people were recruited to act as guides, but the “Touristic Route of the Indian Chapels” has failed to attract enough tourists to make waiting around all day profitable. When we arrived on our first outing in late 2011, brochure in hand, we found all but one of the diminutive places of worship locked up tight.

Our first stop, Montecillo de Nieto, is just outside the small town of La Cieneguita and less than 10 minutes outside San Miguel. We recognized the chapel from a picture in the brochure. It was locked, but the folks at the adjacent ranchito directed us to a nearby house. After a brief wait, we were ushered into the capilla virreinal---the official name of this type of rural, colonial-era chapel. Señor Alfredo answered our questions and showed us the rough wooden pew where he had sat as a boy; the oratory had at that time been used as a school. Later his family had lived in the single-room structure. As we were there in December, the altar was more crowded than usual with icons of Mexico’s patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

We got a “two-fer” in Montecillo de Nieto because within strolling distance of the first chapel is a second one, dedicated to Saint James the Apostle. La Capilla Santiaguito was decorated with ../images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Pope John Paul II. There was a relatively bloody Jesus on the Cross along with buckets and pots of flowers plastic and real, an electric chandelier, and a charming statue of the community’s patron saint.

From Montecillo de Nieto we headed west down a dirt road. Several chapels were closed, but at the most established, San Isidro Bandita, a shy but knowledgeable young man was waiting to show us around. In Spanish, he filled us in on area history and the iconography of this chapel dedicated to Saint Isidore (San Ysidro Labrador), the patron saint of farmers and rural dwellers. The murals on the walls had been restored and also the vaulted ceiling, painted in an army of angels. In the small courtyard is a calvarito where even today, prayers of permission in the Otomí language precede weddings and religious festivals.

Several months later we revisited the area, hoping to see some of the chapels that had been closed the first time around. Bypassing Montecillo de Nieto, we stopped at the small community called Oaxaca. Its Capilla de San Mateo was locked up tight, but after asking the neighbors and waiting around a while, an ancient caretaker appeared to show us around. Well worth the wait, this tiny temple had wonderful icons, including a great old statue of Saint Matthew. On one of its frescoed walls was a painting of la alma perdida: the soul burning in hell for eternity wore a surprisingly indifferent expression. Surrounding the chapel we saw humble adobe houses, a gate made of mattress springs, and lots of dogs in various states of exhaustion and enthusiasm. But very few people in the dusty streets.

The Indian chapel at Cruz del Palmar, about 1.5 kilometers away, was closed and we found no one to open it. But by asking around we did conjure up the sacristan of the town’s church, which offered plenty in the way of Catholic iconography in a larger (by now even this small church looked huge), more traditional environment.

As we had on our first jaunt, we ended the visit with lunch at San Isidro Bandita, whose café had a menu of tasty, typical rural fare at excellent prices. At the adjoining crafts shop I bought a cloth purse with a burro appliqué in support of their efforts to provide shopping opportunities for visitors and jobs for local people. Local kids and families from San Miguel were enjoying an outdoor puppet show under the shade of some large trees.

The fate of this and the other six renovated Indian Chapels is uncertain, as local people have found it unprofitable to maintain weekend vigils. The admission price is 20 pesos per person, and not enough visitors arrive to make it worth their while. The last time I checked, chapels at Montecillo de Nieto, San Isidro Bandita, and Oaxaca were open for visitors. You might have to ask around for the caretaker; you’ll meet plenty of local people as you try to locate the guy with the key. I suggest you check with the San Miguel de Allende Tourism Office (facing the main plaza, tel. 415/152-0900) to see if the chapels are currently receiving visitors. If you have a small group, you can possibly arrange a tour. Either way, plan to have lunch in San Isidro, and maybe buy a few souvenirs. This kind of tourism helps support Mexico’s rural communities and preserve its less grandiose historical icons.