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Tlaxcala: A Taste of Old Mexico

Climbing in my car up mountain passes that surely gave Hernán Cortés pause, I was identifying with the Spanish conquistadors. (And feeling a bit guilty about that: it’s more politically correct for those living in Mexico to hate the invaders.) But if my four-cylinder Toyota could barely chug up these mountain peaks outside Tlaxcala, what must the Spanish foot soldiers (okay, forget about Cortés, I’m sure he was riding a horse) have experienced in their clanky, cumbersome armor?

Curiously, my internal dialogue (Old World vs. New! Ruthless European conquerors vs … the Aztecs, also ruthless conquerors!) took place on Columbus Day, where in my home country traditionalists celebrate the “discovery” of America, while Hispanics call it instead Día de la Raza and commemorate the good-old, pre-gabacho days before the Europeans came.

Perhaps because I was headed to a multi-day cooking course in Tlaxcala, my musings regarding the Spanish invasion of the Americas soon centered around food. What sort of world would it be, for example, without cheese? The milkable beasts---cows, goats, and sheep---were all imported by the Spanish. The New World of course contributed corn, making possible that staple of a single person’s diet, the humble quesadilla. As a result of my cooking lessons, I broadened my culinary horizons. I can now make cactus-pad salad and cream of chile poblano soup.

The culinary arts aside, the topic of the conquest of Mexico continued during my visit to Tlaxcala, the state and its eponymous capital just west of Mexico City. Unlikely allies of the Spanish in their conquest of the Aztec empire, the Tlaxcalans earned a reputation as traitors. At least that’s what I heard from three different people during a visit of as many days to Mexico’s tiniest state. And is it a coincidence that the volcano that looms over southern Tlaxcala, easily visible from the capital, is named after la Malinche, Mexico’s most infamous traitor?

Who cares if la Malinche (her real name was Malintzin, and the Spaniards called her doña Marina) was sold into slavery by her own well-to-do family and later given as a gift to the conquistadors, or that her people (the Nahua) paid tribute and sent sacrificial victims to the Aztecs? She should have been loyal to her own people instead of aiding the Spanish in their conquest of Moctezuma, and later Cuauhtémoc (the last Aztec emperor), and shortly thereafter, Mesoamerica itself---right?

Tlaxcala History 101

After being bested in battle soon after the Spanish arrived in the New World, the Tlaxcalans apparently saw the writing on the wall. They joined the Spanish and were a significant ally who helped the Europeans defeat the Aztec empire at Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). In return they were relatively well-treated by the Spanish during the early years of the colony.

Four Tlaxcala lords were also the first natives baptized in the Catholic faith. Later, Tlaxcala families voluntarily relocated to far-flung cities in order to help catechize more reluctant indigenous groups. They established colonies in Saltillo, San Luis Potosí, Santa Fe (New Mexico, today belonging to the United States) and other outposts with reluctant or rebellious local Indians.

Tlaxcala Today

Modern Tlaxcala is little visited by foreign tourists, and so is the perfect destination of those seeking “off the map” Mexico destinations. It shares with neighboring Puebla State a tradition of Talavera pottery, which can be found for sale in local shops. Tlaxcala city is less than an hour away from Puebla’s capital (also named Puebla), and also very close to Mexico City. The new Arco Norte highway makes visiting both these states possible without passing through the nation’s chaotic capital if you are coming from points north and west.

Tlaxcala’s downtown is compact and has many beautiful colonial buildings and public spaces. Highlights include the Ex-Convento de San Francisco, when the four lords of Tlaxcala were baptized before Cortés and his new allies marched on Tenochtitlán; the beautiful brick-and-tile Parroquía de San José (parish church of St. Joseph); and, on the east side of the city, the stunning Basílica de Nuestra Senora de Ocotlán, where pilgrim flock to venerate a miracle-working apparition of the Virgin Mary. Situated between Parque Juarez, with fountains and sculptures, and the main square, Plaza Constitución, are several fine museums as well as handful of restaurants clustered under Los Portales, a shaded colonnade.

About 20 kilometers southwest of Tlaxcala, visitors should not miss the unusual ruins of Cacaxtla, which combine architectural and iconic elements of both Maya and Gulf Coast indigenous groups.

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