On the northern shore of Lake Patzcuaro is the village of Santa Fe de la Laguna, known in pre-Hispanic times as Ueameo. In addition to Spanish, most of the inhabitants speak Purepecha, even the children. In Purepecha, Ueameo means, “Place Where Something Comes Out.” According to a government-produced pamphlet, the “thing that comes out” most likely refers to lava from a volcano lurking in the area. And although I didn’t see any on my recent stop at this sleepy borough in mountainous, north-central Mexico, this certainly is volcano country. If you follow the 19th parallel around the world you’ll find within the so-called Ring of Fire many fire-belching volcanoes. The closest active volcano to Santa Fe may be Colima’s Volcán de Fuego, but the landscape here is certainly volcanic, with dramatic peaks. The iron-fortified soil is rich and productive.
Many Santa Fe families dedicate themselves to agriculture augmented by the production of barro vidriado. The most popular items produced with the town’s trademark glassy black glaze are candleholders, vases, and urns. If you’d like to shop for this pottery, however, you’re more likely to find it in the shops of neighboring Quiroga, a market town.
Churches and Local Festivals
Santa Fe’s main church, just off the plaza, is a simple one but its plateresque facade is quite beautiful. The cross in the atrium is carved with symbols of the Passion: the rooster that crowed, the crown of thorns, and so on. Connoisseurs of religious art consider the temple’s 16th-century crucifix, found inside and above the main altar, to be exceptional. Nuestro Señor de la Exaltación (translation: Our Lord of Over-Excitability? Our Hot-Headed Lord? Or more likely, Our Lord of Exaltation) is made of a mixture of cane pulp and orchid essence. This very old recipe was used by the indigenous people of the area to make statues of their war god, which were very light and could be carried with them to battle.
At the back of the church complex are the remains of a huátapera. These “Indian hospitals,” as the Spanish called them, were built in the early years of the conquest. Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, champion of the dispossessed indigenous population, built these facilities throughout the region to minister to the sick and the hungry. Statues of the Virgin Mary in these humble temple-hospitals almost without exception have an icon of the moon near the feet. Relating Mother Mary to the moon goddess Xarátanga made it easier to convert the Purépecha people to Catholicism.
Today the church remains the center of community life. Inside its large, walled courtyard the townspeople gather each week to celebrate a communal lunch. Ladies and girls gather in the shade of the wide veranda to weave garlands or wreaths of flowers for festive occasions. The town’s principal holiday is the Feast of Our Lord of Exaltation, September 14. Each of Santa Fe’s barrios competes to produce the best church decorations and fireworks displays. Dancers perform “los Huacaleros” symbolizing the trading of goods among their ancestors. For three days beginning on the Epiphany (January 6), men perform the Xexenkicha, in which they mock certain public figures, and the T’arhe Ambakiti, a dance requiring colorful tunics and masks.
Why Go? Why Not?
There are no hotels in town; visitors usually stay at commerce-driven Quiroga, just five kilometers away. But in Santa Fe de la Laguna a women’s co-op has formed to offer lodgings and food for visitors. Across from the main plaza, a family home has been converted to a hostel called Sipekua (“happiness” in Purépecha) with an adjacent restaurant serving regional dishes. The lodgings are not glamorous but they are clean, comfortable and attractive. If this hostel is full or the restaurant closed, ask the lady of the house to direct you to one of the others in town.
Santa Fe (“Holy Faith,” in Spanish) is a tranquil little place to visit along with Tzintzuntzan and Quiroga. There’s not much going on outside holidays, but a stop for lunch and a look at the church are in order if you enjoy untouristy towns. Someone wanting to practice her Spanish---or the Purépecha language for that matter---might do well to hole up in this tiny town for a few days of informal language-immersion.