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The International Writers Magazine: Mexico

The Queen of Tonalá, Jalisco, Mexico
Doug Bower

I had never been to Tonalá, Jalisco, Mexico, before this week. We had been making plans to attend an International Book Fair in Guadalajara's Expo Center in November and chose a hotel in Tonalá to stay in during that time, as the rates were significantly cheaper than hotels around the Expo. Some friends called a couple of weeks ago to ask if we wanted to go to Tonalá with them in September. 
We jumped at the chance to go early so we could scope out this little town and our chosen hotel before the fair. I told our friends we would love to go and off we went.

It is always a strange thing to travel with friends when they are the ones doing the driving. You are at their disposal and on their schedule. You can't just pull over to take some snapshots whenever you want or stop somewhere to eat when you're hungry. You've got to go with the flow of the group and make the best of things. It was going to be different. I wasn't sure what to expect.

One thing traveling through Mexico in a van affords that bus travel doesn't is you get to see and experience Mexican rest stops. This was a totally new experience. When traveling in a bus across country, you never get to stop at these places. The friend who was driving was extremely courteous not to smoke in the van with us non-smokers on board. Outside of Leon, Guanajuato, right before entering the state of Jalisco, he pulled off the road at a toll-road rest stop so he could smoke and we could all use the facilities. What I learned is that rest stops in Mexico are pretty much like rest stops in America.

There was the immediate materialization—coming out of nowhere—of a shiftless-looking bum who walked repeatedly around the van looking in the windows as if he wanted to help himself to our luggage and laptop computers. I stayed with the van while the others went to the restrooms. Though I gave this guy the meanest and most menacing of glares, he didn't seem to care and kept eyeing the van. I also noticed a smell that I thought at first was coming from the dirty, shiftless bum. But, it smelled too much like a very fresh barnyard to come from him.

Right across from the rest stop's Snack and Barf Shack was a truckload of hogs riding off to market in a three-tier livestock trailer. They were squealing their displeasure over being crowded into the back of this enormous trailer. Two of them even erupted into fights and shot pig poop out the sides of the truck for our rest-stop entertainment pleasure.
Just like in the States, the snack shop takes advantage of thirsty travelers who have nowhere else to go. I had to pay almost $1.40 USD for a small, weak cup of coffee, which was just par for the course. The bathrooms were tragically ill equipped and dirty. So, after that interesting learning experience, we were off again on the road to our destination of Tonalá, Jalisco.

I am ashamed to say I fell asleep in the van and missed the scenery all the way to Tonalá. I always do this in cars and vans. I end up getting to where I want to go without so much as a word to describe the roadside sights and landscapes. On buses, I am too embarrassed to fall asleep for fear of frightening all the other passengers with my unearthly bodily noises that come screeching forth from my drooling mouth when sleeping. In the van, our friends had set up a large foam pad and pillows in the back, which was simply too much to resist. I took advantage of it and slept the entire way, all four hours, to Tonalá.

I awoke just as we pulled into the parking garage of the hotel in Tonalá. Having left Guanajuato at 9:59 a.m., we arrived at the hotel where we had reservations waiting at 1:45 p.m.—not bad timing. I forked out what I thought a very reasonable $38.00 USD a night at the Hotel Hacienda del Sol. I liked this hotel. It reminded me of a Best Western Inn with a little too much western motif flare. But, it was ok. The rooms were small, but had a TV, air-conditioner (didn't work well at all), an ample bathroom, and a lousy reading lamp. How someone thinks a guest can read with a 5-watt bulb is beyond me. However, the room was extremely clean. The beds were made for people that are only four feet tall. The door of the room had these bolts running up and down its length in rows. I wasn't sure why they were there. They appeared to be decorative in a cheesy sort of way.

Lately, I've been discovering Mexico's obsession with high-tech toilet flushing. Now, don't get me wrong. I do not go looking for these things; it is just they seem to pop up when I least expect it. The bathroom had instructions for flushing the toilet. I do not know why this is necessary since I have personally done very well with my toilet-flushing practices all my potty-trained life. But, lo and behold, here were special instructions for flushing a high-tech toilet.  

This toilet had a totally different flushing mechanism. It was a circular device with a large red portion and a small blue portion. It looked like a pie chart on someone's overhead projector presentation to show the company's deficits in red while the triangular blue area represented some positive income. The instructions said in Spanish, now get this: to flush solids, press red and to flush liquids, press blue. But, here was the thing, and I spent an hour trying to figure this out; no matter which one you pushed, the same amount of water came cascading down into the toilet bowl. I even took the thing apart and flushed it over and over again while watching the water levels in the tank. It all worked the same which kept me awake wondering why?
I really need a life.

The receptionist recommended a restaurant just a couple of blocks from the hotel. (Another reason I loved this hotel: it was not only cheap but also centrally located.) The prices were high but the food and service were exceptional. If you are ever in Tonalá, you have to try the Hacienda la Divina. The employees all were wonderfully accommodating and bilingual. After a gut-busting meal of chicken fajitas and a tour around the soon-to-be-opened art and craft gallery adjacent to the restaurant, I headed off to the Plaza Cihuapilli. I had an appointment with the Queen of Tonalá.
One of the chief reasons I wanted to come to this small Mexican artisan town was to see the statue of the woman who ruled the area. I mean, this is a miraculous fact of history that is not just fascinating but a great mystery in my mind. How could a woman, under the auspice of the Aztec, Toltec, Cocas, and Tecuexes traditions and ideology, have ruled a kingdom?

Women in this period of history in Mexico wove cloth making not just utilitarian items to support their families but also items to pay tribute to monarchs. Female slavery was a common theme throughout the culture of that period. The women were used as breeders to produce more slaves. In workforces, women were prostitutes, courtesans, merchants, vendors, and amazingly, medicine women and midwives. Some Spanish wrote that their ability in medicine not just rivaled but exceeded European doctors. But, to be a queen in the cultures of the various tribes? This was nothing short of remarkable. I had seen photos of this woman's image but had to see her in person. It was first and foremost on my list of "must-sees".

In the language of native Mexico, Náhuatl, Cihuapilli means Lady Princess. Not too long before the invasion of the Spanish into Tonalá, an underage Princess or Prince inherited the throne of Tonalá. A relative, so the story goes, was selected to rule as queen until, presumably, the underage heir apparent would be old enough to take the rightful place as ruler. Tzapotzingo, the relative, took control of the kingdom. It is said, in some sources, that Tzapotzingo was a harmless and intelligent ruler who, instead of seeking conquests through war, encouraged the development of arts and crafts among her subjects. Isn't that something? Maybe we men need the women to take over ruling the world. What do you think? Rather than fighting, we should make art.

In March of 1530, a Spaniard known for his cruelty and violence marched into Tonalá. He had a mixed cadre of Spanish soldiers and indigenous mercenaries. One source I read hinted that Nuño Beltran de Guzman was not on very good terms with the King of Spain and therefore was looking for a quick victory of any sort to mend fences, as it were, with the King. What better target than a bunch of artists and craftsmen ruled by a woman? Guzman's bravery simply overwhelms me.

Tzapotzingo, according to some historians, either gave up without a fight or decided to receive the invaders with open arms. This would turn out to be a grave mistake.

The queen, after a meeting with her administration, decided to be friends with the Spanish. However, a contingency within her people decided otherwise and attacked Guzman's forces. This, naturally, sparked a bloody conflict. This forced Queen Tzapotzingo and some of her loyal followers to hide out in a fortified mesa that still sits in the north part of town called Cerro de la Reina. You can hike up to the mesa where Queen Tzapotzingo's reign came to a tragic end and see, I've been told, Guadalajara from that vantage point. Guzman fought his way into the fortified site, captured Queen Tzapotzingo, and after drawing his sword, it is believed he told her something like, "Today you will die, woman." The rest is history.

The puzzling thing that always makes me wonder what if is the Spaniards who recorded the conflicts in personal diaries said this of the people of Tonalá: "they were faithful as lambs in peace, and ferocious as lions in war." What if they had not initially welcomed Guzman and his fortune seekers? What if they had exercised the military option at the get-go and drove the Spanish off? The same question is most certainly begged when I think of Cortez when he was invited with an almost welcome-wagon, "Hello there, neighbor!" into Tenochtitlan by Montezuma. Cortez could not have been more welcomed than if Montezuma personally met him at the gate with a housewarming gift. What if they had resisted? What if they had driven off the Spanish? Would the Spanish have been just a passing historical thought had the indigenous fought from the beginning? How would history have turned out then? While Montezuma's motive was apparently to get a feel for who the gomers were who were knocking on the front door, Queen Tzapotzingo's motive we will never know. Maybe she was just a really nice lady.

Queen Tzapotzingo's statue sits in the Plaza Cihuapilli, a clean and most inviting little plaza for just sitting and staring at Her Majesty, the Queen. She is depicted as a Wonder Woman-like Amazonian who is shown doing what she should have done when Guzman came calling…hurling a lethal-looking spear. Though she looks like a very young warrior woman, some believe she was in her forties when her life came to an end at the hands of her Spanish conquerors.  
I could not leave the Queen's side for some time. I took several pictures from various angles and thought how so very sad it was that a woman, who when she took possession of the throne Tonalá, a remarkable feat in those days, encouraged her subject to be artists and craftsmen, and who was tragically relieved of her throne and killed—literally—by gold diggers.

And, I could not get out of my mind that she wanted her people to devote themselves to arts and crafts and not to conquest. I rather like that.
Fiercely devoted to making crafts and arts, her people, her descendants, are fulfilling her wish even today!
Oh, by the way, traveling with friends? It worked out fine!
Doug Bower is a freelance writer, Syndicated Online Columnist, and book author. His writing credits include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Houston Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Associated Content, Transitions Abroad, International Living, Escape Artist, and The Front Porch Syndicate. He is also a writer with where his articles have been syndicated in more than 4,183 online publications.
Book Credits:
    * The Plain Truth about Living in Mexico –Universal Publishers
    * Guanajuato, Mexico: Your Expat, Study Abroad, and Vacation Survival Manual in the Land of Frogs—Universal Publishers
    * The V!VA List Latin America: 333 Places and Experiences that People Love—He is a contributor to this work. The release date is April 2007.

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