Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Converging in Yecapixtla

Located in the higher portion of the State of Morelos, above the altitude in which sugar cane grows, Yecapixtla survived the 19th century sugar boom and the many haciendas’ insatiable demand for labor that subsumed many of Morelos’ villages.  It survives as a town of prehispanic origin at the base of snowcapped Popocatepetl.  As an important population center it was chosen by the Order of St. Augustine to be the location of one of its more stunning church and monastery complexes.  Thursday of this week would be a grand day to visit that town just north of Cuautla.      

Thursdays and Sundays are market days but this Thursday, in addition to its regular food market, Yecapixtla's will be one of the largest Days of the Dead markets in all of Mexico.  Vendors from surrounding states will travel to Yecapixtla to sell everything one might need to decorate an altar, to host the return of the departed next week when they come back to visit their living relatives.  Yecapixtla's market on the Thursday before Days of the Dead is its largest market of the year and has its origins in a pre-Hispanic festival honoring the birth of Yacapitzauac, a deity who acted as a guide for travelers and protector of merchants.  In Yexapixtla this festival/market has been observed in one form or another since the 1330’s making it another example of the syncretism of Catholicism and prehispanic religious practice.

The State of Morelos' contribution to Mexican cuisine is usually thought of as Cecina de Yecapixtla.  Cecina is very thinly sliced beef, salted enough to preserve short-term without refrigeration.  The market is ringed with small restaurants and 'puestos' offering 'tacos de cecina'.  You'll be asked if you want them "con todo" which includes cheese, sliced and grilled flat leaf catus (nopal), avocado, and onions.  It is one of the grandest tacos you'll ever eat.  In order to savor the pure cecina taste, I recommend that you order a plain cecina taco too.

Although the town is prehispanic, Yecapixtla is centered  around a 16th century Augustine Order monastery.  It is part of the Ruta de los Conventos, an unusual UNESCO World Heritage site -- the Route includes monasteries  scattered throughout Morelos.   Originally constructed by the Franciscans, a small church was built on top of a sacred site of Yacapitzauac.  After a fire destroyed the Franciscan church the Augustinians (1535-40) rebuilt a much larger church and monastery dedicated to St. John the Baptist.  It has been speculated that Yacapitzauac, like St. John, is depicted with a staff and that this would be more acceptable to the indigenous population. 

Be sure to have two old two-hundred peso bills with you -- the larger of the two types of 200 peso bills which are currently in circulation.  In the top left corner of the front of the bill there is an intricately designed half circle.  Invert another, similar bill, over it to make the full circle and you'll have a copy of the gothic rose window over the main entry.  It is one of the very few rose windows in Mexico from this time period.  Though the window appears pure Gothic it was, like most of the work in the churches of that time, executed by skilled indigenous artisans who perhaps surreptitiously inserted elements of their culture and faith in the window frame. 
Happily the exterior of the monastery conserves its original austere and elegant design.  The interior of the sanctuary was gaudily redecorated in the early twentieth century and is so tasteless that a metal plaque in the ground level corridor of the monastery laments changes that damaged the beauty of the interior and the originality of its design.   In the cloistered monastery portion of the building, under INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) supervision, the walls and vaulted ceilings have been taken back to the original 16th century decoration revealing stunning multi-colored geometric designs.  Upon entering the walkway your eyes will be drawn to the ceiling as in religious buildings of Moorish design.  This is natural, as after eight hundred years of Moorish domination, Muslim architecture had been fully integrated by Spain.  Christian religious scenes with portraits of church leaders were added later as Augustinians developed their own artistic style.  
If you return to your 200 peso note you'll find a portion of Miguel Cabrera’s portrait of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz.  One might wonder why she is connected to the rose window of Yexapitla?  The famous poet, dramatist, theologian’s mother Isabel Ramirez, was baptized in the sanctuary of San Juan Bautista.  Sor Juana’s birthday is next month.  We’ll celebrate her birthday with a special column in her honor. 

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