Our van bumps over narrow cobblestone streets and we stop alongside a small church-front plaza. We are in Angahuan, a Purépecha village in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. Two Native Indian women, both in long, brightly-colored skirts and woolen shawls called rebosos, sit gossiping in the sun.
As we pile out of the van, the clatter of horse hooves shatters the village quiet. A half dozen caballeros, some leading two or three horses, pull up across the street. Several of the lean young men, sporting ball caps and jeans, dismount from their wide pummel saddles. They lean against the buildings talking and smoking while their horses flick away flies.
Angahuan is one of 60 or so villages in Michoacán inhabited by people who were indigenous to the area a thousand years before the Spanish invaded Mexico. The town is also the gateway to the Paricutín Volcano, a monolith that buried two villages more than six decades ago.
It’s October, the tail end of the region’s rainy season, and the village streets, haphazardly paved with rocks, are muddy and large pot holes, some half the width of the street, are filled with water. Two dogs skirt a particularly large street lake and one pauses for a drink of the brown water.
Women scurry down the streets carrying bundles and plastic buckets. The villages are quite traditional and the food, dress, crafts, agriculture, and social customs are the same as they were hundreds of years ago. So is the language. Here in Angahuan, they speak Tarasca, a hybrid language distantly related to Quecha of South America’s Andes. It’s also similar to the language spoken by Zuni Indians in New Mexico.
Some Purépecha speak both Tarasca and Spanish. They also tend to be suspicious of travelers like us. Fortunately, our guide and driver, Raimundo (Raymond), speaks fluent Tarasca and knows many of the village people who welcome him and his guests.
Several women in rebosos and shiny pink, blue, green, and purple skirts are gathered by the heavy wooden doors of the Church of Santiago (Church of Saint James the Apostle). These doors, which date back to 1562, are surrounded by ornate masonry carvings with a distinct Moorish look. Inside, the narrow sanctuary is decorated for the Festival of Santiago with pots of flowers and streamers of cut-out paper hanging from the lofty gabled roof ceiling. Sunbeams slant through tall windows, giving the place an ethereal look.
A village woman moves toward the alter on her knees. Hair pulled tight from her weathered face and her head bowed, she silently glides toward the alter. In her hands, she clutches a rosary and her lips move silently as she fingers the beads.
Ride ‘em Volcano
Soon it’s time to leave the village for Paricutín Volcano. We rumble down the dirt and rock road, and notice that several of the caballeros are galloping or fast trotting behind us.
We stop at a viewing area and we’re startled by the sight. Far in the distance, the bell tower of a cathedral stands half buried in black rock. This is the Cathedral of San Juan Parangaricutiro, the church of one of the villages consumed by the volcano. It is also our destination.
It’s apparent why the horsemen have followed us. We are offered the option of walking or riding down the 1 ½ miles to the cathedral. We opt for horses.
My horse, Abuelito (Little Grandfather) is a good looking dark steed with a white blaze that belongs to a cowboy named Jesus. I mount my horse and Jesus checks my stirrups. While the rest of the group mounts up, Jesus and I head off through a sparse pine forest, me on the horse and Jesus on foot.
Unlike many rental horses in the U.S., the horses here in Angahuan are in great condition. Abuelito is eager and sure-footed. We meander down a steep road, part black-top, part dirt ruts, and, as I lean back in the saddle, the horse carefully picks his way down. He’s been down this path many times and moves with confidence.
Once the terrain levels off, I urge Abuelito forward and he breaks into a fast trot and then into an easy gallop. Jesus, seeing I’m comfortable on the horse, simply follows along at an easy walk. Soon the path narrows and we snake through giant lava boulders.
It’s not long before we’re at “base camp,” a ramshackle gathering of open-air, covered buildings. A man takes my horse and soon the rest the horses and caballeros straggle in.
The air is heavy with delicious smells. Under one of the tin-covered lean-to’s, two Indian women, Valencia Socarro and her mother, work beside a large metal cooking pan over a smoky wood fire. The older woman uses a stone rolling pin to grind masa dough against a metate, a rectangular-shaped grinding stone made of coarse volcanic rock. Valencia pinches off golfball-sized pieces of masa and pats out tortillas she tosses onto the metal cooking plate.
Valencia’s husband arrives and removes thinly-sliced beef from a cooler, tossing it with a little oil onto the sizzling cooking surface. He adds slices of onion, red tomatoes, and fresh jalapenos, turning them as they begin to blacken.
My stomach rumbles and my mouth waters as the smells waft up through the smoke. The man pulls off the lightly roasted tomatoes and chilies and tosses them into a bowl-shaped matate. He adds a bit of water and mashes the vegetables with a grinding stone for fresh salsa.
He deftly turns the meat and onions and then loads some into a puffy, freshly cooked tortilla. He hands the prize to me. I add some fresh salsa and take a bite. The tortilla is pillow soft, the meat slightly smoky, and the salsa picante. Soon my mouth is buzzing from the heat. I gulp from my water bottle to ease the zing, only to take another, and then another bite.
Valencia catches my eye. Would I like another, she asks. Why yes, of course.
After our snack, we head for the cathedral’s ruins. We follow a path that leads us into a jumble of black lava rock, some the size of refrigerators, others the size of television sets. It’s as if some giant child has tossed his building blocks in a fit of temper.
It’s slow going over the treacherous terrain. I secure my camera around my neck so I can use both hands to keep my balance. Just a few hundred yards later, we’re standing at the cathedral, its bell tower half submerged in solid lava rock.
In 1943, a farmer tending his cornfield outside the village of San Juan Parangaricutiro felt an ominous rumble and was surprised to see the ground begin to belch smoke and rise up. It didn’t take long for the volcano to grow and threaten nearby villages. Authorities, fearing disaster, forced the villagers in San Juan and the village of Paricutín (aka Caltzontzin) to move lock, stock, and barrel, to higher ground. Soon, the ever-growing volcano’s molten lava completely swallowed both villages, leaving only the bell tower of the church of San Juan.
We scramble over the jagged rocks. The old church was the size of a football field and, while the cathedral’s roof is long gone, the bell tower on one end and the alter wall on the other are perfectly intact. When the volcano exploded, the lava didn’t harm the alter or the crucifix of Jesus, a fact that area villagers consider the Miracle of Paricutín.
We make our way to the alter wall, precariously balancing on the black rocks and looking down into the bowl of lava. The alter rises out of the rock like an ancient phoenix. A cross with Jesus on it hangs on the wall (the original crucifix has been moved to another church). Flowers, photographs, and other offerings decorate the alter. We are silent. This is, indeed, a holy place.
As we pick back across the rocks, we meet an old man in a sweat-stained straw cowboy hat. He tells us he was a young boy when the volcano rumbled to life.
I ask him about “el milgaro,” the miracle of the church alter being spared by the fiery volcano.
He frowns and squints into the distance, his eyes seeing another time.
Then he smiles and says softly, “No one died. That is the miracle.”
By Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor