Neill James in Modern Mexico Magazine

by Judy King 16. June 2010 23:34

Soon after you arrive at Lakeside you begin hearing the name of one of Ajijic’s first foreign settlers – the travel writer Neill James who came to Ajijic in the 1940s to recover from an accident and remained to start a silkworm farm, a silk spinning and embroidery industry, a tradition of weaving, and most importantly, Ms James hired a tutor who supervised local children as they completed their homework and then taught them to paint.

A couple of weeks ago in this column you learned the result of that tutor’s work – the dozen or so Ajijic artists who make their living today because of the classes this woman set up for them.

Ms James and her sister lived in the property that is now the Lake Chapala Society which is centered by the well-known Neill James Library, the largest collection of English books in any non-English speaking country in the world.

The following article appeared in the October 1945 Modern Mexico Magazine which was published in New York City by the International Chamber of Commerce. Judy King transcribed the article for a June 2002 issue of Living at Lake Chapala. The article’s author not was not identified in the Modern Mexico Magazine issue. 

community2neillportrait Usually the interesting foreign women in Mexico live in the provinces. As does Neill James, often called the most colorful woman in the Americas. World traveler, lecturer, radio commentator, author, whose new book, Adobe Hut in Heaven , telling about her residence town Ajijic, Jalisco, will come out within a few months.

Miss James has written four Petticoat Vagabond travel books taking in a great part of the world including Lapland, the Orient and Mexico. Above and beyond this, however, she is a beautiful and charming woman (cast an eye on the picture) who has made for herself in Mexican hearts, as well as those of the Jalisco resident and visiting foreign colony, a warm place. This despite a series of mishaps, which would have slightly dimmed, to put it mildly, the radiance of the average foreigner.

On her own and alone, Neill James has circuited the globe three times, visiting 37 countries in the Orient, Europe, Africa and South Seas. Seven years ago, she spent nine months of the winter in the Arctic traveling two thousand miles driving her own reindeer across Lapland from the Russian frontier to the fjords of Arctic Norway. Dressed in the fur clothing of the Laplanders she lived with the nomads who follow the reindeer. She spent a month with the largest cod fishing fleet in the world, operating in Lofoten Islands off the coast of Arctic Norway 150 miles above the Polar Circle.

For three years, this dauntless traveler resided in Japan. She visited the Orient on three occasions. Her last trip abroad in 1940 was to Japan, spending a year in the grass huts of the hairy Ainu, white aborigines of Asia, on the strategic Island of Hokkaido, and traveling in Korea, Manchuria and Mongolia and down through the war zone of Northern China. Her book, Petticoat Vagabond in Ainu Land, describes these adventures in Asia.

In 1942, Neill James came to Mexico intending to remain six months, gathering material for a travel book. However, a week before her scheduled departure she suffered a near fatal accident on Popocatepetl Volcano. As a guest of the Club Exploraciones de Mexico she had climbed the 17,899-foot volcano to sleep two nights at the bottom of the crater and to spend a day in viewing the hot sulfur lake on the floor of the crater. On descending the volcano she slipped on a steep icy area and fell spinning down the mountain, to be miraculously saved for a five-month bout in the hospital.

The next year, 1943, she went with three friends to visit Paricutín, Mexico's rip-snorting baby volcano. The view shack where the party took shelter collapsed under the weight of the ash and sand thrown out by the volcano burying the party and inflicting a double triple fracture on Miss James who was struck by an ironwood beam. Came another four months in the hospital. "If I had to spend three years recuperating from 9 fractures in any one place, I'm glad it happened in Mexico," said Neill James.

"In my little adobe house in Ajijic, I live alone and in the open, sleep out-of-doors, cultivate a pocket-handkerchief sized flower and vegetable garden…and write. To the amazement of my Mexican neighbors, I actually do the work in my garden, and water it by hand. It's astonishing how much a plant drinks. A carrot, for instance, drinks about as much water as a medium sized elephant! I have some orchids, too, but the climate here is very dry for orchids. So I rigged up an automatic watering system by simply puncturing a pin hole in a pottery jar, filling it with water and hanging it above the cluster of orchids where the water would run down the tree trunk drop by drop. It works beautifully.

"I came to Ajijic to recuperate. When I landed I was so crippled I had to be helped out of the boat. Daily I worked to regain my health. I sunbathed, swam in Lake Chapala, and exercised. Now I walk upright and without crutch or cane.

"By way of diversion and to aid the women and girls of this village earn some money, I revived an old embroidery home industry, and put them to making beautifully embroidered but tailored blouses for women. They worked with such enthusiasm and the project grew so rapidly that now it occupies my entire spare time and encroaches upon my writing time. My job is to direct the project, furnish raw materials and find a market for their produce! Tourists have made my little adobe house a Mecca and few leave without one or a half dozen hand made embroidered blouses 'Made in Ajijic.'

"I love Mexico! It has all the old world culture of the Occident, the glamour, mystery, and color of the Orient and a very special brand of mañana of its own more devastating than the legendary lotus in captivating the footloose stranger wandering in the realm.

"I think it has the brightest postwar future of any of the Republics in the Americas. Such a rich country, too! If only the average Mexican could come into his own share of his country's natural wealth, there would be little poverty.

"I predict a surge of tourists southward over the Pan American Highway, by car, by train, boat and airplane. A number of the trickle that comes this way now have expressed a desire to return and settle. I am afraid that come the end of the war, Mexico will have to erect strong barriers to protect her Paradise.

Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Lake Chapala’s Modern Muralists III – Javier Zaragoza

by Judy King 24. May 2010 07:43

"I don't know how I did it. I think it was a miracle,” said Javier Zaragoza, talking about the six murals he painted in the Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos Church in 1961 at age 16.

“I really didn't know anything about art then. I didn't know about the principles of painting, or the techniques or the technology. I had studied modern art in San Miguel for 18 months, but these paintings weren't modern, and doing a mural is so different from just making a painting."

Javier laughed and said, "I painted all six of those murals in a few months with no equipment, instead of scaffolding, I put a board between two ladders, and I had a box of acrylic wall paints. I mixed my colors on the lids of the cans." He shook his head. "I think it was a miracle."

editormural1 "I hope you are prepared," he said to me when I interviewed him a few years ago. “If I start talking about Neill James, I might cry. I feel about that woman like I do my own mother."

I knew Javier was in one of the first art classes sponsored by Neill James, the American woman whose education and art instruction influenced so many of Ajijic's children – and created today’s village of artists and galleries.

“I'm prepared for whatever it takes to hear this story. How did a travel writer help the little son of an Ajijic fisherman become a graphic artist for Warner Brothers in Los Angeles?"

"When I was about six, I heard there was a library in Ajijic. I didn't know what that meant, but I heard they had free pencils and brushes, paint and paper. I couldn't wait to find out if it was true…what a great place that was for us."

Soul3-mural"We were eight people in my family and we were poor, but we had plenty to eat because my father was a fisherman, and there were many fish in the lake in those days….Big fish." Javier's hands showed the size of a huge fish – perhaps four feet long.

  "You know, later when I was working in California and eating steak and chicken, I dreamed about the good food we had at home, the beans, tortillas and fish that were so fresh."

"In those days (the early 1950s) a construction worker made just $15 pesos per day, and life was hard, but this lady showed us how to earn and use money. Neill sold our pictures to her friends for Christmas cards. They would pay us one peso for each one. Some years I made $50 pesos, sometimes more. That was a lot of money for a boy of eight or ten years.

“When Neill James said that I had real talent, she enrolled me in the Art Institute in San Miguel Allende. I was 13, but had never been anywhere, and I sure didn't know what it would be like to live away from home. But she found a family for me to live with and when she told me she would pay and I could paint, I didn't have to think any more, and I couldn't wait to go."

Soul4-rain Soul5-michi

Above Left: In Javier’s Ajijic mural, Tlaloc, the God of Rain, with lightning shooting from the palms of his hands, creates a thunderstorm for Lake Chapala.   Right: Michi, the spirit of the Lake pours fish into the water.

After 18 months, Javier returned to Ajijic, to look work, but also to continue studying art in Guadalajara. Then at 18, Javier went to Los Angeles where he was sure he could pursue his dream of becoming a fine artist.

featurejavier1 For eight years, Javier painted in factories and sold paint in hardware stores; finally he was hired to paint billboards. It wasn’t the fine art career he had hoped for, but at least he was working in his field – until 1994 when computer art took over the billboard industry.

"The most negative times of my life have turned out to be my best opportunities. I went from being jobless in 1994 to a dream job with Warner Brothers -- until computers forced layoffs there in 1999.

“I had always planned to return to Ajijic when I was 62. I used to pray to God to let me live long enough to retire and get back to Ajijic…and then to let me have at least two more days, just so I could walk around and see my village.

"So, there I was, 55 years old, driving with my wife and all our belongings in a van, coming back to Ajijic. When we crossed the border, I was crying because I was finally free from commercial art, and free to live my dream of being a fine artist, and in the best of all, free to live in Ajijic.

Feature4-javierJavier Zaragosa has been back in his village of Ajijic now for 10 years more than the two days he prayed for. During those 10 years, he has painted nearly every day; as he told me, he waited 36 years for this and he’s not wasting a single minute. But, first, every morning he walks to the lake and launches his fishing boat. And just as did his father before him, he rows out into the still water and casts his net or sets his lines.

When he comes back in, he keeps some of the fish for his own table – the rest he gives to the other fishermen to sell. Then he goes for that walk around town, to see his village, enjoys breakfast with his wife and then…then he settles down to paint.

In the first years he produced lovely landscapes of Lake Chapala and portraits of the people he knows here. In the past few years, he’s taken on some enormous projects.

In addition to retouching and redefining the six murals in the Ixtlahuacan church, Javier has designed and painted massive public murals in Ajijic and Chapala. The Ajijic mural on the Delagado Office Building across the street from the plaza (see details above) depicts an ancient May celebration of the indigenous who lived in this area. He painted the faces of people around town into the scene – including some family members.

Then, when the new retaining wall across from the Coffee Tree in Chapala was built Javier stepped up to paint a series of panels portraying the history of Chapala – from Pre-Hispanic times to this new century. While this mural is wonderful viewed from a moving vehicle, be sure to stop, park and study each of the scenes. The detail is rich and enlightening.


"Everyone talks about how much talent there is in Ajijic, and there are lots of talented painters." Javier leaned forward. "But, do you want to know the real truth? I don't think Ajijic has more naturally talented people than Chapala, San Juan Cosalá or Jocotepec.

What Ajijic has is the continuing influence of Neill James. She encouraged us to start thinking about art and she helped some of us became artists. Now we are helping other kids to become artists, too. It is a way for us to repay her for the help she gave us."


Javier Zaragosa is thankful to have lived long enough to return to his town and his lake…but certainly no more thankful than the visitors and residents of Lake Chapala who will live with the richness of the gift of his talents for many years to come.

Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

Lake Chapala’s Modern Muralists II – The Lopez Vega Brothers

by Judy King 22. May 2010 18:37

DCP_2005"I am one of the very lucky people,”  Ajijic artist Jesús López Vega told me.

“I was one of the kids in the art classes sponsored by Neill James. I’ve grown up and now live being able to express some of my inner feelings and dreams and confusion through my art.

“Neill James recognized that we were capable of art. She knew that if the people of this area had been creative back to the time of the Aztec, then we had that creativity, too. We just needed someone to motivate us, to show us the way.”

Neill James was a travel writer and had traveled and lived in many far-flung areas of the world before she was injured climbing Popocatépetl (the volcano near Mexico City) and then, when she was nearly recovered, was injured again when she sped off to Michoacán in 1943 to see the eruption of Parícutin (the volcano the emerged from a cornfield  in full view of the startled farmer).

She later selected Ajijic as the perfect spot to completely recover her strength. She not only stay on (until her death in the 1990s) she hired a teacher, Angelita Aldana to tutor local children.

Jesús explained, “We got to go to class every day after school. First we had to study our school lessons for an hour, then our reward was the painting. Neill James had a mission for us, and we have to continue that mission for today’s children.

"That's why I return week after week to help the kids in the Saturday children's art program that is co-sponsored by the Lake Chapala Society and the Ajijic Society of the Arts -- to give the next generation the help I received.”

Then Jesús repeated, nearly word for word something he'd told me in an interview with Ajijic muralists back in 2002: "Art is a way of communication that comes through from our soul, from our spirit. It speaks the truth. That may not always be pretty, but it needs to be heard, and it needs to be shared."

Jesús López Vega is no stranger to designing and painting murals. By the time he was 15 years old, Jesús had completed his first mural entitled "Gladiators" at Giano Junior High School in La Puente, California. In the intervening years, he's painted four murals in Chapala area schools, and another in a Portland, Oregon gallery, the mural of Michicihualli (the spirit of the lake) on the side wall of his Ajijic studio, and his most recent major work, The Birth of Michicihualli – a giant stairway mural in Ajijic’s Casa de Cultura. Jesús began painting private murals in homes in the United States, and here in Mexico (like this lovely Virgin of Guadalajara) in the 1980s.

There are three Lopez Vega brothers – Jesús, Antonio and Margarito are all artists and all alumni of the Neill James classes for the children of Ajijic 50 years ago. (Some readers may also know sister Margarita – Rita who has helped visitors and local residents at the front desk of La Nueva Posada for many years.)

Neill James selected two of her most promising students to attend the art institute in San Miguel Allende. Brother Antonio not only succeeded in the classes there, he eventually was selected to be on the respected art school’s faculty. He remained in that position until he returned to Ajijic a couple of years ago.  You’ll read more about the other Neill James student who attended the Art Institute – Javier Zaragosa --  in our next post about Ajijic’s muralists.

While Antonio was working in San Miguel, Jesús has built a following of admirers here in Ajijic – and in the United States where he lived for several of his younger years. Meanwhile , more of the Neill James students, combined their efforts on a patriotic mural featuring Miguel Hidalgo in the entry of the school across the street from the Templo de San Andrés on Marcos Castellaños (pictured at left below).

murals4marcoscastellonas murals2jesuslopezvega

In the center shot taken about 7 years ago, Jesús was putting the  finishing touches on Education and Culture in the Saul Rodiles Piña school on Hidalgo in Ajijic. His other school murals include two in his high school, the old Prepatoria Chapala building on Pedro Moreno in Chapala, and in a California junior high school.

At right above, Jesús shows the design and plans for the huge recent mural he completed in Ajijic’s new Casa de Cultura. That painting entends up through two stories and onto the ceiling as the spirit of the lake emerges from the waters produced by her father, the rain god Tlaloc.

Visit the gallery of Jesús López Vega at the intersection of Ocampo and Rio Zula in western Ajijic, We know you’ll be as enchanted with his work as we are. From time to time he teaches print making, and often you can also meet his brother Antonio in the gallery or studio. 

Judy King is publisher of Mexico Insights—Living at Lake Chapala, a monthly online magazine for people interested in Mexico's Lake Chapala region, in the state of Jalisco.

Judy, a 19-year resident of Ajijic on Lake Chapala's north shore, conducts weekly newcomer's seminars and shares her expertise about Mexico in her ezine at, and in the "Mexico Lindo" column of the Lake Chapala Review.

Judy also is a speaker for local organizations and visiting tour groups about the Lakeside area about Mexican customs and holidays.

About Judy King

Judy King

Hi There — Welcome to my little corner of the world. I'm Judy King and I live in the centuries-old village of Ajijic on the north shore of Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest natural lake.

I've lived here full time since 1990, and... [ more ]

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