The History of San Juan Cosala

by Judy King 14. April 2010 10:32

mural In the Mexico Insights post yesterday I told you about the wonderful lunch Chef Lorraine and I had at Viva Mexico Tia Lupita Restaurant in San Juan Cosalá.  Our host at the restaurant, Agustín is an avid supporter of the village of San Juan, of the artists there and the town’s activities and residents.

You’ll know that, too, as soon as you walk into the restaurant and see the wonderful mural that fills one of the long walls of the dining room.

Created by painter, sculptor and muralist Isidro Xilonzóchitl, this scene features all of the traditional events of Mexican fiestas. From the little village church, through the bridal party and the castillo (fixed fireworks display) and the torito (firework-loaded papier mache bull worn on a man’s back as he runs through a crowd with colored displays of fireworks shooting off into the crowd) to the children playing at the water’s edge and the ladies (could they be Agustín’s Aunt Lupita and her sisters and relatives), this enormous work tells the story of a Mexican celebration.


Take time to study it. The more you look , the more you’ll see in this wonderful display of this country’s traditions and typical small town life.  

The History of San Juan Cosalá

You’ll learn more about this pleasant close-knit village as your read the short history in the pages of the menu at Restaurant Viva Mexico Tia Lupita. The restaurant’s owner and Lic. Professor Gabriel Chavez Rameno, the chronicler of San Juan Cosalá assembled this story of how the town has evolved from it’s beginnings in about 1200 A.D.

The history of the founding of San Juan Cosalá is not precise. From the type of ceramics found in the region, it is clear that the land was already inhabited during the pre-classic period.

San Juan Cosalá was an important town on the lake and was ruled by Tlatonani. When the population of San Juan Cosalá grew too large, he ordered many of the inhabitants to found new towns including Ajijic, Tomatlan, Jocotepec and Tzapotlan (today San Cristobal).

Before the Spanish conquest, Ixtlacateotl was the main god of this region, but each family also worshiped their own set of gods.

In 1524, Alonso de Avalos conquered the region. It was 1531 before Franciscan Fray Martin de Jesús, the first missionary arrived and declared Saint John the Baptist to be the patron saint. He converted Tlatonani and baptized him, giving him the name of Don Andrés Carlos (Andrés for Fray Martin’s favorite saint, and Carlos in honor of the King of Spain.)

Mural-steepleTo have a place to perform baptisms, Fray Martin ordered the construction of a small church made of branches, sticks and sacate. Later Fray Martin wanted to build a grander church and convent to facilitate the teaching of the gospel. Though Don Andrés Carlos agreed to the construction, it was decided that it not be built in San Juan Cosalá due to a lack of water. Instead it was located in Ajijic where there were many springs.

In 1531, Fray Martin de Jesús build the chapel of San Juan Cosalá and later next door he built the Hospital (Hospice) of the Conception. In 1940, the canon of Guadalajara, Luis Enrique Orozco visited the chapel and described it as “too much beauty for such a small place and at the same time, too rough in it’s construction. In front there is an atrium surrounded by short adobe fences which used to be the graveyard of the town.”

One of San Juan Cosalá’s principal ceremonial centers was Pipiltitlan (a place of children or the place of children’s tears). There the hot water flowed from the earth (today this spot is at Motel Balneario San Juan Cosalá) Nearby is another of the ceremonial centers – where there was a camichin tree which was known as the tree of Vieja Machi. There the people would gather to make offerings to the goddess Teo-Machis Xihualli (the fish woman or the spirit of the lake).

The Old Church

In addition to the hot mineral water which still steams from the earth in the Balneario areas of eastern San Juan, there are other markers from the ancient settlement and the town’s early days. Diagonally across the street from the Templo de San Juan (at the town’s plaza) you’ll spot the old steeple from one of the community’s very early churches. The building is long gone, but a cactus grows from the tip of the small tower.

Art with Your Meal

As you look around Viva Mexico Tia Lupita, you’ll see many other pieces of framed art, the work of local artists. Ask about the works you like – we hear that these days Augustín is selling almost as many paintings as chile rellanos.


A Special Gift!

I left the restaurant with a new framed piece of art – Augustín gave me the Virgin of Guadalupe right off his wall for my collection at home once he found that I don’t have one just like this. I hated to take it right off the wall, until he assured me that he has a larger version of this particular imaginative variation that he will hang on the wall above the flowers he picks up at his daughter’s flower shop just down the block.)

While you are in San Juan Cosalá, take a few minutes to head towards the lake from the plaza to see the new malecón being developed at the water’s edge.

Enjoy your visit to this very traditional Lake Chapala puebla, then come back tomorrow for more – this time we’ll be talking about the of this village.

Don’t forget to Visit Restaurante Viva Mexico!! Tia Lupita at Porfirio Díaz #92 – a block and 1/2 west of the San Juan Cosalá Plaza. They’re open Noon to 10 p.m. on weekdays (closed Thursday) and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends. Call for reservations: 044-33 3156-2245.

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.

Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 5 Boveda

by Judy King 9. March 2010 13:47

boveda-ceiling Long before most visitors to central Mexico know the name or the benefits of the area's familiar brick roof systems, they fall instantly, firmly in love with bóveda, the beautiful arched natural brick ceilings of the system. The first question from newcomers is always the same, "How do they do that?"

Bóveda is the Spanish word for an arch. It is also the word in Mexican and ancient Spanish architecture and construction, for a long, narrow section of arched brickwork. Sometimes the Spanish language seems amazingly limited in vocabulary. The dome of the heavens is called a bóveda—it's like the inside of a bowl. The arched ceiling cupped over the altar in old churches, the vault that is built to enclose a casket at the cemetery, and even the barrel-shaped ceiling over a hallway are also all called bóveda.

Bóveda is also the correct term for the 36" rows of brick arches that form the ceilings of many area homes. Each of these styles serves a unique purpose and is constructed a bit differently, but all are based on the ancient theory of the arch. The Romans proved the strength of arches to the rest of the world when they built the aqueducts. Once an arch is put under pressure or is bearing weight, it becomes even stronger. The success of bóveda depends on this same basic rule of physics.

Lakeside Bóveda History
Long before our Mexican neighbors began building Lakeside homes with low-arch bóveda ceilings, local masons were very familiar with the art. They used the technique for most burials at the local cemetery. Many families could only afford to buy a few lots in the cemetery. Knowing they would have many family members needing a final resting place, they had the plots dug extremely deep—deep enough to hold three or four or five bodies, stacked one on top of the other. Before the first family member died, the walls of the family plot were lined with brick. When it was time to bury the first body, the casket was lowered to the bottom of the hole and then the masons climbed down into the shaft and built a low-arch brick bóveda top over the casket, forming a crypt. When the casket was enclosed, the masons climbed out of the hole, and covered the hole with a removable slab of concrete.

Do you suppose this very real work is why we talk of seeking closure after the death of a loved one?

How do they do that? First, sufficient support
The starting point of every bóveda project is to ensure that the building's support structure is sturdy enough to bear the weight of all those extra bricks and the concrete layer that goes on top of the bricks to form a waterproof roof system. (See Brick: Lakeside’s Cornerstone, Part 7 The Roof )

Castillos are vertical open cages of reinforced steel that extend from deep in the footings up through the foundations and then to the intended roof line of the house. Interlocking the castillos at the top of the foundation is a dala (platform), which is a larger horizontal castillo. The dala is filled with concrete and gravel, and becomes a steel reinforced concrete platform on which to begin laying the brick walls.

As the workmen build the walls, they extend the bricks slightly into the vertical castillos at the corners of each room and about every four to six feet in between. This way the walls are locked into the castillos, which are then filled with concrete and rock to become vertical support pillars to support the roof.

At the top of the walls is another horizontal castillo, this one is a dala. It also is called the corona (crown). The building’s crown ties the entire structure firmly together when the steel-reinforced concrete vertical castillos are welded to the corona.

Bóveda—The ceiling of low arches
The ceiling-roof structure used almost exclusively in new Lakeside construction is the series of low-arch bóveda. Parallel brick arches form the ceilings of the rooms and are the base for a super strong roof that insulates the house from both the sun's heat and winter's chilly nights.

If the underground and wall support has been well planned, and if the castillos, dalas, and coronas are sufficiently large, this type of construction can easily support a second story.

On top of the corona 5" steel I-beams are welded into place and span the house at one-meter intervals. Then it is time for the abañiles, (brick masons) to start laying arches of bricks from one I-beam to the next.

Masons use a sercha as their guide (you can see the sercha in the photo above) when laying the bricks in each row of the bóvedas. The tool is less than the width of a single brick and fits into the ledges of the two I-beams. When the sercha is leveled and screwed tightly into place, the mason piles concrete onto the end and edge of each brick and places each on top of the curved guide until the new row of bricks reaches across the space from one I-bean to the other.

When the mason reaches the end of the row, he drives in a small rectangular piece of flint stone called a rajuela. This small spacer is the key to the success of this craft. Once the spacer is hammered into place between the last brick and the I-beam, it puts pressure on the arch and removes the danger of the arch falling. Once the arch is secure, the sercha can be moved forward along the I-beam to guide the next row into place.

After every three or four rows, the abañile and his helper smooth and shape the cement between the last few rows of bricks. The preferred tool for this job is a table knife. The men curl the tip, leaving a smooth surface the width of the cement grout.

The local masons prefer to lay no more than half meter to one meter (19-40") of bricks into arches, from I-beam to I-beam across the end of the building each day. Amazingly the newly laid rows of bricks are strong enough for the men to walk across in less than an hour, even when the rest of the ceiling has not been finished—and it's all due to the strength added by the pressure of that little rajuela.

Special thanks go to General Contractor Juan Gilberto Higuera and the maestros of The Little Company in Ajijic who explained procedures to me, answered questions and provided technical information for this article.

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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