How were Lake Chapala Villages Named?
When the Spanish Franciscan missionaries reached the shores of Lake Chapala they were already proficient in renaming the indigenous towns and settlements, and they had learned to select a patron saint that would resonate with the work, location, or geographic surroundings of the people and simply attach his name to the familiar old indigenous town names.
Here at Lake Chapala, the Saints selected have close associations with water, boats, and fishing. San Antonio Tlayacapan’s Saint Anthony was from Italy, and twice took ships trying to reach Africa where he could teach and preach and die as a martyr.
Ajijic was renamed San Andrés Ajijic to honor the fisherman who left his nets to follow Jesus. One of the legends about San Francisco, the founder of the Franciscans and the patron and namesake of Chapala was said to be such a fine teacher and preacher that the fish stood up in the water to listen to him.
San Cristobal Zapotitlán on the lake’s south shore, honors Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers who was said to have carried the Christ Child across a river. And San Nicolás de Ibarra (and two villages named San Nicolás on the south shore are named for good old St. Nick. Legend says he is the patron of children because he rescued three kids floating in a wash tub in the sea.
Then there is San Juan Cosalá and San Juan Tecomatlán on the lake’s north shore and another pair of villages named for St. John the Baptist on the south side of the lake. Even more fascinating are the variety of meanings of Cosalá, San Juan’s indigenous name, according to the menu from Restaurante Viva Mexico! Tia Lupita in this village of approximately 12,000 on Lake Chapala’s north shore.
The restaurant’s colorful menu is full of photos of the mural and includes the origins of the name of this town now home to approximately 12,000, and home in ancient times to many times more.
San Juan (Saint John refers to Saint John the Baptist, patron of the community. The meaning of the name Cosala has been interpreted by many different authors. One theory is that it is derived from an indigenous name which was spelled Cuzala, Cozala, Coslan or Cuzalan.
When you break the name into the two roots: tzalan (between) and Coatl (Serpent), this place becomes place full of serpents or is place between two serpents. Some historians have suggested the name is derived from the spelling Cutzalan or Cotzalan which means between pots.
At one time the town was known as Tlateloacan, which means Place where water flows and falls – perhaps for the waterfalls on the mountainside above the village. The region also was known at one time as Quetzali, an adjective used to describe the beautiful bird – the Quetzal and means a thing that shines, is beautiful, clean and shiny, thus it could be the “in the green water or emerald water” or “place of clean water.”
On the coat of arms of the Tlaxcalla, the name Quetzalla or Cotzallan is represented with a bundle of feathers, which was a nahuatl (indigenous group of people) symbol of beauty. We can therefore hypothesize that Cosala was named as a place of great beauty or beautiful place.
I’m stuck on one of these suggestions. In spite of knowing that back in the really old days the people of San Juan cooked some of their food by suspending pots into holes in the ground so that the heat and steam from the area’s hot springs made a natural early Crock Pot (which would normally put my favorite the words about water and pottery) I’m voting for the meaning “Place Between Two Serpents.
The Place Between Two Serpents
In the years I’ve lived at Lake Chapala there have been two storms featuring amazingly powerful waterspouts which are called serpents by area residents. The first hit up above El Limon – at the extreme west end of San Juan Cosalá, covering fields of crops with boulders that washed down the mountain in a sea of mud. Two years ago a similar storm hit following 10 days of heavy rain which super-saturated the upper mountainside. That wall of mud and rock was more than six feet deep as it rushed down the mountain from the upper reaches of the Raquet Club at the eastern end of the village.
This name makes me wonder if this natural phenomena “hasn’t happened before – maybe even frequently, back in the years between 1200 A.D. and the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s. The Place Between Two Serpents…what an interesting thought.