Op-Ed Articles

Lagos de Moreno – The Gateway to Jalisco

By John P. Schmal/HispanicVista.com

Lagos de Moreno, located in the northeast corner of the Mexican state of Jalisco, is an important commercial hub in the central Mexico region. While Aguascalientes lay eighty miles to the northwest, the city of Leon (in Guanajuato) is only forty miles to the east, while Mexico City lay 445 miles to the south. Lagos de Moreno represents one of the twenty-four municipios that makes up the Los Altos region of Jalisco, an area that is defined by its socioeconomic and geographic nature and shares a common cultural history. Although the literal translation of Los Altos conveys the image that the region is a "high land," it is actually a plateau which is bounded by Guadalajara's Valle de Atemajac on the southwest, the states of Aguascalientes and Zacatecas on the north, and the states of San Luis Potosí and Guanajuato to the east and southeast.

Founded in 1563, the city of Lagos de Moreno is the capital of the municipio of the same name. As the third largest municipio of Jalisco, Lagos de Moreno has a total area of 2,849.36 square kilometers and a total population of 124,972 people, with a density of 44.1 inhabitants per square kilometer. A promotional booklet published by the municipio of Lagos refers to this jurisdiction as a "region of poor soil and industrious people."

The climate of Lagos de Moreno is semiarid, with a rainy summer season and a mild, dry winter. The primary economic drivers of this municipio are agriculture and stock-raising, with a minor dairy industry of milk products, such as cheese and candies. Lagos is also well known for its manufacture of various high quality handicrafts, such as carved wood furniture, basket weaving, textiles, and dolls.

Alfredo Moreno González, the author of Santa Maria de Los Lagos, tells us that the pre-Hispanic indigenous village occupying this area was called Pechititán. It is believed that the Guachichiles, Guamares, Tecuexes and other indigenous peoples occupied the area. The Guachichile Indians - whose primary territory included most of Zacatecas - were a particularly warlike group. With the discovery of silver near the city of Zacatecas in 1546, the "silver roads" leading from the mining camps to Mexico City became very strategic routes. Most of Jalisco and Zacatecas became parts of the Spanish province of Nueva Galicia. But, in 1550, the Guachichile started to attack caravans traveling along the strategic Zacatecas-Guanajuato-Mexico City road.

In 1554, Indians attacked a caravan of Spaniards in the nearby Ojuelos area, causing significant loss of life and material. Not long after this, Viceroy Luis de Velasco called for the foundation of villas, forts and military prisons throughout Nueva Galicia to protect travelers, missionaries, and laborers carrying supplies to the mining sites and silver ore from the mines to refining sites. When Velasco issued an order for the establishment of these sites on March 13, 1563, the present-day area of Lagos de Moreno was earmarked for settlement.

La Villa de Santa María de los Lagos was founded on March 13, 1563 at the crossing of two roadways to serve as a defensive outpost. Hernando de Martell was charged with the founding of the town and oversaw the settlement of seventy-three families of colonists in the small settlement. The earliest settlers of this town were resourceful people and, by May 3, they had already built twenty houses. However, with the Indian depredations hitting closer and closer to Lagos, fear took its toll on the population and economy of Lagos. By March 1574, Santa María was left with only eight residents.

As the century progressed and the Amerindian attacks became less frequent, the Royal Crown started granting land titles to Spanish settlers in the Los Altos region. During the period between 1550 and 1555, Viceroy Velasco had sold a large number of land grants to cattlemen. Many of the Spanish people who first settled in the area of Lagos are believed to have come from Castilla, Andalusía and Extremadura. But the parish registers at the church during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries indicate a significant population of indios (Indians), mestizos (persons of both Indian and Spanish extraction) and mulattos libres (free people of African and Spanish descent).

Ann L. Craig, the author of The First Agraristas: An Oral History of a Mexican Agrarian Movement, comments that "title-holders did not immediately occupy the lands. Instead the lands in the area of Lagos were first worked by renters or sharecroppers." The newcomers to Lagos found that the soils in the area were so poor that they were, for the most part, unsuitable for large-scale commercial agriculture. Thus, they became small and medium landholders with an emphasis on cattle ranches. By the end of the Sixteenth Century, cattle ranching had become the primary activity for both Santa María de los Lagos and Los Altos. Many of these cattle ranches became the primary suppliers of cattle for Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí.

From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth centuries, Lagos experienced many economic and political ups and downs. "With independence," writes Ms. Craig, "the political stature of Lagos within the state of Jalisco became apparent, reflecting its relative size and cultural and economic development." In 1824, Lagos received the title of ciudad (city). Then, in 1829, the National Congress authorized the change of the town's name from Santa María de los Lagos to Lagos de Moreno, in honor of the revolutionary hero, Pedro Moreno (1775-1817).

The bitter and desperate battle between the Mexico's Liberals and Conservatives began with independence (1821) and continued into the Twentieth Century. During the political instability of 1829, 1831 and 1916, Lagos de Moreno served as the state capital of Jalisco. The liberal constitutional reforms, initiated in 1857 by President Benito Juárez's Reform Constitution, caused a great deal of polarization throughout Jalisco. "Violent social protest in the Jalisco countryside erupted without comparison in the years 1855-1864," writes the historian Dawn Fogle Deaton. "Jalisco's 'decade of revolt' witnessed massive peasant mobilizations more frequently and in greater numbers than during any other time in the state's history." From 1855 to 1864, seventeen peasant rebellions broke out in the state, leading to eighteen transfers of power in the state government. In April 1857, the political and military discord reached Lagos.

Ms. Craig writes that "the intended image of architectural beauty, refinement of the arts, intellectual desire, and genteel living" of Lagos de Moreno coincided with the reign and dictatorship of President Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910). In these years, Lagos de Moreno became known as the "Athens of Jalisco." The large haciendas in the countryside near Lagos "reached their maximum size and the local aristocracy attained its cultural zenith." Starting in 1872, the city held a traditional August fiesta to commemorate Lagos' patron saint. This fiesta "became the social highlight of the year." The numerous religious celebrations and processes led to "extensive visiting between haciendas, country picnics, horse races, bull and cock fights, elegant dinners and balls, literary and musical contests, and poetry recitals."

However, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 was a period of demographic and economic change for Lagos. "Families of means," writes Ms. Craig, "abandoned rural areas and provincial towns. Prominent landowning families from Lagos went mainly to Mexico City." For Lagos, the years from 1914 to 1917 proved to be "the worst in terms of hunger, disease, and economic chaos." By 1917, however, many land-owning families returned to the city.

"From 1900 to 1930," explains Ms. Craig, "the municipio as a whole retained its predominantly rural character: nearly two-thirds of the inhabitants lived outside of the municipio seat." But, during these years, there was a pronounced exodus from Lagos. According to the Dirección General de Estadística, Censo General de Población: Estado de Jalisco, the population of Lagos declined from 15,999 in 1900 to 12,054 in 1930. The population of the municipio declined even more dramatically, dropping from 53,205 people in 1900 to 35,933 in 1930.

In 1926, President Plutarco Elías Calles took office as President of the Mexican Republic. A morose, stubborn man, Calles was a strongly anti-Catholic politician who decided to strictly enforce the anti-clerical articles of the 1917 Constitution. Article 3 had called for secular education in the schools, while Article 5 outlawed monastic orders. Article 24 forbade public worship outside the confines of churches, and Article 27 placed restrictions on the right of religious organizations to hold property. Article 130 actually deprived clergy members of basic rights. Priests and nuns were denied the right to wear clerical attire, to vote, to criticize government officials or to comment on public affairs in religious periodicals.

In June 1926 Calles signed a decree officially known as "The Law for Reforming the Penal Code" and unofficially as the "Calles Law." The provisions of this law stated that priests were to be fined 500 pesos (about $250 at the time) for wearing clerical garb. In addition, a priest could be imprisoned five years for criticizing the government. Enraged by the Calles Law, the Mexican Episcopate called for a boycott and resistance.

The boycott, aimed at recreation, commerce, transportation and schools, was very successful. Catholics in Lagos de Moreno stopped attending movies and plays, riding on buses or streetcars, and Catholic teachers refused to serve in secular schools. The Cristero Rebellion officially began with a manifesto issued by René Capistrán Garza on New Year's Day 1927. Titled A la Nación (To the Nation), it declared that "the hour of battle has sounded." On this day, ragged bands of ranchers, some armed with ancient muskets and others only with clubs, seized one village after another.

"Between 1926 and 1929," explains Ms. Craig, "Laguenses became enmeshed in a complex set of conflicts which originated outside their communities but had severe local repercussions. Nationally, the Cristero rebellion was a critical confrontation between the revolutionary government, with its policies for social transformation and political centralization, and the Catholic Church and its devoted followers."

Both the Revolution and the Cristero Rebellion provoked a steady outflow of Laguenses, in which Lagos saw a significant portion of its population emigrate to the United States during the 1910s and 1920s. This led, according to Ms. Craig, to "a pattern of regional economic dependence on wages brought or sent back by seasonal workers in the United States - a pattern which persists today."

By 1930, the raising of livestock continued to be the mainstay of the Lagos economy. Beef and dairy cattle and sheep, however, required extensive grazing acreage. In 1930, 60% of the landowners in Lagos owned less than 1% of the land, while 1.2% of the landowners, each of whom owned at least 500 hectares, owned 74.5% of the land in the municipio. Such conditions led to the agrarian reform of the 1930s, a primary topic of discussion in Ms. Craig's work.

Today, Lagos' economy continues to be dominated by livestock-raising. In the last four decades, the area has also become one of the principal dairy production regions in Mexico due principally to Nestlé's setting up a plant in the early 1940s inside the city limits of Lagos de Moreno. The establishment of the Nestlé plant prompted cattle ranchers to shift from meat production to milk production.

Like many other regions of Western Mexico, Lagos de Moreno and Los Altos are still considered "traditional sending regions." The bond between Lagos and the United States has been strengthened by the city's one-hundred-year-old history of U.S.-bound migration. In spite of this steady outflow, the population of the city grew from 12,054 in 1930 to 33,782 in 1970, while the number of inhabitants in the municipio climbed from 35,933 in 1930 to 65,950 in 1970.

From 1960 to 1990, the population of Lagos de Moreno grew faster than that of the state of Jalisco. The industrialization of Lagos began to attract laborers from neighboring rural communities. Today, Lagos is a favorite destination for tourists exploring Jalisco and Aguascalientes.  Lagos, in effect, represents the Gateway to Jalisco.
John Schmal is an historian and genealogist, specializing in Mexico and the Southwestern U.S.  He has published four works, including "Mexican-American Genealogical Research:  Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (published by Heritage Books, 2002).  In recent months, Mr. Schmal has written several articles discussing various aspects of Latino representation in American government. Contact at: JohnnyPJ@aol.com

Michael P. Costeloe, The Central Republic in Mexico, 1835-1846. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Ann L. Craig, The First Agraristas: An Oral History of a Mexican Agrarian Reform Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Dawn Fogle Deaton, "The Decade of Revolt: Peasant Rebellion in Jalisco, Mexico, 1855-1864," in Robert H. Jackson (ed.), Liberals, the Church, and Indian Peasants: Corporate Lands and the Challenge of Reform in Nineteenth-Century Spanish America. Albuquerque: New Mexico Press, 1997.