Mexcala Island: Land of Warriors

November 11, 2009

Long ago, but not far away, four hundred Nahuatl Indian warriors held off and repelled four thousand Spaniards for four years. Their tale is one of fearless, exhaustive innovation toward maintaining their remote speck of land, positioned in the middle of Lake Chapala. This marvelous piece of Mexican real estate, Mexcala Island, awaits its rightful recognition in the annals of Mexican history, for it tells a story of determination, rather than one of conquest.

Twenty kilometers from Chapala Centro, adjacent to Lake Chapala’s northeastern shore, lies the authentic Aztec Nahuatl village of Mexcala de la Asuncion in the municipality of Poncitlan. Its residents struggle to maintain their indigenous customs and beliefs, while the outside world tugs at their fabric, urging them toward modern ways. Three miles off shore, lies Mexcala Island.  Exposing its secrets and encouraging visits to the ruins left by pre-Hispanic and colonial inhabitants come with inevitable consequences.

Ernie 1

Born in Mexcala, Exciquio Santiago Cruz, a Nahuatl-speaking Aztec descendant has dedicated his life’s work to chronicle the history of Mexcala Island, while practicing and preserving indigenous, oral and cultural customs for future generations. He remains the town’s curandero, a native healer using herbs and sobrador, a magical masseur using traditional massage methods taught by his mother. He founded the Mexcala Museum, facing the plaza, where recovered pre-Hispanic and conquistador artifacts await visitor amazement. Hoping to stimulate tourism, national interest and financial backing toward reconstruction, Exciquio, as local historian, educates local and expatriate audiences with talks and a video, depicting historical facts.

Of Exciquio´s eleven children, he passes the Nahuatl folklore and knowledge on to his two oldest children. Daniel, age 21, runs boat excursions to Mexcala Island and guides a tour of the fortress used by the Indians to repel the Spaniards’ attack from 1809 until 1813.  They built a fence around the island, snagging the Spanish galleons and warded off invasion by throwing rocks and spears at the enemy-filled ships from the fortress’s high ground. The Indians never relinquished control of the island. Only later, with most areas under Spanish control, did the inhabitants voluntarily concede the land peacefully. Later, the Spanish turned the Indian citadel into a prison and erected a lighthouse atop the fortification as a beacon for water craft using Lake Chapala.

Ernie 2

Current activity on the island centers on efforts to reconstruct the fortress to reflect its early19th century usage, with an optimistic goal of completion by 2010 in time for the 200th anniversary celebration of the founding of Mexcala.  Possibly more realistic would be completion by 2011 to coincide with the Pan American Games being held in Guadalajara.

Regardless of the future plans for Mexcala Island, it remains one of the secrets of Lake Chapala, whose historical significance should interest foreign or native residents alike.  Engage yourself in the history of the area.  Head out to Mexcala on a sunny, Sunday afternoon. Smell the crackling chicharones, sizzling in metal caldrons that line the market surrounding the church plaza; visit the museum fronting the square; marvel at the array of artifacts and prehistoric fossils found both in the town and on the island; talk with the master historian, Exciquio and watch his eyes dance as he speaks of his culture, his native customs and the importance of the island. Then hire Daniel for the twenty minute, 250 pesos boat ride to the island, a bargain if six or eight friends come along for the ride.

Explore the island; walk along the footpath of the Nahuatls; observe the reconstruction project; climb the stone steps, embrace the panoramic view of Lake Chapala and Mexcala and stand in wonderment and respect as to how these incredible, indigenous peoples managed to withstand the onslaught of the mighty Spanish.

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To prearrange a boat tour, call Daniel Santiago de la Cruz @ cell 333-1780-062; to make sure that the museum is open and Exciquio is available, call Exciquio Santiago Cruz @ cell 333-1740-796. The museum is located opposite the steps to the church plaza at Hidalgo No. 326, Mexcala de la Asuncion, Municipio de Poncitlan, Jalisco, Mexico.

A version of this article originally appeared in Lake Chapala Review

Photos courtesy Ernie Sowers

  • Ruth Hill

    That was an interesting article about Mexcala Island. Do you know if Exciquio Santiago Cruz speaks English when he gives his tour?

  • Sid Grosvenor

    Hi Ruth, Sorry, I’m not sure, but it would seem to be logical that he would.

  • sarah McCoy

    What a great article on the island. I had no idea so much history took place there. I’m going to check it out on google earth.
    Thank you

  • Sid Grosvenor

    HI Sarah, Thanks for the nice comment. Glad you enjoyed it. Sid

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