My heart pounds and I find myself as excited as a kid who’s getting ready to go to his favorite theme park. You see, while I have been blogging for a while about places of importance to the American Indians, this is the first time I decide to share about one that is very personal to me.
This place feels as close to me as a sweet memory engraved in my heart; like a keepsake that one kept for years as a little kid in your special treasure box, never intending to share it with anyone. But then, there comes a day, when you cannot longer keep your treasure hidden. Well my friends, this is how I feel about sharing my special “treasure” with you. This place is very dear to me and now I realized it is just too awesome and too cool not to be shared.
I’d like to introduce you to Xilitla, a small town in the Huastec Region and it’s hidden, yes that’s right it is hidden, from the rest of the world deep in some of the tallest mountains in Mexico. I don’t like using adjectives such as “hidden” just for the sake of it but Xilitla is literary hidden from the rest of the world for various reasons. First, because of its geographic location; Xilitla is nestled in the Sierra Madre Mountains at exactly 676 meters (2,218 ft) above sea level. It is not the typical destination where a tourist or visitor would be willing to travel. Second, and once again because of its geographical location, Xilitla is one of the few places in Mexico that is not industrialized; meaning you will not find a lot of infrastructure such as chain restaurants, franchises, factories, and all other nuances that come from living in a big city.
Xilitla is located in the state of San Luis Potosí, the beautiful state where I was born and raised as a child. If you’re wondering where in Mexico this is, as you look at a map of Mexico, it is the state shaped like a cute Scottish Terrier located near the middle of the country.
Xilitla is considered a municipality or town located in the state of San Luis Potosí. Driving distance from San Luis Potosí International Airport to Xilitla is about five to six hours with traffic. You might think this is far but such distances are very common when traveling from town to town in Mexico.
The very name of Xilitla sounds and looks exotic and unrecognizable to anyone who is not Mexican. But for those of us who are, we know the name derives from our Aztec ancestors. We know that Xilitla is not pronounced /csi-lit-lah/ but that the X in Mexico is pronounced like the Spanish letter J. For an English speaking person it would be the sound of the letter H. The right way to pronounce Xilitla is /He-lit-lah/
Unfortunately, there is not much written about Xilitla and when it’s mentioned it is often just tied to the works of Edward James. A lot is unsaid or unknown about the innumerable wonders of the ethnic groups who have a lot to share with people. When someone asks me about Xilitla I like to say and promote Xilitla as the Home of the Huastecs who are still alive and living in the land of their ancestors.
Europeans are more familiar with Xilitla than the average American thanks to the legacy the famous Scot, Edward James left there. One has to only go visit the renowned gardens and surrealist pieces of art that Edward James was inspired to create while in Xilitla to understand why. For those of you out there who are unfamiliar with the life and works of Edward James and his contributions to Surrealism I highly encourage you to do some research about him for he was one very, interesting fellow. Almost every book and travel blog ever written about Xilitla associates this indigenous town with Edward James, which is the reason why I chose not to focus my blog so much on him. There are plenty of blogs and books already written about Edward James and his works. In my blog, I just want to tell you about Xilitla beyond Edward James…
Xilitla is one of the few places in the world that remains un-Americanized. Don’t get me wrong, I understand industrialization, commercialization and the whole concept of franchises, but I also understand what happens to a culture and society when a super power affects in negative ways the culture of a developing or a third world country. For the sake of staying on topic, I will just say that the inaccessibility to Xilitla has protected her very well from negative impacts that come with urbanization, industrialization, and Americanization.
If you are interested and love educating yourself about indigenous culture Xilitla is a must-see. A few years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to visit Lhasa, Tibet and when I am in Xilitla my emotions take me back to the tranquil, serene places I visited while in Tibet. Perhaps it’s Xilitla’s strong indigenous culture, which permeates the air in every corner and tenderly wrapped me like a blanket the same way Tibetan’s indigenous culture did.
Xilitla is one of the places I admire not just because it’s located in my native Mexico but because just as Tibet, it is one of the few places on earth whose ethnic groups and culture has remained strong and resilient despite facing two of the most powerful conquests: the Aztecs and the Spanish. To me, that speaks very highly about the Huastecs and how they’ve been able to overcome obstacles and preserve the culture of their ancestors. Let’s take a quick history lesson about the Huastecs.
When traveling to San Luis Potosí and its surrounding neighboring states, a visitor will hear a lot about the Huastec region. The Huastec region is where the Huastec peoples lived before the arrival of the Spanish. The Huastec Region includes, San Luis Potosí, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, and Hidalgo. To show ownership and identify which state is being referred to, one would say the Huastec Region of Potosí, the Huastec Region of Veracruz, the Huastec Region of Tamaulipas and the Huastec Region of Hidalgo. Even though the four regions were once united and they have many similarities, they also have minor cultural differences.
The two ethnic groups currently living in Xilitla are the Huastec (aka as Teenek) and the Nahua. The Huastecs are endemic to the region and, according to archeologists, are considered one of Pre-Hispanic culture of the Mesoamerica originating around 1000 A.C. The Huastecs are an indigenous culture worth admiring given that it is one of the few Mexican ethnic groups that attained a high point of civilization; they built pyramids, temples, sculptures, and pottery. Their highest point of civilization was reached during the post-classic Mesoamerican period, between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of the Aztec empire. The Huastecs were also well known among other Mesoamerican groups for their musical aptitudes.
Around 1450 the Huastecs were conquered by the Aztecs under the ruling of Moctezuma I, after this the Huastecs began to rend tribute to the Aztecs, but always maintaining their autonomy at the local level.
The Aztec conquest over the Huastecs was short-lived as the Spanish conquerors soon arrived to Mexico and conquered the Aztecs. Later on, the Huastecs were dominated by the Spanish conquerors between 1519 and 1530.
Xilitla has been able to preserve the original language spoken by their ancestors. Additionally, Xilitla is one of the few places to retain and preserve its indigenous Huastec and Nahuatl cultures, Nahuatl being the dominant language. There are about 66,000 Huastec speakers today: two thirds of those speakers live in San Luis Potosí and one-third in Veracruz. Currently, about 20,000 of the residents of Xilitla speak at least one Indian language. And in case you were wondering whether you’ll be understood by the Huastec natives or not, most of the speakers of an Indian language also speak Spanish.
Today the Huastecs still practice many of their ancient customs and traditions which is the reason why the region called “Huasteca Potosína” is well known for being one of the most culturally-enriched. Visiting Xilitla and its neighboring towns is a one-of-a-kind experience that cannot be found anywhere else in Mexico. As I’ve mentioned before, Xilitla’s inaccessibility has protected her from damage to its ethnic culture and this is one of the reasons why indigenous groups are able to have a strong presence in this region.
The ethnic dishes in Xilitla are among the most elaborate and popular in the region; another reason why I enjoy coming here. I really admire how Xilitla’s signature dish, Zacahuil, is not a product of conquests or stems from the blending of two or more cultures, but it is a dish that traces its origins back deep into the ancient Huastecs’ cultural roots. Zacahuil is the most popular dish in Xilitla and the Huastec Region. Its popularity reaches beyond the locals and includes visitors and tourists who know about this delicacy and will not leave Xilitla without enjoying this popular dish; usually enjoyed for breakfast or Sundays’ brunch.
As I find myself standing facing the famous thumb-shaped mountain called the Huitzmalotepetl (by its name in Nahuatl) or La Silleta as is called in Spanish, I ask myself, what is it about Xilitla that inspired an affluent man of European noble class and out of all the places that he could have chosen after having traveled extensively to exotic corners, he decided to put his flag and footprint in the humble town of Xilitla. He obviously felt something powerful here in Xilitla, so powerful that in my opinion Xilitla became Edward James’ muse.
For me, Xilitla is a place where I come to unwind from the hectic city; a spiritual place where I come to find my “center.” When I am here, I feel connected to the people. This is where I come to get recharged and jump-start my creativity. I have no doubt Don Eduardo James, as he is referred to by most Xilitlans, was also drawn to the unique character of the people in Xilitla, its landscapes, exotic fauna, indigenous culture, and the inaccessibility to reach this magic town, which has actually protected her from opportunistic mass tourism intrusion.
It is with great joy that I share this little corner of my native Mexico; a hidden jewel, a hidden treasure, in hopes you will want to experience it for yourself one day.
For more on Xilitla: A good read that was the basis of my research was the book Xilitlan – Taziol – Lugar de Cozoles by Alfonso T. Llamazares Zúñiga (available in Spanish only). This book chronicles the history of Xilitla from the perspective of a historian and chronicler who is a native from Xilitla (very important if you really want to dissect deeper into history). I highly recommend this book if you’re interested on a different perspective about the history of Xilitla.
Check out more pictures of my trip to Xilitla
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