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Resistance and Resilience at the Temacapulín Chile Festival

How one Mexican town turns its best-known crop into the ultimate protest

At 9:30 on a startlingly bright Saturday morning, the children of Temacapulín, a minuscule village in the Mexican state of Jalisco, gathered under the pink stone arches of the municipal building to compete in the eighth annual Games of Chile and Water.

They threw wet napkins at a Skee-Ball target. They ran a sack relay carrying long, red árbol chiles, Temacapulín’s traditional crop, from one end of the sun-washed plaza to the other. They raced chiles up a pair of tables past levels marked Vida, Justicia, Paz, and finally Victoria. And for the final game, they hurled water balloons to bring down a wall of cardboard boxes, each one marked with a word or a phrase: Corruption. Privatization of Water. Tricks of Politicians. Depriving Us of Rights. Injustice. Lies.

The politics of the games weren’t subtle, but then you wouldn’t expect them to be: The Games of Chile and Water were the opening event of Temacapulín’s Árbol Chile Festival, an event designed not only to reinvigorate the village’s flagging chile-farming industry or to draw visitors to this corner of Jalisco state, but also (along with the following day’s 10k Chile Run) as the public centerpiece of an 11-year-long fight to keep the government from putting the town underwater.

For the last decade, Father Gabriel Espinoza has been at the forefront of the resistance movement against the Zapotillo Dam, 30 kilometers upriver, which, if completed, will flood his ancestral village along with two other, even smaller communities in the valley of the Río Verde. “The government likes to say that this is a ghost town,” he says. “This festival shows the world that people live here.”

The Zapotillo Dam
Father Gabriel Espinoza

Like many people involved in the resistance, Espinoza never lived full-time in the village (he now splits his time between Temacapulín and Guadalajara). He grew up and studied in the state capital of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, a 90-minute drive away, returning as a kid to spend summer vacations with his grandmother. Involved with the resistance since 2007, a year after the dam was announced, Espinoza renounced his position in the archdiocese of Guadalajara in 2014 after disagreements with his superiors over the appropriateness of his involvement in political action. He’s since devoted himself to the cause.

It’s easy to see why Espinoza gave up his life and career for this particular village. At the end of the rainy season, the 18th-century basilica stands out pale pink against the green of the surrounding hillsides. Taps on the street corners run potable water; showers, fed by the thermal baths at the edge of town, run hot, even without boilers. In the evenings, old folks stroll through the plaza. Kids play in the streets, happily unsupervised, until 10 or 11 p.m. The town has no police force; it’s not necessary.

The government first developed the Zapotillo Dam project in 2006 as a solution to perennial water shortages in Guadalajara and the industrial city of León, in the neighboring state of Guanajuato. But activists claim that the much of the water will in fact go to a large infrastructure project, the Guanajuato Interior Port, which mostly services multinational agro-business and car manufacturers.

For the last three years, since a Supreme Court ruling preventing the dam from rising to its planned 105 meters, Zapotillo has been stalled at 80 meters, but in June, Jalisco’s improbably named state governor, Aristóteles Sandoval, promised to finish the last 25 meters within the year, thus drowning the town once and for all.

For the first several years of construction and planning, Mexico’s National Commission for Water, better known as Conagua, sent representatives to negotiate lucrative real estate deals with the town’s residents. Though they successfully bought out some people, many others held out. They’ve since blocked government representatives from entering the village entirely, though many suspect that Conagua still sends spies, particularly to events like the festival.

As part of the deal, the government offered to relocate people to a new settlement called Talicoyunque, an assembly of concrete tract houses on the rocky cliffs overlooking Temacapulín and the surrounding valley. The initial plans also called for the relocation of the town’s historic church, stone by stone, though that idea has since been abandoned.

Some 30 houses have already gone up in Talicoyunque, though according to Temacapulín’s residents, only five are occupied. Private security guards block outsiders from entering. For now, the place looks like a white-collar prison, though if the dam is completed, the view over the reservoir will be spectacular. In the dry season, the tip of the church tower will emerge from the water. For the rest of the year, a sign written in big white block letters on a nearby hilltop — “Temacapulín Greets You From the Sixth Century” — will be reflected in its surface like a taunt.

In the last decade, Temacapulín has become a kind of cause celebre within the international water-rights movement, thanks, in no small part, to events like the chile festival and a committed group of local activists. “They’ve tried to negotiate with us,” says 86-year-old María Isabel Reyes Flores, better known as Mama Chavela, standing in the door of her family home, surrounded by her daughter, granddaughter, great-granddaughter, and two great-great-grandsons. “They don’t understand how such a small town can defend itself so well, but I told them I’d only leave here swimming.”

Aside from Espinoza, young at 49; his three sisters, who all live in Guadalajara; and a former cantina owner known as Gallo, or the Cock; the leaders of the resistance are mostly of Chavela’s generation. It began with Poncho Íñiguez, 81, who runs the only restaurant in town, and his wife, Juanita Ortega, who curses like a sailor and carries two packs of Marlboro Reds in her bra at all times. There’s Isaura Gomez — “80 years, two months, and six days old” — who serves as the assistant representative for Temacapulín at local municipal meetings. (“I’m only the assistant because I get tired and can’t always make it,” she says.) There’s Marichuy García, the 71-year-old matriarch of a family known as Las Juarez — the Juarez Women — who’s blessed with the voice of a 1960s chanteuse and breaks spontaneously into song every few minutes.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a good person, never said a bad word about anyone, but sometimes we have to be cabronas,” García says, using the Mexican slang for “badass.” Clearing her throat, she sings a quote from Mexico’s national anthem: “If a foreign enemy would dare / Profane your ground with his foot / Think, Oh Beloved Fatherland!, that heaven / Has given you a soldier in every son.”

The point of the chile festival, and of the resistance movement more generally, is to make Temacapulín visible. To that extent, the Feria de Chile de Árbol is a move straight out of the state’s own playbook. Throughout Mexico, state governments use food festivals — for corn, tortilla, mole — to draw tourism to towns bled dry by immigration, even while enacting policies that do nothing to fortify them economically. At these events, representatives of the state give long-winded speeches thanking themselves and one another and, of course, el pueblo — the people — in lip service to Mexico’s revolutionary roots.

Temacapulín’s festival is a homegrown affair, drawing a small but eclectic crowd of about 200 people. There are residents of town, families with their roots there, sympathizers from Guadalajara and León, and activists and journalists chatting policy over beers at Don Poncho’s. The day begins early as vendors set up comals around the plaza, pouring hot cups of cinnamon-spiked coffee and serving hand-made quesadillas drizzled with salsas of chile de árbol mixed with oil and ground peanut or sesame seed. In the evening, there’s live music, and in the middle of the day, the highlight of the festival, a salsa competition. The winner this year, whose husband poured her glass after glass of Corona from a hulking liter bottle while she worked, prepared a scouring, brick-red salsa made with chile de árbol, roasted peanuts, and roasted sesame seeds. She named it, aptly enough, Salsa Macha de Borracha — the Drunk Lady’s Strong Salsa.

Casting the chile as a “traditional” source of livelihood is, to some extent, a feint. Mama Chavela remembers when large-scale chile-farming began in earnest. “My children were grown enough to help with the harvest; it must have been the ’60s,” she says. “All those corn fields that you see at the entry to the village, that was all full of chile de árbol.” In the ’70s and ’80s, the height of the chile-harvesting years, the town sent dried chiles by the truckload to Mexico City, Guadalajara, and even the U.S., Poncho says.

Families here have always grown chiles at home, crushing them into fiery salsas with the sweet wild tomatoes that once grew among the cornrows, but chile de árbol lasted as a cash crop here for scarcely 30 years. To make their village seen, Temacapulín’s activists have excavated both its culinary and pre-Hispanic identity, transforming it from merely beautiful to indispensable. Just three years ago, Espinoza added the words “From the Sixth Century” to the hilltop sign over town, in reference to pre-Hispanic arrowheads and pottery found in the surrounding hills. “Because of the threat,” Espinoza says, “we’ve recovered our historical memory.”

Not everyone is quite so sunny about the resistance. Ramón Díaz — who runs Billar Temaca, the only cantina in town since Gallo’s place shut down — has no intention of negotiating with the government, but is also frustrated by what he sees as the movement’s dogmatism. “If you go into the committee and don’t say what they want you to say, they chase you out,” he says.

Juanita Ortega
Mama Chavela (right) and her granddaughter

There also remains the question of who they’re saving the village for. Though Gallo says that a handful of young people have recently moved home from the U.S. to work at a nearby dairy farm, the fact remains that few Mexican youths stay in their villages. Some who live in Guadalajara, like Poncho’s daughter Brenda, come back on the weekends. Others, particularly those settled in California or Texas, come home for festivals and holidays.

Temacapulín, for most, is a retirement community, but it is emphatically not a depressed country town. Like many Mexican villages, Temacapulín has been severely concussed by the mass exodus of its young people, but the constant, imminent threat of the dam has, for more than a decade, kept the village from drifting into a fatal sleep.

If escape from small town or suburban life is one of America’s most prominent cultural tropes, in Mexico, it’s nostalgia for the lost authenticity of village life. But nostalgia is easy; resistance takes work. Resistance has given Temacapulín’s population something to fight for, and awakened the village’s hijos ausentes — or absent children — to the fragility of a place that they had, for years, seen as frozen in time, and therefore stable. “If it hadn’t been for Zapotillo,” Espinoza says over coffee one evening at Don Poncho’s, “our town might have disappeared.”

Ortega, having finished cooking for the night, sits down beside a giant stone molcajete filled to the brim with a rough red paste of ground chile de árbol drowned in a pool of oil the color of blood. She lights one cigarette off another and says, “I know one thing for sure: In 10 years, we’ll be sitting right here. And there won’t be any water.”

Michael Snyder is a freelance journalist and Associate Editor for Roads & Kingdoms based in Mexico City; his work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lucky Peach, and Scientific American, among other publications. Felipe Luna is an independent photographer currently based in between Mexico and Spain.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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