It is a strange sight, mermaid figures defining formerly small mountain town just west of Mexico City over 500 km from the nearest coast. They are locally called Tlanchanas, a name that comes from Nahuatl meaning “mother spirit from the water.”
Their origins are not the seas, but rather the shallow lakes that used to dominate this area in the Valley of Toluca marked by the giant, often snow-covered Nevado de Toluca volcano. The myth is from the Mazatlincan people and predates even the Aztec conquest of this region. The myth states that the waters of the valley were ruled by a creature that was half woman and half serpent. It was said that at times she could be glimpsed among the reeds and other aquatic vegetation, nude on an island. If she took a liking to a human, she could change her serpent lower half to legs to peruse him. If he refused her advances, she would drag him down to the depths of the water.
When the Spanish conquered the Valley of Toluca, they worked to eradicate all pre-Hispanic beliefs from the native peoples. But the Tlanchana persisted. So the Spanish changed tactics as well as the Tlanchana’s form to that of a European mermaid.
Metepec has a centuries-old tradition of pottery, making both utilitarian and decorative works since long before the conquest. One way to promote the new mermaid figure was to create them in clay. Over time, the disappearance of most of the lakes and wetlands, as well as the growth of the pottery industry, converted the Tlanchana into a symbol of this economic activity as well as local history.
Today, Metepec is no longer a small rural community but rather a suburb of the city of Toluca and even a bedroom community for western Mexico City. But in some parts of the municipality and surrounding towns, the tradition of pottery making not only still exists but has made the town a “Pueblo Mágico” part of the federal government’s efforts to promote tourism. It is best known for its Trees of Life, but clay mermaid figures are very common, along with plaque depicting the sun and moon. It is definitely worth a day trip from Mexico City to the historic center, both to see the mermaids and to bring home a piece of history.
Featured image by Octavio Alonso Maya CC by SA 3.0 – Tlanchana monument in the main square of Metepec, State of Mexico