An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

The Mexican state of Aguascalientes ("Hot Waters") is located in central Mexico. Surrounded by Zacatecas (on the north and west) and by Jalisco (on the south and east), Aguascalientes occupies 5,589 square kilometers, corresponding to only 0.3% of the Mexico's surface area. Although it is one of the smallest Mexican states, Aguascalientes holds a position of great importance in the Mexican Republic, in large part because of its strategic location within the country. With its textile, electronics and auto parts industries, Aguascalientes represents an integral part of the Mexican economy.

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Located on the Anáhuac Plateau, the state is linked by railroad to both Mexico City in the south and Ciudad Juárez in the north. In fact, Aguascalientes' transportation network is linked to many parts of Mexico. A ride to Guadalajara would take approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, while a drive north to the city of Zacatecas would take one hour and 45 minutes.

In 2000, the capital city of Aguascalientes - as the eighteenth largest city in Mexico - had a total population of 594,100 persons. Aguascalientes is noted for its warm mineral springs and its comfortable climate. It has been called La Ciudad Perforada (City of Holes) because of the labyrinth of tunnels dug in Pre-Hispanic times by an unknown Indian tribe. The State of Aguascalientes had a population of 994,285 in 2000, making it one of the five most densely populated states in the country.

When the Spaniards arrived in the 1520s, this area was located in Chichimec Indian territory and represented a frontier region between three indigenous groups: the Caxcanes, Zacatecos, and Guachichiles. Caxcán farmers inhabited the southwestern portion of present-day Aguascalientes. In the north lived the nomadic Zacatecos Indians. And to the east in the largest part of the state lived the warlike Guachichile Indians.

The Caxcanes territory spread south and west through the Three-Fingers Border Region of present-day Zacatecas and Jalisco. The Zacatecos inhabited most of what is now known as Western Zacatecas. The widespread Guachichiles inhabited large portions of eastern Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, eastern Jalisco, and western Guanajuato.

At the end of 1529, after serving as President of the First Audiencia in Mexico, a professional lawyer named Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán led a land expedition from Mexico City toward the region of Aguascalientes and Jalisco. Leading an army of 300 Spaniards and 6000 indigenous people, Guzmán entered this territory and discovered springs of thermal water and mineral deposits.

In his expeditions, Guzmán laid waste to large areas of Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Michoacán, and Zacatecas, capturing and enslaving many Indians. Although Guzmán was eventually brought to trial for his crimes, his reign of terror would become a major catalyst for the Mixtón Rebellion of 1541.

In April and May of 1530, Guzmán's lieutenants Pedro Almendes Chirinos and Cristóbal de Oñate, spent some time exploring the territory of present-day Teocaltiche, Nochistlán and Aguascalientes. During the 1530s, more Spanish forces moved into the area, and soon the Spanish colonial administrators gave this region the name Nueva Galicia, an area that comprised much of present-day Jalisco, Nayarit, Aguascalientes, and Zacatecas.

The Mixtón Rebellion of 1540-41 and the Chichimeca War of 1550-1600 made Nueva Galicia a war zone for many years. For the better part of four decades, the indigenous population of Aguascalientes, northern Jalisco and Zacatecas waged an unrelenting guerilla war against Spanish entrepreneurs and military forces and Indian laborers who traveled through the area. As a result many settlements were depopulated.

As early as the 1550s, Spaniards from Guadalajara had received grants for establishing cattle estancias in Guachichiles territory. From 1568 to 1580, Martin Enríquez de Almanza, serving as the Viceroy of Nueva España, decided to establish military outposts along the merchant routes to protect merchants and merchandise passing through the area from Zacatecas to Mexico City. The Viceroy believed that the garrisons would stand as a buffer against the hostile Indians occupying the area. This led to the founding of La Villa de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Aguascalientes (The Village of Our Lady of the Assumption of Aguascalientes) on October 22, 1575 by Doñ Gerónimo de Orozco, the President of the Royal Audiencia and Governor of Nueva Galicia. The founding of the villa was approved by King Felipe II, the ruling monarch in Spain.

However, the intensity of the Chichimeca War continued to increase and by 1582, the population of Aguascalientes had dwindled to one military commander, 16 soldiers and two citizen residents. In effect, the small settlement - located in the middle of the war zone - was under siege. But in the late 1580s, the threat of Indian attack diminished steadily, as the Spanish authorities attempted to negotiate a peace with the Indians of the region. The last Indian attack took place in 1593, after which the threat of hostile attack disappeared entirely and the region experienced a new peace.

The new-found peace of the 1590s, according to the historian Peter Gerhard, "brought a tide of Spanish settlers beginning in the 1590s, mostly cattlemen and farmers, together with Indian and Negro retainers." Because epidemics and war had reduced the indigenous population of the area, many slaves were brought into to labor alongside the Indians as the small village of Aguascalientes grew in size and stature.

By 1610, the small town of Aguascalientes had approximately 25 Spanish residents, about fifty families of mestizos, at least 100 mulatos, twenty Black slaves, and ten Indians. Most of these twenty-five Spanish inhabitants are believed to have been among the founding families of Aguascalientes, bearing the surnames Ruiz de Esparza, Alvarado, Tiscareno de Molina, Luebana, and Delgado.

The Registros Parroquiales (Parish Registers) for La Parroquia de la Asunción (Assumption Parish) in Aguascalientes are available through the Family History Library are contained on 458 rolls of film and range from 1616 to 1961. During the first decades that these registers were kept, dozens of marriages and baptisms were conducted for mestizos, negros, mulatos, and indios, who made up the majority of the population. It is interesting to note, however, that in some cases, the padrones (sponsors and godparents) at these marriages and baptisms of mixed-race and African persons were Spanish individuals, most notably the Ruiz de Esparza family.

The Ruiz de Esparza family is a well-known Basque family that settled in Aguascalientes at the beginning of the Seventeenth Century. The surname Esparza is said to mean one who came from Esparza (a barren place or a place where feather grass grew) in Spain. The word was derived from the Latin sparsus (spread abroad, scattered), probably referring to land that yields little. Esparza is the name of a village near Pamplona in Navarra (Navarre), España (Spain).

It is very likely that the Ruiz de Esparza family of Aguascalientes could trace its roots back to that small village. The patriarch of this family in Mexico was Lope Ruiz de Esparza, who is documented by the Catalogo de Pasajeros a Indias (Vol. III - #2.633) as having sailed from Spain to Mexico on Feb. 8, 1593. Lope, who was the son of Lope Ruiz de Esparza and Ana Días de Eguino, was a bachelor and a servant of Doñ Enrique Maleon. After arriving in Mexico, Lope made his way to Aguascalientes where, about a year later, he is believed to have married Francisca de Gabai Navarro y Moctezuma. In the following decades, the Ruiz de Esparza family intermarried extensively with other prominent Spanish families in early Aguascalientes, including Romo de Vivar, Macias Valdez, and Tiscareno de Molina.

In 1617, Aguascalientes was separated from Lagos de Moreno and given the status of an alcaldía mayor. Aguascalientes continued to grow in the next two centuries, in spite of periodic epidemics, which wreaked havoc on the indigenous population. One of these epidemics took place in 1738-1739, when, according to the burial register of Aguascalientes Parish, 1,018 people died, the majority of them Indian citizens of the area. The 1760 parish census indicated that 640 Indians and 6,386 non-Indians family lived within the bounds of the church jurisdiction. This translated into 20,441 persons who were qualified to receive Communion and Confession within the Church. If one considers infants and young children or people not attending church, the total population was probably about 34,000 persons.

During both colonial times and after independence, Aguascalientes was frequently the subject of jurisdictional battles between its neighboring states, Jalisco and Zacatecas. In 1804, the region became a subdelegación of Zacatecas. With the end of the Mexican Revolution, Aguascalientes became an independent political entity on June 22, 1821. However, soon after, in 1824, the small territory was incorporated as part of the State of Zacatecas and for the next 14 years it remained attached to its northern neighbor.

However, in 1835, the ruling party of Zacatecas rebelled against the national government. Soon, Federal forces under General Antonio López de Santa Anna were making their way to Zacatecas with the intention of quelling the revolt. On May 11, 1835, the Zacatecas militia, under the command of Francisco Garcia, was defeated at the Battle of Guadalupe by Santa Anna's forces. Soon after this victory, Santa Anna's forces ransacked the city of Zacatecas and the rich silver mines at Fresnillo.

In addition to seizing large quantities of Zacatecan silver, Santa Anna instigated a political punishment against the State of Zacatecas for its mutiny. Less than two weeks later, on May 23, 1835, the Mexican Congress declared the formation of the Territory of Aguascalientes, separating the territory from Zacatecas and setting in motion a process that would eventually lead to statehood. The loss of Aguascalientes and its rich agricultural terrain would be a severe blow to the economy and the spirit of Zacatecas.

However, many citizens of Aguascalientes are proud to point out a more romantic version of the events leading to autonomy and independence from Zacatecas. According to Tony Burton in his book, Western Mexico: A Traveler's Treasury, "The independence of Aguascalientes was sealed with a kiss, as the locals are invariably quick to point out." As he was engaged in his campaign against the rebellious Zacatecas government, General Santa Anna met one Doña María Luisa Villa. Legend has it that Santa Anna became captivated by this attractive woman and asked her for a kiss, promising her anything she wanted in return. Her request was that her native land be given autonomy. Santa Anna fulfilled this request, granting Aguascalientes the status of territory. María Luisa's husband, Pedro García Rojas, was appointed as the first Gobernador (Governor) of the Territory of Aguascalientes, serving until June 1836.

Santa Anna had his own date with destiny. After putting down the Zacatecas revolt, the General made his way north to end another revolt in the northern Mexican state of Texas. Months later, on Feb. 26, 1836, Santa Anna's forces attacked and seized control of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. Two months later, on April 21, he was defeated and captured by General Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto.

On May 21, 1847, the Mexican National Congress decreed that Aguascalientes would be reintegrated as a part of the state of Zacatecas. But, on Dec. 10, 1853, Aguascalientes was once again granted independence from Zacatecas and elevated to the rank of a Department. Finally, on February 5, 1857, the Federal Constitution of the Mexican Republic was given the title El Estado Libre y Soberano de Aguascalientes (Free and Sovereign State of Aguascalientes).

Today, Aguascalientes - located near the geographic center of Mexico - remains an important part of the Mexican economy. The state has highway and rail communications networks that link Aguascalientes to many of Mexico's major cities. This easy access to markets across the country has played a major role in stimulating the economy of Aguascalientes.

The State has had a long-standing tradition in both agriculture and industry, with special emphasis on textiles, wine, brandy and food processing. In recent years, companies such as Nissan, Xerox, and Texas Instruments have established manufacturing facilities in the State, brining about increased production of automobiles, metal, mechanical products, and electronics. Aguascalientes is also recognized as an important cultural center in Mexico. La Feria de San Marcos, celebrated in late April and early May of each year, is famous throughout the nation. The festival lasts for 22 days and features a wide array of cultural and popular events that draws up to a million tourists annually.

Aguascalientes is a state that is rich in culture, history, art and economic potential. Many Mexican Americans look to Aguascalientes as their ancestral homeland, as the State has been sending large numbers of its citizens north for the last hundred years. Today, Mexican Americans and citizens of Aguascalientes are intrigued and fascinated by the cultural and artistic lure of this beautiful state.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.


Alcalá Lopez, Efraín. Aguascalientes: Historía y Geografía: Tercer Grado. México, D.F.: Secretaría Educación Pública, 1995.

Burton, Tony. Western Mexico: A Traveler's Treasury. 3rd edition. St. Augustine, Florida: Perception Press, 2001.

Gerhard, Peter. The North Frontier of New Spain. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Powell, Philip Wayne. Soldiers, Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War. Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1975.

Rojas, Beatriz et al. Breve Historia de Aguascalientes. Mexico, D.F.: Colegio de México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1994.

González, Agustín R., Historia del estado de Aguascalientes. Mexico: V. Villada, 1881.

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002) and "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (Heritage Books, 2004). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, www.somosprimos.com. John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."