Most who live on Lake Chapala’s north shore – and particularly those who frequent the Lake Chapala Society – have heard the name Neill James, but many are unaware of the accomplishments of this extraordinary woman, or the full scope of her contributions to the community.
James was an author, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. She was also a fearless adventurer who shrugged off the staid social conventions and gender stereotypes of a dawning twentieth century.
Born on a cotton plantation in Grenada, Mississippi in 1895, James earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1918, and – following a brief and childless marriage – began to travel extensively.
She was employed at the American embassies in Tokyo (1924-1927) and Berlin (1928-1929), and her work and travel allowed her to meet many celebrities of the day, including Amelia Earhart. Her travels took her to the South Seas (1931-32), and Lapland (1937-38).
Her plans to return to Asia and travel throughout the Orient changed when James encountered the Ainu people of northern Hokkaido in Japan and became enchanted with their culture. She lived among them for an extended time, all the while taking photographs and keeping a diary of her experience.
James left Japan just before December 7, 1941 and headed for Mexico, where she was badly injured while hiking the slopes of Michoacán’s Paricutin volcano during an unexpected eruption. She was brought to Ajijic for a year of recuperation, during which she drew upon her travel journals to complete the “Petticoat Vagabond” series of books on which she had begun work in 1937:
Petticoat Vagabond among the Nomads (1939)
White Reindeer (1940)
Petticoat Vagabond: In Ainu Land (1942)
Petticoat Vagabonds: Up and Down The World in Asia (1942)
Dust On My Heart (1946)
Dust on My Heart records James’ journeys throughout Mexico, and includes a chapter on Ajijic that provides rare insight into life in Ajijic during the 1940’s that is well worth the read.
In the years which followed, Ms. James became a beloved benefactress of her adopted Ajijic.
She collected rare plants during her travels, and when her attempt to import Japanese mulberry trees in the hope of breeding silkworms was doomed by blight, she converted the silk looms to weave cotton instead, and Ajiic’s community of weavers was born.
A woman of inherited means, James employed her wealth to launch projects focused on improving the daily lives of local people, and on helping them to help themselves.
She sponsored the digging of the area’s first deep water wells, helped to develop a water purification system, and promoted the installation of electricity and phone service.
She founded libraries in Chapala and Ajijic, and offered classes in a wide range of academic and artistic disciplines, including art classes for children that the Lake Chapala Society perpetuates to this day.
She encouraged the most talented among her students to pursue art as a career by supplying them with materials, engaging an art teacher, and providing a venue for the sale of their work. She paid university tuition for the most talented, and several of her original students, including Jesus Lopez Vega and his brother Antonio, still live and paint in Ajijic today.
In 1955 she was among a group who decided that Lakeside needed an organization devoted to the needs of the expat community. In her final years she donated her home and the grounds upon which it sits to the Lake Chapala Society, but continued to live there until her death in 1994 at the age of 99. Its gardens still contain over 200 varieties of plants gathered during her travels.
James was honored by installation in the American Biographical Society’s Hall of Fame and named to the International Who’s Who of Intellectuals. She is also the recipient of more than 40 citations acknowledging her contributions to the arts.
Only one of Ms. James’ books – Dust On My Heart – is available on Amazon. Find it here.
Read more about Lake Chapala’s literary legacy here.
Check out the complete listing of RiberasAuthors by genre here.
Posted by Antonio Ramblés.