Banding and bounding about: 1st sortie, Cinco Señores

            Daughter Abby and husband Matt came down from Indiana for ten days to welcome in the New Year with me in Oaxaca. They also helped me by sorting through lots of dresses and jewelry I am not likely to wear, and craft projects I am not likely to finish. Some of Linda’s things Abby and Deborah will divide, some we are giving away, and some are just too precious and memory filled to be allowed to leave the premises, at least not at this time. I figured these tasks would easily fill up the ten days, but “the kids” work quickly and efficiently and despite the workload we still managed to get out and about.


On our first sortie, we joined about 20 young folks my age for a Oaxaca Lending Library excursion to the remains of a mining hacienda high in the Sierra de Juárez. The previous evening, before going to pick up Abby and Matt at the airport, I had given a talk at the OLL on the first fifty years of silver mining in Mexico. That is something I used to know absolutely nothing about. But since I’ve spent the last few years writing a book in which mining is a subtheme, and taken a geology course, and toured lots of mines, I have gleaned just enough to be able share some basics with a lay audience. A lay audience in this case would be a room containing no professional miners and no geologists, at least none who dug for silver the mid-sixteenth century. The talk went well enough, though behind a few bifocals I could see eyes beginning to glaze when I got to the techniques of breaking silver loose from the other minerals that it compounds with.


The Sierra de Juárez is named for its favorite son Benito, the Zapotec Indian who rose to be president of Mexico (1857-72) just in time to manage the war against the French occupiers. The Sierra is the eastern wall of the Valley of Oaxaca; it rises to 3,200 meters, which is about a vertical mile above the valley floor. Essentially it separates the central valley of Oaxaca from the broad plain flanking the Gulf of Mexico. The precipitous slopes are thick with pines, and small villages cling to the few less steep areas where a person can stand without having first to tie himself to a tree. The villages used to struggle along on subsistence agriculture and lumbering, charcoal making, or mining. Now most of the mines are closed, much of the forest is protected, and many people commute to Oaxaca City for day jobs or to northern cities (Mexico City, Querétaro, Portland, Omaha) to send home remittances. Several villages have put up a few eco-cabañas, cabins for tourists who like to hike or bird or mountain bike.


Our destination was the ruins of a mining hacienda called Cinco Señores. The Río Papaloapan, large enough to be navigable when it nears the Gulf Coast, rises in these mountains, and is barely more than a trickle at the point where it provided water power to the Cinco Señores mine. Of course we are in the dry season, and the river runs higher in the wet, which is why the mine owner built a little bridge to give the workers from the nearby villages access to the processing plant.

Like so many haciendas, Cinco Señores was burned during the revolutionary chaos of the 19-teens.


The main structures date from the mid-eighteenth century, with expansions and improvements added over the next hundred years or so. Curiously, given the dominance of silver mining in Mexico, Cinco Señores mined mostly gold. During the so-called “Francesada,” when President Juárez evaded the French troops by removing himself to New York City, his family took shelter at this mining hacienda and were protected by Miguel Castro, a former governor of Oaxaca and the owner of the mine. Why there? Well, the hacienda is little more than a two-hour walk from Guelatao, the Zapotec village where Juárez was born. And it is buried in a steep, narrow valley, with defensible approaches, which makes it a nice haven.


The OLL seniors followed our local guide down to the ruins for the two-hour tour. Since the guide spoke only Spanish (well, Zapoteco and Spanish), and most of the OLL folks are monolingual in English, Larry Gizkey, the OLL liaison, had thoughtfully brought equipment to wire me up with a microphone and loudspeaker so that I could do a simultaneous talk-along.

We got to see the remains of the places where the ore was crushed to powder to be mixed with the catalysts that would pull out the gold. And the canals that brought the water from far upstream to power the machinery.

And the housings where water poured over the great paddle wheels that turned the axels to run the hammers of the stamping mills that pulverized the rock. And the amalgamation patios where the “mud” of ore, mercury, and lead-oxide worked their disassociative magic on each other.  And the aqueduct that carried the runoff to a final fall that sluiced the particles of gold from the muddy matrix. And the owner’s house, next to the refinery, where the valuable tools were stored and he could keep his eye on the newly forged gold ingots waited to be ox-carted to Oaxaca.


In the van I got sit next to one of the three under-sixties on the excursion (Matt and Abby being the other two), and swap tales about our similarly checkered lives of work and travel. And then, halfway home, we stopped at a restaurant with an expansive view for a late lunch of fresh trout. All in all, a lovely day.