Mex2010 Blog 7 Doing Mines

Mex2010  Blog 7 Doing mines                                               27 November 2010

 From Monterrey south we’re doing mines. Specifically, we’re visiting the mining towns where the crypto-Jewish miners and mine suppliers I am studying plied their trades in the 1570s and ‘80s. Some are big cities today; some are decrepit shacks on the edge of dusty roads, but all were in-places for a while, the while having passed four and a quarter centuries ago.

 Our first stop was Mazapil, 50 kilometers over a recently paved side road from the highway town Concepción del Oro. Neither appear in the guidebooks as having anything to catch the notice of a tourist.  The miners of the recently active silver mines in Concepión are on strike. The mines in Mazapil dwindled eons ago. Still, that’s where young Héctor de Fonseca, twenty-one years old and fresh over from Spain, headed with a few of his friends in 1579 to try their luck in the diggings. From Zacatecas, which was already a substantial boomtown by then, they set off into the desert.

 Linda and I have just finished driving the 350 kilomet

ers from Mazapil to Zacatecas, and with the exception of the Sinai and the northern Peruvian coastal deserts, we have never seen drier or less hospitable territory. Low rocky hills hemmed in by high craggy mountains, interspersed with immense flat steppes covered with thorny scrub and the occasional stand of Joshua trees. The few streambeds that cross the highway are dry. We searched for over an hour to find a roadside tree under which we could picnic, and when we did it turned out to be the only one from Concepción to Fresnillo, 40 kilometers north of Zacatecas. The only living things we saw were turkey vultures. The only other living things Fonseca and friends would have seen in 1570 were hostile bands of Chichimeca Indians, still at war with the Spaniards.

We are in awe! We can’t imagine how they did it. True, there was a track that the novice miners could follow, the Camino de Tierra Adentro, but even so … How, without sunglasses and tinted windows, did they brave the unrelenting glare? How did they manage to keep from being torn to shreds by the thorns? Where in all that empty did they and their mules find enough water to survive? How did they keep from going mad when from every small rise they could see forty kilometers ahead and forty behind of nothing different from the hell through which they were trudging.

Mazapil wasn’t much. One main street, a couple of transversals, a few old buildings that might date back to when Spain was still in control. A museum, closed, and reputedly an archive of old documents. Eventually we found the house of the archivist, and a young man taking shade in its doorway informed us that the archivist had gone somewhere and would be back later.


 "Tonight, maybe. Tomorrow. In a few days. The bicentenario.”

 Ah yes, the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain. We hear the echo of wild geese honking. Village  archives in Mexico frequently have some items from the eighteenth century, and occasionally something from the seventeenth, but the sixteenth … Like hitting the Powerball number. And data about a nobody Fonseca who never struck it rich and after a few months gave it up and drifted south again? Not worth the wait.

Our next stop was Sombrerete, on the Durango road, and 50 kilometers southwest of Sombrerete, Chalchihuites. It wasn’t Héctor Fonseca who rode here, but some secretly Jewish members of the Rodíguez clan who carted —or more likely mule-backed— dry goods and sewing supplies to the outlying mines. We based ourselves in a new hotel in Sombrerete, a very long town that fills a gulley near the Durango Road, 160 kilometers northwest of Zacatecas. The surrounding mountains, where John Wayne shot several movies, are spectacular enough that the hotel developers hope that they will attract eco-tourists. The town itself, not so attractive. Even though it was formerly rich, and even for a (short) while capital of the state of Zacatecas, the nearby mines have dried up, the mines further out are in the hands of Canadian companies who don’t spend money much locally, and besides, the few remaining miners are three years into a strike. Sombrerete boasts a half-dozen colonial churches, but none is of note architecturally and their insides were all despoiled during the Revolution. The town’s side streets are a maze, with intersections and bifurcations dodging around nearly twenty plazas. That might be worth something. North to south on the main street through town we counted 29 topes, or speed bumps. Visiting Sombrerete takes effort.

 Sombrerete has an archive though, in a new building at some distance from the Presidencia where I first directed myself.

 “It’s complicated: check in Cultura. They’ll be able to explain how to get there.”

 The gentleman in Cultura tries to draw me a map but after a couple of attempts gave it up.

 “Manuel,” he calls, to the youngest of the three geezers leaning their folding chairs against the back wall. “Do you have your truck here to take him to the Archivo?”

 “No need; really, my car is only a block away.”

 I tell Manuel that this model car won’t start unless he fastens his seat belt. We wind through back streets for a few minutes and —surprise!— the Archivo is open, clean, well-organized, and though the archivist is out somewhere, the secretary knows where everything is. By years in real archive boxes, starting in 1883. And about twenty boxes of earlier stuff. Maybe … maybe …

“By any chance, is there an index to the earlier material?”

 She leads me to an office room, unlocks a metal cabinet, and takes out a loose leaf binder with about forty pages of typed index. Miraculously, the documents are indexed by order of date. Disappointingly, the earliest is 1633.

 I thank her, drive Manuel (belted) back to Cultura, bounce over the 29 topes, pick up Linda, bounce back over the 29 topes, and set out for Chalchihuites. Fifty kilometers of canyon country, then barley fields (there’s a big brewery in Zacatecas) and a little corn, intermingled with long patches of dry, thorny, northern desert. Chalchihuites, tight against the mountains at the edge of a valley watered by a little river, is a good deal less imposing than Sombrerete. No mining, no museum, no archive, and a much reformed church. But seven kilometers away are the ruins of Alta Vista, built by the Indians who showed the Spaniards where the silver mines around here were. The site was excavated over the last twenty years by a team from SIU in Carbondale.

Pay dirt! Little Alta Vista, with a fine site museum, is one of the most impressive pre-Columbian sites we’ve ever visited. It is the northernmost observatory of the Mesoamerican calendar makers. The site sits atop a high hill, giving it a vast view of the territory all around, and especially toward Chalchihuites and the mountains behind it which are dominated by a conical peak that rises from the midst of a long undulating skyline with distinctive bulges equidistant north and south of the protruding peak. The astronomer standing on top of the Alta Vista hill at the summer solstice will see the morning sun rise precisely over the protruding peak. At the spring and fall equinoxes, the sun rises over the distinctive bulges. At midday on the summer solstice the sun is direc

tly overhead, and the central sighting stele at Alta Vista casts no shadow. In other words, the Tropic of Cancer runs right through the middle of the temple mound. From here, on the northern reaches of Mesoamerica, from Teotihuacan, at its heart, and from Uxmal, in the Yucatan, word would go out about when to plant, when to harvest, when to pray for rain, and when to honor the gods.


Very sophisticated folks. Too bad they had to ruin it by telling the Spaniards where to look for silver.