Thursday, February 28, 2019

the real mexico

If you want to start a blood feud, tell an expatriate the area he lives in is not The Real Mexico.

Mountain folk think beach people are short a few marbles. Beach people think the Mountain folk have confused Edmonton with Mexico. And then there is the universal tension between rural rustics and sophisticated urbanites.

I really do not have a dog in that fight. I have my reasons for living near the ocean, and none if those reasons are based on a decrease in my reasoning. But I could just as easily live in Zacatecas.

As far as I am concerned, every part of Mexico is The Real Mexico. Not to be too tautological, but if a place is in Mexico, it is The Real Mexico. Even if it is Cancun or Puerto Vallarta.

When  I tell a lot of my northern acquaintances I live in Mexico, they assume I mean something like the photograph at the top of this essay. Mountains. Desert. Cactus. And it certainly is authentically Mexican -- as was our last full day in Real de Catorce.

This morning, we piled into four jeeps and wended our way down a road barely wide enough for our vehicles. The mountain on one side, a steep valley on the other. The type of drive, I call exhilarating.

I chose to sit on the roof of the jeep to get some better shots for you. The view was great. Unfortunately, the road was too bumpy for steady shots.

We stopped off at a mine that had last produced silver in 1910 when the Revolution broke out. A Canadian company is attempting to open the mine because it still has plenty of silver to be extracted. But the operation has been put on hold by a Mexican court.

Most of the mine operation is within a zone protected by the government because it is the natural habitat of the peyote cactus. Most northerners tend to think of peyote as just another method to kill more brain cells in an attempt to become a Carlos Castaneda character. We saw several wandering aimlessly through town.

But the Mexican government does not protect the peyote for drug-addled tourists. Peyote is a ritual drug for the Wixáritari. They believe their tribe originated in the protected area, and that it is the place where the sun was born. It is sacred to them. Silver mining is not.

Each year, they travel to the mountains outside of Real de Catorce to harvest peyote buttons for their religious ceremonies and to create medicines.

As a result of our experience today, I can tell you the peyote cactus is not easy to find. When they are small, they easily hide under shrubs.

There are also other varieties of the cactus that are a bit easier to spot.

Especially, if they are in a planter in a museum.

Or, the variety that is so hard to see in the wild can be better seen in replica form (including its large root) in the same museum.

Even I could find that beauty in the wild.

The peyote culture is so prevalent here that the gates to the Franciscan church and surrounding cemetery are decorated with stylized peyote buttons.

Forty years ago, the mining company could have expected success in the courts. Money talks when justice is at stake.

But, there is an irony. Forty years ago, Canadian money would not have been welcome in Mexico. Memories of why they were expelled from Mexico by the Revolution still run strong in some quarters.

Because Mexico is becoming more environmentally conscious and it has concurrently taken a strong interest in defending some tribal rights, the mining case that is now before the Supreme Court appears to be a doomed effort, according to my legal sources.

But our day was not completely peyote-centric. While searching for it, we encountered several variety of cactus.

The fruit from this beautifully-colored variety is prepared with other foods for consumption during semana santa -- Easter holy week.

The fruit from this cactus reportedly heals diabetes.

 I have no idea if the fruit from this cactus does anything. I just liked the way its yellow needles reflected the sun's rays.

At the base of the mountain road is the train station that transported the silver to other parts of Mexico. Our guides once again praised Porfirio Diaz for helping Mexico enter the Industrial Revolution and for building railroads like this one at Catorce. Ironically, those same tracks allowed Carranza, Villa, and Obregon to quickly transport the revolutionary forces to defeat Porfirio Diaz.

And it was not just our guide who praised the man much of the rest of Mexico still despises. In the town museum, there are a series of photographs that captured the celebration Real de Catorce gave President Porfirio Diaz when he visited.

These re-enactors of the Independence heroes are one example. Allende and Hidalgo are right out front to solemnly welcome the President.

The museum contains three levels. The main level is devoted to explaining the peyote culture in Mexico. The next level down is a gallery of photographs from Real de Catorce's golden age.

The third level is dedicated to Mexican money. The rooms once housed the city's mint. The current exhibit has some machinery and a display of modern commemorative coins.

For a local museum in what is effectively a ghost town, it is quite thorough and informative.

In the afternoon, we walked through the town to see some of its other sights.

An old, but still active, cock fighting arena.

And a bullring built in the late 1700s that has not been used for a long time.

The Franciscan church you can see behind the bullring has all the marks of desertion -- even though it is lovingly cared-for by its women parishoners. "Care-for" in a ghost town sense. The wall frescoes have suffered grave damage from the effects of water.

Mass is celebrated here only during the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December. Otherwise, the church is merely a reminder of the town's history.

Then, there is the name of the place. "Catorce" means fourteen. But fourteen what?

As is often the case, Wikipedia tells a tale that is not supported by anyone locally. The fourteen refers to fourteen bandits who would regularly ambush silver convoys.

They were eventually captured and executed by a firing squad against the wall of what once was part of the bull ring.

That is not one of them. He is Noel, our Mex-Eco Tours guide.

Real de Catorces is just another authentic part of Mexico. Stitch it together with Cabo San Lucas, Patzcuaro, San Miguel de Allende, Veracruz, Mexico City, and, even, Barra de Navidad and Melaque, and you will have a tapestry of Mexico -- all of which are the real Mexico.

And tomorrow, we will add a new patch. San Luis Potosi.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

my own private lost horizon

My grandmother had a television set when I was a youngster growing up in Powers.

A small black-and-white set that sat in the living room. It was the only television I could watch in our small town. We did not have one at our house.

I did not watch it much. But there is one movie I recall from those days. "Lost Horizon." A Frank Capra film based on James Hilton's novel of Shangri-La, a utopia nestled in the Tibetan Himalayas.

The scene that stuck in my young mind was the aging process that the Mexican-American actress Margo suffered when she left the confines of Shangri-La. Rather like that border around Toyland that once crossed, you can never go back.

I may have found Shangri-La in Mexico. Or its spiritual third cousin.

Early this morning we left Zacatecas for our next stop -- Real de Catorce. The town is advertised as a ghost town. It isn't. But it is the shadow of what it once was.

To get there, we drove four hours through the desert to the northern part of  San Luis Potosi. The scenery was beautiful -- in that rather arid beauty that lingers on the edge of deserts.

Lots of Joshua trees, magueys, and scrub brush, all backed by mountains that seem to be holding secrets.

Most of those secrets are minerals. And humans have been trying to pry those secrets from the mountain rock for thousands of years. First by the Indian tribes. Then the Spanish. Then foreign mining interests.

There was only so far our bus could take us.

The town lies in a valley completely surrounded by mountains. When the mines were mechanized at the end of the nineteenth century, the Ogarrio tunnel was built to facilitate motorized transportation. The tunnel was completed in 1901.

But the designers did not have tour buses in mind. So, we abandoned our bus on one side of the mountains and moved our group and our luggage to a fleet of jeeps that took us into what seemed a lost city. 

Well, a lost city that is regularly visited by the crystal-fixated or peyote-minded along with Catholic pilgrims and pleasure-seeking tourists.

After we settled into our hotel we visited one of the abandoned mines that surround the town. You can barely see it in the photograph above on the horizon in the upper right.

Because we were in a town that time forgot, we were heading to the mine the way visitors would have in the nineteenth century. We rode horses.

This was my mount. A nasty piece of work named Hombre who instinctively knew my riding skills were well past their pull date. 

But the view on the ride up was stunning. Abandoned haciendas. Mountains. Valleys. All of the makings of a good Western movie.

When we arrived at the top, our guides took us through the abandoned mine. And we finally had an opportunity to enter a mine that had not been Disneyfied for our security.

Every time I visit these mines, I develop more respect for the men who worked and died to please the power structure's desire for precious metals.

My friend Robin and I had a hobby of searching out old mines in the hills of California when we were both stationed at Merced in the early 1970s. Even in deterioration (or maybe because of the decay), mines interest me. As a writer. And as a photographer.

These old stables have a nobility equal to that of any Mycenaean palace.

On the ride back, I caught this glimpse of Real de Catorce, masquerading as the Latino understudy for Shangri-La.

This is the first place in Mexico where I have heard Porfirio Diaz, the dictator overthrown in the Mexican Revolution, praised so thoroughly. And that is understandable. The chaos of the Revolution left the mining industry devoid of leadership and investment.

While our guide was discussing him, I could almost imagine a still-living Porforio Diaz playing the role of the High Lama in "Lost Horizon" -- dispensing bromides in the ruins of the mine.

Real de Catorce is just that sort of place.

But I did learn my lessons in my grandmother's living room. I am not going to fall in love with a local girl and take her to the other side through the Ogarrio tunnel. We all know that will not end well.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

in search of our commonality

What is it about history and archaeology and art and architecture and food that so fascinates us?

What is it that drives us to journey the world to discover its mysteries?

There is usually a day during any trip when visitors hit their stride. At least, that is true for me. And today was that day.

Even though it was a mixed activity day, it occurred to me that everything I experienced had a common thread. At our foundation, people share basic instincts. Sure, culture puts an incredible burden on that commonality. But all of our ancestors ventured out of Africa in search of the same basic needs.

I suspect that is one reason the people of Mesoamerica do not seem to be that different from us. And why Asian and African art is so accessible to us.

The day started with a trip to La Quemeda, an archaeological site 30 miles south of Zacatecas. It is not a siet well-known to many pepole. But it should be.

No one is quite certain about the people who built and lived in this hill-top town. Like Teotihuacán, it is something of a cipher.

Yesterday we talked about Zacatecas' position as the transition point to northern Mexico.  La Quemada may have served a similar purpose in Mesoamerica. But no one is certain why it was built so far north from the other cultures.

Bit, like Teotihuacán, just because we know little of the people who lived there, it does not diminish the importance of either city. We know a number of things from what archaeologists have discovered in La Quemada.

The first buildings were built around 300 AD and the site was occupied until 1200 AD, a period that fully or partially overlapped the other great Mesoamerican cultures. The presence of shells and turquoise indicate the city was a major trading center. In its later stage, 258 roads led to other sites.

The city is built on five levels. Later levels contain continually more-sophisticated structures. At its height, they built a temple (the Hall of Columns).

The presence of columns is an unusual architectural element for that period. The building was obviously the star attraction with a wooden ceiling structure supported by the columns.

The buildings are made of split stone. The stones were mortared into place and then covered with stucco. Some of the original stucco can still be found on the walls.

There was a warrior class garrisoned in the city. The hill on which the city is based provides a natural fortress, similar to the Acropolis. But, at some point, the people felt the need to build a defensive wall. We do not know if that was to protect against invaders or to protect the elite from the lower classes or both.

But, it was apparent trouble was brewing.

The people who lived there did not call the city La Quemada. The Spanish named the place. It means 'the burned place." When the Spanish arrived, three hundred years after the city was abandoned, they found evidence of fire on the city walls. It can still be seen.

The charred walls give a hint at why the city was abandoned. War. Internal strife. Famine.

The priests and city leaders, like any other Mesoamerican city had one function -- to appease the gods to ensure rains arrived timely for the crops. That is why almost every Mesoamerican site has a structure to track the sun and moon to predict the seasons.

If drought led to famine, the priests and leaders were not doing their job -- and they were often overthrown. That is one of those human universals. It happened in China. It happened in Mexico.

I think we all felt a bit frustrated that we would never know much about the people who inhabited the city. After all, that is one of the reasons for studying other cultures.,

But I did spend the afternoon in a museum where another human universal is celebrated -- art.

Pedro Coronel was an accomplished Mexican painter and sculptor who found his medium in abstract art. And he was quite successful financially.

At his death, he had collected a grandmother's closet of some of the finest pieces of art from around the world. He donated it to the people of Mexico, and it is now housed in the Museo Pedro Coronel in Zacatecas.

The museum is something of a hodgepodge -- because it represents Coronel's tastes over his lifetime. It is easy to imagine that the British Museum started like this.

The oddest piece is an Egyptian sarcophagus. I say "odd" only because I had not yet caught the theme of the museum before I saw the sarcophagus. I am a sucker for mummies. So, I was not put off by it.

The collections from around the world would have delighted Addison Mizner.

Pieces from India and China.

From Africa.

From ancient Rome.

Some overused pieces from Greece.

But there are also paintings from some of the giants of abstract and surrealistic art. Including Picasso.


Walls of pieces by Miró.

And Ernst, Braque, Kandinsky, Dali, and other surrealist and abstract expressionist painters.

It would be easy to downplay the museum as nothing more than a talented artist wanting to mix his works with The Greats as an ego exercise.

But his paintings are quite good.

As are his sculptures.

But I realized egoism was not Coronel's motivation when I walked through an exhibition hall tucked away in one corner of the museum. The exhibit uses human Jungian archetypes and compares various pieces of Mexican art with other pieces around the word. Such as these Mexican and African masks.

After all, Picasso was greatly influenced by African masks and art in developing some of his own pieces. Just like the mysterious people who built La Quemada, we are all in this struggle of life together.

One of those basic needs is food. Before I moved to Mexico, I saw a photograph in a tour guide of a hotel that had built its accommodations around a former bull ring. The concept fascinated me. I once wanted to re-purpose a grain silo as a house.

It turns out that hotel is in Zacatecas, and that is where we decided to have dinner tonight.

The Playa de Toros San Pedro entertained the people of Zacatecas every Sunday (except, I assume, during the area's many wars) from 1866 until 1975. When it was de-activated, the Quinta Real hotel built a round hotel around its perimeter.

The dining room fittingly looks out over the bull ring where beef on the hoof once died. It is now served with a certain flair in the restaurant.

Because I had stuffed myself with a full plate of cabrito (kid) at lunch, I knew I did not want much to eat. My rule in restaurants is that I look for something I have not eaten before or that I cannot cook at home with a good deal of difficulty.

I then saw it. A small portion. Something exotic. Tortellini stuffed with huitlacoche (corn fungus) and served with callo de hacha (scallops). It sounded creative.

Unfortunately, the concept did not survive its execution. The consistency of the sushi-style scallops and the crisp tortellini fought, rather than complemented, one another.

I am glad I tried it. And because I try to never eat the same dish twice, I will not need to worry about ordering it again. But the view and service were superb.

Best of all, the experience topped off a successful day of realizing that people, as a group, are searching for the same things in life. That is not a cry for another round of kumbaya. It is simply a fact.

And it is one of those factors that will find us on the road in the morning to Real de Catorce. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

silver and light

There is a Zacatecas because there is silver in them thar hills.

Unlike a number of other mining areas, the Spanish did not discover silver on their own during their conquest of Mexico in the 1520s and 1530s. The Indians who controlled this area had mined, but primarily for turquoise. In the process, they also found silver. That discovery has determined a lot of what Mexico is -- even to this day.

We arrived last night to one of the most interesting reverse sunsets I have seen. I suppose it was because of the structure of the clouds, but the colors had a certain J.M.W. Turner look or perhaps something even more contemporary. It was a good omen for today's introduction to Zacatecas.

When Texas and three other Mexican states seceded from Mexico in the 1830s, Zacatecas took the opportunity to secede, as well. President López de Santa Anna quickly put down the rebellion on his way to Texas where he met a completely different result. But the area around the city of Aguacalientes had supported the government. As a result, Zacatecas was punished by the loss of its territory when Aguacalientes became a state of its own.

Our Zacatecas guide, Rosalio.
Zacatecas is on the border between northern and southern Mexico, but its citizens consider themselves northerners. It is no surprise that the area has been part of every major war in Mexico's history. Independence. Reforma. The French Incursion. The Revolution.

Not only is it strategically located, it is a wealthy city. All of that silver made many people rich. But it killed far more.

The wealth is evidenced in the city's cathedral. Its facade is considered to be one of the best examples of Mexican Churrigueresque architecture -- the Spanish version of Rococo architecture.

The facade is replete with theological stories and symbolism. Apostles and trinity carved in stone.

The church of Santo Domingo has walls decorated with gold leaf -- giving the impression of a well-designed music box. A bit of ostentatious display
 not uncommon in Mexican mining town churches.

All of that opulence came from the mines of Zacatecas. When the Spanish arrived, they seized operating mines and discovered others. They then enslaved the local tribes to mine for them.

Being an Indian miner was initially a death sentence. Miners often lived for no more than 2 years. When the Spanish arrived in 1519, there were 25 million Indians in Mexico. within 20 years only 1 million were still alive. Death in the mines was one reason.

I picked up a tourist brochure distributed by the government of Zacatecss. In the middle of a paragraph on population, this jarring bit of trivia appeared. "Zacatecas has the smallest percentage of indigenous population of any state of Mexivo."

Of course they do. And the mines are one reason.

Even after the Catholic church ordered the end of slavery, it persisted in other forms.

We visited the Eden Mine, what had been a working silver mine up until 1960s. It is now a virtual museum. Complete with dioramas that demonstrate how miners plied their trade.

A wag in our group said he felt as if we were in Disneyland. It did have a bit of that feel, but the difference is this was a real mine with real wealth and death.

I doubt any of us would have felt comfortable clamoring through this mine when it was operating. Nor would the owners have allowed it -- for our own safety.

From an historical perspective, it was interesting to see techniques from pre-Hispanic mining through to the Industrial Revolution.

One of the great ironies is that as Mexico became richer in the 1890s through the Industrial Revolution, the Mexican Revolution was brewing here in northern Mexico. Most of the industry was owned by foreign interests. Canadians and the British owned most of the mines around Zacatecas.

That ownership came to an end with the Mexican Revolution. And, once again, Zacatecas played a pivotal role.

One of the turning points in what some historians call the second phase of the Revolution was the Battle of Zacatecas in 1914 where a total of 8,000 men died on one day in battle. The victorious insurgents were led by one of the Heroes of the Revolution -- Pancho Villa.

La Bufa is a hill above this city that sits at about 8000 feet above sea level. Tourists drive to the top for three reasons: the view, to ride the gondola, and to see a heroic monument to three generals of that battle -- Villa, Natero, and Angeles.

History has a way of recycling itself. After the Revolution, foreign investors were expelled from the country, including the Canadian mine owners.

The Canadians are now back, offering good wages to local miners. Even so, history dies hard, and there are many people in Zacatecas who have not welcomed the return of the foreigners. The voices of the dead in the mines still whisper to some.

We were then released on our own for the afternoon. I chose to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art. And I am glad I did.

It is one of those places where I could have spent eight hours. I say that, but after about three hours of analyzing good art, I have to stop. It is like eating a full chocolate cake in one sitting.

The museum houses some of the best works by contemporary Mexican artists. The large collection of the works of Manuel Felguérez are housed in one wing of the museum. I am quite partial to it.

I was even more impressed how the museum curator chose to display many of his paintings. Rather than displaying the paintings only in long corridors, the museum has built three suspended bridges that allow the viewer to see a large assortment of Felguérez's work in a small space.

But one exhibit still has me pondering. In 1970 Mexico had a pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. The museum now houses the huge paintings that were displayed there.

It is hard to describe how monumental these pieces are. Collectively, they are known as the Murals of Osaka. And that is the effect they have. As murals. The size concurrently minimizes the size of the viewer while concurrently expanded his humanity. When I walked into the room, I actually stopped in mid-stride.

And that brings us full circle. We were welcomed to Zacatecas with that abstract light that finds its place in modern art.

And, even though Zacatecas bears the burden of a UNESCO listing, it is not captured in amber. It is a a vibrant city that has found its place in the 21st century.