February 17, 2008
After a frantic morning spent hunting down our lost luggage, (I wanted to hug my suitcase when it finally arrived) we boarded our tour bus at 8am. As we began our first leg of the journey we were treated to a tour of Mexico City while our tour guide, Marcos, gave us a brief history of the area. I was shocked by the poverty we saw. Marcos explained that while there are wealthy parts of the city, too many politicians offered land to the poor in exchange for votes over the years. Sadly, those same land areas lack electricity and running water. It is a very crowded city- in 2006 Mexico City had a population of almost 20 million, making it the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere and the second largest in the world.
We drove for about four hours, slowly making our way into the Transvolcanic Mountains. We finally arrived at our destination 8,000 feet above sea level- the town of Tlalpujahua. Tlalpujahua is not a tourist town. However, it does have a storied history. In 1937 a landslide wiped out the entire town, killing over many people, but sparing only one building in the town; the Church of San Pedro y San Pablo. The church was built on sacred ground, so that the natives (Aztecas) would attend mass when the Spanish completed it. The people in the town are extremely religious. We were in town on Sunday and many of the local people were in the church attending Mass. The inside of the church is breathtaking. Instead of being dark and intimidating, it is bright and cheery. The walls are pastel pinks and blues, covered in flowers. Flowers were sacred to the Aztecs so this was another way to encourage them to attend mass. At the top of the cathedral, the ceilings meet with a large white daisy. It is stunning! I loved seeing a church that was so different than those I was used to- ornate and intimidating on the outside while bright and inviting on the inside. It was a great experience. Plus, even though the hymn the celebrants were singing was in Spanish, I recognized the melody as one that I grew up singing, just in English!
The locals see Sunday not only as a day of religious observance but also an opportunity to dress up and go to church, and to visit the huge market where the locals sell handmade pottery, handcarved wooden goods, fruits and vegetables and all kinds of hand-made souvenirs and baked goods. We walked around the market, doing a little shopping. Despite being 2000 miles from home, it reminded me a lot of the local market/auction. Chris and I bought a handmade terracotta bowl and spoon, painted with small flowers. There were also mass-produced items available- we even saw a teddy bear wearing a t-shirt proclaiming, “Someone at TCNJ Loves Me!” He was certainly a long way from home!
We had lunch at a local cafe (which thankfully produced an English menu for us). I had the Azteca soup- spicy cream of tomato broth with avocado, tortilla, and pork rinds. Chris tried Manzana, an apple soda, while I stuck with Coke. My taste buds weren’t used to the assault of spices, but I enjoyed my lunch.
After a relaxing lunch, we took the bus a few miles up the road to the Two Stars Mine, a silver mine that the locals have reopened as a museum. As Marcos reminds us, this is another opportunity created by the locals to help their economy. It is an extremely important place in Mexican history because most of the villagers worked in the mine in the early 1900`s and the town was actually built on top of the mines. Today, you can walk into houses in Tlalpujahua and find the entrance to many mine shafts. The restaurant where we ate lunch even had an entrance to the mine! The mine is also important because thousands of men from town died there over its short 40 year period of operation, in very unsafe mining conditions. Men were forced to sometimes work naked in damp mines, almost a thousand feet below the earth’s surface. Because the mines are located in the volcanic mountains, they get hotter as the shafts go deeper. Even worse, the owner and overseers made the men work naked so that they wouldn’t try to steal any of the gold or silver at the end of the work day. They also paid the men 7 cents a day and the money that they were paid with could only be used to buy things at the store at the mine, because the money was especially minted by the mine to pay the mine workers and was not good anywhere else in Mexico. So whatever they earned they had to give back to the mine owners just for basic necessities like food for their families. The mine also had a credit system for purchases and in many cases the men working the mines owed the mine more money than they earned. Of the mine profits, less than 3% made its way back to the town. 97% of the profits went to France, where the owner of the mine lived.
Two Stars Mine was one of the most prolific gold and silver mines in the entire world. We were able to tour the small museum, with a young girl from the area telling us about the objects in the museum. After the tour, we were allowed to enter the mine shaft. The shaft we entered was on the ground level and it was comfortably cool and moist. Below us, there were 14 more mine shafts with 30 meters between each level. Just imagine being that far below the earth’s surface! And the lower you go, the hotter it gets, because you get closer to the magma in the volcanoes. At some depths, it was almost 150 degrees F.
Approximately 150m into the mine shaft we were able to see the altar used by the mine workers. Each day, as they entered the mine, the men would leave an offering and a prayer at the altar. They would pray to the Virgin of Carmen for their safe return at the end of the day. The Virgin of Carmen was their patron because she was the only relic to survive the landslide that destroyed the town many years before. The Virgin thus became the town’s patron saint of disasters.
The mine was a bit claustrophobic and I couldn’t imagine entering everyday and climbing even further below the surface. However, the men who did so had little choice. It was one of the few economic opportunities at that time. Today, there are beautiful murals painted outside the mine which depict the history of the mine. The natives are seen as abused and treated as the US treated African slave, if not worse. The owners of the mine are living the high life, practically blanketed in gold and silver. The murals were heartbreaking.
After the Two Stars Mine, we headed to our hotel for the night. Before reaching the hotel, we made a quick detour to a cactus orchard. Marcos gave us a short explanation of the many uses of the giant Maguey Cactus in Cultepec. Some of these cactus are 8 to 10 feet tall and after the cactus matures in seven years in sprouts this asparagus looking tree from its center that is 15 to 20 feet tall. Marcos explained that if the stem is cut, a sweet liquid, like water, can be harvested. This may be fermented to produce the drink called pulque, which is the “happy drink”! After fermenting, it becomes a strong alcoholic drink that the locals love to drink. The leaves also yield fibers, known as pita, which are suitable for making rope, matting, coarse cloth and marcos demonstrated the size of the fibers for us by cutting the tip of a stem.. Both pulque and the fiber were important to the economy of Meso-America. They even made paper from the cactus!
When we reached the hotel we would be staying at for the next two nights, we were stunned. The Hacienda Cantalagua was stunningly gorgeous. It was an original hacienda built in 1771. The original buildings still stand. The gardens and fountains throughout the property were lush and serene. The hacienda wall extended over the horizon in all directions. However, we were so exhausted from the day’s activities that we quickly logged onto the computers in the business center, ate the delicious buffet dinner, and fell into bed!