Michael Brown

The Paradise Wars and Clark Ransom Thrillers

Zacatecas: How the Heart of a Theme Can Emerge?

Two Writers in Zacatecas

Michael and Mexican Poet Ramón López Velarde

Finding Mexico’s Theme: Zacatecas and the Savage Heart?

The first weekend in March, Tom and I went with friends to Zacatecas, a colonial city north of our home in San Miguel de Allende. Riding along in their comfortable SUV, we were once again enchanted by the variety of Mexico’s landscape, and by the mix of the primitive and progress.

We rode on new cuotas or turnpikes through landscapes of semi-arid fields peppered with the Nopal cactus, through forests of those dwarfed Joshua trees, like denizens of another planet, and moonscapes of volcanic ridges, with soil rust red and cliffs of pink stone.

Pueblos, small towns, appeared as accents on these vast landscapes: settlements where water flowed or collected. Humans would seem like an afterthought, if it weren’t for the new and sleek ribbon of highway along which we and others raced by.

It was easy to imagine, in this grand and harsh landscape, how before Cortez, civilizations were built through the ritual spilling of blood on the dry soil: a necessary proptiation to the gods to coax sustenance and allow humans to share the land.

Face of Pink Stone, Heart of Silver

The pink city of Zacatecas appeared on the horizon, its beauty captured in its motto, “con rostro de cantera y corazón de plata” (with face of pink stone and heart of silver). And

Face of Pink Stone

Rose Cantera Façade of Zacatecas Cathedral

even later when I learned this beauty is founded on the broken bodies of tens of thousands of children, I couldn’t deny the city’s beauty. The neoclassical pink façades had been affixed to older colonial structures during the dictatorial rule of Porfiro Diaz (1876-1911), a rule, the inequalities of which led to the Mexican Revolution. The stream of silver pouring from the city’s Mina de Eden, one of the largest silver mines in the western hemisphere during the colonial period (1548-1810), paid for the pink façades, paid for the museums and the churches.

The wealth also brought culture to Zacatecas, and among the families interested in the arts were the Coronels, whose two sons Rafael (son-in-law of Diego Rivera) and Pedro became prominent Mexican painters and both bequeathed to Zacatecas museums with enviable collections: of masks from throughout Mexico from prehispanic to present times, and of contemporary art, including works by Picasso, Cocteau, and Kandinsky in the middle of this highland-plateau small city in the middle of Mexico.

Zacatecas Treasure

Mask in Coronel Museum, Zacatecas, Mx

Yet behind the art, the culture, the churches with glorious colonial or baroque interiors, is that mine: the Mine of Eden, which funded the glories of the Spanish Empire and the terrors of the Inquisition.

How Hard the Human Heart?

Child labor continues in the developing parts of the world and its horrors were documented by the likes of Dickens in the 19th century, but I’ve never heard of any exploitation more horrific than that perpetuated by the greed for silver.

Children, between eight and twelve years old, had fifty kilo bags of either silver ore or of water (creating a kind of human pumping system that kept the lower depths from flooding) strapped to their backs. They were then forced to climb straight up for fifteen hundred meters (4500 feet) up monkey ladders that were nothing but foot holes cut into the cliff face. Or rather, they tried to climb. Tens of thousands of them fell, and all I could imagine on our tour of the mine was a pyramid of tiny crushed bodies growing up from the depths.

This was the blood sacrifice both the Spanish aristocracy and the Church demanded in order to keep their plata, their silver, flowing.

How did the children or their parents not revolt? What extraordinary value could they bestow upon these shiny rocks? How were they bewitched into such sacrifice?

Soccer and Suicide Vests

The mystery of that bewitchment, of that sacrifice of the innocents, deepened a week after our trip to Zacatecas. We had visitors from the US whom we took on a tour of Cañada de la Virgen, a pyramid complex outside of San Miguel de Allende, opened to archaeologists a few years ago, and where blood sacrifice had become high art.

The Otomi (active at Cañada de la Virgen beween about 350 and 1050 AD) believed in ritual blood letting to keep the sun revolving, the moon appearing, the rains raining, and the plants thriving. Blood, the guarantee of life, not water, was their most sacred of fluids.

The pyramid complex also had a ball court where something like a precursor to fútbol (soccer) was played. The victor, instead of being carried around the arena on the shoulders of his teammates, was given the privilege of being beheaded, releasing his sanctified blood to keep the universe spinning on its axis.

This also kept the upper strata of the society in power as gods who could elicit such willing sacrifice — in power, that is, as long as the crops grew, but woe to the dynasty if a drought should come along.

How different was it for the prehispanic indigenous of Zacatecas to sacrifice their children to a deified upper strata (the King of Spain, the Pope in Rome) in this game of extracting shiny rocks from the mines from the game of volunteering one’s head at the end of a soccer match? How different from the beliefs of the bomb-vested youth of today going straight to the kingdom of 40 virgins?

Ecce Homo: This Is My Blood

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they and the Church outlawed the barbarity of human blood letting. They substituted the transubstantiation of Christ’s blood into wine. After all, Christ’s sacrifice also led to the salvation of the universe.

The Church had taken the indigenous stratification of society into the people and the gods, as had Rome after the Republic with the deification of its emperors, and put the deified King of Spain and the Pope as top gods, entitled to and worthy of all the people could give.

Guilt: The Virus of the Human Heart?

In time, in centuries, the War for Independence came, the demand for silver lessened, the justification for the slaughter of children became harder to justify.

As the Romans were given bread and circuses, human sacrifice was replaced by slaughter in the bull ring.

Yet, even now, there is no way to escape the primal sacrifice at the foundation of this city’s beauty.

And beautiful though Zacatecas might be, there are few inviting places to relax and enjoy the city’s charms. No sidewalk cafes. TripAdvisor’s second highest rated restaurant is akin to a Walgreen’s drugstore in the US, with medium-grade sundaes, hot dogs and french fies that don’t reach McDonald’s standards.

The best restaurant was in our hotel. And it was only decent, set above an old bull-ring (hard to escape the blood sacrifice).

To sit in the Plaza des Armas con un cafecito and people watch, like you can in the colonial cities of Queretaro, or Guanajuato, or San Miguel de Allende would make one want to linger in Zacatecas. But the Plaza des Armas is an empty space, with but two benches, insufficient for all those who need an emotional and physical breather after puffing around the hilly city which sits at 8500 feet.

Sites seen, one feels it’s time to up and leave.

El Corazón: The Heart of Mexico?

Driving home, the same harsh landscape unfurled, and the mind kept returning to the mines, to the children cascading from the five thousand foot walls to their deaths below.

Zacatecas is a beauty in the heart of Mexico with pink stoned façades, romanesque and gothic churches jewled with stained glass. With museums filled with unexpected treasures, but like all of Mexico, built upon ritualistic violence.

And the longer I live here, that theme of ritualistic violence becomes a deepening and haunting mystery.

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9 Replies

  1. Juanita

    Incredibly beautifully written. Thanks for giving me a gut level reaction to Zacatecas.

  2. Juanita

    Incredibly beautifully written. Thank you for such an honest view of Zacatecas. It was at gut level…

  3. Chris

    Maybe we will see this intriguing history reflected somehow in your next book. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Lori

    Through history… human lives of all ages were sacrificed to build monuments and other structures. It was and sadly, still is… a lack of value for our fellow man!! How we never learn from history… or perhaps chose to ignore it!
    Thanks for sharing your adventures… very informative…

  5. Michael Brown

    Gracias Juanita

  6. John

    Fascinating and engaging read for this morning’s coffee. It will stay with me. Well done Michael!

  7. Michael Brown

    Thanks John. Goodvto hear from you.

  8. Thanks for this article, Michael. Did you stay in my favourite hotel in the whole world, the Quinta Real. So love that place!

  9. Michael Brown

    Thanks Roberta; yes we did and it was lovely.

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