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Women’s Migration Networks in Mexico and Beyond (review)

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Nov 172012

As long ago as 1885, Ernst Georg Ravenstein, a German-English cartographer, proposed seven “laws of migration” that arose from his studies of migration in the U.K.

The original seven laws, as expressed by Ravenstein, were:

  • 1) Most migrants only proceed a short distance, and toward centers of absorption.
  • 2) As migrants move toward absorption centers, they leave “gaps” that are filled up by migrants from more remote districts, creating migration flows that reach to “the most remote corner of the kingdom.”
  • 3) The process of dispersion is inverse to that of absorption.
  • 4) Each main current of migration produces a compensating counter-current.
  • 5) Migrants proceeding long distances generally go by preference to one of the great centers of commerce or industry.
  • 6) The natives of towns are less migratory than those of the rural parts of the country.
  • 7) Females are more migratory than males.

These laws, though certainly not accepted uncritically, have provided a basic framework for many later studies of migration. Surprisingly, despite the wording of law 7, there has been remarkably little focus on female migration in the literature, with far more attention being paid in most studies to the migration of men.

Wilson-Tamar-Diana-coverRecognizing this, anthropologist Tamar Wilson provides a detailed account of several important aspects of female migration in her Women’s Migration Networks in Mexico and Beyond (University of New Mexico Press, 2009).

Wilson’s book focuses on the experiences and thoughts of doña Consuelo [all names are pseudonyms], a woman she met while researching in Colonia Popular, a Mexicali squatter settlement, in 1988, and her daughters Anamaria and Irma.

Over a period of several years, and in small part due to marrying a man from Colonia Popular, the author was able to become an insider, invited to all family functions, helping pay for expenses of other family members for such things as tuition, gaining a unique perspective that extends far beyond that usually available to researchers. Yet, at the same time, she remained an observer, recording conversations and impressions and arranging interviews as she felt necessary in order to tease out the details relating to the migration network involved.

The book is solidly grounded in migration theory and the early chapters call heavily on secondary sources. The first chapter (Herstories) provides a useful summary of the history of Mexican migration to the USA since the mid-nineteenth century, and of the increasing participation of women in international migration from Mexico.

Chapter 2 summarizes the history of female employment in Mexico over the same time period, and changes in gender relations in recent decades, while Chapter 3 provides the theoretical background, emphasizing the key concepts of migration networks, social capital and the peculiarities of transnational migration.

Wilson summarizes the findings of previous studies as suggesting that, “Women migrants within Mexico tend to be disproportionately single and either separated, abandoned, or widowed, and single mothers tend to accompany parents. Young, single women seem to be attracted to the border by the possibilities of finding work in the maquiladoras, underscoring women’s generally ignored status as labor migrants. ” However, based on her fieldwork between 1988 and 1992, she found that  “None of the women in Colonia Popular had migrated to Mexicali in order to work in the maquiladoras, but some of their teenage daughters were employed in those assembly plants”.

Six chapters then focus on the personal experiences of doña Consuelo and her family and friends. Extensive quotations (translated into English) from interviews are linked with a clear narrative. These chapters are full of interest as the reader is drawn into the lives of the women and family members involved.

In the final chapter, Wilson draws nine general conclusions from her research:

  1. Poor women in Mexico engage in a variety of income-producing activities in both the formal and informal economies that may involve migration.
  2. Many if not most women accept the system of male domination but may opt out of an unhappy marriage if men do not live up to certain standards they consider fair. This is especially true in urban areas where women can find work.
  3. Although many women migrate under the auspices of husbands or fathers, women’s migration in Mexico can take [place independently of males.
  4. Extended family migration to a given city often also involves migration to a specific colonia or neighborhood within that city.
  5. The social capital provided by networks exists on individual, familial and community levels
  6. Strong ties can be either reinforced or weakened over time and the family life cycle, and weak tie can be converted into strong ties or abandoned. Transnational migration networks multiply in urban centers when siblings or offspring marry.
  7. Transnational migration networks can be anchored in a multiplicity of locales, including place of origin, place of anterior (internal or transnational) migration, or place of one’s current residence or that of one’s parents, spouse’s parents or other kin
  8. Adaptation networks for urban-origin migrants at destination may be, to a great extent, composed of work-site acquaintances converted into friends or ritual kin, and both friends and ritual kin may introduce migrants to future friends and ritual kin.
  9. Transnationalism involves individuals embedded in households, families and networks who, through their ability to cross borders, provide connecting links between kin in Mexico and kin in the United States.

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Nov 152012

In a previous post, we quoted a press release from the Pew Hispanic Center suggesting that the net migration flow from Mexico to the USA had slowed down to a trickle, and possibly even gone into reverse (ie with more migrants moving from USA to Mexico than in the opposite direction):

We also looked at data related to the vexed question of which Mexicans, if any, may still want to move to the USA:

There are some slight signs now that the net migration flow northwards is on the increase again. According to this press article, the National Statistics Institute (INEGI) has reported that out-migration from Mexico started to rise again in the second quarter of this year.

During the second quarter, international immigration into Mexico was estimated (based on survey evidence) at 14.3 / 10,000 total population, and emigration from Mexico to another country at 41.9 / 10,000, meaning a net migration outflow from Mexico of 27.6 / 10,000.

It seems like the average age of migrants is also slowly rising. For instance, INEGI data suggest that 31% of emigrants were between 30 and 49 years of age during the period from 2006 to 2008, compared to 35% for the 2009-2011 period.

It is still far too early to say whether or not the flow of migrants from Mexico to the USA will become as strong, and involve as many people, as in the 1990s and 2000s, but watch this space.

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La Yesca HEP station officially opened

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Nov 122012

The La Yesca dam was officially opened last week by President Calderón. According to the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), at 208.5 meters (684 feet) high, it is the second highest dam of its kind in the world, 22 meters lower than the dam for the Shibuya hydroelectric plant on the Qingjiang River in China.

The dam is located on the Santiago River, on the border between Nayarit and Jalisco, 105 km NW of Guadalajara (Jalisco) and 23 km NW of the town of Hostotipaquillo (Jalisco). This location is north of the towns of Magdalena and Tequila.

La Yesca dam and reservoir

The reservoir has a total capacity of 2.5 billion cubic meters, of which about half can be used for generating HEP. The surface area of the reservoir is 33.4 square kilometers (13 sq mi).

La Yesca is upstream of two other major HEP dams: El Cajón and Aguamilpa, and represents the latest addition to Mexico’s ambitious plan to increase the proportion of its energy needs coming from renewable sources. La Yesca has a total installed capacity of 750 MW, equivalent to about half the total electricity requirements of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city.

La Yesca dam

The La Yesca HEP scheme represents an investment of about 1.1 billion dollars and was constructed by a consortium led by Mexican firm Ingenieros Civiles Asociados (ICA). Construction began in September 2007. The Santiago River was temporarily diverted in March 2009, and the first generating unit entered service in October 2012. The second unit will enter service this month. The machine house is on the northern side of the river, and the spillway on the southern side.

The three major dams on the River Santiago help to reduce flooding downstream, while also increasing fishing opportunities. According to a CFE study, fish yields from Aguamilpa, the most accessible of the three major dams, have risen from 33.5 metric tons/yr to 5,000 metric tons/yr since the reservoir was completed.

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The geography of cement production in Mexico

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Nov 102012

In a recent post we saw how Mexico is one of the world’s leading cement manufacturing countries:

The map shows the location of the 34 cement plants currently operating in Mexico. They include 15 belonging to Cemex, 7 to Holcim Apasco, 4 to Cruz Azul, 3 to Cementos Chihuahua, 3 to Cementos Moctezuma and 2 to Lafarge. A new company, Cementos Fortaleza (part-owned by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man), is due to open in the state of Hidalgo early next year.

Cement plants in Mexico, 2011

Cement plants in Mexico, 2011. Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved. Click to enlarge.

According to the Center for Clean Air Policy’s “Sector-based Approaches Case Study: Mexico”,

“The northern region of the country has traditionally been the largest consumer of cement, accounting for 48% of sales mainly for use in infrastructure construction projects, housing and office complexes, and other construction activities. Central Mexico is also a relatively strong market for domestic producers. However, the primary use differs somewhat in that the main source of demand is from construction of new buildings such as hotels and office complexes. The relatively slower pace of economic growth in southern Mexico accounts for the lower share (17%) of domestic cement sales in the south.”

The paucity of cement plants in southern Mexico is particularly well reflected by the map.

The main raw material for cement is limestone. The distribution of cement plants in Mexico tends to follow the distribution of “limestones and clastic rocks” (rocks made of particles of other rocks) on the map of Mexico’s surface geology.

Mexico's surface geology

Mexico’s surface geology. Click map to enlarge.

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Magic Towns #63, 64 and 65: Chignahuapan (Puebla), Cholula (Puebla) and Pinos (Zacatecas)

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Nov 072012

Three more Magic Towns have been added to the list: Chignahuapan and Cholula (both in the state of Puebla) and Pinos (Zacatecas). The new additions mean that Puebla now has five Magic Towns and Zacatecas has four.

Christmas ornaments in Chignahuapan

Christmas ornaments in Chignahuapan

63 Chignahuapan

Chignahuapan is a town of some 20,000 inhabitants set in the beautiful mountainous landscape of the Sierra Norte in the state of Puebla, very close to Zacatlán, also a Magic Town. Chignahuapan sits at an elevation of 2,290 meters above sea level, only 8 kilometers from an impressive 200-meter-high waterfall, the Salto de Quetzalapa, and several thermal spas. The town has several historic buildings, including the main church which dates back to the sixteenth century and has colorful wall decorations. Inside are several alterpieces and a monument showing St. James astride his horse. A short distance away a modern church, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, houses an amazing wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary, almost 12 meters in height, reputed to be the largest interior sculpture of its kind in Latin America. A third church, the Iglesia del Honguito in the Ixtlahuaca quarter of town, was built in honor of one of the most unusual religious items in Mexico: a tiny petrified mushroom, found in 1880, which according to believers embodies several religious images.

Chignahuapan is one of the most important towns in Mexico for the manufacture of glass Christmas ornaments. Some 200 workshops in the town produce more than 70 million blown-glass ornaments a year, 20% of them for export.

Portales in Cholula decorated for fiesta

Portales in Cholula decorated for fiesta. Credit: Turismo Puebla.

64 Cholula

Cholula is a delightful city of around 80,000 inhabitants located 22 kilometers west of the city of Puebla, and now virtually contiguous with it. Founded in 1557, Cholula has numerous buildings of historic and architectural importance. The city is said to have as many churches as days in the year. Perhaps the most famous church is the one perched on top of one of, if not the, largest pyramids in Mexico. Tunnels into the pyramid, which was originally dedicated to the featherd serpent Quetzalcóatl, allow visitors to walk through the hill beneath the church. This church on top of a pyramid is often used as a symbol of how Catholic religion was superimposed on existing beliefs. Cholula’s massive central plaza is one of the largest in Latin America. The city is home to the main campus of the University of the Americas and is well worthy of its Magic Town designation.

For more information, see these two lengthy Wikipedia entries:

65 Pinos

This former gold and silver mining town, often called Real de Pinos, was founded in 1594 relatively close to the Camino Real that linked Mexico City to Santa Fe, and approximately equidistant from the cities of Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and San Luis Potosí. Pinos (Pines), in the Sierra de Pinos at an elevation of 2700 meters above sea level, now has about 8,000 inhabitants. The attractive town has several historic buildings, including the San Francisco convent with its beautifully restored patio and 17th century decorations, and the church of San Matías, with fine stonework, which dates back to the same period. Pinos is the fourth Magic Town in Zacatecas, joining Sombrerete, Teúl de González Ortega and Jerez.

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Life expectancy and infant mortality: how does Mexico compare to other countries?

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Nov 032012

How long do Mexicans live? The 20th century brought dramatic increases in longevity. From under 30 years at the beginning of the century it rose to 38 by 1930. From there it went up to 50 by 1950 and reached 62 by 1970. By 2000 it was 72, almost double the 1930 value. Women live longer than men. Life expectancy for Mexican women is about 78; that for men is roughly 73 years. In the future Mexican longevity is expected to increase at about 2.5 years per decade. This is not as rapid as in the past but still significant.

Infant mortality and life expectancy for a range of countries and regions.

Infant mortality and life expectancy for a range of countries and regions, 2010. Fig 28.2 of Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved.

It is not easy to find an accurate and reliable indicator of health. One common indicator is infant mortality, the percentage of children who die before their first birthday. This usually provides a reasonable measure of the general quality of health in a society. Mexico has made impressive progress; its infant mortality rate dropped from 7.5% in 1970 to 1.7% by 2005. More improvements are expected in the years ahead.

Mexicans clearly are living longer and healthier lives than they did in past decades. How does Mexico compare to other major countries? Though Mexico trails Canada, the USA and Argentina (see graph), it is slightly ahead of Brazil, China and the weighted average for Latin America. Mexico is significantly ahead of Indonesia, the world average and its southern neighbor Guatemala.

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Cement production in Mexico

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Nov 032012

In 2011, Mexico produced 35.4 million tons of cement, 3% more than a year earlier. The first cement-making plant was built in Mexico in 1906, a few years after cement was first officially approved for use in the construction sector. Cement demand grew only slowly prior to a spate of public infrastructure projects in the mid 1940s.

Cement production in Mexico, 1999-2011

Cement production in Mexico, 1999-2011. Source: Camara Nacional de Cemento

There are currently six major cement makers in Mexico. About 20% of production is sold in bulk to large construction companies. The remaining 80% of production is sold in 50-kg bags, used either by formal residential construction firms (50% of the total) or in informal (do-it-yourself) projects (32% of all purchases).

Cemex holds a 49% share of the domestic market, followed by Holcim Apasco (21%), Cruz Azul (16%), Cementos Moctezuma (10%). The remaining 4% is split between Cementos Chihuahua and Lafarge Cementos. A seventh company, Cementos Fortaleza (part-owned by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man), is due to open early next year.

Cemex, based in Monterrey, is one of Mexico’s most important multinational companies. It is the world’s third largest cement producer and distributor, with operations in fifty countries worldwide. In 2004 Cemex received the Wharton Infosys Business Transformation Award for its creative and efficient use of information technology. Before Cemex, who had ever heard of cement mixers, armed with GPS devices, satellite links and computer systems hooked up via satellite links to the parent company’s HQ, cruising cities? The strategy allowed the company to achieve enviable levels of operating efficiency while meeting demanding delivery deadlines even in congested urban areas such as Mexico City.

China leads the world in terms of the volume of cement production, making around 2,000 million metric tons (mmt) a year, followed by India (710 mmt), Iran (72), USA (68), Turkey (64), Brazil (63) and Russia (52). Mexico (35.4) places 15th on the list, behind Japan, South Korea, Egypt and Thailand, but ahead of Germany, Indonesia, France, Canada, the UK and Spain.

On a per person basis, annual cement consumption in Mexico is about 300 kg/person, well below the levels recorded in the USA (1100 kg) and elsewhere. (The extreme cement consumer in recent years has been Dubai, with the staggering figure of 8000 kg/person!) Cement production may be a good indicator of how much construction is taking place, but is not very good news for the environment and climate change, since high quantities of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere during the production process. Globally, cement making is responsible for up to 10% of people’s total carbon dioxide emissions each year.

The carbon dioxide comes from three distinct sources:

  • During the conversion of raw materials into clinker
  • From the combustion of fuels needed in the cement kilns
  • Indirectly, from producing the energy required to power production machinery such as grinders and electric motors.

However, according to the Center for Clean Air Policy’s Sector-based Approaches Case Study: Mexico,

“Mexico’s cement industry is among the most modern and efficient in the world today. All the 50-plus kilns operating in the country’s 34 cement plants are dry-process. Mexico’s cement manufacturers are also using energy efficiency enhancing technologies such as preheaters and precalciners in many of their facilities. Moreover, a number of plants make use of some forms of low carbon alternative fuels.”

“Between 1992 and 2003, emissions of CO2 by the cement industry in Mexico increased roughly 25%. This compares with a nearly 108% increase in cement sector emissions from all developing countries during that same time frame and a 34% increase in U.S. cement industry emissions. The relatively slow growth of emissions from Mexico’s cement sector is an indication of the high overall efficiency of the sector.”

A future post will look at the location of cement plants in Mexico.

The Day of the Dead – a Mexican celebration with regional variations

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Oct 292012

The indigenous Mexican peoples held many strong beliefs connected with death; for example that the dead needed the same things as the living, hence their bodies should be buried with their personal possessions, sandals and other objects.

With the arrival of the Spanish, the Indians’ pagan ideas and customs were gradually assimilated into the official Catholic calendar. Dead children are remembered on November 1st, All Saints’ Day, while deceased adults are honored on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day. On either day, most of the activity takes place in the local cemetery.

Children's graves on Day of the Dead in Santa Rosa Xochiac, Mexico D.F. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Children’s graves on Day of the Dead in Santa Rosa Xochiac, Mexico D.F. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Children’s graves have toys placed upon them and are decorated with colorful streamers and balloons. Adult graves are more elaborately decorated with offerings of the departed’s favorite foods and drinks, candles, flowers, and even personal items. Brightly colored Mexican marigolds, or zempasuchitl as the Indians call them, are the traditional flowers used to guide the spirits home. Unusual art forms which appear only at this time of year include richly decorated pan de muerto (bread of death), skull-shaped sugar-sweets, and papier-mâché skeletons.

Finishing touches being put to a Day of the Dead altar, Oaxaca City. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Finishing touches being put to a Day of the Dead altar, Oaxaca City. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

The graves and altars for the Day of the Dead are prepared by the entire family who then stand vigil throughout the night to ensure that their dearly departed recognize close friends or relatives when they come to partake of the feast offered them. The following day, the spirits presumably having had their fill, family, friends and neighbors consume what is left. The village of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, is perhaps the single most famous place for witnessing Day of the Dead celebrations, but equally interesting observances of the Day of the Dead are held in many small villages elsewhere in Michoacán, off the usual tourist trail. In most of these places, the local Indians are uninfluenced and unaffected by outside contacts.

There are also significant regional variations in the observance of Day of the Dead. The link below is an index to more than forty original MexConnect articles relating to Day of the Dead:

The magic of the traditional decorated altars can also be appreciated by visiting one of the replicas constructed in local museums or cultural centers. You will be looking into the dim and distant pre-Columbian past of Mexico and the Mexican people.

[This is a lightly edited extract from Tony Burton’s Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury (Sombrero Books 2013). Also available as a Kindle e-book.]

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Oct 272012

Beautifully illustrated with 32 color plates, the 81-page book A Drink Named Tequila traces the history and mystery of tequila (the liquor) from its ancient roots to today. The text, by one of Jalisco’s foremost historians, José María Muria, provides many fascinating insights into Mexico’s national drink.

For example, did you know what the agave (maguey) plant, from which tequila is derived, represented in the ancient Nahuatl culture? “In the Nahuatl culture, the maguey was a divine creation that represented Mayáhuel, a goddess who had four hundred breasts to feed her four hundred children.”

For a long time, the production of liquor of any kind was completely prohibited in New Spain:

“With the intention of favoring the importation and sale of produce from the major Iberian peninsular landowners, the Spanish Crown had prohibited the production of liquor in America, and brutally persecuted those who disobeyed. This, as well as to ensure – at least, so they said – that the Indians and mestizos would consume less, was why mescal was born and raised clandestinely. In turn, this explains why it took so long to leave clear proof of its existence and why today we know so little of its teething stages and first, tottering steps.”

Many of the early tequila brands were given feminine names:

“It became common for distilleries to be baptized with a feminine variant of the surname of their owner; Martinez: “La Martineña”; Guarro: “La Guarreña; Gallardo: “La Gallardeña”; Flores: “La Floreña”; Quintanar: “La Quintaneña”, etcetera. It also became common to link the brand name with some positive quality, as in the case of … “La Perseverancia” (“The Perseverance”), or…  “La Constancia” (“The Certainty”).”

Of interest to historians looking at the migration of rural businessmen from the site of their wealth in the countryside toward the cities, Muria writes that,

“Of all the great rural businessmen, the tequila producers were the last to move their places of residence from the countryside. As the twentieth century began, it is well known that practically all the hacienda owners had relegated their ancestral residences to the role of summer homes or for occasional visits, given that now their greatest desire was to figure prominently in the loftiest circles of society in Mexico’s provincial capitals, the capital of the Republic, or even in Paris or some other flashy European city.”

The book does have a handful of minor flaws. For example, Muria writes that the cocktail known as a margarita is made from “a combination of tequila with a dash of lime juice, mint and salt”. Perhaps he wrote this phrase after tasting one too many tequilas, since for a genuine margarita, his “mint” would need to be replaced by a shot of orange-flavored liqueur such as cointreau or Gran Marnier.

Despite such minor details, A Drink Named Tequila (Editorial Agara, 1996) remains a fascinating and well-illustrated read.

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Magic Towns #58-62: Chiapa de Corzo, Comitán de Domínguez, Huichapan, Tequisquiapan, Batopilas

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Oct 252012

Well… the spate of Magic Town nominations shows no sign of slowing down. The federal Tourism Secretariat has announced that it hopes to have 70 towns in the program before the new administration takes office in December. The latest five additions to the list of Magic Towns are:

#58 Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas

Chiapa de Corzo is a small city (2010 population:  45,000), founded in 1528, located where the PanAmerican Highway (Highway 190) from Oaxaca to San Cristobál de las Casas crosses the River Grijalva, 15 km east of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, in the state of Chiapas. It is the site of the earliest known Mesoamerican tomb burial and has considerable archaeological significance. The massive La Pila fountain, dating from 1562, is one of the most distinctive structures anywhere in Mexico. The town has more than its share of historical interest, including the well-preserved 16th century Santo Domingo church/monastery and a museum dedicated to traditional lacquer work (a local craft). It is best known to tourists as the main starting point for boat trips along the Grijalva River into the Sumidero Canyon National Park.

Sumidero Canyon National Park

Sumidero Canyon National Park

#59 Comitán de Domínguez, Chiapas

Comitán is a town of about 85,000 people, south-east of San Cristobál de las Casas, and close to the border with Guatemala. The town attracts mainly Mexican tourists on their way to the Lagunas de Montebello National Park and several remote Mayan archaeological sites in the border zone.

Lagunas de Montebello National Park

Lagunas de Montebello National Park

#60 Huichapan, Hidalgo

Huichapan has some interesting history and architecture, but relatively little to interest the general tourist. (Even Wikipedia has little to say about this town!)

#61 Tequisquiapan, Querétaro

This very pretty town has already been described in several previous posts on, including:



#62 Batopilas, Chihuahua

Designated in mid-October 2012. This small town, situated at an elevation of 501 meters above sea level, on the floor of the picturesque Batopilas Canyon, in Mexico’s Copper Canyon region, was once an important silver-mining center. The great German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt called Batopilas the “metallic marvel of the world”. Some of the old buildings in Batopilas have been restored in recent years. Still in ruins is the former dwelling of Alexander Robert Shepherd, one-time Governor of the District of Colombia, USA.

Ruins of former Shepherd mansion, Batopilas

Ruins of former Shepherd mansion, Batopilas

In 1880, Shepherd moved here, complete with family, friends, workers, dogs and grand-piano. His son, Grant Shepherd, describes in his book, The Silver Magnet, how this piano, the first ever seen in this part of Mexico, was carried overland more than 300 km in three weeks by teams of men, each paid the princely sum of US$1.00 a day for his efforts! Shepherd lived here for thirty years, running a silver mine and entertaining stray foreigners who passed through. He employed English servants. When the Mexican Revolution began, he abandoned Batopilas and the mansion fell into ruins. Shepherd is said to have mined more than US$22 million worth of silver here; he was behind the amalgamation of all the mines into a single company, the Consolidated Batopilas Mining Co. in 1887.

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