Dec 082016
 

Corn (maize) has been the principal food of the Tarahumara Indians since long before the Spanish arrived in Mexico. There are several precolumbian varieties that are still grown, including the ancient and delicious “blue corn”. Maize is the source of a wide variety of foodstuffs and drinks including flour (pinole), a non‑alcoholic drink called esquiate, tortillas, atole and tamales. Green corn and blue corn tortillas are made when in season, for special occasions. A version of corn beer (Spanish “tesgüino“) is also important, and is described separately below.

The Tarahumara continue to “hunt and gather” locally available foodstuffs, though these activities now supply only about 10% of their diet. Several varieties of cactus fruit are collected, edible agaves are cooked, and small river fish are caught where possible. Small animals are ruthlessly hunted. Squirrels, birds and deer, though rare today, are considered particular delicacies.

Beans, mustard green and squash also play important parts in the Tarahumara diet which is rounded out by wheat, potatoes, peaches and sweet potatoes. Those Tarahumara with access to lower elevations, such as Batopilas Canyon, also include crops typical of warmer regions such as oranges, figs and sugar‑cane. Chiles and tobacco are also cultivated.

Meat is hard to come by, and eaten only on ceremonial occasions when a goat or cow is sacrificed. It probably accounts for less than 5% of the average Tarahumara diet. Most protein comes from beans; these are usually prepared by roasting, grinding and then boiling with water, to produce a hot soup. Pork, chicken and eggs are rarely found, while sheep are kept mainly for their wool.

Squash is only eaten in season though the Indians know how to preserve it by drying. The squash flowers are eaten too, boiled with water and salt. Mustard greens (Tarahumara “maquasori“, Spanish “quelites“) are grown in the rainy season and carefully gathered and dried, for use throughout the year, providing minerals and vitamins. Quelites include the epazote plant (Chenopodium ambrosioides), described by Diana Kennedy, the world’s foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, as “the Mexican herb par excellence”.

Many families have a small number of scrubby fruit trees, usually peaches, near their house. Fruit is often picked and eaten green. Peaches are an important trading item, and may be exchanged for cigarettes or cloth. At higher elevations, apples are grown.

Given the well-documented endurance feats of Tarahumara runners, this diet clearly provides adequate nutrition! In the 1994 Denver, Colorado, “Sky Race”, Tarahumara Indian Juan Herrera (25 years old) smashed 25 minutes off the previous record, completing the 160 kilometers in 17 hours, 30 minutes, 42 seconds. He came in more than half an hour ahead of his nearest rival!

However, in many years (including 2011, 2012), and seemingly with increasing frequency, food is in extremely short supply by the time the summer growing season arrives. Fortunately for the less successful Tarahumara farmers, an age‑old tribal custom, korima is still observed. This custom requires the better‑off to share food with the less fortunate in times of need. The poor person visits successive ranchos, collecting small quantities of food to last him a week or two, then repeats this procedure as necessary. No lasting debt is incurred. The severe drought in northern Mexico over the past 24 months – see Many states in Mexico badly affected by drought – has meant that many Tarahumara have no food reserves left and have had to rely on infrequent emergency aid organized by charitable organizations, and the federal and state government.

Tesgüino (corn beer)

The average Tarahumara family expends 100 kg of corn a year to make tesgüino. This is sufficient corn to last a family of 4‑5 about a month, a significant quantity, given the regular annual food deficiencies in this region.

Tesgüino is a form of corn‑beer. It is a thick, milky, nutritious drink, supplying much needed vitamins, minerals and calories. The corn is first dampened and allowed to sprout in a dark place, then ground and boiled for about 8 hours with a catalyst to promote fermentation. The catalyst may be local grass seed (basiahuari) ground in a metate, or bark, leaves, lichens or roots, depending on the place. The liquid is then strained and left to ferment for about three days. The total preparation time is therefore about seven days. To avoid spoilage, the beverage must be drunk quickly. It’s at its best for only 12‑24 hours. This explains why it would be so wasteful to leave any beer can tesgüino undrunk at a “tesgüinada” (see below); it would be far too wasteful, even if as many as 50 gallons have been made.

Other alcoholic drinks are also made, one based on green corn (pachiki or caña) and another on maguey (meki). In earlier times, there were no alcoholics as we define the term, since tesgüino can’t be stored, but today the greater availability of commercial alcohol poses a serious problem.

Why are tesgüinadas so important?

The tesgüinada system is the social device which ties individual settlements (ranchos) together in a cooperative framework for performing all kinds of agricultural tasks. The person requiring assistance with a particular task will invite his neighbors and friends to a “tesgüinada”. He takes responsibility for providing the tesgüino, other refreshments and food. In return, the persons who attend will help plow. sow, reap or weed..

Lumholtz, recognizing from his time among the Tarahumara at the end of the last century the importance of the tesgüinada, summed up their philosophy writing that, “Rain cannot be obtained without tesgüino. Tesgüino cannot be made without corn and corn cannot grow without rain.”

The tesgüinada is necessary since many families cannot supply the labor required for both herding and cultivation at certain times of the year. In small groups like the ranchos, high mortality inevitably leaves some families unable to manage on their own. The tesgüinada is their response to the economic uncertainties facing them just as collective religious rituals help them face the unpredictability of weather, sickness and plagues. The cooperative effort moves from one rancho to another, from one tesgüinada to the next.

The tesgüinadas, which are like large, boisterous parties, provide a focus for Tarahumara social life, a chance for entertainment and to make extra-familiar friendships. Being held in a succession of different ranchos, they offer some communal resilience against the risks of becoming further isolated and marginalized. The Tarahumara attach no shame to being drunk; indeed, they positively revel in getting as drunk as humanly possible at tesgüinadas. Children are excluded until they are 14 years old or so.

Tesgüinadas do come at a cost. They increase the incidence of accidents, such as adult men falling off precipitous rock ledges that would normally pose little risk, even when running. They increase violence, which may result in serious injury or death. They also limit the amount of corn that can be held over from one year to the next. Assuming an average of 4‑6 tesgüinadas per year per family, with additional visits to tesgüinadas held in perhaps 15 other households, many Tarahumara Indians would be likely to attend more than sixty tesgüinadas a year. Even if the true figure is only 50% of this total, it still means that the Tarahumara spend as many as 100 days a year either preparing for a tesgüinada, attending one, or recovering from one.

Sources /  Bibliography:

  1. Bennett, W. and Zingg, R. (1935) The Tarahumara. Univ. of Chicago Press. Reprinted by Rio Grande Press, 1976.
  2. Kennedy, J.G. (1978) Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre; Beer, Ecology and Social Organization, AHM Publishing Corp, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Republished, as The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Survivors on the Canyon’s Edge in 1996.
  3. Lumholtz, C. (1902) Unknown Mexico. 2 volumes. Scribner’s Sons, New York. Republished in both English and Spanish.
  4. Pennington, C. (1963) The Tarahumar of Mexico, their environment and material culture. Univ. of Utah Press. Reprint by Editorial Agata, Guadalajara, 1996.

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Index page: Mexico’s indigenous peoples

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Aug 042016
 

As the site continues to grow, in content and readership, we are adding the occasional index page to help new readers find articles of interest. According to the 2010 census, 6,000,000 Mexicans over the age of five speak at least one indigenous language. Another 3,000,000 Mexicans consider themselves indigenous but no longer speak any indigenous language.

General

Specific groups

Maya

Aztec / Mexica

Tohono O’odham

Huichol

Tarahumara

Other Geo-Mexico index pages:

Photos of Mexico’s indigenous peoples

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Jul 212016
 

Mexican photographer Diego Huerta has spent the past four years on a quest to photograph all of the indigenous groups in the country. He publishes select images on his website and on his instagram account and the collection of images makes for compelling viewing, hence articles about him in the press, including one entitled “Photographer Captures The Breathtaking Beauty Of Mexico’s Indigenous Communities” in the Huffington Post.

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For an introduction to Mexico’s indigenous peoples see An overview of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. Recent research has shown that the indigenous groups are more genetically diverse than was previously thought. They add a very significant diversity to the languages spoken in Mexico. See, for example, The geography of languages in Mexico: Spanish and 62 indigenous languages, and Is the number of speakers of indigenous languages in Mexico increasing? The many indigenous languages have resulted in some very distinctive place names.

At least one of the indigenous languages in Mexico is very unusual – Whistling your way from A to B: the whistled language of the Chinantec people in Oaxaca – and some have no words for “left” or “right”, while others are now spoken by only a very small number of people. The extreme example of this is Only two native speakers remain of Ayapaneco, an indigenous language in Tabasco.

Geo-Mexico has dozens of posts about specific indigenous groups in Mexico. The tag system and the site search engine will locate short articles related to the Huichol, Tarahumara, Aztecs, Maya and several other groups.

“Huichol Women, Weavers, and Shamans” by Stacy B. Schaefer

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May 162016
 

Stacy B. Schaefer is professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University, Chico, and has worked in research and education at a number of California museums. Schaefer has a long-standing interest in Mexico, with particular interest in the Huichol Indians. She is the author of To Think With a Good Heart: Wixarika Women, Weavers, and Shamans (University of Utah Press, 2002) and the co-editor, with Peter Furst, of People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion, and Survival (University of New Mexico, 1997).

In 2015, the University of New Mexico issued a revised reprint of To Think With a Good Heart with the new title, Huichol Women, Weavers, and Shamans. (We are pleased to say that Geo-Mexico produced a map for this new version, though a production glitch makes the numbers on the scale look like meaningless boxes!)

schafer-coverThe unique aspect of this book is that the author not only lived among the Huichol for extended periods of time over two decades, but committed herself to a long apprenticeship to become a weaver.

Schaefer’s account is a masterful interweaving of personal experiences and  ethnographic research. Her interest in weaving enabled her to become a trusted member of the community, affording her valuable insights into their lives, beliefs and customs.

The book considers the significance of weaving in relation to every aspect of Huichol life, from food gathering and farming to pregnancy, birth, shrines and goddesses. Schaeffer’s eventual success in becoming a master weaver opened yet more doors into the community, with fresh insights into local shamanism.

Schaeffer lived experiences that most of us can only hope to read about. Fortunately, her descriptions are captivating and detailed, as, for example, when she writes about her trip accompanying Huichol “family” on their pilgrimage to collect sacred peyote cactus.

As the back cover blurb states, “For centuries the Huichol (Wixárika) Indian women of Jalisco, Mexico, have been weaving textiles on backstrap looms. This West Mexican tradition has been passed down from mothers to daughters since pre-Columbian times. Weaving is a part of each woman’s identity – allowing them to express their ancient religious beliefs as well as to reflect the personal transformations they have undergone throughout their lives.”

While this is an academic work, Stacy Schaefer does an outstanding job in explaining all this in a way which is easily accessible to the general reader.

Schaefer also wrote Amada’s Blessings from the Peyote Gardens of South Texas (University of New Mexico, 2015), which tells the story (based on 13 years of fieldwork) of Amada Cardenas, a Mexican-American woman, and her pivotal role in the little-known history of the peyote trade, which began in the 1930s.

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Community-based ecotourism in La Ventanilla, Oaxaca: success or failure?

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Jun 182015
 

Ecotourism at La Ventanilla on the coast of Oaxaca, a small community of about 100 inhabitants, located between the beach resorts of Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel, began more than twenty years ago. It is based on trips run by local guides through the mangroves lining a lagoon on the Tonameca River; the area’s wildlife includes iguanas, birds, crocodiles and sea turtles.

The main local cooperative that conducts tours is called Servicio Ecoturisticos de La Ventanilla (La Ventanilla Ecotourism Services). Income from its tours supports reforestation and other ecological projects, including a greenhouse for mangrove reforestation and a nursery to hatch and raise crocodiles for release on Uma Island, in the lagoon. A breakaway co-operative, Cooperativa Lagarto Real, also runs some local excursions, though its profits do not contribute to local conservation efforts.

La Ventanilla (Google Earth)

La Ventanilla (Google Earth)

Most visitors to La Ventanilla come only for the day; the small local community offers only limited services or accommodations for tourists. The community of La Ventanilla is often held up as a shining example of how a well-implemented “assistive conservation” ecotourism approach can combine environmental conservation with economic sustainability, while enhancing the local quality of life.

But is this apparent success story quite as idyllic as usually portrayed in the mainstream press? Dr. David Vargas-del-Río, a researcher at ITESO in Guadalajara, sets out to explore this question in his recent article, “The assistive conservation approach for community-based lands: the case of La Ventanilla”, published in the December 2014 issue of The Geographical Journal. The article is based on Vargas-del-Río’s doctorate thesis at the UPC University, Barcelona.

As Vargas-del-Río explains, “The assistive conservation approach includes strategies for conserving community-based lands based on a complex combination of traditional and modern scientific knowledge. It enjoys broad legitimacy and seems promising for conserving territories with autochthonous populations. However, as a novel strategy, it has been applied mostly to societies and environments that are fragile in conservationist terms.”

The author explores how there has been a gradual shift in the protection of natural areas from ‘top-down’ to ‘bottom-up’ models of environmental management, before turning to his case-study of La Ventanilla. La Ventanilla lends itself to such a case study since an assistive conservation approach was first implemented there more than twenty years ago, More than sufficient time to allow for some follow-up evaluation. His eventual conclusion is that while assistive conservation approaches sound good in theory, they may, over time, make local ecologies “more vulnerable to social and environmental degradation, especially as traditional management institutions once responsible for ecological integrity become obsolete”.

In reviewing the background literature, Vargas-del-Río asserts that there are “three broad critical currents” of criticism of the assistive conservation approach. These include the potential adverse impacts of utilizing protected areas for tourism. The provision of attractions, installations and other services, leads to “new dynamics, impacts and transformations” in terms of tourism providers, and may result in “competition between local actors and powerful tourism agents, both conventional and emergent.” Potential issues include changes in local consumption and behavior patterns, and the view that nature and local culture are commodities.

Just how was this manifested in the context of La Ventanilla?

Initial effects of the assistive conservation approach in La Ventanilla were positive. Restrictions were placed, and enforced, on “activities considered ‘disruptive’; that is, hunting, selling local species, harvesting turtle eggs, and felling mangrove trees…”The cooperative soon won praise for its environmental responsibility and received more funds from the government to conduct volunteer conservation projects, including reforestation in the mangroves, a deer reserve, a turtle egg nursery, and areas for iguanas, among other initiatives. Hence, it continued to receive financial and moral power which it exercised over the rest of the population, while promoting conservation and tourism over traditional uses.”

Following extensive fieldwork in the community, Vargas-del-Río found, “a marked tendency towards spatial segregation, social fragmentation, inequality and speculation; phenomena that have emerged as a direct result of the ‘conservation’ initiative with its nature-based tourism activities and imposed environmental restrictions.”The La Ventanilla Ecotourism Services Cooperative (CSELV) is “controlled by six local leaders who own the lands where the cooperative’s main assets are located, handle all accounts, and elaborate support and funding applications.” Other members of the co-operative are “simple wage earners”.

Inequality triggered by the project led to segregation, in terms of housing quality, in the central area of the community. A group of nine disgruntled members of the initial co-operative, broke away in 2004 and founded a second co-operative, Lagarto Real. They “disregarded the management plan”, “sabotaged some conservation and ecotourism initiatives undertaken in this sub-zone, and set up restaurants, shops and camping sites of their own that lacked the ‘green’ image that others were marketing.” The growth of ecotourism has led to land speculation, including a controversy over the construction and (illegal) sale of a small hotel built on communal property.

The island of Uma is controlled by the original co-operative and no longer accessible for traditional activities such as agriculture. There has been a dramatic shift in economic activities. “Agriculture and fishing are now practiced by just 7% of inhabitants and represent an important source of income for only 10.7% of households. In contrast, tourism-related activities occupy 34.7% of the people, represent 70.1% of the economically active population, and are the main source of income for 67.9% of households.”

Vargas-del-Río concludes that previous assessments failed “to take into account slow, gradual changes”. One outcome has been “a higher risk of land degradation in social and environmental terms as the local society fragments, inequality increases, more actors (external and local) strive to profit from the territory, and regulation becomes more difficult.”

In conclusion, “assistive approaches modify ways of approaching nature, restrict traditional uses in favour of tourism, weaken local management institutions and degrade environmental and social relations.” The assistive approach “undermines the cultural, economic and local environment while creating new spaces for consumption.”

Source:

David Vargas-del-Río, 2014. “The assistive conservation approach for community-based lands: the case of La Ventanilla”, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 180 #4 (December 2014) 377–391.

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Video documentation of the Lacondon Indians in Chiapas

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Jan 162015
 

The Lacondon Maya are one of the most isolated and culturally conservative of Mexico’s numerous indigenous peoples. Their homeland is in the remote Lacondon Jungle in eastern Chiapas, close to the Guatemalan border. The Lacondon were the only Mayan people not conquered or converted by the Spanish during the colonial era. Until the mid-20th century they had little contact with the outside world, while maintaining a sustainable agricultural system and practising ancient Mayan customs and religion.

This short two-part video by Joel Kimmel (Part One above; Part Two below) briefly traces the history of the Lacandon back to the classic Mayan civilization. The videos document their successful, slash and burn, rotating, multicrop, subsistence agricultural lifestyle, steeped in religious ritual, and sustained over centuries in small isolated groups in the almost impenetrable Lacandon jungle.


The film then looks at the more recent outside influences that resulted in the near extinction of the Lacandon by the mid 20th century. Today their population has increased again and is estimated at between 650 and 1000, living in about a dozen villages. The second video focuses on the Lacondon’s confrontation with the modern world over the past four decades. One group, the “southern” Lacandon have opted for Christianity and the trappings of modern life, whilst some in the “northern” group, centered around the village of Naja, near the Mayan ruins of Palenque, attempt to maintain the old customs and religion. The video ends with the thoughts of a former Director of Development at Na Bolom, regarding the possibility, and immense difficulty, of trying to preserve what remains of their language, cultural heritage and ecological knowledge, treasures the world can ill afford to lose.

The videos introduce speakers and photos from the internationally famous Casa Na Bolom, in San Cristóbal de la Casas, Chiapas. This scientific and cultural research institute was founded in 1951 by Danish archeologist Franz Blom and his Swiss wife, Trudy Blom, journalist, photographer and later environmental activist. They devoted their lives to documenting the cultural history of the Lacondon people and life in the Chiapas jungle and advocating for the survival of both. Following Trudy Blom’s death in 1993, the Asociación Cultural Na Bolom has continued to operate the center as a museum, research and advocacy center, and tourist hotel. It houses an archive of over 50,000 photographs, and other documentation created by scholars over the decades.

The two videos provide visual proof of the forces of modern Mexico that have threatened the existence of the Lacondon way of life – government roads opening up the jungle to loggers and other settlers, logging permits resulting in massive clearcutting of the mahogany forests , the arrival of tourism, Coca-Cola and canned foods, mainstream education and modern technology like satellite television.

Not covered in the video is the fact that a Mexican presidential order in 1971 granted 614,000 acres to the Lacandon Community, recognizing their land rights over the, by then, more numerous settlers who had been allowed to colonize the Lacandon Forest under previous governments. This, however, has brought the Lacandon into conflict with many settler-groups, creating problems which continue to the present time. (See Chiapas Conflict on Wikipedia).

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The Huichol (Wixárika) People’s fight against multinational mining companies

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Nov 162014
 

A new feature-length documentary about the Huichol (Wixárika) People, an indigenous group who live in the mountains of western Mexico, has been released. Huicholes: the last peyote guardians is a must-see movie and is already winning praise and awards. Equally importantly, it is helping to raise funds and support for the Huichol as they fight to retain full control over their ancestral territory in the face of threats from federal authorities and multinational mining companies.

The IMDb movie database describes the movie as, “The urgent story of the mystical Wixarika People, the Huicholes: one of the last pre-Hispanic alive cultures in Latin America. Their struggle against the Mexican government and multinational mining corporations to preserve Wirikuta, their most sacred territory and home of the famous peyote cactus. The mining activities of the Canadian companies that got the concessions in 2010 to prospect this protected area, rich in silver, gold and other minerals, are seen by the Wixarika and their supporters as a great menace for the delicate biodiversity of this unique ecosystem, listed by the UNESCO as World Cultural and Natural Heritage. An unequal and controversial fight from today that triggers the global debate between ancient cultural values, the exploitation of nature and the inevitable development of the peoples.”

I have to agree with my long-time editor and colleague David McLaughlin that this documentary about the Huichol portrays “Canadian commercial imperialism at its worst.”

To learn more about the film:

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Study finds indigenous Mexicans far more diverse than previously thought

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Jun 262014
 

A recently released study [1] indicates that genetic diversity among indigenous Mexicans is far greater than previously thought. Ethnic Seri living in isolated parts of Sonora are as genetically different from isolated Lacandon living near the Guatemala border as Europeans are from Chinese. These differences must have existed for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in the New World. The differences are also reflected in mestizos living in geographically separated parts of Mexico.

Source: A. MORENO-ESTRADA ET AL., SCIENCE (2014)

Source: Moreno-Estrada et al. Science (2014)

The study in the June 13 issue of Science was conducted by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford. They studied the genomic data from 511 native Mexicans from 20 of Mexico’s 65 indigenous groups scattered throughout Mexico (see map) from the Seri (SER) and Tarahumara (TAR) in the northwest, to the Purépecha (PUR) in the west, Trique (TRQ) and Zapotec (ZAP)in the south as well as three subgroups of Maya (MYA) on the Yucatán Peninsula [2]. They also analyzed similar data from 500 mestizos from ten Mexican states as well as some from Guadalajara and Los Angeles.

The findings have great implications for the study of diseases in these populations [3]. For example a lung capacity test can indicate a disease in one indigenous group while the same test results would be normal in a different indigenous group.

References:

[1] Moreno-Estrada et al. “The genetics of Mexico recapitulates Native American substructure and affects biomedical traits”, Science 13 June 2014; Vol 344 no.6189, p. 1301.

[2] Lizzie Wade. “People from Mexico show stunning amount of genetic diversity”, ScienceMag.org, June 12, 2014.

[3] Karen Weintaub,”Mexico’s Natives didn’t mix much, new study shows”, National Geographic, June 12, 2014.

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The transformation of Real de Catorce from ghost town to film set and Magic Town

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Dec 262013
 

Both the name and the coat-of-arms of the state of San Luis Potosi recall the tremendous importance of mining to Mexico’s economy.

SLP-coat-of-armsCalled Potosí in emulation of the mines of that name high in the Bolivian Andes, the city’s coat-of-arms, awarded in 1656, has its patron saint standing atop a hill in which are three mine shafts. Left of the hill are two gold ingots, and right of it, two silver ones.

Some of the early mining towns in San Luis Potosí faded into obscurity, others became centers for ranching and commerce. The best known former mining town, Real de Catorce, for long considered a ghost town, has been resuscitated by tourism.

For visitors planning to see Real de Catorce, the best place to stay the night before is Matehuala, on highway 57, which has a full range of tourist services. From Matehuala, it is short distance west to Cedral. Shortly after Cedral a 24-kilometer-long cobblestone road climbs up the mountain to Real de Catorce, which sits at an elevation of  2,743 meters (9,000 ft) in the Sierra de Catorce range.

Real de Catorce

Main street of Real de Catorce. Credit: Tony

Main street of Real de Catorce. Credit: Tony Burton

The first surprise for visitors is the single file 2,300 meter long Ogarrio tunnel – the only entrance to the town from the north – a unique introduction to the many strange things awaiting you on the other side. The second surprise  is how such a large place, which produced more than 3 million dollars worth of silver each year, could ever have become a ghost town. Between 1788 and 1806, the La Purisima mine alone yielded annually more than $200,000 pesos of silver– and that was when a peso of silver was equivalent to a dollar.

The large, stone houses, often of several stories, with tiled roofs, wooden window frames and wrought-iron work, were so well built that they have survived to tell you their tales as you wander through the steep streets, soaking up the atmosphere of one of Mexico’s most curious places.

You need time to really appreciate the former grandeur of Real de Catorce. Fortunately, there are several simple hotels and restaurants. It is well worth hiring a local guide.  An enthusiastic guide will wear your feet out long before you tire of their informative commentaries.

Seek out the beautifully restored palenque (cock-fighting pit). Pause in the church to examine the mesquite floor, imaginatively described in some guidebooks as comprised of a mosaic of coffin lids. The church is dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. The two week long fiesta in his honor, centered on October 4th, is a huge affair, attended by hundreds of returning Real de Catorce families.

In front of the church, across the small plaza of Carbón, is the former mint. This gorgeous building is well worth visiting and now used for cultural events such as photographic exhibitions. Look in the gallery and perhaps you’ll find an irresistible, original, handcrafted item made of locally mined silver.

The town of Real de Catorce and its surroundings are sufficiently photogenic that several movies have been filmed here, including Bandidas (featuring Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz) and The Mexican (featuring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts).

The town, designated a Magic Town in 2001, has several small hotels and restaurants for those wanting to spend more time here.

This area has close associations with the indigenous Huichol (Wixarika) Indians who call this area Wirikuta. Each spring, they visit Cerro del Quemado, a hill within easy hiking distance of Real de Catorce, to leave religious offerings. The Huichol collect the hallucinogenic cactus peyote, used in some of their ceremonies, from the surrounding desert during an annual spiritual pilgrimage to Wirikuta from their heartland in northern Jalisco, 400 km (250) miles away. Cerro del Quemado was declared a National Sacred Site in 2011. An upcoming full length documentary about the Huichol Indians, the “Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians“, includes shots of the pilgrimage, while looking at how the continuation of the pilgrimages could be threatened by proposed mining projects.

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Example of a sixteenth century map

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Dec 072013
 

In the mid-sixteenth century, the Spanish Court was determined to acquire accurate information about everything being encountered in New Spain. This led to a series of censuses and accounts, including the Relaciones geográficas (Geographic Accounts).

The basis for the Geographic Accounts was a 50-question survey, sent to New Spain in 1577. The authorities in each administrative center were instructed to call a meeting of the “Spaniards and other natives in the district”, to find out everything they could about the area’s geography, people and history.

Of the 191 known responses to the 1577 questionnaire, 167 have survived in archives to the present day. Most of the original responses are housed in Spain, in either the Archivo General de las Indias in Seville or the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid, while a further 43 responses form part of the Benson Latin American Collection in the University of Texas library in Austin. (The library’s webpage about the Relaciones geográficas has several links to images of sample pages and maps).

Map of Zempoala area from the Relaciones Geográficas

Map of Zempoala area from the Relaciones Geográficas (1577)

The accounts contain a wealth of information about population, relief, flora, fauna, economic activities and lifestyles. Some also include maps of the areas being described. However these early maps do not follow modern conventions in terms of having a uniform scale across the area being shown, or an orientation that is consistent in terms of compass directions. They are pictorial maps, where the scale varies across the map, and where areas are delimited, or places are linked, without apparent regard for direction.

One such map (see image above) depicts the area around Zempoala (Hidalgo). This is analyzed by Barbara E. Mundy, Associate Professor of Art History at Fordham University, in an online article, Mapping Babel: A Sixteenth-Century Indigenous Map from Mexico, published in The Appendix, a “journal of narrative and experimental history”. In the article, Mundy provides a detailed, step-by-step account of the map, with lots of additional related images and information.

Detail of map, showing Tepemayalco

Detail of map, showing Tepemaxalco

Mundy’s analysis reveals several “acts of translation” that have been made by the indigenous artist(s) presumed to be responsible for drawing the map.

For example, the artist(s) made the Spanish paper provided for the map more closely resemble its indigenous counterpart (bark paper), by joining sheets together to create the size they wanted for the map. In addition, unlike modern maps where the viewer is essentially static, with the map details arranged around them, indigenous maps demand changes of perspective, mobile viewers, who have to reorientate themselves depending where they are on the map in order to see things clearly.

Many of the images are a translation, perhaps of similar European images. For instance, like most towns on the map, Tepemaxalco is shown with “a conventional sign for a Christian chapel: a small building drawn in perspective with one side marked by a shadowing grey wash, topped with belfry and cross.”

The map also links the pictograph for each place name to its name written in alphabetic script. “The pictograph for Tepemaxalco (see image) registers some of its Nahuatl components: tepetl, ‘hill,’ maitl, ‘hand,’ xalli, ‘sand’ and co, ‘place of.’ Below, the name is written in alphabetic script, probably introduced by the Franciscans who evangelized this region.”

The dominant pictogram on this map is that for Zempoala (written “Cenpoballa” on the map). Mundy offers an interesting interpretation of this pictograph, which we hope to examine further in a future post.

Further reading

Barbara E Mundy. 2001. The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geográficas.

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