Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Zacatecas Part 3: The Eden Mine and Baroque Art of Guadalupe

El Eden Mine is entered by train. For me, one of the most interesting sites we visited during our sojourn in Zacatecas was El Eden Mine, which extends 3,000 meters under Cerro La Bufa hill. The silver output from El Eden helped Zacatecas produce 20% of the worlds supply at one point. Silver and other minerals formed the basis of Zacatecas' wealth for centuries. They also motivated centuries of conflict in the area, right up to the Mexican Revolution when Pancho Villa seized the city in a bloody battle aimed at controlling the silver output. The mine's ore production ceased in the 1960s after continuously operating for almost 400 years, starting in 1588. After it closed, the mine became a tourist attraction and facilities were built to safely transport sightseers deep into the heart of La Bufa on the train you see above. One of the world's most unusual nightclubs is located deep in the mine. The train has only a single track, so it goes one way into the mine and then reverses direction to come out. The mine is open daily from 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM and the fee is $25 pesos ($1.94 USD).

El Eden was carved out by hand. Our guide assured us that El Eden is safe for tourism because no explosives were ever used during mining. I found this extraordinary given the size of the mine. The tunnel we traversed extended more than a mile into the heart of La Bufa, and is the only one of four levels open to tourists. The lowest level is completely inundated by water. Over the centuries, all these tunnels were laboriously carved by hand from solid rock. Since there were no explosions to crack the rock, there is little danger of cave-ins. The floor shown above was obviously smoothed with concrete so gawkers like me wouldn't break our necks tripping over the rough stone which once sounded with the shuffling steps of Indians carrying their backbreaking loads.

Silver was not the only source of El Eden's riches. Other minerals mined included gold, lead, zinc, and copper, although in much smaller quantities than the silver. Miners followed a vein where ever it took them, which resulted in some winding tunnels. Above, various minerals can be seen in the rock. Silver and gold are both often found associated with quartz, the white mineral running in bands across the photo.

The technology of mining at El Eden didn't change much until the 20th Century. Above, two mannequins display the technique for moving miners from one level to another. Heaven help a miner if the rope broke. The miners were largely Indian, with some mestizos (those of mixed Indian and Spanish blood). Few of the Indians from the local Chichimeca tribes worked the mines in the early centuries because they were too busy fighting to expel the Spanish intruders from their territory. Most of the early miners came from the Aztec and Tlaxcalan areas to the south.

The Chichimecas' name has a variety of translations, including "blood-suckers" and "born of a line of dogs." The Aztecs gave them these names because they considered Chichimecas to be blood-thirsty barbarians. Since the Aztecs practiced wholesale human sacrifice, a custom unknown among the various tribes branded as Chichimeca, the name seems pretty hypocritical. It was true that the local tribes were ferocious warriors and expert at the unrelenting guerilla warfare they waged first against Aztec invaders and then for 50 years against the Spanish mining communities of Zacatecas. The conflict ended only when a more enlightened Spanish administration arrived and successfully purchased peace with tools, goods, food, and an end to the practice of enslaving the local indigenous population.

Dropping into the dark bowels of the earth. At the other end of the winch cable, a small cage carries a miner down into what must have seemed like hell. The average lifespan of an Indian miner was 36 years. During his working years, from the day he entered the mine until he died, he never saw daylight. The work day began well before dawn, and ended long after sunset. Accidents and mine-related illnesses were so common as to be beneath notice by the Spanish (and later Mexican) authorities. After the Mexican Revolution, when miners won the right to form unions and could demand better conditions, the lot of the miners improved.

Moving the ore was as laborious as carving it out. Above, a pair of mannequin miners push a heavily loaded mining cart along a narrow track. These old carts can be seen on the streets of Zacatecas and other old mining cities, often used now as planters. In earlier times, the ore was carried in wicker baskets on the backs of the Indians. The load could exceed 80-100 lbs. Often the Indian would have to climb from one level of the mine to another using rickety ladders or even ropes while burdened with these heavy loads.

Shrine created by miners helped them cope with the awful conditions. We found this little altar at the end of one tunnel.

Water sculpture adorns another tunnel niche. Someone created this lovely little sculpture out of materials and minerals from the mine. The water runs down the slot running the length of the sculpture and then pours into a pool at the bottom.

Visitors treat the pool below the water sculpture as a wishing well. We found the bottom of the pool covered with coins left by wishful tourists. Many of the coins found their way into this shallow clay pot.

Yet another kind of treasure. We found the odd looking sculpture above in the gift shop of El Eden Mine. The sculptor partially carved out ancient fossils from a sheet of rock. The fossils show that eons ago the tunnel deep in the mine where this rock originated was once the bed of a shallow sea.

The Baroque art of the Museum of Guadalupe

Cornstalk Christ. Some of the fabulous wealth carved with such effort from the Eden Mine was spent richly decorating religious buildings throughout Mexico. The figure above was sculpted in the 16th Century with an ancient technique using cornstalks as the frame and paper as a covering. We saw a similar crucifix figure on the wall of a church in San Miguel Allende. Because of the materials used, the figures are very fragile and great care must be used to maintain them.

We found this remarkable religious sculpture in the Museum of Guadalupe, formerly a convent called the College for the Propagation of the Faith of Our Lady of Guadalupe of Zacatecas, operated by the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church. The convent was shut down as a result of the Reform Laws of the 1850s, which aimed to curb the power of the church. The monks did what they could to maintain the old structure, but it passed through a variety of uses including soldiers' barracks and barn. In the 20th Century, it was finally recognized as an architectural treasure and restored. Part of the facility still functions as a church and convent. The Museum of Guadalupe is located facing the Jardin Juarez in Guadalupe, a town on the eastern outskirts of Zacatecas. The hours are 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM daily, with a fee of $52 pesos ($4.00 USD).

A sculptor's workshop. Notice the partially formed torso held horizontally on a lathe-like device so that it could be turned. The tool on top of the form is a set of calipers for measuring the correct depth of a cut. In the 16th Century, the Spanish government created a system for organizing trades or gremios. The workshop shown above would have belonged to the gremio for sculptors. In each workshop a maestro, or master craftsman, directed the work. Long training was required to achieve this status, culminating in the creation of a "masterpiece", hence the modern term. This system also originated the Master of Arts Degree in higher education, for which one must write a master work known as a thesis. In the original gremios, the maestro oversaw the work of apprentices and ensured that required standards for that gremio were maintained. The apprentices were children or adolescents placed by their fathers under contract with the maestro. They were taught the trade and could eventually become maestros and establish their own workshops. This source of upward mobility was also available to the Indian population, which had produced fine craftsmen for centuries before the Spanish arrived and on whom the Spanish depended for much of the work on their religious and public buildings and their private mansions.

A full size Saint Francis seems eerily alive. At first glance, I almost expected Saint Francis to get up and greet me as I entered the chamber where he sat. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was the patron saint of animals and the environment. He founded the Order of Friars Minor, commonly known as the Franciscans, who were very active in Nueva Espana, building churches, schools, hospitals, and converting the Indians.

Santiago Matamoros. Saint James, Killer of Moors, was a somewhat less peaceable saint. Santiago was an especially important saint to the Spanish who credited him with helping them defeat the Moors in the 15th Century and drive them from Spain where they had dominated for 800 years. In the anonymous 17th Century sculpture above, an armed and armored Santiago, mounted on his military charger, tramples the bodies of slain Moors. Santiago is also credited by the Spanish conquistadors for their victory over the Indians around Queretaro. Legend has it that Santiago appeared in the sky and so overawed the Indians that they laid down their arms and surrendered.

Santa Ana, 18th Century. This figure, about 2 feet high, was carved by an anonymous artisan from wood. Saint Ana (Hannah in Hebrew) was the mother of the Virgin Mary and therefore Jesus' grandmother, according to Christian and Islamic tradition. Although there is no mention of her in either the Bible or the Koran, she has been venerated since at least the 6th Century. As an abuela, or grandmother she has special status in Mexican culture where abuelas are especially honored. Santa Ana is the patron saint of miners.

Santiago Caballero. Another figure of Santiago, again in a battle stance from an anonymous sculptor in the 18th Century. The Spanish, as conquerors, needed a religious underpinning for their Conquest. Otherwise it might simply be viewed as butchery, rape, theft, and enslavement. Similarly, the English and American conquerers liked to view themselves in biblical terms as "chosen people" with a "manifest destiny" to rule North America while committing genocide against the native people in their area.

Carved stone gargoyle. Figures like these were used to ornament water drain pipes off the roofs of religious buildings. The water would spout from the hole in the gargoyle's mouth.

La Virgen de Guadalupe. Classic painting showing the Virgin standing, hands folded, completely surrounded with a glowing halo. La Virgen de Guadalupe is the patron of Mexico, particularly of its indigenous people. La Virgen was first seen in the 16th Century, not long after the Conquest, by an Indian on a hill near a ruined temple to an indigenous goddess. The Church officials at first resisted the growing practice of worshipping La Virgen, but when it persisted they saw the wisdom of incorporating it into the Church tradition. After all, if the Church in the Dark Ages could transpose the tree-worshipping practices of the Germanic barbarians into the Christmas Tree, why not a adopt a pagan goddess and clothe her in Christian tradition? Ironically, because of La Virgen's appeal to common people, she was used as a rallying symbol by insurgents during the War of Independence against Spain.

A richly decorated stone cross. There was no sign indicating the origin of this old cross, but it probably sat on a steeple of a religious building for centuries before ending up in the Guadalupe Museum.

A bleeding Christ lies in the arms of an unidentified figure. I am always astounded, as a non-religious person but one raised in the Protestant tradition, at the graphic realism of Catholic religious art. The Christ figures are emaciated, and covered over with bleeding wounds, and the martyrdom of saints is often depicted in the most gory detail. Instead of repelling people, it seems to attract them.

This completes Part 3 of my series on Zacatecas. Next, I will focus on the Pedro Coronel Museum, site of the most extraordinary set of indigenous masks I have ever encountered. Appropriately, you will have the opportunity to view these mind-boggling and sometimes frightening creations when I post on Halloween weekend.

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  1. Nice work ... another strong reminder from the past about why workers need to be organized, evidenced by miners' conditions throughout the world.

  2. Excellent....this is about the most interesting and informative work I have seen. I now have a super desire to visit Zacatecas. I will be looking forward to see and hear about more of places you've been.


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