Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A History of Tourism

number fifty-five

While anticipating an upcoming weekend trip into the high deserts of San Luis Patosi, I did some research on our destination. Real de Catorce is a slowly repopulating abandoned silver mine and ghost town near sacred Huichol peyote grounds. 2,023 words.

Things I know about Real de Catorce

[NL]—It is a special place, Real de Catorce. “Magical” is the description I have turned up again and again in the resources I have gathered for this history; a breathless preciousness which is nonetheless evident even in the data. Long before Europeans set foot on this continent, the Huichol Indians lived on the harsh southwestern Sierra Madres in the neighborhood of México’s western central highlands (on the northern borders of Jalisco and Michoacán states). The Huichol people considered the mountains of the northern central highlands sacred and made seasonal pilgrimages there (after Spring and Summer rains) to gather the area’s bounty of peyote to use in ceremonies back home. As history progressed they would make this trek to the Catorce Sierra through the territories of rising Olmec and Aztec empires, but somehow escape being conquered and assimilated. When the Spanish eventually discovered them in their homelands they resisted New World assimilation as well, busily synchronizing their own religion with Catholicism to maintain the low profile that characterizes the tribe.

Probably inadvertently, the Huichol led the Spanish to Real de Catorce in the mid-seventeenth century. The Spanish, busily oppressing the northern indigenous peoples in the usual ways, set up camp here in this unlikely high mountain pass. Here they had numerous skirmishes with local Chichimecas (remember: the Náhuatl catchall name used by the Aztecs for derided northern border people, translating into “Dog People”) and some sources even cite Comanche raids. The settlement was recognized by the Spanish crown in 1638, and designated a official “Real,” which means “royal” and indicates the official blessing of the king. Events of the next hundred years of Catorce’s existence are murky. Sometime in the seventeen forties, an Indian raid reduced the town records to ashes and much of the first hundred years of Spanish Catorce’s history is no longer known. The little Spanish real was forced to persist under a multitude of hardships including the severe climate, Indian uprisings, and food shortages. But persist they did. The Spanish strongly suspected there was silver up there, and one suspects that throughout the years just enough was found to keep Catorce populated.

In 1772 the main silver vein was struck and the settlement boomed. The “real” gained the distinction of actual township, and was christened Villa Real de Minas de Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción de Guadelupe de los Álamos de Catorce, or Real de Catorce for short. What followed for a while mirrors the history of Guanajuato. The boom brought miners and magistrates to Catorce, and generated a surprising amount of wealth for everybody. During the heyday it was generating a significant portion of the world’s silver and operating as the number two mine in the nation. Construction was begun on parish church located in the center of town, with world-class neo-classical altars and frescoes decorating the opulent interior. Construction on the church finally ended in 1817. Troubles hit soon after, though, and by the time of the war of Mexican independence, in the eighteen teens, the mines had mostly flooded and silver production began to trail off. Spain was in no mood to lend assistance, but eventually in 1822 an Englishman by the name of Robert Phillips made the journey to Catorce with a patented “steam machine” and pumped the water back out, allowing the mine and town to continue another eighty years or so.

By the eighteen fifties the town was booming again, indeed at its golden age, producing millions of dollars worth of silver a year, and swollen to a population of forty thousand people. Cosmopolitan stone river walks and Spanish colonial plazas dotted this small, unlikely oasis teetering in the dry, thin air. Catorce boasted a world class theater where Caruso sang. In 1888 the plaza and central downtown were completely remodeled and a few years later construction began on a 2.3 kilometer tunnel through the mountain to make the sierra more accessible to the trade routes in the valley below. The parish church installed its iconic neo-classical altar of St. Francis, an incredible jointed wooden figure that could sit or stand. St. Francis had another big impact on the town's spiritual tourism: the installation inspired a tradition of annual pilgrimage to the site on St. Francis’ holy saint’s day, October the fourth. This tradition persists to this day. On the eve of Real de Catorce’s decline, the town experienced one last great moment: in 1895 the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz traveled here to inaugurate two new mine pumps purchased from California, and to gift the town with a clock for its church. His trip was accomplished by train from México City, mule-drawn cart from the valley town of Matehuala, and a horse to take him over the mountains because the tunnel was net yet completed.

Fifteen years later the bubble of Porfirio’s México finally burst, and the towns of the Catorce Sierra began to quickly decline. The Mexican revolution of 1910 spiraled the country into a new era of domestic change and made control of the badlands in northern Mexico—a hotbed of revolutionists and, incidentally, lawlessness—that much harder to control. This and slumping world silver prices signaled the end of the good times in Real de Catorce. The rich mine owners split, fearing Mexican social reform. Without work, many of the poor laboring class migrated elsewhere. The people in the middle drifted off to make a living wherever all the other people had gone. The lawlessness of the area found purchase in the empty homes and bars of the largely abandoned town and managed to mostly push away whomever still remained there. By the thirties and forties the feared social reforms were busily stabilizing northern México and even the lawless holdouts in the high mountain passes had to leave town. Until sometime in the 1970s Real de Catorce languished, eroding on the mountainside, with a population never higher than about three hundred farmers.

Except on sacred days, of course. Pilgrims still walked here to pay homage to St. Francis on his special October day, in the church famous for his altar. The Huichol still came here seasonally for their ritual peyote. Wanderers still made their way here, following the trail of these pilgrims. In the seventies some of these strays who found themselves here, stuck. Since then, Catorce has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Artsy and hippie type people have descended in relative droves, attracted by the ghost town atmosphere, the indigenous culture, and the abundant peyote. Affluent folks looking for a quiet, interesting location have bought and restored homes here. Restoration projects have rebuilt, to a degree, the center of the village, and continue to preserve the ruins of the Spanish towns on its outskirts.

The surrounding landscape of harsh rock and historical, abandoned ruins are appealing to the traveler looking for adventure; as is the quiet isolation. Global expatriates are opening shops and restaurants. The stunning Catorce Sierra backdrops appeal to movie producers, also. Today, so many tourists are sampling the peyote growing naturally across the hills that the powers that be fear for the Indian supply. The municipality has toyed with the idea of growing special crops just to assuage the demands of this non-traditional tourism. There are new cosmopolitan things happening in Real de Catorce, and the town is struggling to live again by capitalizing, finally, on the pilgrimages it has been inspiring for thousands of years.

Things I do not know about Real de Catorce

The name “Real de Catorce” translates into “Royal of Fourteen,” and it has become somewhat cosmopolitan to speculate as to why. No one really knows, but the same can be said of many place names in a country so filled with dramatically disparate etymologies. Explanations include stories of Spanish hardships (Indians may have killed fourteen early settlers, or maybe soldiers, on the hazardous altiplano passes near the towns inception), or odes to the location’s remoteness (fourteen bandits might have lived in a hideaway in the high valley in the town’s early years). More plausibly, It may have been the fourteenth silver strike in the area (the previous thirteen would have collected, with their equipment, at the site of the bonanza), or the fourteenth town in the northward expansion along the Sierra Madre range. Possibly is was named after thirteen other caravans had been less successful in discovering the high route through the mountains. Many other towns enjoy strange names decreed by the Spanish crown in the days of colonization. The long, official name of the town translates loosely to “royal village of the mines dedicated to our lady (of the immaculate conception) the Virgin of Guadalupe of the fourteen cotton trees.” Is that a clue? Or is it more accurately “… of the cotton trees of fourteen,” deepening the mystery? No one knows for sure, but in the case of Real de Catorce, everybody seems to be guessing.

Other mysteries about the town persist. Much of México is surrounded by folklore, and in a place with a history as haphazard as Catorce, fueled as it is by a hallucinogenic cactus, strange stories are prevalent. This might explain the rich conjecture around the village’s name. Or another example: it is hard to understand why the settlement persisted for the hundred and forty years between its beginning and the eventual discovery of the big silver vein that marked its success. Catorce Sierra is a lousy high mountain pass: it is almost impassible, for one thing, and so high up that it is much colder, dryer, and has thinner air than surrounding routes. It is far easier to simply walk around this high sierra. Local explanations insist that a vaquero, cooking by his campfire early in Catorce’s history, noticed the heat from his fire was melting the surrounding, silver-laden rocks. Apparently, this tiny amount of incidental silver sustained Real de Catorce for the better part of a century and a half, but this simplicity is unlikely. Perhaps the vaquero had noticed the peyote, and the “melting rocks” are only a sly allusion to his resultant chemical dependency. But is this a reason to doggedly raise generations of little Spaniards in the cold, the sun-bleached dessert? Fanciful explanations lead to more of the same, and they are also easy to invent.

Ghosts supposedly walk all of the mines, as well as the route leading into town (the Rag Man used to blow out the lights leading the way through the long Ogarrio tunnel). Goats are prevalent here, and so are Chupacabras, the nocturnal phantasms who prey on them, leaving behind a carcass drained of blood. At night, animals keep tourists awake: donkeys and horses bray loudly, dogs bark, and roosters crow. The sound is amplified by the barren vertical surroundings. It is known by the locals that at night animals talk to the ghosts living in the ruined towns surrounding the valley. Some nights it seems like they are having an argument.

To me, the most prevailing mystery is why this beautiful place is a ghost town at all. The facts listed in the history above in no way realistically account for the exodus of tens of thousands of people in less than three decades. There was no black plague, no volcano, nothing that would suggest the kind of cataclysm usually associated with a whole population picking up and disappearing all at once; and yet this has happened. There are very few records in other places to indicate an influx of Catorce immigrants in any great number at any time in history. The population of this prosperous town just up and vanished into destinations unknown between 1910 and the 1930s. By the time Franciscan restoration work, in the person of Father Albino Enríquez, began on the parish church in 1939, the only few families occupying the high Catorce Valley were farmers and goat herds. Why was the town so completely abandoned? This remains a much more compelling mystery that what the word fourteen is doing in the name.

Map: the state of San Luis Potosí.

An official website about Real de Catorce; includes some good photos.

View from Catorce Sierra © the Author

Quiet Reading Room

This is a quiet reading room. Often, I find it is uncomfortable to digest long tubes of columned text directly off a computer screen. This journal is dedicated to the collection, percolation, and ultimate integration of my personal experiences. Subjects that I want to examine and then talk about--sometimes talk a lot about--€”are presented here. This central content can tend to thousands of words, maybe millions. I was afraid that readers were leaving the presentation boggled, spinning, googly-eyed. Or perhaps when confronted with twenty-four inches, or yards, of monitor sprawl they were just giving up. I am not even certain that I have necessarily solved this inevitable content problem of modern information enjoyment, but here is what I have done.

After long and highly scientific routines manipulating double-blind control- and test-subjects, peer reviewed journal publications, and hours and hours of hands-on experimentation, I have crafted this quiet reading room. There is no scientific way to control the length of the articles I write, but careful handling can somewhat soothe the contextual presentation. In other words: I have dropped the traditional speculation about lexicon, and attacked the question of the matrix itself instead. Brilliant. After years of diligence what I eventually crafted is this reading room.

The walls are contoured to relax instead of constrain; the paper is made to soften instead of reflect. The light is dimmed--just so--€”to prevent strain, angled to prevent umbra, and color-coded to soften harsh red lights and deepen wimpy light reds. There is nothing I can do to control aural environment, but my recommendation is that it should be kept quiet. About ambient sound: these entries are probably best read as far as possible from emergency vehicles, preferably from beneath the muffler of a vintage fire fighter pilot's scarf, puffy old duvet, or snow that is still falling.

My theory is that the wide web world is filled with potent and material opportunities that are just too difficult to digest for many people to take part. Enjoyment of this stuff is regulated to the routines of crawlers and robots at the peril of humankind's peaceful future survival. In an attempt to delay this likely outcome: welcome to this quiet reading room. It is for people like you to relax, kick back, and hate my content for better reasons than the dizzying vertiginous specter of its lousy dpi presentation.

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