Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Trekking Mexico's Silver Route

"Receive your barbarous bearded guests from the coast, who brings a signal of God, which comes to us in mercy and pity. The time of our life is coming.”

“Heaven and Earth are in flames! People beseech forgiveness. Bread is lost, so the foods. Owls hoot and weep. Corpses piled at every crossing and flies swarm on.”

- Prophecies by Chilan Balam, Mayan Priest

La Via de la Plata (Silver Route) is the longest of the pilgrim routes in Spain starting from Seville in Andalucia to Santiago de Compostela. The name “Via de la Plata” derives from the Romans transporting silver and gold from the Iberian Peninsula. Via de la Plata in Mexico connects over 50 silver mines, including World Heritage sites along the northward route; beginning at Mexico City. The route was established by the Spanish Conquest to transport unearthed silver back to Spain. I have visited some of the sites along the path, such as Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Taxco (see the next blog entry), etc. and posted details in my travelog some time ago, but silver was not the main topic then. I’m glad I took an extensive trip to Bahio, based in Guadarajara, which was on the original detour silver route, but later changed when a straighter and more direct route was established.

It took Mexico about 300 years to become independent since Hernan Cortez invaded and massacred the Aztecs. At the beginning of this post, I quoted two prophecies by a Mayan priest. Cortez was probably seen as the return of the Mayan Deity Quetzalcoatl, feathered-serpent, but the first quote cautioned that the “time of our life is coming”. The second quote referred to the Seven Gods of Owls, predicting an ill omen. It was a prophecy of doom.

Even Cortez wasn’t named Viceroy, the ultimate title he had sought in controlling Mexico, though he acted as one. His soldiers, with little conferment of honors and grants, had to satisfy themselves with the encomienda and/or repartimiento systems with which they would get paid either by tribute or labor of indigenous Indians assigned to them. Frequent conflicts and revolts followed wherever interactions of Spaniards and Indians took place. Religion as a means to ease conflict and support Spain was not in place until much later.

Discovery of silver fueled more conflicts – in 1546 at Zacatecas and in 1552 at Guanajuato. Traders and merchants were assailed by Chichimeca Indians, nomads turned ferocious insurgents living in the highlands. Spaniards sent troops to conquer Chichimecans at the battle of Mixton. Prisons flourished, filled with insurgents, and Indians from the south increased in the silver mines. Epidemics hit them as well.

I was interested in this type of gradual colonization and I found a travel book written by a Japanese photographer, Shuji Abe. He was born in l947 in Hanamaki City, Iwate Prefecture (the region affected by the Tohoku Earthquake / Tsunami). Shuji visited Tepotzotlan, near Mexico City, and was impressed with the numerous exquisite baroque churches. He wanted to return to re-photograph them and he most likely spent half a year or so traveling along the entire Silver Route. It is a very unique travelog, an accomplishment earned by his legs and camera. There is none like it anywhere because no one has spent the effort to go on the same adventure.

I have fond memories of Tepotztlan. I still regret that I did not finish climbing the mountain Cerro del Tepozteco. On the map I found two Tepotztolans, one north and another south of Mexico City. I went to the one in the south. Shuji went to the one in the north. They had the same name, same spelling and it was easy to confuse the two. Both have a number of great churches. I realized we did not go to the same Tepotztlan because I did not see a Jesuit church in southern Tepotztlan. Otherwise, I used the same travel style as his, changing buses at major cities, and using taxi as a last resort.

In tracing the silver route, I was happy to find Dona Maria, or Malinche, the name of a Mexican volcano as well as the one who served Cortez as a translator and mistress, married to Juan Jaramillo and settled in San Juan del Rio, between Tepotztlan and Queretaro. I did not have time to visit a typical Hacienda, so I enjoyed reading his book and wondered why the deported Jesuits had possessed so many Haciendas (over a hundred).

Zacatecas, 540 kilometers from Mexico City, boast the best silver mines, even today, and the land used to belong to Chichimecas. This was all new to me. Before then, all I knew about the area was that it was close to Agua Caliente, where I found a number of Imamura surnames recently and started corresponding with them.

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