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HISTORY - Search for Silver: The Birth of Mexico´s Mining Industry

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Though often described as the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, archaeologists and historians now believe Aztlan was located in northwestern Mexico, or the Southwest of the United States. Along a path inscribed beneath the weight of ancient indigenous tradesmen and warriors, lies the ancient city of La Quemada, which has long been thought to be the legendary city of Chicomoztoc, where the Aztecs resided for nine years prior to arriving in Tenochtitlan. Ample archaeological evidence and records suggest an extensive trade system that traversed the Americas, for the trade of valued commodities such as salt, semi-precious stones and feathers. Most theorize this trade system was likely founded thousands of years before the ancient Toltecs, who preceded the Aztecs, though what remains pertinent was the wealth and power of the state-city of Tenochtitlan, and the importance of Mexico City during the Spanish Conquest.

As victors write our history, and indigenous narratives are generally dismissed or erased from colonial memory, so too have the cultural roots of this famous, UNESCO protected trade route, fondly called Mexico's Silver Road, or El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.

As a religious and political capital of the Aztecs, fed by the productive chinampa's of Xochimilco, Cortes eyed Mexico City for her importance in securing New Spain. The centrally located city intersected major trade systems that extended north, south, east and west, the northern route of which laid the foundation for El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro as an important intercontinental trade route that connected Asia and Europe, first through Veracruz to Mexico City, and later through the Manila Galleons that traversed the trans-Pacific route between the Philippines and Mexico's western port of Acapulco.

With echoes of trade items travelling to and from the unexplored north, it wasn't long before the Spanish were sent to investigate an area they called La Gran Chichimeca. Their route followed the ancient path, delivering them to what is now the city of Zacatecas, just 50 KM south of Chicomoztoc. Though many sources credit the Spanish Basque Conquistador Juan de Tolosa for discovering rich silver deposits in Zacatecas, historical records confirm that on September 8, 1546, it was Chichimeca warriors who introduced Tolosa and company to a massive silver deposit, a decision they would soon regret.

Upon disregarding indigenous rights to territorial ownership, several major events followed the happenings of that regretful September day - one being the immediate surveying of the region, with the construction of several silver mines, followed by the development of a massive system of handmade roads for transporting silver and goods. Increased need for sweat labour to construct roads, bridges and dangerous mines resulted in Spanish exploitation of indigenous groups, indenturing men as slaves, which only further fueled hatred of the colonizers, among the Chichimeca.

In 1540, the Chichimeca launched the 40 year Chichimeca War, which with the Spanish policy of guerra a fuego y a sangre (war of fire and blood), hastened the building of 7 major forts. Much to the chagrin of the Spanish, not only did the Chichimeca have precise aim with their arrows, which were capable of penetrating the armor of their invaders, they also surprised the Spanish by quickly mastering the art of war from horseback. It is said the Chichimeca were the first armed warriors of the Americas to ever resist defeat from the back of a horse.

As the Spanish had not anticipated such powerful resistance from the Chichimeca, they faced 40 years of bloodshed and war that closed the mines and compromised the trade supply route that was so important for enriching Spain through her new empire. By 1574, the Dominicans became critical of the Augustine and Franciscans, who had enacted this war of fire and blood, thus blaming draconian and cruel policies for fierce indigenous resistance. By 1584. the Bishop of Guadalajara proposed a solution, known as the Christian Remedy. Viceroy Alvaro Manrique de Zuniga endorsed this approach in 1586, and the Purchase for Peace program was implemented. Deceptive and opportunistic by design, this strategy involved the construction of new towns with priests, where the gathering of citizens would make conversion less complicated, and the use of other allied indigenous groups, to make this implementation feel less hostile towards the resentful and distrusting Chichimeca. Appeasing resistance warriors became the new trend of the day, with peace negotiations founded on the promise of suspending further military assaults on the Chichimeca, while also sending a plethora of trade goods, tools, clothing, food and red-haired women from the coast, as gifts of retribution. This was also the birth of the first parcels of land being designated to indigenous peoples, who didn't fully comprehend what they were giving away through these "peace" negotiations. This process also resulted in the return-through-purchase of silver and gold that had been confiscated from the Spanish during this 40 year conflict. Albeit, due to the end of bloodshed, and the arrival of exotic goods, the Purchase for Peace approach was successful for the Spanish, though many indigenous groups escaped full immersion, retreating to traditional territories they still inhabit today.

Today, indigenous resistance in the silver territories of Mexico continues. Thought to be descendants of the Guachichiles Chichimeca group, the Wixarika (also known as Huicholes) continue to resist the development and re-opening of silver mines in their traditional territories, which threaten their sacred peyote, in a land called Wirikuta. As indigenous pride and support for environmentally sustainable approaches for resource management is viewed as complimentary to ethical tourism, perhaps there is hope yet, that the invasive exploitation of hidden and lesser-known gems will lose value for another industry whose interests lie in preserving, rather than destroying, culturally sacred positions.

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