REAL DE CATORCE, Mexico – From atop the sun-scoured mountain called Cerro Quemado, the vast basin below might seem like any other desolate corner of the northern Mexico desert. Ribbons of asphalt and dirt cut through dun-colored landscape choked with cactus, creosote and the occasional tree. Trains, as if trudging ants from these heights, move north toward the border and on to Houston bearing auto parts, clothing and other treasures conjured by Mexican and Chinese hands.
Yet this expanse of apparent nothing is anything but. This is Wirikuta, the hallucinogenic holy land of a tiny and long-besieged indigenous nation called the Huichol. From this very mountain, many Huichol believe, was born the sun and the world as we know it.
Unfortunately for the Huichol, the mountains that cradle the Cerro Quemado also begat some of the planet’s richest veins of silver, which for more than two centuries filled the vaults of Spanish kings and local grandees alike.
Now, Canadian- financed plans to tap those arteries anew have set soul searchers against wealth seekers in a fresh echo of the nearly 500-year contest for Mexico’s essence.
“All this area is sacred,” said Marciano de la Cruz, 34, a Huichol who sells handicrafts in Real de Catorce, the crumbling town that since the late 18th century anchored the dozens of mines that once operated here. “Why can’t they put the mine somewhere else?”
In another age, the worries of the Huichols might have been ignored, the new mine opened with little fanfare.
But the 1994 Maya uprising in southernmost Chiapas has sensitized many Mexicans to indigenous concerns and beliefs. Advocacy groups have flourished, pushing ecology and human rights and economic fairness. So the Huichol’s cause has gained strength as environmentalists, anthropologists, New Age devotees and protesters of the “occupy everything” stripe lined up behind it.
Bolstering the Huichols support is Real de Catorce’s decades-long fame as a tourist mecca. Some are drawn to the town’s faded colonial architecture and ghost town vibe. Roman Catholics flock to its Baroque church, seeking miracles from St. Francis Assisi. Mexican and foreign vision questers – including many from Texas – come to gulp peyote. The movie “The Mexican”, starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, was shot here, as were other movies and scenes in Humphrey Bogart’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
“The noise is big because this place is known all over the world,” said Humberto Fernandez, 69, a Real de Catorce hotel owner and part-time Hollywood actor who’s among the minority of local residents to side with the Huichols. “There are hundreds of mines now operating in Mexico. But this place is so special.” Though the Huichol don’t live in the Real de Catorce area, they likely once did. But since the 1520 Spanish conquest, their homeland has been the rugged mountains 250 miles to the west.
But Wirikuta remains the most important of four main Huichol ceremonial centers. Huichol shamans have led pilgrimages here for centuries, seeking rain and other favors from the earth and various deities. Peyote, the hallucination-giving cactus that abounds in Wirikuta, plays a central role in their faith. “For them this is an altar,” said Eduardo Guzman, a non-indigenous social worker and vocal advocate in the Huichols’ fight. “They believe the metal is serving its purpose where it is.”
Executives of the Mexican subsidiary of Vancouver-based First Majestic Silver, which operates several other mines in Mexico, argue that modern mining techniques and tougher government oversight invalidate opponents’ arguments. The executives say cyanide, which in the past was employed to leach silver from rock, will be replaced by far less toxic methods. “That’s the difference of a modern mine,” said Juan Carlos Gonzalez, a top executive of Real Bonanza, the First Majestic subsidiary that would operate the mine. “The company is going to help with the protection of the sacred sites.”
Gonzalez said the company is investing $10 million to renovate a long-abandoned hacienda near Real de Catorce that will serve as its offices and the base for promised social projects. A school to teach locals how to make intricate silver jewelry is already in operation.