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. Continue reading