Surprises in Zacatecas

By Jimm Budd

Zacatecas - Coronel museumI first went to Zacatecas to check out rumors.

In that city, one of the most regal of the old colonial silver centers, I had been told, a ski lift runs to the summit of a snowless mountain.  They have a discotheque at the bottom of a mine shaft.  And some of Mexico's best art museums.

Once there I also learned Zacatecas has a Cathedral with bells that start to toll at dawn.  That Cathedral is perhaps the most lavishly ornate baroque church in a country of lavishly ornate baroque churches.  Little on the facade has been left uncarved.

The ski lift is more like an aerial tramway, a Swiss-built conveyance suitable for getting up an Alp.  In Zacatecas it crosses the city so that the community below resembles a village in some theme park.

The terminal is atop the summit of Bufa Hill ("People who walk up go 'bufa, bufa' when they get there," Mario, my guide, explained). 

Bufa Hill is where Pancho Villa won a big victory in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution.  Guides tell the tale and hustle you through the Bufa Museum, a collection of old guns, old photographs and old newspapers. 

One daily, recounting Villa's triumph, gave nearly as much play to an assassination in Europe; a Austrian archduke had been gunned down and dire consequences were predicted.

The tramway's other terminus leads to door of an elevator in a one-story building.  The elevator goes down to a mine.

Once at the bottom, you hike.

The silver mine had been hewed out three or four centuries ago by workers using nothing more than picks and shovels.  The shaft is as rocky and gloomy.  Guides tell horror tales of flooding and walls caving in.

After being shown traces of lead and zinc and silver, 

we were taken to an underground chamber that, come nightfall, now really is a discotheque.  The mine, it seems, might still be worked, but the disco brings in more money.

Outside, Mario stood waiting for me.

We took what I suspect was the long way through town, Mario slowing down to point out tiny parks, the Spanish aqueduct and palaces built centuries ago by mining barons.

The city, Mario explained, was founded 400 years ago but was not much more than a mining camp in its early days.  Conspicuous consumption became the rule in the 1700s and the architectural style of that era dominates.  Nothing that looks new is allowed.

Zacatecas teleferico gondola

Mario left me across the street from my hotel at what had been the local market and is now something of a mall, rather a micro-miniature of London's Convent Garden.  He suggested that I look around, have lunch and take a siesta.  There would be a free concert on the plaza by the Cathedral that evening if I was interested.

Interested I was.  Band concerts are part of the courting ritual in provincial Mexico.  The young congregate on the square.  Giggling senoritas under the watchful eyes of mamas and aunts stroll slowly around the bandstand; the local swains move in the opposite direction.  Now and then eyes meet, smiles flash and a boy finds himself walking with a girl.

Yet that night we had chamber music.  The musicians wore evening dress, although in the case of the flutist this was a bow tie clipped onto a polo shirt.  Only one of his colleagues had a real tux and he wore it complete with ruffled shirt. 

When morning came, there was Mario in the lobby.  This, he announced, was our day to see the art museums.  We began at a former monastery in a suburb called Guadalupe.  Here, three centuries ago, the Franciscans trained the missionaries who would eventually set forth to convert the heathen in Texas. 

The monks trained within would build San Antonio's Alamo.  Painters worked to inspire them.  The art of Mexico's viceregal era was religious art and, as might be expected, some of the best was done in the rich silver mining cities. 

Zacatecas has clung to its treasures.  Only in the past few decades have the great paintings at the Guadalupe Monastery been rediscovered and the buildings converted into what is one of the country's great museums. 

Zacatecas museum entrance

And there is more.  The late Pedro Coronel, regarded as one of  Mexico's finest contemporary artists, was a native son of Zacatecas.  Many of his works are on view at the Goytia Museum, along with paintings by Joan Miro, Salvador Dali and others of international reputation.

Coronel built his own museum, but rather than display his paintings in it he used the place to house treasures picked up during travels around the world.  The collection includes  centuries-old English prints, Hindu erotica and idols from the South Seas.  Hardly the sort of thing one expects to find in provincial Mexico.

Not to be outdone, Coronel's brother, Rafael, now has his own museum displaying an eclectic collection of masks, four thousand of them, in what had been an abandoned monastery.  Opened in the spring in 1990, the exhibit really captured my imagination.  There must be a lot of low brow in me, because I truly love those masks.


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