Making our way out of a maze

Goat paths laced the hillside. My son and I picked our way carefully among the scrubby thorn bushes, broken terrain and low trees a month ago. By tacking along the trails we made it into the heart of a ruin.

Goat paths laced the hillside. My son and I picked our way carefully among the scrubby thorn bushes, broken terrain and low trees a month ago.

By tacking along the trails we made it into the heart of a ruin. Thick masonry walls, broken down archways marked the site of the colonial era Garrapata silver mine.

Within only a few years of their conquest of the Aztec Confederacy in 1521 Spanish conquistadors reached the valley below. Already widely known as a “place of metals” to the Purepecha, and other first peoples of the region, the gold that had drawn Aztec interest there now whetted Spanish desires. By the 1550s the first rich veins of silver had been discovered.

In the hills above Guanajuato, Mexico some 380 kilometres northwest of the capital a rush of miners began digging out the wealth that would sustained an empire for centuries.

This ore, once refined, filled the treasure fleet galleons sailing to Europe from the Mexican port of Veracruz. One, of the top three historic silver mining districts in Mexico, Guanajuato – according to one estimate I found – produced more than 1 billion ounces of silver and nearly six million ounces of gold during the Spanish colonial era.

Locals proudly proclaim that at their peak production in the 1700s, the silver mines of Guanajuato and neighbouring La Luz were the richest in the world.

As many names of old mines such as Las Rayas, Tepeyac, Valenciana and Santa Ana dot the map as headframes and old adits dot the land. Nearly 475 years after the first Spanish miner picked at the ground here, mining still has a key role in the economy. A guard at El Rosario, a mine now owned by Great Panther Silver Ltd. out of Vancouver, told me that the kilometres of mine shafts below us now linked a number of the old workings together as they targeted newly identified mineralization areas.

The maze of tunnels probably had more logic and right angles to them than the webwork of streets and passages in city of more than 150,000 in the valley below. Guanajuato fills that winding valley in a very haphazard way. At a base altitude of 2,080 metres, scattered settlements serving neighbouring mines climbed the hills. They eventually grew together through the spontaneous urbanization of suitable sites on very rough terrain.

Narrow pathways, only occasionally wide enough for a vehicle, angle off in all directions. One famous alley, the Callejon del Beso, puts fronting upper-storey balconies less than a metre apart – narrow enough for lovers from rival families to kiss, or so the story goes.

In this UNESCO World Heritage Site steep cobblestone walkways and stairs give the city a unique ambience. Without a very detailed map wandering around the cityscape can be very disorienting as the roof of home links to the floor of the neighbouring house above it.

One rule I quickly learned was when lost or confused, just head down. The Avenida Juarez basically paralleling the former course of the Guanjuato River provides the central line along the bottom of the valley to reorient the lost wanderer.

We all need to reorient ourselves occasionally.

The current election serves as one of those points calling for us to reflect again on what direction we need to go.

In the welter of attack ads and party bafflegab it can be hard to figure a clear way out of the confounding maze to the ballot box. Key environmental, anti-poverty and indigenous voices have barely been heard above the din. Important issues, like housing, foreign aid, increasing societal inequality or military priorities, have vanished or have never been raised.

Focusing on the basics might help. What kind of world do you want to leave for your grandchildren and subsequent generations?

We are laying that foundation right now.

On May 2 take a step towards getting out of the maze: vote.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.

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