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HOME > Classical Novels > The Boy Travellers in Mexico > CHAPTER VI.
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"What is the meaning of Zacatecas?" Fred asked while the train was bearing them to the city of that name.
Neither the Doctor nor Frank could answer the question, and so the desired information was sought from the guide-book.
It was found that the name was derived from a tribe of Indians called Zacatecas, and also from a grass that grows there, and is known in Mexico as zacate. It should be remembered that the city is the capital of the State of Zacatecas. As it stands in a ravine, where very little grass of any kind can grow, it is probable that the appellation, so far as the grass is concerned, belongs rather to the State than to the city, which is the centre of the silver-mining district.
The city, which has a population of about 30,000, is anything but attractive, as its position in a deep ravine makes its streets very narrow, and crowds the buildings closely together. Its streets are badly paved, and it is so poorly supplied with water that the drains are not properly washed. Frank thought it averaged a distinct and different smell for each thousand of its inhabitants, and the youths were not surprised to learn that the mortality, especially among the poorer part of the population, is very great. The mountains rise all around and above the city, and the extent of the silver business is shown by the large number of buildings on the mountainsides, which mark the reduction-works and the entrances to the mines.
There is a ridge called the Bufa, or Buffalo, overlooking the city; it is the site of a little church, or chapel, that was built there more than a century and a half ago, and was at one time a favorite place of pilgrimage.
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 Ordinary offenders were required to do penance by ascending on foot to the door of the chapel, and extraordinary ones made the journey on their knees. The custom still prevails, though less so than formerly. Frank and Fred saw several pilgrims making the ascent, but were told that days, and even weeks, might elapse before another scene of the same sort could be witnessed.
The travellers paid a hasty visit to the cathedral of Zacatecas, which was formerly very rich in ornaments; most of them were removed at the time of the confiscation of the property of the Church by the Government, and are not likely to be restored. It is said that the baptismal font was of solid silver, and worth $100,000. The Jesuits have on the side of the mountain a fine church, which presents a very picturesque appearance and contains some interesting and valuable paintings.
The street scenes were much the same as at Monterey and Saltillo, with the addition of groups of miners and men employed about the reduction-works, droves of burros, or donkeys, laden with ore and other things peculiar to the industry of the locality. The youths wished to visit the mines and descend to the scene of operations underground, and consequently were not inclined to devote much time to the public buildings and the streets. They observed that the city had sufficient enterprise to be lighted with electricity, and to have a telephone, an exchange, and a fire
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 department, though the scarcity of wooden buildings seemed to afford very little use for the latter.
They were advised not to go into the mines, as the descent must be made by ladders which are not constructed like ordinary ones, but are nothing more than logs set upright and notched alternately on opposite sides. The miners ascend and descend very nimbly along these rude ladders, and accidents are rare; but strangers find them dangerous.
Frank and Fred were quite willing to take the risk, but the Doctor was more prudent, and suggested that they would defer their visit to the interior of a mine until they reached one with less liability to mishap. But this did not interfere with a visit to one of the reduction-works, for which a permit was readily obtained.
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"Before we make the visit," said the Doctor, "I want you to learn what the patio process of reduction is, so that you can see intelligently. The patio process is in use here, as it is throughout Mexico and South America generally."
In the hour they had at their disposal, Frank and Fred informed themselves on the subject, and were able to write as follows:
"The patio process was invented in 1557 by Bartolomé de Medina, and is so called because a patio, or yard, is required for its operation. The ore is crushed and ground fine in arastras. An arastra is a mill where an animal, generally a mule, walks in a circle and turns a millstone that rolls upon a floor, on which the material to be ground is placed. We have seen arastras at work several times since we came into Mexico; and they are not unknown in the south-western part of the United States.
"If there is any gold in the ore, fifty or sixty per cent. of it may be saved by putting silver or copper amalgam into the arastras. Some of the Mexican ores must be roasted to remove certain chemicals which they contain, but this is not the case with all of them. The paste from the
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 arastras is spread in heaps on the floor of the patio; after it has hardened somewhat by the evaporation of a part of the water it contains, it receives a quantity of salt, which is in proportion to the amount of silver in the ore. Then it is mixed by men with shovels and by the tread of horses or mules, and a day or two later a mixture of copper vitriol and salt is added.
"Then follows more treading and mixing; then quicksilver is spread over the mass and trodden in, and the next day there is another mixing and treading. These performances are repeated on alternate days, quicksilver being added one day and the mass being trodden the next, until the treading has been repeated seven or eight times. The quicksilver unites with the silver and forms an amalgam; the formation is carefully watched, and when it has reached the proper condition the amalgam is gathered up into hide or canvas bags. Some of the quicksilver is squeezed out, and the rest is driven off by evaporation and condensed in a pipe that runs into a tub of water."
"There's a good deal more," said Fred, "but I'm afraid if we say too much about the process we shall lead our young friends at home to skip the whole story. So we've made it short."
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"You've said quite enough," replied the Doctor, "to give a general idea of what the patio process is. Anybody who wants to know more can look it up in books on mining, or in cyclopædias."
Armed with the information they had obtained, the youths were able to understand intelligently the operations at the reduction-works that they visited. Frank thought they could find a cheaper way of mixing up the mass of ore than by treading it out with mules. Doctor Bronson told them that methods had been adopted in California and Nevada whereby all this work is done by machinery, but they were not generally approved in Mexico. "The Mexicans," said he, "are slow to change; they have done their work in this way for 300 years, and it is not easy to convince them that
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 there is anything better in the world. The Americans who buy or lease mines in Mexico, and adopt the plans that suit themselves, will afford some instruction by example; the Mexicans may learn by the example, especially if they find that the new process enables their competitors to make money out of a mine they cannot do anything with."
In one patio there were 120 horses at work, in gangs of twelve or sixteen, treading out the ore. "They are sorry-looking brutes," said Fred, "as their tails are shaved, and their bodies splashed with the black mud through which they are walking. To us it looks like ordinary mud, but to the eye of the expert I suppose it is altogether different, as we are told that a mining superintendent can determine almost at a glance how rich the mineral
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 is. Evidently the horses don't know the value of what they are treading, or they wouldn't look so dejected and forlorn. Horses and mules that are old and useless for anything else are bought for this work. The chemicals destroy their hoofs, and they do not last a great while. If there were a Mexican Henry Bergh he would most certainly try to put a stop to this cruelty.[3]
"The men who are working among the horses are about as unprepossessing in appearance as the animals. They wear only a shirt and trousers, and both garments look as though cloth was dear when they were planned. The trousers come only to the knee, and the sleeves of the shirt do not reach the elbow. The men who work in the mines and about the reduction establishments are carefully searched on quitting work, to make sure that they do not carry off anything of value; their garments are without pockets, and thus they have no places for storing away stolen property. But in spite of the absence of pockets, they would manage to steal some of the amalgam if they were not so closely watched and carefully searched.
"In some of the mines, they work with scarcely a thread about them, the heat being so great that clothing cannot be borne with ease. The miners generally work in small teams or gangs, and receive a portion of the ore taken out in addition to their wages, which vary from thirty to fifty cents a day. Sometimes the payment is altogether in ore, which is sold at auction on stated days.
"We asked if the miners ever gave trouble by striking, and were told that they had not yet become sufficiently Americanized to form themselves into labor unions. The people seem to be entirely content with what they receive, and as they have very few wants, and do not try to save anything from one week to another, it is not likely they will change their ways in a hurry."
"While we are on the subject," wrote Frank, in a letter describing the visit to Zacatecas, "we may as well say what we learned about silver-mining in general throughout Mexico.
"Silver was known to the Aztecs before the Spanish Conquest, but they do not seem to have made much use of it. They worked it into ornaments and various small articles, but among the treasures of Montezuma seized by Cortez the amount of silver was very small compared with that
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 of gold. The Spaniards had no idea of the immense value of the country when they conquered it, so far as silver is concerned."
"But they began developing the mines very soon after they captured the country," Fred remarked.
"Yes," responded Frank; "in the expedition commanded by Cortez there were many men who were familiar with the mines of Old Spain, and they were not long in finding the silver deposits of the New World. During the sixteenth century the mines of Mexico were extensively worked, and the working continued steadily down to the war for independence, when it greatly fell off. At the time of Humboldt's visit, in 1803, about 3000 distinct mines were in operation; Humboldt estimated that
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 the product of silver in Mexico from the Conquest, in 1521, down to 1804 amounted to $2,027,952,000, and the estimate since that time brings the grand total up to more than 4,000,000,000!"
"What a lot of money!" exclaimed Fred. "Suppose we had it, and wanted to take it to New York; how could we carry it?"
"Wait a moment," was the reply, "and I'll tell you."
Frank made a hasty calculation on a slip of paper, and then answered as follows:
"Roughly estimated, the weight of that value in silver would be 333,000,000 pounds, or 166,000 tons, estimating 2000 pounds to the ton. If we had it in the City of Mexico we would have to engage 416 trains of forty cars each, with ten tons of silver in each car, to take it to Vera Cruz. From Vera Cruz we would need 166 steamships carrying a thousand tons each, to take our precious freight to New York, and I'll let you figure out how many warehouses we would need to store it in, and how many policemen would be required to take care of it."
"Well," said Fred, "there's one thing you've forgotten; remember that the most of this silver has been brought from the mines on the backs of mules or donkeys. Reckoning 100 pounds to a load, how many burros would be needed to transport our fortune, supposing we had it?"
Frank figured again, and found that the silver product of Mexico from the Conquest to the present time would load three and a third million burros; putting them in single file, and allowing each burro ten feet of space, there would be 631 miles of them, and half a mile or so over.
"Let's go into the business of silver-mining," said Fred; "just see
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 what a lot of money has been made by it, and with very crude methods of reducing the ore! With the improved processes of modern times there must be a fortune for everybody."
"I don't know about it," replied his cousin; "anyway, we'll ask Doctor Bronson's advice before we venture."
The appeal to the Doctor resulted in a good deal of sound information, to the effect that silver-mining is generally unprofitable, and anybody should think twice before venturing into it. "And so far as the Mexican mines are concerned," he said, "there are very few of them that are doing more than paying working expenses, and some do not do that. Fifty or more American companies are engaged in this country at present; a few have made money, but the majority have not yet received back what they put into their enterprises, or any interest upon it. And unless I am misinformed, it is next to impossible to buy a good mine here; if a Mexican has a mine he is willing to sell, you may be pretty sure it isn't worth buying. The same rule holds good in all mining regions the world over, and is hardly necessary to discuss. The mining laws of Mexico require that the owner of a mine must work it for four consecutive months in each year, with four regular miners, under penalty
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 of forfeiture. Unless he complies with this law the mine becomes the property of the Government and is sold at auction.
"The laws of Mexico formerly prohibited foreigners not naturalized, or provided with special licenses, from owning or working mines; but this provision was repealed, and foreigners may now legally acquire mines in any part of the republic, provided one of the partners in each mining company resides in Mexico."
From Zacatecas our friends proceeded in the direction of the capital, their next stopping-place being at Aguas Calientes, 120 miles farther south and nearly 2000 feet lower in elevation. Zacatecas is 8044 feet above sea-level, while Aguas Calientes is 6179.
For the first part of the journey the railway winds among the hills; then it comes out into a rich and comparatively level country, where great quantities of corn, wheat, barley, and wool are produced. The plains and hill-sides were dotted with flocks of sheep, and the numerous fields showed that the land was favorable to farming industries.
Farming in Mexico is in a backward condition, the implements being mainly of the primitive type. American ploughs, harrows, mowers, reapers, and other farming implements and machines have been introduced, as already mentioned, since the advent of the railways, but the Mexican laborer does not take kindly to their use.
It is said that on the haciendas where improved farming implements and machinery have been introduced they have been maliciously destroyed or put out of working order by the peons; their hostility to labor-saving inventions is just as great as that of the same class of people in other parts of the world. During the construction of the railways some of the contractors brought a supply of wheelbarrows, to replace the gunny-sacks with which the peons have been from time immemorial accustomed to carry earth on their backs or heads. Being made to understand
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 that they must use the wheelbarrows instead of the sacks, they filled the vehicles with earth and carried them on their heads. The contractors were obliged to return to the use of the gunny-sack, as they found more work was done with it than with the wheelbarrow.
The Indians living in the neighborhood of the cities come down from their homes in the hills, bringing on their backs large baskets filled with garden vegetables, chickens, and other marketable things. The story goes that when an Indian from the hills has sold his burden, he puts a stone weighing fifty pounds or more in his basket, in order to give him a "grip" with his feet on the ascending road which leads to his home.
The agricultural laborers of Mexico are not an enterprising race, and care nothing beyond supplying their daily wants. They were formerly held in a condition of slavery, both before and after the Spanish Conquest; but slavery was abolished soon after the war of independence, and therefore the agricultural laborers, miners, and all other classes of working-people, for the last fifty years and more, have been free. The miners are said to be better workers than the farm-hands, as they are not migratory in their habits, and generally spend their lifetime
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 in the places where they were born, unless compelled to go elsewhere in search of employment.
Before the Conquest beasts of burden were unknown, and everything that had to be transported was moved by human muscle. The priests imported donkeys to take the place of men in carrying burdens, and from the animals thus introduced the present race of burros is descended. Cattle, sheep, horses, and hogs were brought from Spain previous to the importation of donkeys, which did not make their advent until the eighteenth century. Horses, cattle, and mules in great number are raised in Mexico annually, but the stock-growers do not pay much attention to other animals.
The foregoing was learned by Frank and Fred during their ride from Zacatecas to Aguas Calientes, and therefore this is its proper place in the narrative.
"There must be a hot spring where we are going," said Fred, "as aguas calientes means 'hot waters.'"
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"You are right," replied the Doctor; "there are hot springs in the city and all through this region, and the baths of the city are famous, like most hot baths, for their beneficial effects in rheumatism and other diseases."
Of course a hot bath was one of the things to be sought, and the travellers found it without difficulty. There was a bathing establishment in the city, but they were advised to shun it and visit the suburban baths, which were easily reached by the tram-way. The temperature of the water is 106° Fahrenheit, and the supply is abundant. The baths, combined with the general beauty of the place, have made Aguas Calientes a popular health resort, and with the improved accommodations that are sure to follow the advent of the railway the popularity will increase.
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"It's the prettiest city we have seen since we came into Mexico," wrote Frank in his note-book—"prettier than Monterey, Saltillo, or any other of our halting-places. It abounds in gardens, and the people seem to have a passionate fondness for flowers, if we may judge by the extent to which they cultivate them. Around the city the country is fertile, and there are finely cultivated fields, luxuriant vineyards, rich meadows, and everything to please the eye. It is said that artists have a special liking for this place, and now that I've seen it I'm not at all surprised.
"Whoever laid out this city had an eye to the picturesque, and realized that land was plenty, as he gave it one large plaza and ten smaller ones, and adorned several of the plazas with gardens. Then there are some fine buildings belonging to the Government. There are thirteen churches, a hospital, and a college; and I must not forget that there is a jail, which is well patronized, and is said to be very attractive for a jail. We have been through the market, which is supplied with more fruit than we have seen since we left Monterey, together with several varieties that we have not observed elsewhere.
"They have a population of about twenty-five thousand here, and the chief industry is in manufacturing. They make cloth of various kinds, including some fine woollens, and we have seen handsome work in leather and some very pretty pottery. Everybody we've talked with says that it's a pity it is not the time of the annual fair, which lasts from the 23d of April to the 10th of May, and brings in a large number of people from the surrounding country. There are many curious costumes and customs to be seen during the fair, which is a period of feasting for all who attend it. Mr. Janvier says it resembles our Thanksgiving, as everybody then lives upon cacones, or turkeys. The festival is of very ancient date, and was held before the advent of the Spaniards.
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"In such a beautiful city we have looked for beautiful inhabitants, but haven't found a great many, though it is proper to say we haven't been able to hold a review of the whole population. While walking in one of the gardens we saw several pretty girls of Spanish blood, accompanied by their duennas; for, according to Spanish custom, no young girl is allowed to walk out alone. They were dressed much after the fashion of Paris or New York, except that they wore the lace veil or mantilla over their heads, instead of the bonnet, which is the fashion with us. Their taste seems inclined to gaudy colors, derived perhaps from the luxuriance of nature around them.
"The lower classes of the people are much more picturesque than the upper, and the women more so than the men. Their skins are dark, and their hair and eyes are invariably black. They keep their teeth white, and are said to do so by a vigorous application of the juice of the soap-plant. A piece of the stalk of this plant is chewed until it forms a sort of brush; it contains a soapy juice that has cleansing properties beneficial to the teeth. Many of the young women are pleasing to look upon, but they are said to lose their good looks before reaching middle life, for the reason, no doubt, that they have to do a great deal of hard work. Their dress is a cheap calico, short in the skirt and generally bright in color, with a loose jacket or waist. If their heads are covered, it is with the rebozo chiquito, a scarf of silk or cotton that is wrapped around the head and shoulders, and has a long fringe, which falls down the back. The rebozo is very convenient for carrying a baby, who is suspended there exactly as babies are carried in Japan."

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