by Herb Felsted. Published in 2001.
Saltillo, San Luis Potosi, by way of Monclova or Monterrey, is the traditional gateway to central Mexico for most who travel by car from the central or eastern United States. And for those who do so, there is a surge of pleasure as a bend of the road reveals Matehuala at the bottom of a long, 12-mile descent.
You’ve just come 155 miles from Saltillo, and the last 65 have been heavy truck traffic on a two-lane road made up of an incredible number of pot-holes connected by short patches of black-top. Not to mention the searing, parched land on either side. Be happy!
The entire stretch from Saltillo was like that until four or five years ago, and construction on this last segment should be completed in another year or two.
WELCOME TO MATEHUALA
The final approach to Matehuala is hardly pleasing to the eye. The stark gray building on the right, with its guard towers and barbed wire reminds us that “social rehabilitation” is alive and well in this regional penitentiary, and mind your manners, please. Then come a couple of Pemex stations, usually hidden by masses of noisy and fuming 18-wheelers. We no longer gas up here — the attendants have become extremely clever and creative when it comes to delivering change. Along the highway a number of motels (until recently, one was a Day’s Inn) and restaurants offer rest and sustenance, and the chance for a welcome and refreshing dip in a pool.
A street angles off to the right, passing beneath a large arch welcoming one and all to the city. The highway bears left to by-pass the town proper. At the southern end of town is a duplicate arch; these two arches give the local folks great comfort.
It is said that when the Day of Judgment comes, these two arches will serve as handholds: God will grasp the city by them and lift it up to Glory! For many travelers, this commercial strip is their perception of Matehuala.
A few will pass beneath the northern arch and go on a few blocks to the Parque Vicente Guerrero in search of a cough syrup from a small pharmacy or some snacks from a nearby panaderia (bake shop), before returning to their journey or their motel.
Should they go a few blocks further, they would find themselves in a fascinating city of unexpected merit, replete with beautiful churches and buildings of both historic and architectural value, an abundant and colorful market, and friendly people willing to share both their time and culture. There is much more to Matehuala than is seen from the highway.
BACK TO THE PAST
Although we’ve complained about the old road for years, and still do about the section not yet finished, imagine what travel entailed when Spanish adventurers first penetrated this area! A license to colonize San Francisco de Goahtemala (Matehuala) was granted under date of July, 1550, although some scholars consider this document “apocryphal.” Charcas, 65 miles to the southwest, was founded in 1573 by miners and prospectors, and is generally accepted as the earliest authenticated urban site in the Altiplano Potosino, but of what matter?
Matehuala continues to celebrate its birth date as 1550. What is now the Altiplano was (and had been since perhaps the 13th century) the territory of the Guachichil (a sub-group of the generally unfriendly Chichimeca) Indians.
Hunter-gatherers, they often camped around a spring some four kilometers northwest of present-day Matehuala. At this spring (today Congregación de Ojo de Agua), the tiny settlement San Francisco de Goahtemala came into being through the determined efforts of several Spaniards under one Juan de Lahija (or Laixa). The landscape must have seemed terribly alien, yet it also must have exuded that suffused ethereal glow of yet undiscovered gold. The Guachichiles were understandably aggravated.
In due time the Spaniards chose discretion over valor and vacated the settlement by the spring. They moved only a few kilometers away to found their new settlement (later hacienda) of Matehuala.
The sources I have access to don’t indicate why the new and better site was in such close proximity to the old — viewed on the ground, it does not appear to be any more defensible, but this is now, and that was then. Legend has it that the new name, Matehuala, was derived from the Guachichil war cry (which they seem to have heard quite often) meaning “Don’t come!!” But gold there was and the Spaniards naturally kept coming.
Initially they traveled from the gold fields of Zacatecas, while later groups arrived from Mexico City by way of present-day Moctezuma and Charcas (the city of San Luis Potosí wasn’t founded until the discovery of extremely rich gold-bearing veins, or vetas, in 1592). There was always the attraction of the mineral gold for the secular, and the magnet of the gold of heathen souls for the clergy.
Interestingly enough, many Tlaxcalan Indians, highly favored because of their help in the conquest of Tenochtitlan (still within memory), were brought north to help in the pacification of the Guachichiles and the settling of their lands.
Matehuala became a way stop, much as it is today, for travelers trekking to and from the newly established Monterrey and San Luis Potosí. But some of those travelers strayed into the mountains to the west, and more gold was found.
A short distance away is Villa La Paz, and on beyond Cerro del Fraile, high atop Cerro Puerto del Aire (in the Sierra de Catorce) lies that once fabulous almost-ghost town of Real de Catorce, towering more than 3300+ feet above Matehuala valley.
As we enter the Matehuala of today, we enter an ancient city which appears rather modern. It does not have the treasury of colonial buildings so apparent in, for example, San Miguel de Allende, or for that matter, San Luis Potosí. It has been a more provincial city throughout its history, having been first an hacienda de beneficio, or ore concentration center. There were several other haciendas de beneficio in the area in the mid to late 1700s, such as San José de Ipoa.
The process was simple; first, the raw ore was brought to the hacienda by whatever means – carreta (cart), burro, etc. The large chunks of rock were broken up by hammer, then washed to get most of the country rock separated. The remaining smaller rocks were further reduced and washed until ready for additional processing with heat and/or chemicals. The final crushing was often accomplished by women, or men who were partially crippled from birth or accident. There are many other identified haciendas (now in ruins) in the vicinity of Matehuala. Some of these also were initially haciendas de beneficio, but as the mines played out, they turned to agriculture and ranching. One, Hacienda Solis, produces fine mezcal, and is occasionally open to visitors.
SEEING THE PAST
The visible remnants of Matehuala’s illustrious history are rather subtle. There is, of course, the bold and magnificent Parroquia de la Inmaculada Concepción, facing the Plaza del Rey (also called Jardín Juárez), noted for its similarity to St. Joseph’s in Lyon, France. While not representative of the antiquity of Matehuala, it is something of which the matehualenses take great pride. An earlier Templo, dating from the mid-1800s, had existed on this site, but due to structural concerns it was razed about the turn of the century, and the present Parroquia begun almost immediately. There should be no concerns about its structural integrity – its foundation is 18 feet thick.
Due to various economic setbacks in Mexico during the 20th century, the church still remains unfinished, although one must look closely to verify this. It is pleasant to stand in the shade and comfortably examine this majestic structure. A unique possession of the Parroquia is the statue called El Cristo de Matehuala, known since the 1700s in Matehuala and thought to have been made in Mexico City long before that. Not until the mid-1800s was it discovered that the statue, nearly 6 feet tall, was made of cañita, or corn paste.
MERCADO DE ARISTA
No Mexican town can exist without its market, and Matehuala is no exception. Across from the side of the church is what might be called the hard luck Mercado de Arista. Initially an open air market, a permanent structure was inaugurated in 1894. In 1940 it was demolished.
Herb Felsted (and along with wife Carla) was the publisher of Mexican Meanderings, one of our favorite newsletters.