After Four Centuries, Silver Still Shines for Mexican Town
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
TAXCO, Mexico -- Nearly a thousand feet -- the height of a 100-story
building -- below ground, bare-chested men with headlamps worked in tunnels
as dark as
tombs. Soaked with sweat and dust, they drilled and blasted and dug, hauling out tons of rock as they have for more than four centuries, looking for silver.
"The hardest part is the heat, but you get used to it," said Guillermo
Ramirez, 44, who has spent 20 years working down here, eight hours at a
time in these
suffocatingpassageways filled with diesel exhaust, blasting the guts of a mountain that Spanish conquistadors first began mining in 1574.
The silver excavated here is processed into the earrings and necklaces
and serving dishes for sale on the busy shopping streets in Taxco, the
most famous silver town
in the world's leading silver-producing country.
Taxco's silver is well-known from New York to Tokyo, and this beautiful
jumble of red-roofed colonial buildings clinging to a mountainside 50 miles
Mexico City remains a pilgrimage site for silver shoppers.
"Probably eight out of every 10 houses in Taxco has its own silver workshop
-- there's the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom, the living room and
said Brenda Rojas, director of the William Spratling Museum. "Ninety-five percent of the people in Taxco live from silver. Taxco grew because of silver."
Once thought to be a dwindling resource, Mexico's silver has remained
a remarkably powerful economic engine and tourist draw. By some estimates,
a third or
more of all the silver ever mined in the world has come from Mexico's mineral-rich mountains, and production is still rising.
Mexico led world silver production last year with 2,744 tons, worth
about $380 million, according to the Washington-based Silver Institute.
Peru was second with
2,439 tons, followed by Australia with 2,059 tons and the United States with 1,969 tons.
Although world silver prices have dropped to less than $5 an ounce,
Silver Institute officials said demand has steadily increased, especially
for use in electronics. But
that demand will likely decline in the growing global recession, and Taxco has already felt the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
"The impact of the recession and terrorist attacks has definitely been
very strong," said Roberto Romo Navarro, director of Plateria Emilia Castillo,
a silver factory
Production over the years has increased in global silver mines, growing
7 percent last year. In Mexico, production has risen about 20 percent from
levels a decade
Taxco's silver-producing history began when Spaniards were drawn by
Aztec stories of great mineral deposits in the area. The initial silver
boom lasted from the
mid-1500s to the mid-1600s, followed by another boom in the 1700s.
The arrival of William Spratling, an American academic-turned-silversmith,
in about 1930, put Taxco on the map not simply as a silver mining town,
but a center of
craftsmanship as well. Spratling opened a shop in Taxco in 1931, and his designs were an enormous success.
By 1941 he had 120 employees and was selling silver to Neiman Marcus,
Saks Fifth Avenue and other stores. His customers ranged from Leon Trotsky
Nixon. Although Spratling died in 1967, his designs are still produced in Taxco, which has more than 300 silver shops.
Taxco once produced enough silver to supply the more than 20,000 silversmiths
who work here. But now much of the silver comes from mines elsewhere in
Mexico, where new deposits have been found. Taxco's one remaining mine yields at least 175 pounds of silver a day and employs more than 500 workers.
"People don't want to work in the mines anymore, so we've had to mechanize,"
said Raul Guerrero Valdez, an official with Grupo Mexico, who has worked
company's mines for 13 years.
Twenty years ago Taxco's mine had no problem attracting unskilled labor,
he said. But now, more workers in the area are educated and less interested
work in the mine, he said. The mine relies far more on machinery now, and the workforce is half what it was a few decades ago.
Ramirez, the miner, his face black from dust and a Virgin of Guadalupe
pendant hanging around his neck, used to work with an old-fashioned jack-hammer.
stands atop an enormous diesel powered drilling machine, driving a 15-foot, diamond-tipped bit into tunnel walls.
Amid the roar and fumes of the big diesel, Ramirez drills six-foot-deep
holes into these walls filled with lead, zinc and silver. In other parts
of the mine, men with
hydraulic jack-hammers drill similar holes.
Another crew packs the holes with explosives and blasts the walls, sending
muffled concussions rumbling through miles of tunnels. Rock loosened by
the explosion is
then hauled off in bucket loaders that appear in the darkness like roaring spiders with headlight eyes. Every day they haul out more than 1,500 tons of rock, which
yields about 43 tons of zinc, 11 tons of lead and about 175 pounds of raw silver.
Guerrero stopped to pick up a chunk of rock, his headlamp highlighting
the shiny flecks of zinc. He turned it over in his hands like he was handling
Somewhere in that rock, he hoped, was the mineral that still drives this town.
"Silver supports us," he said.
Researcher Laurie Freeman contributed to this report.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company