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Last updateFri, 19 Jan 2018 8am

Tlalpu-what? The little town in Michoacan that foiled the grinch

Can anyone think of a happy story connected with mining? Apart from the occasional strike-it-rich tale (generally plagued by unexpected barbs of misfortune), the world brims with tragic accounts of mining-related greed, exploitation, danger, slave labor, disasters, strikes, illnesses and poverty.

Mining in Mexico would seem to be no exception. While crazed imperialists and prospectors made Mexico, over the course of about 400 years, a prodigious source of gold and silver for Europe, all the aforementioned problems held sway here, leaving their ugly marks.

The 1937 mining disaster in a tiny Michoacan town, located about an hour from the state’s beautiful capital Morelia, was of a piece with the sorry history of mining. A horrific landslide probably seemed like a curse set in motion by some grinch and destined to usher into the pit of ruin the hamlet of Tlalpujahua. (Pronounced tlal-pu-HA-wa, the name apparently intimidates even some locals, who sometimes use the short form “Tlalpu.”)

The avalanche happened very early one very rainy morning when a mountain of muddy mining debris that had been left on the bank of the Tlalpujahua River by the French-founded mining company Dos Estrellas slid loose and buried the mine, stores, animals, homes and most of their inhabitants under about 100 feet of mud.

The disaster transformed what had once been a home to 25,000 people and Mexico’s most important gold mine — from a great silver-gold vein of the Veta Madre that had probably been utilized earlier by Aztecs — into a remnant of its former self. With the mine closed, most of the avalanche survivors eventually left Tlalpujahua, including one Joaquín Muñoz Orta, who in the 1950s took his family to Chicago and went to work at an artificial Christmas tree factory.

In the U.S. factory, Muñoz apparently learned to blow glass as well, because when he decided to return to Mexico and his hometown in the 1960s, he set up Adornos Navideños S.A. de C.V., a company that specialized in making blown-glass Christmas tree ornaments. Today it is the principal business in Tlalpujahua.

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