Last updateFri, 15 Mar 2019 3pm

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.

Christmas tree ornament production has not restored the town to its former glory as a gold-and-silver mecca. But now Tlalpujahua — a hodgepodge of humble buildings and plazas crowned, naturally, with a glorious church — boasts two large ornament factories, around 200 smaller ones, and many home workshops. Along its cobblestone streets, which lurch up and down at precipitous angles, there is a big, roofed Expo facility for selling ornaments and other Christmas decorations, a well known shop called Casa de Santa Claus, and several other thriving tourist-related industries, such as making typical Mexican candy, crafts, herbal liqueurs, pottery and more.

The diminutive town, with its population now restored to more or less its former level of around 25,000, also boasts a mining museum and, somewhat incongruously, an annual event around the Day of the Dead called the Festival Internacional de Cine Fantástico y de Terror Mórbido — International Festival of Fantasy and Morbid Terror Films.

In short, the ex-ghost town is alive and well, and has made tourism its principal product, especially tourism centered on the Christmas tree ornaments blown and painted by individual artisans. During the process of recovery, Tlalpujahua was designated one of Mexico’s “pueblos magicos” (magic towns).

All this is a giant step up from the town’s plight that fateful morning in May, 1937, when the already economically faltering town was entombed in mud.  See www.tlalpujahua.com for more details.

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