This article is from the August 2000 - September 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Matehuala – Not Just a Highway Stop

by Herb Felsted 

Herb and Carla Felsted have produced an excellent Mexico travel newsletter, Mexican Meanderings, for several years. We are grateful for Herb’s contribution. 

Saltillo, 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 blacktop. Not to mention the searing, parched land on either side. By 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.  

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 the 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 bypass 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.  

Although we’ve complained about the old road for years, and still do about the section not yet finished, imagine what travel entailed when the 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 Altiplano was (and had been since perhaps the 13th century) the territory of the Guachichil (a subgroup 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 the memory of man), 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 then 3300 feet above Matehuala valley.  

As we enter 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 1700's, 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 estate-bottled mezcal, and is occasionally open to visitors.  

The visible remnants of Matehuala’s illustrious history are rather subtle. There is, of course, the bold and magnificent Parroquia de la Immaculada 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 in which the matehualenses take great pride. An earlier Templo, dating from the mid-1880's, 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 1700's in Matehuala and thought to have been made in Mexico City long before that. Not until the mid-1800's was it discovered that the statue, nearly 6 feet tall, was made of cañita, or corn paste.

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. Initally an open air market, a permanent structure was inaugurated in 1894. In 1940 it was demolished due to poor construction. Reconstructed, it was partially burned and re-reconstructed twice in the succeeding years. Of what you see today, only the front is original.  

Inside, however, there is much that is original. Rows of brilliantly colored and imaginatively formed piñatas hang from on high, begging to be filled with candy. Displays of fruit have intricate natural color designs created from artistic placement of oranges, grapefruit, plums, and other colorful exotics. The more subdued colors of vegetables receive the same loving care in their arrangement. And the wondrous assortment of carry bags, mats, padding, and sacking woven from ixtle, fiber derived from the agave family of cactus, seems endless. This cactus has also provided mankind with early needles (the thorns), emergency animal feed and moisture (the leaves when stripped of spines), and above all, the vino de agave (wine of agave, or mezcal).  

The nearby business center is vibrant. Traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, flows in a gentle hurry along streets that are now straight, now crooked. Past shoe stores, drug stores, photo supply shops - have you a problem with your telephone? Do you need a saddle? If it isn’t in the mercado, you’ll find it here.  

A few blocks away, clustered about the heart of the old city (the Plaza de Armas, also called Plaza 5 de Mayo), are several sturdy buildings of note. Fronted by a series of arches and a lovely shaded covered walkway, or porch, the Casa de Los Portales was built of quarried rock in the 1700's and probably was a part of the Hacienda Matehuala. The building extends back along corridors on either side to a lovely patio with fountain and rooms exiting around. Further back is still another patio with a large side entry, now sealed, through which carriages could enter and be parked while the guests were entertained and the horses removed for feeding or stabling.  

As with so many of the remaining buildings from way back when, the Casa de Los Portales was many things. For long it was the residence of movers and shakers of the time (Father Hidalgo was a guest here for a couple of months in 1811). In the early 20th century it saw service as the Hotel San Luis, then later as a home and photo studio. Since 1980 it has housed the administrative offices of the Federal Electric Commission.  

Not far down the street Don Benito Juárez held his government together for a week or so at the very beginning of 1864 while en route to Monterrey and Saltillo, a jump ahead of the Imperial forces. Thus, Matehuala had its “15 minutes of fame” as the capital of Mexico.  

Around the corner and still facing the Plaza is the hardly overwhelming Presidencia - the administrative heart of the city. There are undoubtedly many stories to be told of the building, and perhaps even more about the people who have occupied it over the years, but unfortunately I am not privy to any of them. The present building has roots in the past; probably it was originally a structure of the old hacienda, but it has been remorselessly modified and remodeled over the years to where it has much the character of any other Palacio Municipal.  

We have found, however, that the Presidencia of any town is often the place to ask for information if no tourism office is about. Persistent inquiry will ferret out somebody in one of the many offices who has an interest in and a knowledge of a place. If you show an interest and ask questions, you’ll be rewarded with a broad smile and a flood of information.

The Iglesia de San Salvador de Orta faces the Casa de los Portales across the Plaza de Armas. This church, perhaps the earliest in Matehuala (after Neustra Señora de Guadalupe in Ojo de Agua), is on the site where in 1648 there stood a simple, primitive place of worship (possibly the Capilla of the hacienda) consisting of adobe walls and straw roofing. By the middle of the next century San Salvador de Orta was well on the way to its present character, as it and other substantial buildings (such as Los Portales) were anchoring Matehuala. It is fun to sit in the shade and speculate on what other buildings might have surrounded this Plaza, and what was their story and their fate.  

In the small callejón beside the church, Father Juan Villerías died (either in battle or by assassin) on May 13, 1811, while leading a small force fighting for Independence. A plaque in the wall is dedicated to him, and he is buried in the small cemetery a few feet away. These were tough times, even in a rather out-of-the-way place like Matehuala.

Another building downtown which took our fancy is the Hotel Matehuala. Not really an historical monument (built sometime in the mid-1800's, we’re told), it was the two-story Hotel España, named for the place of birth of its owner. Suffering along with Matehuala during the Revolution, it was burned in 1913 (as was the Presidencia and a number of commercial buildings), but phoenix-like, it arose under new management as the Hotel Matehuala. There has been little renovation since that time – its first floor lobby is dark and cavernous, with little furniture. Spartan rooms are glimpsed through high doors, and at one end the shadowy full size replica of a horse peers at potential guests, as it has been doing since we first saw it some ten years ago.  

Of all the churches visited, our personal favorite was the century old Templo del Santo Niño de Atocha. A little out from the center, this church was more like a neighborhood place of worship. Perhaps because it was the smallest, it had a feeling of intimacy which the larger, more majestic structures lacked. The patronage of this small church has insured that maintenance and whatever necessary restoration of the bóveda ceiling, wall paintings, choir loft, pulpit, etc., has been expertly and lovingly done.  

Regardless of its remote location, Matehuala was not without culture. Around 1875 the Teatro Lavin was constructed for the entertainment of the people. Light musical, comedy, and whatever else came along was the fare, until 1906, when the structure (probably of wood) was condemned. The foundation was adjudged to be solid, and the Teatro Manuel José Othón (named for the famous poet of San Luis Potosí who died of emphysema in that year) arose in its place. When full, some 250 people can be accommodated below and in the balcony of this still-active architectural gem.  

The evidence of the area’s mining activity abounds. A few kilometers to the northwest is the village of Villa La Paz. La Paz came into existence in the early 17th century, only shortly after Matehuala, and was a mining center long into the 20th century, producing lead and zinc, along with minor amounts of gold and silver (the mines closed around 1990). In 1892, a small narrow-gauge interurban railway was opened between the Santa María de la Paz mine and the Plaza Principal of Matehuala. The single car making this run was La Nigua (the flea). It is no more.  

Today in La Paz the reminders, and remainders, are huge areas of mine tailings, idle machinery, and a place, sleepy village with its Parroquia de la Virgin de la Paz. There is an imposing overlook from near the top of a hill on the edge of a soccer field created on the flattened surface of another massive tailing. From here, we could glimpse the light outline of Matehuala’s Parroquia. On the way back down, we noticed an interesting example of recycling – near the edge of town a very small dwelling did have a fence around it, and the gate was well fashioned from an ancient bedspring.

Over the past few years, Catorce (original name: Real de Minas de Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción de Guadalupe de los Alamos de Catorce) has regained notoriety as tourists discovered an honest to goodness “ghost town.” We visited some ten years ago and were enchanted. We visited again this year and were disenchanted. Where we had once watched an intercity soccer match (just after exiting the Ogarrio Tunnel), there were now only parked cars and buses. The street past the Templo de Purísma Concepción was so full of commercial stalls and visitors that it was difficult to move. Inside, the Templo was, as ever, a quiet and contemplative retreat. Across from the Templo, the Casa de Moneda (the Mint), where the first official coins of Mexico were stamped, now has a “Silver School” on the top floor. It is in a dark, cramped, shabby room with two men turning out jewelry for sale while others kibitz – a far cry from the superb school located on the eastern outskirts of Zacatecas.  

We walked up the hill to the Templo de Guadalupe, past a motel which once had a brick birdhouse. Visitors on rented horses constantly passed. The refurbished Palenque was closed. We had planned to spend a couple of nights in town, but there was no room at the inn(s). Perhaps because Paramount Pictures was filming El Mexicano starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. Neither of them was on site, but somebody pointed out to us a person said to be Brad’s bodyguard. Not a trip highlight.  

We will come back some time to Catorce, but it will take a while for this experience to wear off. In the meantime, I’m glad I have slides from the first trip.  

It was a pleasure to get back down the hill to Matehuala, where a more natural rhythm and ambience exist. Far more than a rest stop between here and there, Matehuala is deserving of a traveler’s time and attention.