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Sacred Silver

by Linda Thomas

Taxco (TAS-co) is a town that tumbles down a southeast slope of the Cerro del Atachi in southern Mexico, halfway between Acapulco and Mexico City. Sheltered from the wind by these mountains, the town is vividly Spanish, composed of square white houses, stores, and public buildings tiled with red clay. Today, the economy of Taxco rests on the silver that has been found in these mountains and on the talents of local silversmiths. For better or worse, silver has steered the course of Taxco's history.

Before the Spanish conquest, the native people mined silver, and they used it to trade with other people for food, tools, and the necessities of their lives. Within thirty years of Columbus's landing in the Americas, the Spanish conqueror Cortés reported finding the rich silver deposits of Taxco. Using native people as laborers, the Spaniards mined the silver and sent it to Spain where it became the candelabras, chafing dishes, and sacred crucifixes and altars of Seville and Madrid. The Spanish conquerors in Central and South America, unlike the English in North America, engaged the native people by indenturing them, converting them to Catholicism, and by marrying with them, thus creating the people and culture of what was eventually to become Mexico. In doing so, the Spanish conducted the great trade of the Spanish conquest: an exchange of silver for the cultures and religions of the native people.

When the Spaniards left Taxco for richer, more accessible silver deposits elsewhere, the Taxco mines were abandoned; for the native people, the European value of silver had little meaning. In the early eighteenth century, however, another Spaniard named Jose de la Borda arrived, rediscovered the Taxco silver, and within fifty years, amassed forty million pesos by mining and exporting silver. Borda repaid the town for his silver fortune--and for their labor--by building roads and schools, and by erecting one of the most beautiful churches in Mexico, San Sebastian y Santa Prisca--a monument to the new religion of Taxco.

Outside, Santa Prisca is remarkable because it is made of porous indigenous stone painted a pale rose that absorbs and reflects light throughout the day. Inside, the church bought with silver is resplendent with what Borda, the great Catholic patron of Taxco, must have understood as sacred--pilasters, arches, vaults, nine altarpieces, Corinthian capitals, as well as foliated, floral, fruit, and shell relief. There are cherubs clutching palms and cherubs peeking out from gilded garlands. There are statues of saints and of Mary in her many appearances--Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and Our Lady of the Pillar accompanied by seven archangels.

And there are, as if to remind the faithful of the sacred price of zeal, two large Miguel Cabrera paintings of the patrons of the church, Sebastian and Prisca, in their martyrdom. Both early Christians in Rome, Sebastian was a military captain who died before a company of archers, his body pierced with many arrows; and Prisca was a ten-year-old girl who was beheaded for her faith. The awful actuality of bleeding slashes and puncture wounds is diminished by the faces of the two martyrs, their eyes cast upward and their mouths half open as if in the ecstasy of the death moment, they see heaven.

Jose de la Borda fell on hard times during the building of Santa Prisca-- overextended, no doubt--but ultimately he finished the church, and in the center of Taxco is Plaza Borda, a small park planted with Indian laurels in his memory. This morning, I am sitting on a bench in Plaza Borda, resting from my walk up and down the steep streets of Taxco looking into the many, many silversmiths' shops filled with jewelry, serving ware, and art objects. Hoping to buy some object of silver, something sacred perhaps, I have found nothing that seems just right. And now I am thinking about silver, Jose de la Borda, the people of Taxco, and the things we hold sacred.

All around me is the evidence of the Spanish conquest of this place once called Tlaxco, a word that in the Nahuatl language means "ball court." However the people lived here before the sixteenth century--in buildings marked with stone serpents and the sacred masked faces of a sun or water god--the evidence is gone now. Everywhere are the red tiles and arched doorways of Spain, and the gigantic, looming monument to Spanish Catholicism. The people who live here now are Catholic, a mixture of native and Spanish blood, and the silver that was always in the mountains of Taxco today insures that no one falls into debt, no one resorts to thievery, no one leaves.

Just a few minutes ago, I spotted a silver vendor without a shop, displaying his wares at a Plaza corner. He was picturesque in the way such sights can be to a tourist like me--his red shirt and his vest woven of many colors, his skin the color of red clay, his broad grin when I approached. Laid out on his cloth-lined table was a twinkling array of small silver trinkets. There were a hundred crucifixes, many hung with a gruesome replica of the dying Christ, many studded with semi-precious stones. There were tiny censers, replicas of those used in Catholic worship, their tiny pots shaped like pyramids or fat bowls. There were medallions engraved with the faces of martyrs, bleeding sacred hearts, mournful virgins.

And there were six silver objects that finally drew my eye and made me open my purse. These were contemporary figures of men and women--none of the Medieval veils and Roman togas. These figures were naked in the way no Catholic saint is ever naked, naked buttocks, breasts, thighs. When the vendor sensed my interest, he picked up one of the figures, held it in the palm of his hand, and demonstrated to me the way the bodies could be rotated along silver pins placed at joints--knees, elbows, waists--so that the silver man and woman performed the sex act. The vendor offered several styles--reclining, standing, hands placed tenderly to heighten the moment. As he pointed out the official government stamps on each--.925 sterling--I saw the half-open mouths of the silver man and woman, the near-religious ecstasy of their coupling. One of these is the object of silver that I bought in Taxco.

Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature.

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