By Antonio Ramblés
San Luis Potosí Unmasked
San Luis Potosí sits astride the highway that links Saltillo and Monterrey to México City, and completion of the most recent link in the Highway 80 toll road has cut the drive from Guadalajara to just under four hours.
I’ve driven it dozens of times on the way to and from the States, stopping no longer than needed to grab a night’s sleep at a roadside hotel, but I’ve decided to begin seeing it one attraction at a time with each new trip.
It was impossible to resist choosing the Museo Nacional de la Mascara – the National Mask Museum – as my first stop. Its collection numbers more than 25 thousand indigenous masks and dance costumes, most of Mexican origin. There are also a few Asian masks, mainly from India.
San Luis is one of México’s colonial Silver Cities, and mines in the surrounding mountains were for two hundred years some of the nation’s most prolific producers of minerals and precious metals.
No surprise, then, that Spanish added the word Potosí – ” fortune” – to the city’s name when silver was first discovered, or that the image of a mine entrance flanked by two silver and two gold bars appears on the city’s coat of arms.
Today mining only accounts for a fraction of the local economy. Only the deteriorating remnants of the American Smelting and Refining Company’s offices in the city’s Colonia de Los Gringos, and ghost towns like Cerro de San Pedro in the surrounding mountains testify to mining operations that continued until the Second World War.
The metro area is now home to more than 2 million people, and mining has now been replaced by manufacturing, services, and agriculture.
Many foreign companies have been attracted by its new and massive multi-modal logistics center. San Luis is the only inland port in Mexico to be designated a Free Trade Zone.
Founded only twenty-five years after the Spanish conquest of México, San Luis is one of the nation’s oldest cities and one rich in historical tradition.
In the 1860’s, it was for a time the seat of President Benito Juárez’s government during the French occupation of México.
Fifty years later, Mexican patriot and president Francisco Madero was held there under arrest until his escape in 1910, when he called his countrymen to revolution with his Plan of San Luis.
The colonial center is home to many beautiful and historically significant colonial buildings, and has been closed off to vehicular traffic.
Only a couple of miles off the expressway, I park curbside at the Alameda Central, a public garden park that covers more than ten city blocks.
From there it’s a walk of just one block past the Art Deco Cine Alameda to the Plaza del Carmen, and from there only two blocks further to the Plaza de las Armas.
The museum is housed on the Plaza del Carmen in the magnificent “Marti Palace,” which was completed in 1897 as the residence of a prominent landowner and miner.
After it passed from family ownership, the building was home to various federal government agencies until 1982, when it became the home of dance masks donated for public viewing by engineer and collector Victor Jose Moya.
The Spanish tried unsuccessfully to ban the use of masks, which was a well-established part of ritual life in Mexico when they arrived.
Most are made of wood, but it’s not uncommon to find others made from leather, wax, bone, cardboard, or paper mache.
Their uses are varied, but they are almost always a part of ceremony and ritual, appearing most often in theatrical dance and processions.
Priests used masks to incarnate deities, and warriors wore masks of predators like the jaguar and eagle warriors in the belief that they would be imbued with the animal’s strengths.
Since Mexican Independence, mask traditions have continued to evolve into forms that depict Mexico’s history and popular culture.
It’s taken me less than half a day to walk the Centro Historico and the museum, and it’s been a delightful break from a long road trip.
For the next trip I’ve set my sights on the city’s The Museo del Centro Taurino Potosino (Potosí Bullfighting Museum), and its collection of bullfighting photographs, posters, clothing and equipment that once belonged to famous matadors
Teatro de la Paz and Templo del Carmen, Plaza de las Armas, San Luis Potosí, Mexico
Marti Palace interior, San Luis Potosí, Mexico