Chapter III. Basques in America. The Ogarrio tunnel
In the third chapter of the section, we learn the story of Vicente Irizar. He was born in Elgoibar on 9 March 1834, lost his parents before he was twelve years old and, seeing that the inheritance of his family -former steel manufacturers- was scarce, he decided to go to Mexico in search of new opportunities.
At just 16 years old, he boarded the sailing frigate Providence. The passage took 46 days, and the ship docked in a country ravaged by cholera. The disease nearly killed him. While he was recovering in San Luis de Potosí, he met Santos Sainz de la Maza, a wealthy Cantabrian landowner who ran several silver mines in the region.
'Don Santos' offered him a job in a remote town called Real del Catorce, and Vicente accepted without hesitation. He would then have appeared similar to his photographic images back then: tall and slim, with a sharp nose, large hands, and an intelligent gaze. The Guipuzcoan soon became Don Santos's representative, and he learned the mining business. Lawyer and author María Elena Yrizar still conserves her great-grandfather's stories, which tell a tale of blood and silver.
The population of the town of Real del Catorce went from 8.000 inhabitants to 20.000 during the mid-nineteenth century. "The drunkenness was astonishing, and knife fights in the middle of the street were the order of the day", Vicente recalled. He was there during Benito Juárez's three-year war, saw the French invasion of Mexico, and lived through numerous armed uprisings. As Mexican diplomat and poet Octavio Paz pointed out in more recent times, it was a period when there were more bullets than ballots. The town of Real del Catorce had rich silver mines but was isolated by steep mountains. The only way to enter was through dangerous mountain roads infested with bandits. To solve the problem and expand the business, Vicente proposed the construction of a large tunnel through which a tram could pass. His son Roberto directed the works of the tunnel, which they baptised 'Ogarrio', in memory of the Cantabrian town where Don Santos was born.
Unfortunately, social instability and the gradual devaluation of silver in favour of gold doomed the town. Its streets lost their splendour, the machinery was sold as scrap metal, and the mines flooded. Vicente lived through the 'enlightened despotism' of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz. He confessed to his family that he was "tired and irritated by so much disorder". Maria Elena confirms that her great-grandfather returned to Seville in 1906, shortly before the workers rose up against their bosses and lit the fuse of the Mexican Revolution. Nevertheless, Vicente never stopped dreaming of that remote Mexican town that he came to as a teenager. "Even in his final years, he believed that something could be remedied, and although he would not live to see it, they would go back to being what they were," explained his great-granddaughter. But the reality was quite different. When Don Vicente died in Utrera on March 14th, 1917, the town of Real de Catorce died with him".
Photographs by David Quintas and texts by Martín Ibarrola.
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