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Saturday, August 7, 1999 Published at 16:42 GMT 17:42 UK

From Cornwall to Mexico

The tin mines of Cornwall have an unusual link to Mexico's silver mines

By the BBC's John Egan

Sitting at a rough wooden table in a cantina, Juan Skewes Ramirez, munched away on a Cornish pasty.

A short, stockily built man, with a cream-coloured golfing cap covering his sunburned balding head, Juan looks more like a French peasant farmer, rather than a retired Mexican silver miner, who'd toiled for years in the bowels of the earth.

Both the Cornish pasty held in his huge meaty hands and his first surname are testament to an era of Mexican history of which Juan is particularly proud.

The surname came from his great-grandfather, John Skewes, a tin miner who left his native Cornwall in the 1820's to find fortune in the silver mines of the Sierra Madre mountains.

Derelict and abandoned

Long before the Spanish conquered this part of the Americas, the Sierra Madres had been delivering up a precious bounty of silver and gold - but by the time Mexico's war of independence had ended in 1810, the silver mines here were derelict and abandoned.

The problem was water - the deep mines were flooded and their Mexican owners had neither the technology nor the expertise to exploit the remaining reserves of silver.

Setting sail

And so it was that in 1824, four ships set sail from England with more than 100 Cornish miners and engineers and a cargo comprising 1,500 tonnes of equipment.

Having landed on Mexico's Atlantic coast, the Cornish contingent began a 300-mile trek into the mountains. This journey was so arduous that almost half of them perished.

Undeterred, the survivors continued, and almost a year after setting foot on Mexican soil, the caravan of more than a thousand mules and miners marched into the town of Real Del Monte, 9,500 feet above sea level.

Like fishermens' shacks

[ image: Cornish pasties re-invented]
Cornish pasties re-invented
Mexicans like to describe Real Del Monte as an English-style town. Its houses are painted brightly - shades of mustard, green, terracotta, ochre, orange and yellow glint under the clear bright blue sky.

But what makes Real Del Monte look English to Mexican eyes is the almost complete absence of flat concrete roofs - the visiting miners liked their roofs to be pitched, and so the houses that cling to this Mexican mountainside, have red-painted roofs made of corrugated tin, which wouldn't look out of place on fishermens' shacks in Cornwall.

The Cornish Beam Engines brought by John Skewes and his compatriots were used to pump water from the flooded mineshafts.

Soon they were flourishing again. So much so in fact that one twentieth of the world's total production of silver over the past 500 years is said to have come from the mines in and around Real Del Monte.

But while silver has been central to the Mexican economy, Cornwall's best remembered contributions to Mexico are in the sporting and culinary fields.

Cornish pasties

The Cornish miners settled quickly into Mexican society and many married locally. One of the first skills taught to their new Mexican brides was how to bake Cornish pasties.

Soon these Mexican women had adapted this peculiarly English food icon to suit their own palates. Fillings with chicken, tuna, beef, sausage, beans, pineapples, and even rice pudding were tried and tested. And of course all were finished with green peppers or hot chilli sauces.

Even today, these Mexican-style Cornish pasties are regarded as a local delicacy - every weekend, tourists flock to Real Del Monte to marvel at the town's unique roofscape and to enjoy plates of pasties washed down with a jug of Pulche, a pungent local hooch, made from the leaves of the agave cactus.


But it's for introducing soccer to Mexico, that the Cornish tin miners are best remembered. Now a national obsession, the first ever game of football in Latin America, was played sometime in 1825 in the works yard of the Dolores Mine near the centre of Real Del Monte.

Nowadays the mine lies empty - its machine house, still smelling of oil and grease is dormant The only sound that comes from the yard now is the chirping of the songbirds which the mine's night watchman keeps in cages just inside the huge wooden gates.

And as a symbol of Britain's reduced influence in Mexico, the former soccer pitch has been concreted over and is now used as a basketball court by the local community.

Fierce pride

When I described this scene to an American correspondent in Mexico City, she replied tersely - "We won - you lost".

Yet this does not diminish the fierce pride that Juan Skewes Ramirez feels for his English roots.

On a ridge overlooking the town, lies the Cornish cemetery. This is where Juan's forebears repose, and where he, as a direct descendant is entitled to be buried.

It's a very English-looking graveyard - only the cultivated terraces of Nopal cactii which lie outside its walls suggest a foreign location.

As we meandered among the elaborately carved headstones, Juan reflected on his forebears.

"The Cornish tin miners who came to Real Del Monte were brave, hard-working adventurers and interested in progress," he says.

"Although I feel 100% Mexican, my Cornish blood makes me and my family a little different."

Juan's ambition is to one day meet his distant relatives. As we said our farewells he asked a special favour.

"If there are Skewes families in England," Juan said, "tell them that their Mexican cousins would like to meet them."

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