By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Tlalpujahua, a little mountain town on the northeast end of the Mexican state of Michoacán, just two and a half hours outside Mexico City, didn’t start off to be a Christmas village.
In fact, when it was first founded by Spanish settlers back in 1560, it was primarily a mining town, home to the Dos Estrellas mine, which, in its heyday, was Mexico’s largest producer of precious metals, churning out 45,000 kilograms of gold and 400,000 kilograms of silver a year.
So successful was the mining industry in Tlalpujahua that in the first half of the 18th century, the owner of one of the main mines decided to begin construction on a massive Baroque basilica, the Parish of San Pedro y San Pablo (later to be known as the Del Carmen Sanctuary) on the town’s highest cliff, as a show of appreciation to God and the local residents for his good fortune and prosperity.
But in 1937, a major mud landslide brought an end to Tlalpujahua’s mining boom, burying the town’s mineral wealth (and about a third of the entire village) beneath a cement-like mountain of debris.
When most of the European mining ventures packed up and left for more fertile grounds, the residents were left with no source of employment and a half-finished church.
The loss of Tlalpujahua’s mine nearly led to the demise of the little city.
By the time the last mining company had disappeared in 1937, the town’s population had begun to quickly decline, from 25,000 in the early 1930s to only 600 three decades later.
But in 1957, one Tlalpujahua couple, Joaquín Muñoz Orca and his wife María Elena Ruíz, decided they would try one last Hail Mary effort to try to save their hometown from extinction.
With money that they had saved during more fruitful times, Muñoz Orca set off to Chicago to learn the art of glass ornament-making and returned two years later to start a small factory of Christmas decorations.
Muñoz Orca and his wife hired local residents to craft the blown-glass spheres, and the holiday ornament business soon became the focus of the town’s entire economy.
Other Christmas spheres factories soon popped up, and by the late 1980s, Tlalpujahua was producing more than 100 million ornaments a year, most of which were exported to low-end self-service stores in the United States.
Within a decade, the town’s population had increased tenfold and more than 70 percent of Tlalpujahua’s economy depended on ornament production.
Today, Muñoz Orca’s company, Adornos Navideños, is run by his son José Luis Muñoz and his siblings, and includes five plants and 15 workshops.
There is also a colorful German-style Christmas Village where you can watch ornaments being blown by hand and have your very own sphere made with a glittery rendition of your name inscribed.
Perhaps the highlight of the Christmas town is Santa Claus’ house, where children and adults alike can meet with the Jolly Old Elf year-round to tell him what they hope to find under their holiday trees come December.
“Tlalpujahua produces Christmas ornaments 12 months a year, and there are now more than 400 factories in the city,” José Luis Muñoz told Pulse News Mexico as he proudly showed us around the Christmas Village, which is also open year-round.
“We don’t produce as many ornaments as we did in the past, only about 4 million a year, because now we are producing more elaborate, high-end spheres for a more exclusive market.”
About a quarter of those ornaments are sold abroad – mostly in the United States.
“Today, the decoration business is the lifeblood of Tlalpujahua,” the younger Muñoz said, “but we have also become a tourist destination, a place where people can come and enjoy the happiest time of year no matter what month it is.”
In 2005, Tlalpujahua became Mexico’s 20th Pueblo Mágico (Magic Town), and there are now several tourist-oriented restaurants and more than 400 hotel rooms to accommodate guests from both Mexico and abroad.
As for the half-finished church that the miners abandoned when they left Tlalpujahua, it did eventually get completed, with a mixture of Baroque, Churrigueresque and French fleur-de-lys style, an astonishing hodgepodge of elegance and gaudiness that is unique and hauntingly beautiful.
It is one of the must-sees when visiting Tlalpujahua, along with Santa, of course.