Big Jim: The Lost Opata Mine

2013-12-06T10:00:00Z 2013-12-26T20:09:34Z Big Jim: The Lost Opata MineJim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

To round up our look at lost mines in the Santa Cruz Valley, let me tell you the story of the Lost Opata Mine. And when I’m through, if you don’t agree with me that this is not an actual tradition from the Colonial Period, I’ll be surprised. Here’s the story:

The Franciscans had employed a group of Opata Indians from what is now north central Sonora to work a silver mine. Unbeknownst to the friars, the Opatas had captured a blond, blue-eyed Mayo princess and were keeping her in the mine because their leader wanted to marry her. She refused the match, being promised to a brave of her own people. Finally the Opatas took her to a special room of the mine that had a small peep-hole to the outside world, and a large table in the center.

They stripped her, tied her to the table, and smeared her all over with the deadly juice of the sotol cactus. Sotol juice is perfectly harmless on the skin until it is struck by direct sunlight. Then the flesh rots away, eventually killing the victim. The Opatas put the question once more to their captive, and when she persisted in refusing, left her on the table, while the sunbeam from the small opening came closer. As it played over the poor victim, she suffered excruciating pain, and died screaming.

A padre happened to be walking near the concealed opening, heard the screams, and rushed into the room. Horrified, he banished the Opatas back to their Sonoran homeland and sealed up the mine, which contained a large amount of silver. And it is still there.

Now there are a few interesting things about this story. Although the Mayo Indians (cultural relatives of the Yaquis living in southern Sonora) do have a reputation of being light skinned, they never had princesses. The sotol is not a cactus but rather a kind of agave, and the only conditions under which its juice is deadly is when it is distilled and overindulged in.

And the whole story sounds more like a 20th century creation by one person than a product of genuine oral tradition. As one famous folklorist would say when confronted by similar tales. “it stinks of the lamp.” And one of my Tumacacori Mexicano friends told me when I ran it past him, “Jim, we couldn’t get drunk enough to tell that one.”

It would make a great opera, though. Think of the arias the dying princess could sing.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at azstarnet.com/wildcatgear.

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail bigjimgriffith@gmail.com

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