How A MEXICAN COPPER TOWN Saved It’s Future

The stories of violence in the Mexican state of Michoacán overshadow its treasures.


From the time I saw Chef Oropeza in an hacienda in Santa Cobre del Cobre, Mexico, I was excited to visit this town in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico. Chef Oropeza is a Mexican chef who visited the haciendas throughout his country, sharing the local cuisine from each region. Perfect, we were planning a trip to Mexico, and we were taking Roxana, my sister in Venezuela. I was especially excited since I love to cook and I was excited to buy some copper cookware.

This was the third trip we were treating Roxana to. The first two were different circuits around Spain. Roxana had been mistreating her body with cigarettes and handfuls of daily prescription medications. Back then, I thought she might take better care of herself if she could see past her miserable daily life, if she could find some hope. She could open up a credit card and build some credit, we could help her build a bank account. All this might help her get a U.S. visa. The three trips out of Venezuela would give her credibility with the U.S. embassy. But you can’t change who a person is. Roxana opened a credit card and handed it to her son who maxed it out right away.

Before we even left New York, Dan called the Gran Hotel in Mexico City. He wanted to know if it would be safe to travel to Michoacán.

The stories of violence in Mexico are always horrifying. You see the headlines about it every day here in Mexico. It’s real, but it doesn’t usually affect you if you’re not part of that world. Dan was nervous, so he asked the reception in Mexico City’s Gran Hotel if it was safe to take a bus to Michoacán. He’d read about criminals stopping buses along the highway and robbing the people. They even set fire to one bus, killing everyone inside in a gruesome death.

The reception at the Gran Hotel, without even noticing Dan’s apprehension over the phone, told him it was perfect safe. It’s only a 3-4 hour drive. Looking back, now that we live in Mexico, and after driving over 4,500 miles through this country, we see it was foolish to be so afraid.

Virrey de Mendoza, our hotel in Morelia, Michoacán, was a beautiful 17-century stone building called Hotel Virrey de Mendoza, across the street from the cathedral. Dan booked a tour at reception for the three of us.

The next morning, our guide Antonio greeted us in the hotel lobby and walked us to his car, parked in front. We were the only tourists he had. The daily headlines of violence in Michoacán scared away most foreign tourists. That meant we got to customize our tour. I told Antonio that I wanted to go to Santa Clara del Cobre. The town was once part of the region’s copper boom. That ended. The town could easily have become a ghost town, but the coppersmiths now buy used telephone cable and they’ve become talented artists. Transformations are possible.

The next morning, our guide Antonio greeted us in the hotel lobby and walked us to his car, parked in front. We were the only tourists he had.

(That’s Antonio in the red shirt.)

The daily headlines of violence in Michoacán scared away most foreign tourists. That meant we got to customize our tour. I told Antonio that I wanted to go to Santa Clara del Cobre.

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Antonio brought us to Casa Felicitas, a copper workshop where we given a free private class in coppersmith artistry.

Dan and I found out for ourselves that this work requires physical strength and precision, and the ability to withstand the baking temperatures of the ovens, which we felt the whole time. It also requires artistic talent. Casa Felicitas has won several competitions, both local and beyond. Of course, they have a shop where you can buy some of their beautiful, crafted pieces! I was excited to buy a copper pan for my kitchen back home. This was one of the items I was hoping to find.

Roxana never picked up any of the tools. Her back couldn’t handle it, she said. Dan was skeptical since she was always complaining about her physical problems in Spain, but walked and climbed whenever we visited something new and interesting. We weren’t aware yet that she was addicted to prescription meds, and that she invented her ailments to feed the habit. I also didn’t realize that my relationship with Roxana was changing. I had spent my whole life trying to protect my younger sister.

So often, our plans turn out vastly different than we were hoping. Instead of inspiring, I was generating envy. When I saw Roxana in Buenos Aires toward the end of 2019, I could see that her body was rotting from within. She’s gotten worse since then, and the envy for my “great life” was now bordering on anger. She was treating me worse and worse, even though I was the only person willing and able to help her financially.

I hardly recognize this new Roxana: envious, bitter and angry. I still think I was right trying to inspire Roxana to do more with her life. Roxana was changing, anyway. Her bad decisions throughout her life transformed her into what she later became. I became just one of the targets for her anger. I learned to avoid fighting with her, but she always finds someone to fight with.

Transformations are possible, but only if people want to transform their lives. You can’t make someone change. It’s heartbreaking when they don’t change. Sometimes they hope to destroy others around them. Misery loves company.

As for Casas Felicitas in Santa Clara del Cobre, their cookware wasn’t lined with a non-reactive metal to make it safe for cooking. I did buy a copper napkin holder, though.


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