“I am now stepping on your buried memory, Esteco;
traveling through your dusty oblivion, your dry sap, still burning ”, wrote in the 1950s Manuel J. Castilla, the greatest poet of the Argentine northwest.
He spoke of Our Lady of Talavera, better known as Esteco, one of the first colonial cities of what would later become Argentina, and the most curious.
Founded in 1566 in the thicket of the Chaco Salteño, in the former Government of Tucumán, it achieved an extraordinary agricultural and livestock development.
It was a great link with Upper Peru, which it supplied with raw and processed materials.
And its inhabitants helped found Córdoba, Salta and La Rioja.
But in 1692 an earthquake wiped her off the map and left her trapped in one of the great local myths.
That story says that God punished Esteco for his opulence, lust and vanity and reduced him to dust.
Instead, he saved the city of Salta (140 kilometers to the north) because of his faith: the Salta people carried out a Christ and a Virgin carved in wood, gold and precious stones on litters that had arrived from Spain a century earlier after an odyssey through sea and land, and the earthquake stopped.
The procession of the Miracle remains among the main ones on the Latin American Catholic calendar.
In the 20th century, various expeditions tracked down the legendary Esteco.
According to documents, in 1609, after 43 years, it had migrated 100 kilometers to the northwest to merge with another town and form Our Lady of Talavera de Madrid.
An anthropologist from La Plata, Alfredo Tomasini, now deceased, managed to document both sites as of 1999. The so-called Esteco I, in the El Vencido spot, was covered with vegetation.
And Esteco II, in the Río Piedras municipality, was exposed when a company moved the soil to plant citrus.
It was dazzling.
In this, the one that devastated the earthquake, they identified urban sectors, vestiges of the town hall and convents, and the only colonial fort of adobe [mud] in Latin America.
The lost paradise that the faithful feared and dreamed of by poets and gold prospectors was now a gem for science and a field school for archaeologists.
But not much more was known until a key source appeared.
Investigating in the National Archive and Library of Bolivia, the genealogist Gastón Doucet discovered the
Interrogation for the West Indies of 1604 and the reports sent by the lieutenant governor, neighbors, residents and residents of Our Lady of Talavera in 1608
This kind of census has 355 questions and answers transcribed in a 140-page document.
They are first-hand testimonies, almost a photo of that ephemeral city.
It reveals family structures, occupation and concrete concerns (the climate, the roads, the subsistence).
Three anthropologists made a laborious palaeographic transcription (it is written in the chained procedural letter of the 16th century, that of the notaries) and the Salta Editorial Fund turned it into a book.
“The richness of the document is enormous.
From the greatest of respect we try to address these voices, which allow us to get closer to this society and demystify various issues, ”says Julia Simioli, one of the authors (with María Maschoff and Ana Porter), a disciple of Tomasini.
For example, the idea of a Spanish city.
In truth, the children and grandchildren of Spaniards came together there with [mestizo] mountain people and Portuguese, who were 30% of the population.
They entered through Buenos Aires, they were merchants and some had slaves.
Baltazar Martínes, for example, declares that he brought "blacks from the Kingdom of Angola", with an apparent permission to traffic them.
Domingo Lorenço says that he bought a couple of slaves in the port because he does not have "Indians to serve him."
The encomienda system [free indigenous labor] sustained the city.
Neighbors declare their Indians as assets, along with their weapons, cows, mares, sheep, and crops (wheat, corn, vines, and cotton, which was used for candle wicks).
López, the son of a Sevillian and a Chilean woman, has 30 Indians and provides them with clothing, health and doctrine (a priest who went to their villages).
Días Moreno, son of a Mexican and from Santiago, declares 20. Xuares, from Lisbon, 40. Isabel, a Creole, a mulatto, seven blacks and 60 Indians.
Another woman says 30;
She adds that she is the daughter, sister, and widow of conquerors who suffered hardships eating "wild herbs and horse meat."
Chiefs of a score of ethnic groups appear - even one of cannibals - in links somewhat more complex than a white-Indian dichotomy.
And Esteco's strong relationship with Santiago del Estero, the “Mother of cities” and capital of the Government, is perceived.
Spain probed its dominions with these interrogations.
This was implemented in the nine cities of Tucumán, but never returned: the original is in Sucre with two others, and six disappeared.
"Four centuries later, this comes to shed light on aspects that, on the other side of the sea, they could never know", reflects the anthropologist Leonardo Mercado, director of the Museum of Anthropology of Salta, which this year dedicated the anniversary of Cultural Diversity to This co.
With contributions from Simioli - they are both experts on this site, who excavated as students and professionals - he mounted an exhibition of 60 pieces collected there in 20 years of archaeological campaigns.
The collection has local and imported fragments by the conquerors.
There is glass, tiles, Chinese porcelain, ceramics from Talavera de la Reina, indigenous ceramics, and trompes [mouth harps].
They had never been exhibited.
Like the census, this collection speaks of a diverse and mobile Esteco, and helps to reconstruct its social history, to beat the myth.
It wasn't that Hispanic.
Not so opulent (no gold appeared).
Nor its decline so abrupt.
It is estimated that, by the end of the 17th century, due to pests and changes in the roads, it was already liquidated.
Before the earthquake that labeled it an Argentine Sodom and Gomorrah, more than a sinful city to punish, it was just a fort where few soldiers resisted the bravest tribes of the Chaco mountains.