Zacatecas is a city located in the north central part of the country of Mexico. The name Zacatecas is derived from the Zacateco people and has its roots in Nahuatl. The name literally means "people of the grasslands. Zacatecas is situated in the narrow valley of the Rio de la Plata, at an altitude of 2,400 m. The main north-south street, with two parallel streets, branches into two to the south, and these are linked by narrow lanes, often opening out into small plazas. Many are steep or at different levels, and there is considerable reverting and terracing. Unlike other Spanish colonial towns, the street layout of Zacatecas was irregular, because of the need for communication between the mines and the ore-working sites, which determined the siting in a steep valley.
Zacatecas was founded in 1546, following the discovery of the very rich San Bernabé silver lode. This was to be followed later by working of the Veta Grande, Panuco and Albarrada lodes in the same massif. The town developed to the south of the mining area, on the road from the capital of New Spain.
The silver mining activities were so extensive that by 1550 there were 34 mines in operation. In 1588 the Spanish Crown granted Zacatecas the title of city and a coat-of-arms. The discovery of the Guanajuato lode shortly afterwards led to the construction of the Silver Road to link the two centres to the capital of the colony, Mexico City. By 1630 more than 60% of the silver exported from the Spanish colony moved along this road. The resulting wealth led to the embellishment of both cities with fine public and private buildings. With Guanajuato, Zacatecas is among the most important mining towns of New Spain. It was a major centre of silver production, and also of colonization, evangelization and cultural expansion.
Zacatecas became the economic centre for the region, with a system of forte (presidios ), villages and agricultural estates (haciendas ) for defence and supply. It was also the base for colonization and the spread of Christianity further to the north; first the Convent of San Francisco and later the College of Guadalupe were responsible for establishing over 70 missions, as far north as Texas and California.
The apogee of silver production in Zacatecas was in the 16th and 17th centuries, but then it was overtaken by Guanajuato, although it retained an important role as the site of a mint. Silver production continued after independence, despite the interruption of the 1910 Revolution, during which it was the site of a major battle in 1914, but it fell off as the century progressed, to the extent that Zacatecas was not included in the new communications network being developed. As a result of this economic decline, the city has retained many of its original urban features.
Millions of tons of silver ore were removed from El Eden Mine in Zacatecas, before it was closed in 1960 due to flooding in three of its seven levels and an encroaching city that made blasting too dangerous. The mine opened again in 1975 as a tourist attraction, following extensive renovations that added paved floors, special lighting, and displays that recreate what it was like to work in the mine.