The Fiesta Covadonga
( Originally Published Early 1911 )
The Fiesta of Covadonga: Gaiety of the Spaniard: His Mexican Cousin Helps Him Celebrate: Epifanio's Tip: His Version of the Spanish Conquest: The Eve of Mexican In-dependence: Quaint Folk Songs: Dancing in the Streets: Viva Mexico.
0N my arrival in Mexico City I was pleased to find there my young friend, Rafael de la who had just returned from taking his post-graduate in Columbia University. I had always found his conversation interesting; and now he came, eager to tell me his impressions of my country, while I too had many pleasant things to relate about my life in Mexico. I also told him of my resolve to shortly under-take the journey into the Durango mountains to rejoin my friends in the mines. He heard my plans with the attentiveness that I always remarked in my Mexican friends; and while he sympathized with my state of mind, he advised me to remain a few weeks longer in the capital, if only to attend the Fiesta of Covadonga, which is annually celebrated by the Spanish Colony, and is essentially Spanish in character. To this proposal I gladly assented. The Spaniards in Mexico interested me exceedingly, although until now I had been impressed solely by their indefatigability in work and in business. Rafael assured me that the Spaniards entered into this Covadonga celebration, the only one they permitted themselves in a foreign land, with the same prodigious energy that characterized their business; and that it was the one opportunity I should find in Mexico to appreciate the Spanish character. Further, he placed himself at my disposal on the day of the fiesta, promising to meet me in the early forenoon, and to see that I missed nothing from the beginning of the celebration.
The Fiesta of Covadonga fell early the following week. Rafael and I met, as agreed, and proceeded to the old church of Santo Domingo, in the plaza of that name, where it is believed the Aztecs first saw the promised sign of the eagle perched on the cactus, with the serpent in his talons. The church was richly hung with red and gold. High mass was celebrated, and for the first time I heard the Spanish national air. From Santo Domingo, we went direct to the Tivoli Eliseo.
I had attended other fiestas at the Tivoli Eliseo, occasions of discreet gaiety. People wore their best clothes, promenaded, showered each other with confetti, and waltzed a little in the pavilion. It was pretty but tire-some. Confetti-throwing is charming in theory but quite inane as a diversion. I had feared that spontaneous mirth, free and unrestrained, was over, at least where " grown-ups " were concerned. Then kind fate sent me to the Fiesta of Covadonga. There was little confetti-throwing. The Spaniard had come to dance. He had worked early and late for three hundred and sixty-four days, busily gathering pesetas in his adopted country. It may be doubted if he thought much of Espana. Early rising and the rush of trade are not conducive to reminiscence. But on the three hundred and sixty-fifth day he closes his shop and attends high mass at Santo Domingo. Then he puts on his rakish boina, takes a cup of cider with his cronies, and proceeds to dance with a gusto that is a revelation. I have always heard that the Spaniards and Irish are related. No other people, except the sons of Erin, possess such an irrepressible flow of spirits. Indeed I saw many a smiling, good-natured face that might have hailed from the Emerald Isle. The favorite dance was the jota, per-formed by a lad and his novia or by two men, to the time of a quick waltz, and accompanied by castanets or the snapping of fingers. There was an abundance of music but even music was not indispensable. If a young Gachupin (Spaniard) and his chum felt like dancing between the numbers, they snapped their fingers merrily, and danced, without music. They seemed totally in-different to observation. They danced because they enjoyed it and there was an end of it.
There were three military bands, several orchestras of stringed instruments and innumerable pipes, drums, mandolins and guitars. The local Mexican bands each formed a circle, with the maestro in the center surrounded by dancers. Among them was the famous " Artilleria," which has won fame in the United States. This band had just finished a piece, and the breathless dancers were rapturously shouting for " otra," (an-other). In response they played a delightful waltz composed by one of their own number, with a refrain sung by the musicians:
Viva Espana valerosa,
Long live brave Spain,
Then the players shouted, " Ole! Viva Espana ! "The dancers responded " Viva ! Ole con Ole!" and danced more furiously. In the ring a charming child of nine or ten years danced with a boy somewhat older. There were several couples of young men and one who played a panderete or tambourine, with more skill than I have often seen on the minstrel stage, striking it with his elbow, head and heels almost simultaneously. Then he leaped into the midst of the circle and performed a wild dance that I never saw equaled for skill and grace. The lightest, most tireless dancers were the Aragonese. The Basques were a good second, and perhaps quite as indefatigable as the first, but less graceful. The men from different provinces could be distinguished by their dialects, Gallegan, Basque, Andalucian, Catalan,— or by some peculiarity of costume. All danced. One moment a group would be in full fling to the music of the pipes; the next, a band had struck up an inspiring jota in some other part of the grounds and they were off like a shot. The head man picks a place and shouts, " Aqui bailamos ! " (We dance here!). He faces his partner and rattles his castanets. A space is cleared, and they are at it again, with all their might. As a rule they danced in couples, but one lad, who was the center of all eyes wherever he went, danced alone. He had a bright, jolly expression and wore a pongee blouse and dark blue boina. The minute the music ceased in one place, he darted away to another. I finally surprised him taking breath and praised his dancing, asking where he haled from. He replied from Asturia; that he had been all over Spain and Mexico and on the following day was off for los Estados Unidos. Meantime he was celebrating his feast-day having a good time. He was a handsome lad, not over sixteen, with an engaging smile and a dash of reeklessness that betrayed the adventurous spirit of the Spaniard. He was mopping his brow, when of a sudden a band began playing. " La jota ! " he shouted and started off at a run. I did not see him again, but I fancied he would not lack friends among the Americanos.
As I addressed a remark in Spanish to Rafael, a hoarse voice close at my ear said, "All right ! " It was a youthful Gachupin, who knew the Saxon twang, and was anxious to exhibit his own efficiency in English. He showed his delight at attracting my attention in a broad yet rather sheepish grin that made me laugh too. It was now growing dark and things were becoming livelier. Strings of brilliant lanterns were festooned from tree to tree and the white glare of the electric light fell in patches throughout the garden. What is there in the night that makes gaiety still gayer? It seemed the revelers had been peculiarly fit from the start; but now, if such a thing were possible, they be-came fitter. Perhaps sidra helped out more or less. It is a mildly fizzing beverage that I should call champagne-cider; and much less heady than the old time New England brew designated as " hard." Musicians and dancers alike seemed to have got their second wind and the scene became more and more animated. It was stir-ring — contagious! Here a couple danced beneath the trees, first in light, then in shadow. There a merry group whirled in the blaze of the arc-light. Now a crowd of breathless lads appeared in search of a new field. "Aqui bailamos ! " and they were at it again. Wild applause came from the direction of the " banda de Artilleria " and we hurried to see what was up. It was the prettiest sight I had seen that day. A slip of a girl, in a clinging dress of some shimmering material — electric blue, I should say — with a long sash of crimson, a dark tam-o'-shanter tilted coquettishly over one ear, with her hair blown in ringlets that kept getting into her eyes and with a smile that got into the eyes of others, was dancing the jota with her novio. All I can tell about him is that he was dancing too. She was straight and slender as a reed and much more graceful. Her face was delicate and thoroughbred, with that alluring beauty, sometimes called la beute de Diable. Around her neck was a long string of crystal beads that had the effect of brilliants, with a tiny crimson fan dangling at the end. Her little high-heeled shoes were just visible as she danced. No wonder we applauded and cried, " Otra." The bandmaster made her a bow and a gallant speech. She flashed him a dazzling smile and the next moment he was back at his post with lifted baton. The music began and we had the dance over again. Then the novio led her away and the arc-light could not dissipate the gloom that settled upon us. She was our bright, particular star and we had lost her ! All else seemed dross ! Until we saw the Sevillana ! She had the classic profile, the dark tresses, the glorious eyes of the Andalusian, and she wore the bewitching headdress of creamy lace, fastened with a blood-red rose. She danced, too, with a man. She made me think of the lines which I quoted, however imperfectly, for Rafael:
When you do dance
It is fortunate that it is permissible to admire openly in Latin countries. If it were not, life in Mexico would not be worth living.
There was one clique composed entirely of Andalusians, and it was surrounded by an appreciative circle that kept increasing, as the night wore on. There was a man who played the guitar magnificently, a handsome Gitana who sang the songs of Andalusia, and a second man who also sang, in the strangest, wheezing, rasping voice I ever heard, but as my friends expressed it con mucha gracia. Of all the quaint, weird songs, these were the quaintest and weirdest. In one, the man sang, " The dead-cart just passed by — and there, above the shroud, I saw a hand I knew." And the woman, singing to her man, " A life with thee is torture — Without thee, 'tis not life ! " The people applauded rapturously. The songs were half-crooned, half-whined in a complaining, yet not unmusical tone, and brought a dim, evanescent impression of ways of living and thinking, unknown but fascinating. There was also a torero, who did a grotesque dance, going through remarkable contortions and making hideous grimaces. Taken in connection with the melancholy music, the night, the gaunt shadows cast by the trees and the circle of swarthy faces, the performance was gruesome and made one wonder where he really was. It created a burning desire to go to Andalusia.
Moreno pintan a Cristo:
A man sang this verse, leaning against a tree and gaily strumming a guitar. It was a tribute to the brunette or swarthy type. The substance of his ditty was that both Christ and the Magdalen were pictured as morenos (brunes): that it was the type he most adored, ending with " Viva the brown people!" Another refrain went: " Morena — Morena — Morena — tit quitas los rayos del sol ! " In other words, beauteous " morena " dims the rays of the sun.
All the beauty was not Andalusian. The eyes of the Mexican women are luminous as the Spanish, languid as the Oriental, with the added charm of tristeza, which, while purely hereditary and not indicative of character, is always interesting. On this occasion, las Mexicanas and their escorts contented themselves with promenading, waltzing or watching the antics of their livelier Spanish cousins, from the veranda of the casino. I presumed the Mexican youth was saving his strength and his lungs for " Viva México!" on the night of the wildly inspiring "grito" (cry) of independence.
One 0f the funniest experiences 0f the night was a talk with two members of the " Artilleria." At the close of a number, one of the players turned to me of his own accord, showed me the music, which contained the lines to Espana and Andalusia, and told me the piece was written by a young comrade. I construed it as a simple act of Mexican politeness, which I had come to accept as a matter of course; but I soon found that he knew my country. Another bright chap joined us, telling me they had played in Atlanta, St. Louis and Omaha and preserved pleasant memories of all. They liked American ways, and American girls were superlatively beautiful. The one failing of the latter seemed to be an inordinate desire for gold buttons, and the younger lad, who was a handsome fellow, said he should take an extra gross on his next visit. I asked the boy if he knew any English. After a modest disavowal, he finally admitted that sometimes, on bestowing buttons, he had conversed a little. It was hard work to make him tell what he said, but he finally imparted it in strictest confidence, which I am basely betraying. It was " Miss, give me one kiss, please?" with the rising inflection on the " please."
As we strolled around for a last look at the Andalusian clique, whose fascination there was no. resisting, I met a Mexican friend who exclaimed enthusiastically, " There is a country-woman of yours who is most beautiful," raising his hand to his lips in the manner of the country. He then took my arm and led me off to see her. When we found her she was standing on a chair, a vision of white, with a bunch of crimson roses at her throat, her fair young face flushed with excitement, as she looked on the strange scene. The funny bull-fighter was dancing again. He had pulled his hair over his eyes and put a handkerchief over his head, with his queer little pigtail sticking out at the back. He danced in a sitting position, with his body only a few inches above the ground, screwing his naturally comical face into contortions that convulsed his audience. At the close of his performance he said coolly, " I am going to break-fast," and took his departure. Rafael now asked if I wished to go home and looking at my watch, I saw both hands were at twelve. Even then we lingered: guitarras were purring, mandolinas tinkling, castañuelas clicking gaily, with the monotonous, unending sound of pipe and drum, and the orchestras in full swing. On every side, as far as we could see, were the trees bright with colored lights, and the people dancing beneath them; shouts of laughter, men's voices singing with the players, and " Ole, con ole, con ole ! "
On our way home, I thanked Rafael for persuading me to stay over for the fiesta, assuring him that I should always remember it with satisfaction. He politely accepted my thanks, and added that he now hoped I would defer my journey until after Mexico's great celebration on the sixteenth of September, which is the anniversary of Mexican Independence. He said that it was indispensable to a proper understanding of the Mexican public; and I realized that he was right, for the best time to know an individual or a people is undeniably the time of relaxation and pleasure. On inquiry I learned that the celebration really began the night of September fifteenth, when the President rang the historic bell and gave the grito or cry of independence from the balcony of the National Palace. After this, I was told, there were music and fireworks and then people went home. At the eleventh hour I was set right, where the going home was concerned, by a mysterious communication commonly known as a " tip."
I got the tip straight from Epifanio. Our relations had long been confidential,— in fact he was my secretario, though no one knew this but him and me. For the other boarders he was mozo, and general roustabout They called him " Pifa " and " tu." I always addressed him as Epifanio. We both felt that nicknames, as applied to a private secretary, were trifling and undignified — little short of groserias. Epifanio was queer-looking. He was short to begin with, and one leg was shorter than the other. 'He had the Indian's brown skin and a shock of hair like a doormat; but his shrewd face and energetic manner, above all his volubility, showed that he was not all Indian. He first interested me by telling me remarkable things about his home which is in the vicinity of Zacatecas, and making invidious remarks about la capital, which he said was ugly. According to Epifanio, la capital and his tierra were not to be named in the same day. If his accounts of the latter were true, it is little short of paradise. If not, he deserves the more credit for his inventive genius.
That was the beginning of our intimacy. It was cemented by my taking his photograph. He made the request one morning, when he was looking more disreputable than usual, if such a thing were possible. He said his wife and children were still in the Zacatecas country, and he wished to send them a portrait. This gave me an inspiration, and, getting my kodak, I snapped him on the spot. Epifanio objected strongly: he wanted to change his attire, but I told him this preliminary shot was merely for practice. He then disappeared, and after some time presented himself in such gorgeous apparel, that I felt sure even his wife would not recognize him. He made a superb picture, however, and one was duly despatched in care of a certain comadre who was returning to his tierra. At the same time I have one taken au natural, which Epifanio has never seen and which I am sure he would not approve of. But to return to the tip. I received it on the day of the grito (September fifteenth) and this is what it was. Epifanio said the upper
Epifanio asked me one day, in a confidential undertone, if I had ever heard of a man by the name of Hernan Cortés. He said he was an " individual " who came in a ship, quite a long time ago, and made war on the Aztecs. Finding that I was deeply interested to hear more, he proceeded to give me several verbatim conversations, which took place between Malinche (the Indian's name for Cortés) and the Aztec king. I suggested casually that I had heard the latter's name was Cuauhtemoctzin. Epifanio said " may be,"— but that he was not sure, so we let the matter drop. The main point was that Malinche made prisoners of the Indians, and treated them cruelly.
Epifanio added with some pride that there had once been a sort of play given in his tierra, depicting scenes from the conquest, in which he had assumed the character of Malinche. Naturally I wished to hear the verses, and after some persuasion, Epifanio took his position in the center of my room with a disreputable cap on the back of his head, ragged shirt and trousers that seemed struggling to part company, and wrecks of shoes, from which protruded numerous soiled toes; and in his decidedly musical voice, accompanied by furtive whiffs of mescal, recited a descriptive poem of the dream and vision of the princess Papantzin, in which she saw the white chief coming with his legions across the waters to take the realm and crown of her brother Montezuma and make him and his people the vassals of a strange king. The recital was attended with many graceful and expressive gestures, and much flourishing of a very greasy rag, which Epifanio employed ostensibly for cleaning purposes.
I expressed my appreciation of the performance in feeling terms, and at dinner he smuggled me a double decente " had sought their houses. I then put on a thick coat and sallied forth. I had always liked Mexico's working classes, but what I saw from that time on till morning, " when the people were allowed to do as they pleased," made me like them more than ever.
It was two o'clock and a street dance was under way at the great arch at the head of Plateros. An obliging organ-grinder furnished the music and when he was tired the dancers took turns in grinding. Decent looking lads of the pueblo were waltzing with buxom maids: schoolboys with their arms about each other, were whirling like tops, and small, dirty ragamuffins were gliding, two and two, with a grace they must have imbibed with their mother's milk. Heaven alone knows how or where those imps learned to waltz, but waltz they did, with the swaying, undulating motion seen on the zarzuela stage.
In front of the portales and cathedral and surrounding the plaza, were the street kitchens with their flaring lights surrounded by hungry revelers, attracted by waving hat and cane until gendarmes came running up and rescued him from his excited admirers.
On with the dance ! The organ-grinder, who was trying to make his escape, was promptly rounded up: some one volunteered to grind and the ball proceeded. At my side a disheveled but cheerful female was reminding an older one how she danced a year ago. She commenced singing in a cracked voice and executed a few steps of el jarabe. What a miracle! A woman without a partner contentedly watching the sport of others and cheerful in remembering her own triumphs of last year !
Throughout the square the people were assembled in groups, each with its cluster of star performers. Music was always the attraction. Instruments and voices were often out of tune: a fine drizzle was falling and when there was an umbrella in the crowd it was held over the performers: but the audience was a grateful one and the singer seemed perfectly happy.
A man sat on a bench before the cathedral, strumming a guitar for the entertainment of a small circle. Two girls in black shawls came along unattended. They stopped before the player and one asked, " Would you like me to sing? " " Why not!" said the man. With-out more ado she began singing, the man following her with his guitar. A girl of the street ! Perhaps ! This was what she sang:
Es el amor un sentimiento puro,
Love is a passion pure,
On the plaza a crowd had gathered about a man who played the guitar superbly. He was a full-blooded Indian in white cotton clothing and sandals, and a master of his instrument—by far the best guitar player I had heard in the republic. If a fine face and dignified manner mean anything, the fellow had good blood in him, though he was a peon. I had seen more than one such in my wanderings, and I always said to myself, " Ah ha! here is a strain of Aztec blue-blood!" It had to go somewhere. It was not all spilled nor was it all merged into that of the conquering race. At the conclusion of a weird melody, a fair-skinned young fellow in eye-glasses, evidently a student, pushed his way through the crowd and offered to sing. The Indian bowed gravely and the lad struck at once into a gay danza. He had a sweet, clear tenor and seemed to feel sure of his accompanist. I doubt if the Indian had ever heard the song before, yet he played it delightfully, with that wonderful running melody in the bass, which is the acme of good guitar playing. The crowd applauded and an inebriated individual demanded, " Otra — otra ! " " Take a seat," besought his female companion. The individual, who was quite unsteady, sank into a seat murmuring, " Music always enchants me!" The lad, gratified at his success, sang another and the Indian played it as perfectly as the first. It was natural and refreshing. The boy had a good voice and loved to sing, the Indian played the guitar as few can and doubtless knew it. The boy's face showed plainly his gratification but the Indian made no sign.
It is interesting to note that Mexico's songs, even of the pueblo, have almost always a pure, often a beautiful sentiment. More, the people care quite as much for the verse as for the music. The country people have a sort of comic song called a ranchera, which is as popular there as are the negro songs in the North.
Four inebriates with their arms around each other, leaned up against a fountain basin, empty bottles in hand, and sang to a cross-looking female, who seemed trying to get them to go home. At first I couldn't make out a word, but they Iiked the song, and no sooner was it ended, than they started it over again.
This was enough to melt any heart, but it seemed to have an irritating effect on the woman. Perhaps she did n't care for music ! I was wondering which one of the four was the possessor of her affections, when she suddenly made a vicious grab for one of her wooers and with a few vigorous cuffs, started him off ahead of her. Evidently he was the lucky man. The others trailed along in the rear, " wandering always in uncertain paths."
All this time it was drizzling intermittently, yet every seat on the plaza was full. What impressed me was the universal good nature. I saw but one fight. It was between a coffee vender and a patron who paid a centavo for a cup of coffee, and then tried to make away with the cup. The owner called him a sinverguenza (without shame) and drew his knife, but his wife threw herself into the breach exclaiming, " Que haces?" (" What are you doing? ") and at this juncture the gendarmes arrived and carried off the cup-grabber. At the corner, however, they let him go, nor was this the only case of leniency I witnessed. A decent-looking young peon was arrested on the complaint of a girl of the middle lower-class, who claimed he had robbed her of a neck-lace of glass beads, breaking the string and snatching them from behind. The peon swore he was innocent, told where he worked, produced a huge key to prove that he had a roof to sleep under and declared that his wife was seated over there, under the portales, and that it was not convenient to leave her alone in such a crowd. I was for letting him go and I think the gendarme was; but the girl, while she did n't seem at all certain he was the man, insisted on his being taken to the station. " Bueno ! " said the peon, and then performed a strategic master-stroke that gained him his freedom. Taking off his hat, he besought the girl to go and fetch his wife, that he might give her the key to their tenement. His accuser hesitated.
" Poor thing!" said her companion. " Let us go ! " Where?" asked the girl.
" Just there, under the portales," said the peon. With a bewildered look the girl started on her hopeless quest, prompted by sympathy for the luckless wife. The crowd surged in between. The gendarme relaxed his hold a bit, and his attention seemed drawn in another direction. The next minute the peon was gone.
" I could not find her," said the girl, returning in disgust. " Where is that man!"
" He escaped," said the gendarme.
At four A. M. it was still raining and the people were still dancing. The streets were covered with sticky slime an inch deep, but this did n't affect bare feet. The latter suffered more or less from broken glass, however. I saw a boy contentedly grinning at the dancers, while he held up one foot from which had dripped a small pool of blood. " A broken bottle, senor!" He seemed quite indifferent and I concluded sympathy was not in order. His complete disregard of the hurt struck me as a species of mind-cure. Peones' feet must have remarkably tough soles ! In the circle about the band-stand another dance was under way, and the participants were nearly all barefooted; yet they danced furiously on the uneven and quite rocky ground and every time the organ-grinder tried to get away they surrounded him and pleaded for " just one more." His music, like all the rest, was a free contribution to the fiesta; and it showed a generous spirit in all those of his calling who carried their heavy instruments from place to place, and supplied dance-music free of charge.
I was still more impressed when a company of musicians, members of a stringed orchestra returning from a ball probably, stopped in crossing the plaza, tuned their instruments as well as they could in the rain, and played the bewitching music of " Los. Cocineros " for their offering. I imagine these bands gain a precarious livelihood. The members of this one were thinly clad for such weather and there was not a whole pair of shoes among them. They couldn't have felt much like playing but they wanted to do their part. " Vivan los musicos ! " shouted the crowd, " Otra ! Otra ! Vivan los musicos ! "
At five o'clock the street kitchens were doing a thriving business. The more prosperous ones had canvas awnings and were provided with tables and wooden benches: but there were scores of Indian women out in the open, crouching on the wet cobblestones, before their small charcoal pots, cooking for clamorous multitudes. Everything seemed to be frying and the damp morning air was heavy with the fumes of sizzling fat. Music was still in demand and every kitchen had one or more obliging artists. Among them was a brawny cargador, who whistled through his fingers like a steam calliope, to the intense delight of a large audience. Most of these people had not slept a wink, yet all were eminently cheerful. A small proportion only showed the effects of over-imbibing. We are apt to be more impressed, however, by these, than by the masses of well-behaved people. The morning broke gray and dismal, and I began to have visions of a more comfortable place than the Plaza Mayor. Many others seemed of the same mind and were departing in groups to their homes in the suburbs. Nearly all were singing. As I passed the portales I took a last look at the sleeping multitude. I am sure there was not room for even one more. A few of the vivacious ones were exchanging cigarros and gossip, but most of them were sleeping, some full-length on the hard pavement, others in a sitting posture, with their heads bowed between their knees, or with the shoulder of a friend for a pillow; the patient Mexican pueblo, which had been granted license for twelve hours, and took it out in singing, dancing and shouting, " Viva Mexico ! "