The Valley Of Oaxaca
( Originally Published 1912 )
IN the matter of scenic attractions there are few railways in the world which can equal that from Tehuacan to Oaxaca. As a feat of engineering the line is also wonderful; for in the one hundred and fifty miles between the two places it ascends and descends thousands of feet, passing through deep valleys, threading narrow gorges, winding upwards among the mountain heights, and taking the traveller through the heart of the hot lands and the sub-tropics. It is true that it takes fully eight hours to make this journey, and the dust, in the dry season, is appalling; but there is so much to interest one on the way that the dust is forgotten and the hours slip by unnoticed.
On this fascinating trip I started early one morning when the gray hills of Tehuacan were gleaming in the brilliant sunshine beneath the wonderful blue Mexican sky. It was a fair specimen of the delightful weather I had enjoyed during my stay at the springs, and it made the "northers" of my first Mexican experiences seem like some fantastic dream.
My Texas friend — he of the kidney — came down to the station to see me depart, and he had a parting word of advice to give me. As the train was moving off, he re-marked solemnly: "Keep yourself filled with Tehuacan water. and you'll fool all the doctors and undertakers." With this lugubrious farewell I started for Oaxaca.
The first, second, and third class cars of the train were all well filled with passengers, the latter being literally packed with peons, chatting, drinking, smoking and enjoying themselves as they always seem to do on their aimless wanderings. In the car in which I travelled there were three American passengers ; the others were all Mexicans. The railway men - the conductor, engineer and brake-men — were also Mexican and spoke no English. This is not customary in Mexico, for many of the lines, particularly those built with American capital, employ English-speaking conductors at least.
The weather was warm in Tehuacan, but in a few hours it was still warmer, for the train made a steady descent into the hot country. Passing through a wide valley, it skirted a range of towering limestone hills which at times reach the height of mountains; it ran through immense fields of sugar-cane of vivid green; and at last clumps of date-palms could be seen, a usual indication of a warm climate and lower altitude. At Tecomovaca the line enters a great amphitheatre of lofty mountains, far up on the sides of which nestle clusters of adobe huts, marking the spots where Indian villages have been built almost at the level of the clouds. Rocks of varied tints that have been worn into all sorts of strange shapes by the action of water attract the eye, while the views on every side are wild and grand, greatly resembling those in some of the most picturesque parts of Colorado.
Through a deep canon, bordered by a rushing, roaring; foam-covered river the train ran onward, skirting mountains which towered thousands of feet skyward, with peaks and crags of fantastic shape. Through canon after canon, and through more rocky valleys, and the line at last reached its lowest altitude of 1767 feet and the little wayside station of Tomellin, a veritable oasis in the rocky desert, where our train stopped for luncheon. This place is in the true hot country, which well maintained its reputation, for the heat was sweltering. The scene, however, was charming, the station being set in the midst of tropical trees covered with strange fruits, and in the branches of which chattered bright-plumaged birds. But more inviting even than these to the dusty, weary travellers was the rail-way restaurant where luncheon was served, its thick stone walls and tiled floor furnishing a welcome retreat from the roasting atmosphere outside. Bustling about, superintending the waiters and exchanging greetings in Spanish and English with his guests, was the manager of the establishment, "Dick, the Chinaman," quite a well-known character. He furnishes hungry travellers with excellent meals which are long and gratefully remembered.
After leaving Tomellin, the train began to ascend, winding round curve after curve, between mountains of impressive height and grandeur until it reached the summit at Las Sedas (6304 feet). Here a fine panorama unfolds, the mountain ranges rising one above the other and fading in the distance, the setting sun tingeing each with a different hue. Later on, the country assumed a more cultivated appearance, a few green, irrigated fields were occasionally to be seen, while here and there were masses of magenta bougainvillea and varied tints of crimson and pink flowers. In this part of the country there are many haciendas, with their great houses, granaries, churches and hosts of peons, reminding one of the baronial domains of feudal times.
A Mexican who had been travelling in our train — a very unimposing person — got off at a small station where there was waiting a sort of old-fashioned, lumbering stage-coach drawn by six mules, and about a dozen horsemen in the Mexican national costume, — tight trousers, bolero coats and sombreros, — each with a rifle strapped to his back. This Mexican, it transpired, was the owner of a large hacienda in the neighborhood, and these were his retainers who had come to escort him home. After an exchange of salutations, the magnate entered the coach, the cavalcade fell in at the rear and off they galloped amidst a cloud of dust.
Towards evening the journey drew to a close, and I witnessed another of those strange contrasts which are so characteristic of Mexican travel. One moment we were passing through what seemed to be a wild country without a habitation in sight; then suddenly electric lights shone out along the roads and a city appeared. It was half-past six, and we had reached Oaxaca.
The journey had been very trying, for the heat had been almost unbearable until the sun went down, and the dust came through the windows in perfect clouds. These discomforts are, of course, experienced to a much less extent by those fortunate tourists who can charter a special train composed of Pullman cars. Travelling in this way, they can escape a good deal of the dust, have iced drinks to cool their parched throats, and cover the distance far more quickly than in the ordinary train. Many of the large excursion parties that come down from the United States during the winter months travel in this, the proper, way to "do" Mexico. Rather a strong constitution is required to enjoy such a trip as that from Puebla to Oaxaca in an ordinary train. At the same time one must needs feel grateful to the railway company, when comparing the present with the past; for it is not so many years ago that people who travelled to Oaxaca were obliged to make the journey in jolting stage-coaches over terrible roads. Nor is the railway company responsible for the discomforts of travel, which are mostly due to climatic conditions.
It is of interest to add that the Mexican Southern Rail-way, which connects Puebla with Oaxaca, is owned by an English company and was opened in 1893. The company received a bonus of ten million dollars from the Mexican government, and if it had not received this subsidy it is certain that the line could not have paid its way. There are so few places of any importance between the two terminal points that the receipts must be very small. But it has opened up a rich agricultural and mineral district in the Valley of Oaxaca, and it will probably develop into a profitable property in the future.
A mule-car takes passengers from the railway station in the outskirts of Oaxaca to the centre of the city in ten minutes. I got into one of the cars and made the trip through the narrow streets. The houses along the way were much lower than those at Puebla, being mostly of one story; they were of the same flat-roofed style, but every-thing seemed to be on a much more primitive scale. As in Puebla also the streets had a wide central gutter and were paved with cobble-stones. On the way the car passed a little market-place where Indians squatted beside their wares, their "pitches" lighted with flickering oil lamps. It was Christmas week, and large numbers of these dark-skinned, blanketed folk had come in from the country to do their shopping. There were many of them in the streets walking, sitting along the curb, hanging about the street corners and passing in and out of the drinking places.
The car stopped at a large plaza in which stands the cathedral and several public buildings; and not far distant was a hotel where I found quarters. It was the usual Spanish mansion, partly rebuilt and changed into a hotel, rather crudely furnished and conducted in a slightly wild-western fashion. Several mining men—Western Americans — were staying here, some alone and some with their families. Among these Americans was one of a type rather too common in Mexico. He spent his time loafing about the place discussing "schemes" and mines with anybody who would talk with him, posing as a mining expert. By some of his friends he was called "Professor ." His wife — such is the faith of womankind — seemed to regard him as a great genius. Some time afterwards, while talking with a mine-owner of the district, an American, I happened to mention the professor as a mining authority. The mining man shook his head dubiously. "I never heard of the professor," he said. When I told him that I referred to the man at the hotel, and mentioned his name, he ex-claimed, " Well, well, calls himself a mining expert, does he ? Why, he used to be my carpenter, and a d—d bad carpenter too."
I took my evening meal in the hotel dining-room, a rather unattractive apartment paved with tiles and furnished with the usual small tables and hard wooden chairs. Two Indian criadors (waitresses) who served the guests were swarthy and black-eyed, had long plaits of hair hanging down their backs and wore the popular speckled-blue dress and rebosa. They were picturesque but unkempt. An American mining man sat at my table and I chatted with him. One of the waitresses sauntered up and some pleasantries in Spanish passed between them. The bold criador playfully tapped him on the head with a plate, he made a movement as if to snatch it, and she went off giggling. "You have to jolly 'em along to get good vittles in this place," he said to me, half apologetically; seeing that I was shocked at such goings-on. A Chinaman, who acted as both cook and waiter, took a hand at waiting occasionally, cracking jokes with the criadors in Spanish with a Chinese accent. It was all very amusing.
After my frugal meal I went out for a stroll about the town; the evening was fine and balmy, much milder, in fact, than our average May evening in the Eastern States.
There was a full moon and the stars were sparkling in the clear tropical sky.
Oaxaca stands 5067 feet above sea-level, and at this height in Mexico one always get a mild, healthful temperature.
The old triple-towered cathedral, founded in 1563, is an ancient, imposing and picturesque pile. It stands on one side of a large stone-paved plaza, on the other side of which is a row of shops or stores, rather gloomy and cavernous, such as are seen in old Spanish towns. On another side is the Municipal Palace, and further on the Post-office and Courts of Justice, all fine buildings of white stone with the usual patios. Adjoining the cathedral square is the Plaza Mayor, centred by the usual band-stand and planted with fine old shady trees and bright-hued flowers, such as hibiscus and poinsettia, all in full bloom. There were also several orange trees bearing their golden fruit.
The seats in the plaza were filled with Mexicans of all shades, and there were also a good many Americans — Western mining men, from their appearance. As I strolled past them I occasionally heard such remarks as, "Richest ore in the whole country." "Millions in sight," "The biggest bonanza ever struck," and so on. There, too, was my old friend the "man with the scheme," showing his companions a chunk of ore supposed to represent fabulous wealth.
On one side of the plaza, beneath the portales or arcades, were several drinking saloons. Outside some of them were small tables at which more Americans were seated, imbibing the national rye whiskey, and discussing American politics in loud tones. Blanketed Indians lounged against the stone columns, regarding the Americans with lethargic curiosity; Indian women in their blue rebosas squatted against the walls, selling cakes and dulces. At another end of the plaza some enterprising citizen had started an American boot-polishing stand, with a row of chairs on a low platform, with foot-rests before them. Several ragged young Indians accosted passers-by with "Shine, boss, diez centavos," and wiled away the time by romping about the pavement, indulging in all kinds of horseplay.
Facing the plaza stands the Government Palace, the residence of the governor and the meeting place of the State Legislature, Oaxaca being the capital of the State of the same name. A sentry in a white linen uniform, with a rifle and fixed bayonet over his shoulder, marched back and forth in front of the principal entrance. There is, in this respect, a great difference between a Mexican and an American city. In the smallest town in Mexico there is always the armed sentinel on guard outside the official building — the emblem of governmental authority. In an American country town, as we all know, there is not even a policeman, and half a dozen old citizens may perhaps be seen, sitting outside the courthouse or city hall, whittling wood with their pocket-knives and talking politics. Such easy-going ways would not do in Mexico; for there the sight of the armed sentry, typical of force and the iron hand, is needed to impress the natives with the dignity of the government. What is suitable for the Anglo-Saxon is not suitable for the still semi-civilized Indian and the treacherous, half-bred Latin.
With a population of forty thousand, Oaxaca is quite a large place. It has several pretty parks and public squares in various quarters, and many of the stores and other business houses would do credit to a much larger city. Among the public buildings are a scientific institute, a seminary, an historical museum and a public library. Branching off from the plaza are some of the principal streets, full of shops and other business places, several of the largest owned by Germans. There, too, one sees the usual signs of the American invasion—the "American Grocery Co.," the American druggist, the doctors, the dentists and two American banks. The town also has a weekly American newspaper, the Oaxaca Herald. An American club has also been started and to this most of the English-speaking residents belong. The members are chiefly men interested in mining, the majority Americans, the others being Englishmen and Welsh-men. This club has some very comfortable rooms in the Casino Building near the main plaza, where I afterwards met a number of pleasant fellows and heard many a weird and wonderful story about the mineral wealth of southern Mexico.
Oaxaca is a progressive place, and many improvements are being made. In the course of another year, so I was informed, the rough cobble-stone streets were to be repaved with asphalt, and the mule-cars, which already run out into the country for several miles, were to be replaced with electric traction.
Although it was hardly nine o'clock when I took my evening stroll, nearly all the shops were closed; for all Mexican cities believe strongly in early closing. A street-car occasionally jingled by and gave a touch of life to the quiet streets, but very few people were to be seen. In the residential part of the town, where there were quaint, low houses, with balconies and heavily barred windows, I suddenly came upon a more animated scene. Hearing the strains of music, I wandered up one of the streets, where I found an excellent military band serenading the house of some prominent citizen. The Indian musicians, in blue uniforms, were playing the Pilgrims' March from Tannhauser in wonderfully good style. A large crowd of peons in their red blankets and great sombreros had gathered in the street and were squatting along the pavement and on the door-steps. Indian women stood in groups, enjoying a bit of gossip. Senoritas leaned from the upper balconies of the houses, while their faithful bears stood below, looking upwards at their divinities and chattering away so continuously that they must have had terrible cricks in their necks. The moonlight, the music and the tender passion probably made them oblivious to such a material thing. Al-together, in its strange contrasts of blanketed Indians and Tannhauser, tattered Indian women and charming senoritas, it was a wonderfully picturesque and typical Mexican scene.
The next day being Saturday and market-day, I first of all paid a visit to the local market. Along the roads leading into the city from the country came droves of burros, loaded with fruit and vegetables, butter and other merchandise, driven by blanketed Indians. Queer old carts with wheels cut out of solid sections of trees, went lumbering by, drawn by a couple of oxen, to the. accompaniment of loud cracks of the whip and constant "arres" (ah-rays) shouted by the drivers, the is being sounded with the long-drawn trill. The Mexican custom of yoking the cattle by the horns seems very cruel, as the heads of the animals are dragged down almost to the ground.
Indians on foot and burro and horseback — men and women — went by in a swarthy procession. Some of them had come over a hundred miles to the market and had been travelling for days. From the hot lands, still farther south, the goods brought to market were chiefly fruits, — oranges, bananas, cocoanuts, limes, pomegranates, aguacates, guanabanas and a variety of luscious, fruity nuts. There was also farm produce, — chickens, turkeys and ducks, eggs and cheese and what not. Women balanced on their heads huge baskets loaded with such wares, sometimes carrying by the legs, in the usual Mexican fashion, ,a brace of live chickens. On the backs of some were slung brown-skinned, tangle-haired babies, staring out from the dirty wraps which enfolded them, with blinking eyes, upon the world which was so strange to them. The Indian families brought all their household essentials with them, a tin pot for drinking and cooking, a few tortillas, some firewood, and a little coffee ; the whole stock of provisions and utensils probably does not exceed in value one or two dollars; but the peon's travelling needs are few. His lodging costs nothing, for he sleeps under the stars, and he will have to buy nothing but a little fruit, a few beans and some spirits. His children often, and his wife always, accompany the peon on his travels, for she fears desertion if he once goes away alone.
The procession of Indians constantly reminded me of scenes in the East, particularly those Biblical pictures of desert travelling, the donkeys, the ox-carts, the women balancing their loads on their shapely heads like the daughters of the Nile, and in the background the white walls, red tiled-roofs and domes of Oaxaca almost like a bit of Bagdad or Cairo.
The objective of all these processions was, of course, the market-place — a great walled enclosure on the outskirts of the town. This was packed with a motley crowd of Indian men and women, wandering about intent on making hard bargains, and the air was filled with the constant hum and buzz of their voices. No one seemed to be disturbed by the dogs, pigs and donkeys in the market, whose barks, grunts and brays added their quota to the general din. Near the entrance were the stands of the butchers, where small pieces of very dark-looking and rather high-smelling meat were being hacked and torn to the size desired by the purchasers. Dealers in fried meats were doing a roaring business, slices of pork and beef being served smoking hot to hungry peons by old dames who did their cooking over small braziers filled with glowing charcoal. The food was amazingly cheap : for five cents a peon could relieve the pangs of hunger; while for a dime he could enjoy a veritable gorge.
Although it was Christmas time, Oaxaca was ablaze with sunshine, the weather being more balmy and much more delightful than the fairest day in an English midsummer. The stalls of the fruit and vegetable sellers were loaded with a tempting array of new potatoes, luscious tomatoes, large radishes, peas, beans and cabbages. There were oranges, bananas, pineapples, limes and plantains fresh from the hot lands as well as aguacates (the vegetable salad), granaditas, mangoes, granadas, cocoanuts and prickly pears. The fruit and vegetables were attractively arranged in little piles on large banana leaves, while such things as dried beans, Indian corn, chilis and eggs were spread on clean cloths. In gayly painted gourds there were sweets, rich preserves and cakes, while here and there was a bare-footed Indian girl selling cream cheese and lumps of unrefined brown sugar. There were also stalls where thirsty souls could quaff the freshly extracted juice of the pine-apple, lime or tamarind, or imbibe mugsful of the evil-smelling pulque. The stall-keepers sat behind their little piles of merchandise smoking cigarettes, these booths with the jostling crowds which surrounded them making the place almost impassable.
In one corner of the market were pigs and other live stock, chickens, ducks, turkeys and brightly colored par-rots. Next to these were stalls where sarapes, sombreros, cotton suits, rebosas and other articles of clothing were on sale. Baskets, mats and bright red pottery of fantastic shapes were sold in another quarter. But the flower stalls, with their fragrant and many-colored blossoms, formed the most attractive sight of all. Here, in this December week, were great masses of sweet-smelling carnations and violets, with a wealth of crimson and white roses, hello-trope, sweet-peas, pansies and wild orchids. An immense bouquet of these — all that you could carry —, costs but a few cents.
Oaxaca, like most Mexican cities, contains a number of fine old churches built in the days of Spanish domination, seven of them dating from the sixteenth ' century. Of these the most interesting is the Church of Santo Domingo, which is not only the most imposing of them all, but is one of the most important in Mexico. After it was built, the great gold-mining millionaires of the district lavished their wealth upon it. The life-size figures of saints, which are in relief, were literally covered with gold, and so rich and so heavy was the precious metal on the walls in former days that it could be easily removed. During revolutionary periods, when soldiers were quartered in Oaxaca, the men frequently clamored for their pay, and as there were usually no funds, it was quite customary for the commanding officers to say, "Go to Santo Domingo, boys, and help yourselves." Having recently been restored at enormous cost, the church is one of the most richly decorated edifices on the American continent. Its interior is a blaze of gold decoration and presents a magnificent sight.
The restoration of Santo Domingo, the cathedral, and most of the other churches in and about Oaxaca is due to the energy of the archbishop, Dr. Gillow, one of the most popular ecclesiastics in Mexico. Archbishop Gillow, who is the son of an Englishman, was educated at Stonyhurst College, and afterwards spent some years in Rome. He has been at the head of the diocese of Oaxaca for over twenty years.
Despite the renovating and modernizing which are in progress, Oaxaca has still an old-world appearance. It is situated in a broad valley surrounded by lofty hills and rocky, barren mountains of reddish tint, which form a striking background to the white city. Viewed from a distance, under a cloudless blue sky, the effect is wonder-fully beautiful. On one side of the city, lying close to the hills, the streets have a slight ascent, and streams of clear water flow down their central gutters from the waterworks which are out in that direction.
Over three hundred years ago a Spanish traveller described Oaxaca as "a not very big yet a fair and beautiful city." It was a place of some importance before the Spaniards came. The native inhabitants called it Huaxyacca, meaning "the place of the guages," because the guage tree, useful for its wood and fruit, abounds in the Oaxaca valley. The Spaniards who colonized the place in 1521 abbreviated the name to Oaxaca. The Zapotecs inhabited Oaxaca and the surrounding country when the Spaniards came, and their descendants, the Zapotec Indians, still living there, speak the Zapotec dialect as well as Spanish. Cortes owned vast properties in this part of Mexico, and Charles the Fifth of Spain bestowed on him the title of Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, for which reason he was generally called "the Marquis." Oaxaca has a still more important part in Mexican history; for it was here in 1806 that Benito Juarez was born, and in 1830 the city had the further honor of being the birthplace of the present great ruler of Mexico, General Porfirio Diaz.
Oaxaca played a very important part in the revolutionary wars and in 1865 was taken by the French army under General Bazaine. The garrison was then commanded by General Diaz, who was captured, but afterwards escaped. A year later, at the head of a victorious Mexican army, he defeated the French, recaptured the city with all the French cannon, ammunition and stores, then marched on to Puebla and Mexico City. The remains of the old forts are still to be seen on the heights overlooking the town.