Christmas At Los Reyes
( Originally Published 1912 )
To spend Christmas in the wilds of the Mexican Sierras would seem attractive to any one in search of novel experiences. And it was thus that the idea impressed me when I accepted an invitation to accompany my friends at Zavaleta on a holiday-making trip of twenty miles across the mountains. Our destination was the little village of San Miguel Peras in the beautiful Petioles district, near which place is situated the famous Los Reyes gold-mine, owned by an American company. Its superintendent, a hospitable Canadian, had invited us to spend Christmas there.
Early in the afternoon of the previous day we started on our expedition, my companions being Green, Gus and Don Carlos. "What would your friends in New York think of this for Christmas weather?" asked Green, as we mounted our horses and rode off. I wondered; for, unlike the weather of the average northern Christmas, the sun was blazing down from an unclouded sky with an intensity more in keeping with a tropical midsummer.
We took a rough trail winding up the mountain side, climbing higher and higher, our path at times bordering deep gorges of a thousand feet or more. As we gained the summit of the range, a magnificent view unrolled before us, with miles upon miles of wooded mountains and valleys, and the great plain of Oaxaca backed in the far distance by the towering peaks of the Sierras. The trail at last joined a rough, rocky road, with occasional level stretches where we could indulge in the luxury of a gallop.
On our way we passed through two or three Indian pueblos or villages, always of the same type, a collection of adobe huts, most of them surrounded with a cactus hedge, and one more pretentious than the others serving as a sort of general store. From these pueblos and from some of the scattered huts a pack of yelping curs sallied forth, snapping at our horses' heels. One of my companions was for shooting some of them with his revolver; but the others dissuaded him, as the peons, they said, would follow us for miles, demanding compensation. Some Americans in Mexico arm themselves with small air-guns loaded with ammonia with which to keep off these dogs, which are certainly one of the curses of the country.
Occasionally we passed rude wooden crosses set up in piles of stones, mute reminders of an age that has almost passed away. Each marks the spot where a murder has been committed, and it is the duty of a good Catholic to mutter a prayer for the soul of the victim as he passes, and perchance to add a stone to the pile. In some parts of Mexico there are so many of these crosses that a stranger would suppose that they marked the graves in a wayside cemetery. The Mexican bandit in former times not only robbed, but more often than not killed his victims; and even to this day men do not travel in the remoter districts without a revolver and plenty of ammunition. The mining men who went into the Sierras from Oaxaca, I noticed, always had their revolvers strapped to their belts.
By a continuous ascent we eventually reached an altitude of nearly ten thousand feet and entered one of the most charming bits of country that I had seen in Mexico. It was, in fact, very hard for me to realize that I was actually in Mexico and not in the midst of some peaceful English park in the early summertime. We trotted through green woodland paths shaded by fine old oaks and other trees common in temperate climes; through deep glades where the earth was carpeted with green, luscious grass, the air cooled by limpid streams which dashed over mossy rocks. All the features of an English June were here save that the woods were silent; there were no signs of animal life and scarcely the chirp of a bird to be heard.
Farther on we came to a long stretch of well-laid road, probably made in the old Spanish days. On one side of this road was a deep, wooded glen; the other was bordered by a high bank which had been faced with rocks, now covered with thick moss and fern. We were now making a descent, and over the tree-tops below us we caught occasional glimpses of a broad valley and wild stretches of forest. Down the road we galloped, and after crossing the valley, a few more miles brought us to San Miguel Peras, the end of our journey.
Entering the village, we passed the casa municipal or town hall, a neat little building of white stone, the parish church and then the usual collection of peon huts. Strung along the village street were telephone wires, which we had also noticed during our journey, connecting the district with Oaxaca and other places. The government at Mexico City is thus kept in direct touch with the remotest parts of the Sierras.
At the fonda or village store, Don Ignacio, the book-keeper of the mine, was waiting to greet us. He spoke with such a strong Scotch accent that at first I thought he was a real Scot, and wondered how he had contrived to translate Duncan or Sandy into Ignacio. He informed me, however, that he was of Portuguese parentage and having been born in Scotland had acquired his accent there. The Don spoke Spanish fluently, and was of great service in acting as mediator between the mining people and the natives.
A few minutes' ride beyond the village brought us to the headquarters of the mine. Here we met the superintendent, Mr. Alexander Smith, and his Canadian assistant, who gave us a cordial welcome. We had rooms assigned to us over the company's store, a long stone building where all sorts of things were sold, provisions, clothing, tools, etc., many of the miners taking their pay in goods instead of money. A second story of wood had been added to this building, also a large wooden veranda its entire length. In this part of the building were rooms for the superintendent and his staff, including the sitting-room where we gathered and had our Scotch and soda. There were eight of us altogether, a Mexican friend of Smith's having arrived.
The mining property formed quite a little village itself. In addition to the building already mentioned, there was a large, old-fashioned stone house, used as kitchen and dining-room, and adjoining this were various huts occupied by the menservants, no women being employed, and some of the mining hands. Beyond these were the stamp-mill and other structures connected with the mine works. The mine itself was about a mile away, the ore being brought down on the backs of burros.
San Miguel Peras is about seven thousand feet up, so that the night air was much colder than at Zavaleta. At night some of us had five blankets, and even then found it hard to. keep warm, the thin, rarefied air being so penetrating. I nearly froze before the morning.
An attempt was made the next day to celebrate Christmas in good, old-fashioned English style. A yule log drawn by two burros was dragged into the big stone-paved dining-room, where it soon blazed in the open fireplace. The weather was fine and warm, although it had been so unpleasantly cold at night.
After breakfast a turkey that had been fattening for weeks was taken to a level piece of ground near the mine and put in a box with its head protruding. Each man then took a shot at it with a rifle, until one of our number man-aged to hit it. The bird was then carried off by Tom, the Chinese cook, to serve as the piece de resistance of our Christmas dinner.
Later on, we went to an enclosed field where sports were to take place during, the day. The fence-posts were gayly decorated with Mexican, English and American flags. In a tent near by was placed a Victor talking-machine, and there it ground out Spanish and American songs and music all day long for the edification of a large crowd of peons and peonesses. When the talking-machine was first started, Smith remarked to his assistant, who was managing it : "Give them La Paloma and plenty of other Spanish music ; that's the sort of thing they appreciate." But he soon realized that the musical taste of the modern Mexican Indian has suffered from the American invasion; for a peon came up, sombrero in hand, and addressing him, said : "Senor, la gente prefiere `rag-time' Americano; no mas musica Espanola" (Sir, the people all want American "rag-time" (he pronounced it "rahg teem"); no more Spanish music).
In the field some of the young men of the village were solemnly playing pelota (the national ball game of Mexico), empty gourds having been fashioned into catchers for the ball and tied to their arms. Quite a crowd of natives had gathered in the field; and the padre, a good-looking Mexican priest, came down to give ecclesiastical approval to the festivities. The Presidente, or Lord Mayor of San Miguel Peras, was absent, however, having had, it appeared, some dispute with the mining people, and to show his displeasure had kept away. I told Don Ignacio that I was very much disappointed, as I wished very much to see what a Mexican lord mayor looked like. "Ye havena missed ower much, I'm thinking," replied the Don. " Ye see you disreputable-looking Indian squatting by the fence. Well, he was the present Presidente's predecessor, so ye can get a vera guid idea of what a village Presidente is like." The old gentleman in question wore the usual white cotton suit, red blanket and straw sombrero, and I rather think that he was bare-footed. Don Ignacio further told me that the alcalde or magistrate of the village had been chosen because he was the only man in the place who could read and write ! He was therefore regarded as a gente de razon or reasoning man, literally "one who has a mind." It is in this humble way that the peon refers to any man who has an infusion of white blood or is possessed of superior knowledge.
The natives squatted about the field and swarmed around the talking-machine, the boys and girls seeming to be much more interested in this than in the games. Later on, some Indian women came down with baskets of fruit and dulces to sell, so that the place took on quite a public-holiday appearance. During the morning we had football and cricket, the competing teams being composed of swarthy, barefooted Indians.
Later in the day there were a number of sports, such as blindfold and obstacle races, a burro race and finally the great concluding spectacle — a chase for a greased pig. When the pig was turned loose, a host of men and boys gave chase, the squeaking animal scurrying amongst the spectators, knocking down some of them ; then it turned and fled back to the field again, where three peons who headed the pursuit fell in a heap on top of it, catching it in their blankets. This, of course, was not according to the rules of the sport as played in England. Each peon insisted that he alone had caught the pig, and each was determined to have it. Two of them drew ugly looking knives and swore by all the saints that they would defend their rights. Bloodshed seemed impending, when Smith plunged into the melee, and vowed that none of them should have the pig, as they had not played fair. To prevent hostilities he compromised matters by offering each man two dollars. The pig, the innocent cause of the whole disturbance, was then taken back to its pen. After some argument, the peons came to terms and peace was restored.
We sat round the long table in the stone-paved dining-room that evening and ate our Christmas dinner, warmed by the welcome blaze of the yule log. There was roast turkey, Christmas pudding, mince pie and numerous other good things, and some excellent wine. Afterwards we adjourned to the veranda where a large company of peons and their wives and young men and maidens had assembled for a dance.
The festivities were opened with a dance called the Danza de Sombrero. A sombrero being placed on the floor, a girl and boy danced round it, in and out, drawing near and gliding away without touching it. Then there was the bottle dance, a young Indian deftly balancing a wine-bottle on his head as he danced with his dark-skinned partner. The music was furnished by three natives playing queer old mandolins. Then followed dancing by the entire company to the music of the talking-machine, alternating with that of the mandolins. This dancing was interminable and monotonous, both men and women moving round with expressionless faces, their whole demeanor melancholy and funereal. But they seemed to enjoy it in their solemn way and kept up their gloomy revels until long after midnight.
The air was rather chilly outside, so after watching the dancing for a time we adjourned to the sitting-room to play cards. Later on I went on the veranda to have another look at the peon festivity, and to avoid catching cold swathed myself in a red blanket and put on a sombrero. An Indian seated near me apparently thought that I was one of his own race and spoke to me in his native tongue ; but one of his companions, glancing at me, interrupted him. `'`No es Indio," he remarked; "es un senor; un gente de razon." (He is no Indian; he's a gentleman; one who can reason.) I felt very much complimented. My swarthy friend spoke in Spanish, I presume, that I might see that he, too, had some pretensions to being a gente de razon.
During my stay at the Los Reyes mine I examined some of the workings, which are very extensive. In some parts of them there are traces of excavations made by the aboriginal miners in prehistoric times, and also those of Spanish gold-seekers. Spaniards mined in the Penoles district for over a hundred years, and were followed by the Mexicans and lastly by the Americans. The earlier mining operations, however, were conducted in a very superficial manner, and it is only within recent years that modern methods have been introduced. Large quantities of paying ore are now taken from the Los Reyes mine; some of it is wonderfully rich, and I was shown several specimens in which almost virgin gold was embedded in the glittering quartz.
Our festivities at Los Reyes ended with Christmas night. At eight o'clock the next morning we mounted our horses, bade farewell to our hosts and rode back over the mountains to Zavaleta. After resting there for a day or two, I returned to Oaxaca.
During my absence large numbers of American mining men and others had come into the town from the country districts to spend Christmas. My hotel was quite well filled. Among the newcomers were various "men with schemes," with some of whom I formed a speaking acquaintance. They had much to tell me of the enormous deposits of gold and silver which were tucked away in remote corners of the Sierras; the whereabouts of which had been revealed to them alone. This mineral wealth simply needed removal, but mining unfortunately requires some money, and my friends with the schemes were short of cash. With true generosity, however; they were ready and willing to share their prospective millions with any lucky mortal who would back them to the extent of a few thousand American dollars.
Cynical, sneering people have sometimes been heard to suggest that the man with the scheme is not a philanthropist, but a shrewd individual, keenly alive to the interests of number one, who has some worthless piece of property and is ready to unload it on some guileless victim. This may be true, but there are cases when the man with the scheme is a well-meaning person who is sometimes victimized by a still shrewder schemer. Of this I had actual demonstration during my stay in Oaxaca. At the American Club I was one day buttonholed by a Greek who, having been born in Wales, called himself a Welshman. He told me that he had struck some wonderfully rich silver ore about twenty-five miles out in the Sierras and that the assay showed I know not how many thousands of dollars per ton. On the strength of a wonderful report drawn up by a firm of assayers who were interested in the property, he had paid down quite a sum to secure an option on it.
One evening my friend, the silver king, insisted upon my going to his quarters to look at the ore and the diagram of the mine. A Welsh mining engineer with whom I had become acquainted at the club was with me, and he was also invited. We went and looked at the ore, which seemed to contain some kind of mineral, and also examined the blue-prints of the mine workings. The engineer, who was a practical mining man, studied the report closely and made some notes. My Greek Welshman, who I could see was an unpractical, visionary sort of person, was wild with excitement, talking incessantly of the millions that he expected to make. The next day I met my friend the engineer and he said: "I have been making an estimate from's own report, and I find that the poor fellow will actually lose ten dollars on every ton of ore that he takes from the mine, the percentage of mineral being insufficient to even cover the cost of working it. His assayer's report is absolute rubbish." He added that many of the assayers in Mexico were grossly incompetent, and for this and occasionally for other reasons every mine that they reported on was, according to their estimates, certain to make its owner a multi-millionaire.
There has been, for some years, quite a boom in mining around Oaxaca, and some Americans have made large fortunes. Each year a larger number of prospectors are at work seeking new deposits, and I heard many amazing stories of finds of rich ores. One mine-owner told me that an Indian had brought him some specimens which assayed nearly a thousand dollars per ton, and offered for a small sum to tell him where the deposit could be found. "Of course," he added, "this piece of ore may have been exceptionally rich, but if the rest only pans out a tenth part as well, I shall soon be a millionaire." Stories like this are responsible for the increasing number of prospectors who prowl about Mexico, spending their days in searching for the gold or silver which is to make them wealthy. A few succeed; but the majority, for a number of reasons, are doomed to failure.
Some of the stories of sudden wealth won by prospectors are marvellous. I heard of an American who spent several years and all his money in searching for silver near Oaxaca, at last securing a claim which seemed to promise paying ore. He invested his last few dollars in dynamite and blew up the rocks in sheer desperation. The blast revealed a wonderfully rich vein, and he eventually sold the property for two hundred thousand dollars.
There are many other mines than those of silver and gold in the vicinity of Oaxaca, for some of them, notably in the Ocotlan and Taviche districts, are rich in copper and lead. Americans, as already remarked, have been most keen in getting control of these properties, and during the past few years have invested fully ten million dollars in mines and smelting plants.
When I was not Occupied in listening to stories of mineral wealth at the club, I found a great deal of amusement at night in strolling about the plaza and watching a line of booths where all kinds of gambling games were in progress. These booths are set up in the plazas of most Mexican towns during the Christmas season, gambling of any sort being dear to the Mexican heart.
In Oaxaca the most popular game, patronized by the richer plungers, was played on a large table divided into squares containing colored pictures of animals, such as a horse, a donkey, tiger, lion, serpent, and over each was a certain number. Players bought chips or counters for ten cents each and staked them on whichever of the animals they selected. A man at the table turned a wheel containing as many balls as there were animals, and each bearing a number corresponding to that marked on the animal. Whichever ball eventually dropped out of the wheel was the winning number. This table was usually surrounded by a large crowd of both sexes. When the wheel was turned and the winning number dropped out, the dealer would shout, "Burro," "Tigre" or "Elephante," as the case might be. A certain number of the losing counters were subtracted by the proprietor as his percentage and the remain-der, divided among the winners, were exchangeable for money at their face value. There were also tables for faro, monte (the three-card game), roulette, etc., the betting being for any amount from a centavo to a dollar. There were even booths where little boys and girls sat gambling away their pennies at a simple sort of game with picture-cards, on which were rude pictures of a cow, a boy, a man or a horse.
In these street festivities many Americans were showing keen interest, especially those who had come in from the mines for the fiesta week. Groups of them usually stood around the gambling booths. There is quite a large American colony in Oaxaca, and one of the districts where most of the Americans have their homes is becoming gradually Americanized. The colony has built two churches, and I believe that an American school has also been established. Most of the American women whose husbands are engaged in mining prefer to live in the town, where they can have some recreation, meet other Americans and escape the discomforts of the mining camps. There are quite a number of American children in Oaxaca, and these Yankee boys and girls astonish the Mexicans by their free and independent ways.
In Oaxaca the home life of the Mexicans can be studied to even better advantage than in the capital, and this is especially true of the shopping arrangements. The grocers' stores, for instance, are extremely interesting; they have a strange, old-world appearance, and are conducted in a manner which gives a very good insight into the domestic customs of the people.
Almost every large grocery store in Mexico is owned by Spaniards, just as many dry-goods establishments are owned by Frenchmen, and hardware stores by Germans, and all of them are alike. Behind an unpolished zinc counter are arranged the shelves and pyramids of dust-covered bottles of liquor. At one side is a small bar-room. The salesmen are always Spanish or Mexican youths in their shirt-sleeves, with grimy hands, and they slam each piece of silver on the counter to test its metal with an almost vindictive motion. A big business is done each day, although it takes a hundred sales to aggregate a dollar; for, as already mentioned, everything in Mexico is bought by the day's supply or even for one meal. At a grocer's store you can buy a cent's worth of sugar, tea or coffee. The grocer will not permit a customer with one cent to escape, and he will break a package of cigarettes to sell a pennyworth with the same apparent alacrity as he pours out a centavo glass of Mexican fire-water; When not engaged in waiting on customers, the shop hands employ their time weighing out small one- and two-cent packages of various classes of staple articles, deftly doubling and fastening the old newspaper wrapper without a sign of a string. When the rush comes, just before the meal hours, these boys hop from one side of the store to the other, grabbing the ready-made packages with the greatest swiftness, supplying the many wants of the cooks in short order.
Oaxaca saw the old year out in a very noisy fashion. At half-past eleven, on the night of December 31, a military band paraded the streets, playing stirring music, and shortly before midnight stationed itself in the plaza and played the Mexican National Anthem. Then all the church bells in the city commenced banging and clanging, excited citizens leaned from their windows and fired off rifles and pistols or exploded fireworks till the din was deafening. With this uproar the new year was ushered in.