Life In An Old Mexican Town
( Originally Published 1912 )
"INFLUENZA epidemic in Mexico." Thus read the heading of a special article which appeared in one of the American-Mexican newspapers during my stay in Oaxaca. The news was not at all surprising; for it does not require a long residence in Mexico to realize that the unwashed, filthy living peon is a ready catcher and transmitter of any infectious disease. From Mexico City the malady soon reached Puebla, and in a short time it had invaded Oaxaca, where, despite the mild climate, it had numerous victims. I contracted a bad case of it myself, and did not improve matters by returning to Puebla, the inhaling of dust in large quantities on the long railway journey not being exactly a specific for the complaint.
"Try Cuautla," said the doctor when- I consulted at Puebla; "there's nothing like it in a case of influenza with bronchial complications." My first thought was that Cuautla was some strange Mexican drug, and was wondering whether it would be a nauseous dose, when the doctor proceeded to enlighten me. " Cuautla," said he, " is the name of a popular health resort between Puebla and Mexico City, the climate of which does wonders for sufferers from lung and bronchial troubles."
Upon making inquiries at the railway office about trains to Cuautla, the clerk handed me an illustrated pamphlet with a fine colored picture on the cover representing a Mexican tropical scene. It bore the title, "Cuautla, Mexico's Carlsbad." What ! I thought, another Carlsbad ? In glowing language the booklet described Cuautla as an earthly paradise with a magnificent climate, beautiful scenery, splendidly equipped hotels and a warm sulphur spring whose waters were a certain specific for almost every human ailment. What more could one desire ? But with a keen memory of another Mexican Carlsbad and its primitive surroundings I was determined not to be caught a second time nor to allow my hopes to be raised too high.
Cuautla is about a hundred miles or so from Puebla, and the speedy trains of the Interoceanic Railway take about ten hours to make the journey. The train which I took left about seven o'clock in the morning ; it was not timed to reach Cuautla until five in the evening ; and as there was not any restaurant at any intermediate station, a somewhat terrifying prospect of starvation faced travellers. How were they to get their luncheon ? A little pamphlet given away by an American tourist agency and evidently written by an accomplished press-agent gave me the desired in-formation: —
"At a certain station on the road," said my traveller's guide, "your train will stop for some twenty minutes. Here you will be greeted by graceful Indian women,— beauties, many of them, with their olive skins and dark, flashing eyes, bearing themselves with queenly grace in their dainty rebosas and flowing garments, white as the driven snow. They will offer you such dainties as tamales, chili-con-carne and tortillas, piping hot from their little stoves, and prepared with all the scrupulous cleanliness of a Parisian chef. They will bring you dainty refrescos of freshly gathered pineapple or orange to quench your thirst, and pastry such as your mother may have made when her cooking was at its prime."
Now, what more could any reasonable traveller demand ? What need was there for a restaurant when there were all these good things to be enjoyed? I showed my guide to an American friend before I started. He chuckled, gave a knowing wink and remarked, "Great is the faith of man, for after all your experiences you can still believe in a Mexican guide-book." "But," I said, "here it is in black and white, the dainty cooking, the clean Indians — " "That settles it," he interrupted. "When you come across a clean Indian in this part of the country, telegraph me at my expense." He added, "If I were in your place, I would be on the safe side and take some provisions along." I took his advice/ and was afterwards profoundly thankful that I did so.
Between Puebla and Cuautla the railway descends to the hot lands, the descent being marked by a decided in-crease in temperature. On this account the weather towards midday became uncomfortably warm. About one o'clock, in dazzling sunlight, we stopped at the station where, according to the guide-book, the Indian beauties were to greet us. There certainly were a lot of women waiting, and they came rushing forward to meet the train; but what I saw completely took away my appetite. There were the usual Indian women food-sellers in their faded blue rebosas and dusty skirts, most of them old, withered and uncleanly, having been born, I fear, with a rooted aversion to soap and water. Some of these beldames were squatting outside the station, cooking various queer foods on crude charcoal stoves. I watched the process of tamale-making, not exactly an appetizing sight. An old lady thrust her rather dirty hand into a jar containing chopped meat and other ingredients, took out a handful and slapped it on a piece of tortilla dough which she deftly wrapped round it until it formed a sort of roll. This she plunged into some boiling fat, and in a few minutes it was cooked. "Oh, what delicious tamales they're a-making. Mercy ! I'm going to have some." The speaker was a Western young lady who was travelling with her father, mother and two brothers. Some Westerners apparently have strong nerves as well as appetites, at least these did; for they called to the Indian woman, who brought them her greasy delicacies, of which the whole family partook with great relish. A solemn young man who accompanied the party insisted on having the Mexican equivalent of a jam tart, and managed to make one of the women understand him by means of dumb signs. The old lady rammed her dirty and rather greasy hand into a jar of jam, took out a handful, slapped it on a piece of pastry, and presto ! there was the jam tart.
The Mexican passengers were, of course, even less fastidious. They bought the Indian dainties recklessly, loading themselves with them externally and internally. I was content to appease my hunger with some biscuits and cheese and to quench my thirst with some Tehuacan water. I expect, in common with my fellow-men, to eat a peck of dirt in my lifetime, but I positively decline to take it all at one dose. So much for the guide-book. I was now ready for Cuautla.
On my arrival there, I crossed a pretty little plaza opposite the station and reached the Hotel Morelos, an establishment under American management where I had arranged to stay. It was the usual old mansion that had been turned into a hotel and very little altered. There was a large interior patio, with fountain, trees and flowers; a large garden adjoined this filled with orange trees, banana plants and palms, with great masses of bougainvillea growing everywhere. All the rooms opened into the patio, and on one side of it there was a long, rustic dining-room.
The place looked very old-fashioned and crude, but was interesting and picturesque, and in the mild climate of Cuautla, where outdoor life is so pleasant, many luxuries indispensable elsewhere could be dispensed with. The rooms were furnished in the usual Mexican style, with tiled floors and one or two rugs, but were clean and comfortable.
The attractions of the hotel were hardly up to those of a Carlsbad establishment, for it had neither a writing nor a smoking room; but the terms were rather more attractive than the usual Carlsbad tariff, being about two dollars a day inclusive. It is true there was a good deal of Mexican about the cooking, but the meals were not at all bad and the service very fair. There were many visitors at the hotel, chiefly Americans, most of whom had fled from the capital to escape influenza or to recover from it. But for the tropical surroundings, one could easily have imagined one's self at an American resort.
Situated at an altitude of about five thousand feet, Cuautla has a splendid winter climate, fully rivalling that of Cuernavaca, the mean temperature averaging seventy degrees the year round. It is a quaint, old-fashioned place, with narrow, cobble-paved streets, and houses of the usual low, flat-roofed type. As I strolled about the town the next morning, I noticed some unusually amusing signs of Americanization. An enterprising barber, for example, displayed a big signboard with the English inscription, "Hygienic, non-cutting barber shop," as a tempting inducement to tourists, and one or two other establishments displayed in their windows the interesting announcement, "American spoke here."
Before the Conquest, Cuautla was an Indian settlement of some importance; and in 1600 the present town was founded by the Spaniards. In 1812, during the War of Independence, it was the scene of some fierce fighting. It was in that year that General Morelos, the Mexican patriot, with a small force, was shut up in the town and besieged by a large Spanish army under General Calleja. After a siege of three months, Morelos was enabled to evacuate the place, but not until he was starved out. During the siege food became so scarce that cats were sold for six dollars, and rats and lizards for one and two dollars. One street in the town is called "Armaguras de Calleja," which means "Bitterness of Calleja," the forces of the Spanish general having suffered terribly in this particular thorough-fare. Another street, called " Las Victimes," is so called because the Spaniards, after entering the town, are said to have cut the throats of all the women and children in its houses.
Cuautla is also famous for having the oldest railway station in the world, the crumbling, ancient structure which is now used for this purpose having been the Church of San Diego built in 1657. Near it was a convent now also used for business purposes. When the law appropriating church property was enforced in 1856, the Franciscan fathers who then occupied the church and adjacent buildings vacated the place, and in 1881 the railway company purchased it for its present use.
The day after my arrival I went into the old church, the body of which is now used as a warehouse, while one side of it bordering the railway line provides accommodation for the waiting-room and various offices. A quantity of wine-barrels were piled up at the spot where the high altar had formerly stood, and all kinds of merchandise were stored in other parts of the building. Over the door was an inscription, the first words of which seem appropriate enough to the present condition of the once sacred edifice: "Terribilis est iste hic domus dei et porta coeli " (How dreadful is this place. This is none other but the house of God and this is the gate of heaven).
The warm sulphur spring — the great attraction of Cuautla, and its only claim to be reckoned a spa — is some three miles out of the town, and visitors go out there on horseback, or in a wagonette which makes the trip several times a day. In the daytime the roads are too dusty, and it is too hot, for walking.
In a blaze of sunshine which was worthy of the sub-tropics, I started for the springs the morning after my arrival, riding in one of the wagonettes, which was well filled with passengers. Rumbling through the cobble-paved streets and almost dislocating our bones, the vehicle at last reached the white, dusty highroad which led out into the country. For most of the way it is bordered with large banana plantations, and the tall plants were loaded with green fruit. These plantations are artificially irrigated, and even in what was now the dry season streams were running through them. There are several rivers round Cuautla, and in the hottest weather the country is well watered. It is, in fact, one of Cuautla's great charms that everywhere there is running water, through the streets and roads, in the gardens and plazas and through the fields. Irrigation has made the land to blossom like the rose, and after seeing so much of the dry, arid districts, the green trees and fields, the miles of fruit trees, the graceful palms and wealth of flowers were a welcome sight.
Later on the road passed over some barren, rocky hills, from the summit of which there were some magnificent views. All around, in the distance, were rolling, reddish mountains, and far beyond these could be seen the snow-covered peaks of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl. The air was wonderfully clear and the sky the never changing, cloudless blue. By the roadside were occasional Indian huts, not of the usual square, flat-roofed type, but circular, and looking something like round English haystacks. They are built partly of adobe and partly of bamboo, inter-woven with reeds and rushes, the roofs being thatched with grass. Most of them were embowered in a jungle of tropical vegetation and oftentimes in a dense thicket of green bamboo. The peons here seemed to look a shade cleaner than elsewhere, probably because there was plenty of water in the neighborhood; their clothing of homespun cotton, too, looked almost white.
My fellow-travellers in the wagonette were two French families, men, women, boys and girls, and they talked incessantly of the wonderful sulphur bath they were going to enjoy; but when we reached the spring I could see no signs of a bathhouse. Flowing through a narrow ravine was a small stream which at one point formed a waterfall, pouring over a high bluff into a large rocky basin. This basin was divided into two parts by a low brick wall built through the centre.
On our arrival, the ladies and girls wandered off in one direction, and I followed the men and boys in another. They went under some trees near by, took off their clothes and donned bathing-suits. The ladies and girls, who had retired to other trees at a respectful distance, also appeared in their bathing costumes. They went into the water on one side of the brick wall, while the men and boys took possession of that on the other side. That is how this Mexican Carlsbad is conducted. I did not take a bath, but I put my hand in the water, finding it tepid, and as the day was quite hot, I have no doubt that the bathing was very pleasant. The water is strongly impregnated with sulphur, and is said to be extremely beneficial in cases of rheumatism and various other diseases.
The drive or ride out to the springs is about the only amusement at Cuautla, so people contrive to pass away the time by getting up late and going to bed early. It is, how-ever, a pretty spot, a midwinter paradise; and if it only had a good, up-to-date hotel, with organized recreation, it could be made into a very fine resort. Even as things are, the place is always crowded during the winter season.
There is another spring of a different kind less than a mile from Cuautla. It is reached by a beautiful lane, bordered by a low, moss-grown wall of rough stones and shaded by an occasional group of banana plants or palms. From this tropical by-path there was a view over miles of bright green sugar-cane to the horizon of reddish mountains, and towering above them all were the two great snow-covered peaks, standing out sharply against the deep blue sky. The scene was always magnificent, and in the evenings, when the sun was setting, the color effects were exquisite beyond description. At the end of the lane was a wide, clear brook dashing over the rocks and bordering some cool woods, full of fine old trees, green as the trees of New England in early June; beneath them was a carpeting of long, lush grass and a myriad of bright flowers. Crossing the brook by some stepping-stones, one could enter the wood and reach a deep, sandy basin, where several springs forever bubbled up beneath the water which flowed off in wide streams, branching in every direction. The only visitors to this charming spot seemed to be a few Indians who came down to bathe.
In the vicinity of Cuautla there are several great haciendas or farming estates, some of them as extensive as counties. One which employs thousands of men is over three hundred thousand acres in extent, and within its limits are several Indian villages with their big churches. This part of Mexico is a sugar-cane country, and here can be seen great mills which convert the chopped stalk into sugar, the capacity of each mill being estimated by the hundred tons instead of the pound. From the sugar-mills you can see the glistening peaks of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl — sugar-making within the sight of snow ! Is there any other place on earth revealing such a contrast?
An idea of the size of Mexican haciendas can be gained from the fact that one of the largest estates near Cuautla has two railway stations within its limits and its own line of railway. Such a thing, however, is not at all uncommon in Mexico.
In the seventeenth century these great estates were to Mexico what the feudal castles were to Europe in earlier times. The hacienda house — the great stone mansion where the. haciendado and his family lived — was then surrounded with farm buildings and the homes of the workmen. From early morn until night, trains of burros were constantly going in and out loaded with wood, maize, vegetables, poultry, baskets of fruit; the great house having a life of its own, self-supporting, quite apart from the State. In the tower of the hacienda chapel, or if there was no chapel, then from an arch over the main entrance to the hacienda house, there was usually a bell which had been blessed. This was rung to call in the field-hands whenever danger threatened; and as soon as the alarm sounded they would drop plough and sickle and run to the great house, where the women and children gathered in the patio while the senor armed the men with rifles from the storeroom. Then from the portholes of the heavy stone walls, from the corner turrets and from the protected roof the hacienda's defenders were able to offer stout resistance against wandering marauders or bands of soldiery in search of plunder. In these peaceful times the bell is now rung only when rain or hail threatens in harvest time, as its blessed voice is sup-posed to be a charm against the elements.
In the daily life of these great haciendas many picturesque and beautiful customs still survive. An interesting description of some of these was given by the author of an article which recently appeared in one of the Mexican magazines. "When the day's work is done," says this writer, "and the last red gleam has faded from the mountains, the field-hands gather together to sing the evening song of praise. A deep bass begins the chant : —
'Dios te salve Maria.'
A shrill, childish voice joins in: —
' Dios te salve Maria.'
Then from the long line of men and women rises the chorus: —
`Dios te salve Maria
The Indian voices vary in pitch from a shriek to a roar. When the whole company joins in, each singing or yelling: —
`Bendita to eres
one might imagine it to be the fierce war-song of the Aztec legions defending their royal city on the lakes. But it is only the `Ave Maria' sung to the gentle Mother."
In harvesting grain, short-bladed hand sickles are very commonly used. Whenever a reaper straightens up to rest from his work, he raises his hat and shouts in a high, monotonous key, "Ave Maria, Santissima !" Some fellow-worker in a neighboring field answers back, and so round all the wide fields a continuous cry of rejoicing goes up. If a field is fruitful, a cross, hung with wisps of grain and stiff decorations made from the maguey flower, is set up in a corner of it as a sign of thankfulness. Even the noxious pulque has its peculiar religious rites. As the peon pours the agua miel, freshly gathered from the maguey, into the evil-smelling cowhide vats of the tinacal, he calls out in a loud tone "In the name of the holy sacrament on the altar ! Hail to the most pure Virgin Mary ! May the pulque turn out well." Every man in the building raises his hat.
On many of the larger haciendas the baronial magnificence which was once common is still kept up. Some of the great estates include villages with a population of peons, all laborers employed by the haciendado. It would take days to ride from one end to the other of these vast domains. Years ago, when there were no inns, any traveller could stop at the hacienda, sure of hospitality and a hearty welcome. In northern Mexico there is one immense hacienda which formerly controlled twenty thousand peons. Some of the great estates still remain in the hands of the original families, to whom they were granted at the Conquest. The owners of these properties enjoy princely incomes, and most of them keep elaborate houses in the capital, where they spend their wealth with a lavish hand.
Many of the hacienda houses are comfortably furnished; but even the richest Mexicans are more or less barbaric in their household ideas, and know very little of those luxuries which go to make up the delight of an American home. The cooking is usually atrocious, there are rarely bath-rooms and other requisites, and so primitive are the arrangements that very few people accustomed to modern civilized life would care to visit them.
The great hacienda system has been a serious obstacle to progress in Mexico; and if these huge estates were divided up among smaller proprietors and properly cultivated, the country would be much richer. As it is, half the land is lying idle, going to waste, or is only half tilled.
The agricultural methods in vogue on many of the old estates are still very primitive, and there is oftentimes a curious mingling of the ancient and modern. The latest improved harvesting and threshing machines can sometimes be seen in operation, while not far off peons are ploughing with the old wooden ploughs and driving along the lumbering ox carts. Grain is still threshed in some places by driving teams of horses or mules over it every day for hours at a time, and is winnowed by being tossed in the air. While accepting a few modern improvements, the average haciendado clings tenaciously to many of the old ways and is strongly opposed to giving them up.
A wonderful variety of grains, fruits and vegetables are grown on the haciendas of Mexico. In the north the chief products are wheat, barley, maize, and other cereals, and in the south, sugar-cane, coffee, cocoa, vanilla, tobacco, pineapples, bananas and india-rubber. All over the country there is a great cultivation of fibre plants. Some haciendas, too, are exclusively devoted to the breeding of horses, cattle, and other live stock.
Visits to the haciendas in the surrounding country form a very interesting diversion to life at Cuautla, and there are many interesting scenes to be witnessed in the old town itself. For, like many of the smaller Mexican towns, Cuautla still retains much of the romance and manners of sunny Spain. At night in the plaza there is Spain in miniature. One evening I passed an old fonda, open to the street, in which were gathered a number of peons, in their blankets and sombreros, drinking their aguardiente and playing their favorite game of picture-cards. Three picturesque natives twanged away merrily on old-fashioned mandolins and occasionally burst into song. In the neighboring plaza, beneath a sky brilliant with tropical stars and an unclouded moon, there strolled a few dark-eyed senoritas with their duennas, regarded with languishing looks by the young senores who stood in groups beneath the old trees, greeting the fair ones with an occasional "adios." In a side street I caught a glimpse of one or two faithful "bears" standing below the balconies, chatting in low tones with the Juliets above. Evidently romance had not yet passed away in old Cuautla.