The Mexican Woman
( Originally Published 1912 )
A Good idea of the difference between the status of American and Mexican women could be obtained by comparing a photograph taken at midday in Fifth Avenue, New York, with one taken at the same hour in Calle San Francisco, Mexico City. In the New York view there would perhaps be more women than men, whereas in the Mexican scene, so far as the white element is concerned, there would be comparatively few. This is noticeable, in fact, wherever one goes in Mexico, for among all classes of Mexicans, except the Indians, women are kept more strictly secluded than even in Spain. There is, at present, no strictly defined Mexican middle class; but both the upper class and what would be equivalent to the minor business classes in this country are rather Moorish than European in their treatment of the fair sex.
Girls of the higher class, in taking their walks abroad, are still guarded by watchful duennas, and until recently women of high society rarely took a drive in an open carriage. To such an extent, in fact, was this exclusion carried in former days that some of the grande dames, when shoping, did not leave their carriages, but had the salesmen bring the goods to the door.
These severe restrictions as to women showing themselves in public brought about in Spain and Mexico the use of the windows and balconies so characteristic of the two countries. This Is almost the only way in which the senoras and senoritas can, with due regard to propriety, take_ the air ; and thus in the cool of the evening they can be seen sitting like prisoners, peering out through the ironbarred windows at the carriages and passers-by, and perhaps nodding to friends.
With its bolts and bars, real and figurative, the Mexican perhaps cannot claim that the word "home," in the American and English sense, has any real meaning for him ; but his house is in very fact his castle, and he guards it from the inquisitive with the precautions of a tyrant. As in Spain, the Mexican father of the upper classes is an absolute lord and master, and to him all are subservient, even the grown-up children being expected to show obedience in matters in which an American father would never dream of interfering. Marriage without the consent of parents is, for instance, quite unknown.
But even with the strong discipline that prevails in the Mexican household, families are not always united ; there are the usual quarrels, which in a climate where the blood is hot have led on occasions to serious brawls and duels in which lives have been lost. A disturbing element is perhaps the fact that among the upper classes it is common for a number of kinsfolk to occupy the huge. old-fashioned family mansion. An uncle or two, an aunt, a few cousins and sometimes actually two mothers-in-law are added to the family circle and dwell together under the same roof. There is consequently bound to be more or less friction; and that so many families can live peacefully together under such trying conditions is certainly proof of much patience and good nature. Between husband and wife, for whom when they differ there is no divorce, there may exist for years a complete estrangement ; but the world will know little of it; for they will go on living in the same house, although they may never exchange a word.
So hide-bound are the rules which govern Mexican home life that even the most cultured and charming foreigners, resident for years in the country, have never penetrated into the houses of the wealthier Mexicans. No foreigner, unless he be associated with diplomacy, is likely to have any chance of studying and judging the Mexican women, so complete is what amounts to a true harem system.
As a rule, the Mexican women are not beautiful. They are generally of medium height and slight build when young ; though as they progress in years they tend to obesity. Their skin is of an olive tint and their complexions are usually bad, probably on account of the lack of exercise. They are much addicted to the use of powder, which is laid on very thickly, and their lips are often rouged. Mexican beauties may be divided into two classes : the_ slight, delicate girl with big, soft black eyes, and features somewhat suggestive of the Madonna type ; and a stout, voluptuous young woman, — a sort of Spanish dancing-girl type, — with bold, flashing black eyes.
The free life lived by young American and English women is utterly unknown in Mexico. Girls are watched keenly by their mothers, who scarcely ever allow them out of their sight, save in the custody of some old woman-servant or other trusty retainer. Mexican women have no sympathy with the suffragette movement ; they do not want votes, and take no interest whatever in public affairs. The whole question of women's rights is tabooed, and all innovations in the household are looked at askance.
The contrast between the lives of these dark beauties and those of their fairer Northern sisters is perhaps best realized from the fact that no Mexican girl of even the middle class would be permitted to have a young man call to see her or be her escort to the theatre. A Mexican mother would probably have a fit if such an idea were suggested to her. In her estimation, no man is safe until he is married, and even then he will bear close watching. Doubtless this lack of freedom is the reason for the Mexican senoritas gaining the name of coquettes; it is their way of rebelling. But while there is so much outward show of restraint and so much parade of the modest and retiring virgin about the Mexican girl's home life, there is another side to the picture which is apt to jar on the Anglo-Saxon woman. Even Mexican women of the highest classes will permit themselves to talk among their friends or with their servant-girls in a manner which would be regarded as shameful among Americans. If the latter show their astonishment, the Mexican woman, with a laugh, will accuse them of having false modesty.
Mexicans are passionate admirers of the fair sex, and susceptible young fellows who see an attractive girl with her duenna will often follow her, uttering such complimentary phrases as, "Ojos bellos" (Beautiful eyes) or "Bella creatura " ("Beautiful creature "), "Ah, hermosa rubia" (" Ah, lovely blonde "), " Charming brunette." Some of the girls titter and seem to like it. American girls, on the contrary, do not appreciate these Mexican compliments. A lagartijo or "masher," who followed one strong-minded Yankee girl, giving utterance to his expressions of admiration, was rewarded with some swinging blows on his head from the umbrella she carried. In Mexican love affairs, by the way, there is a peculiar slang used. Thus a girl or boy jilted is called a calabaza, meaning the dried, empty gourd; old maids are solteronas; young men are gallinos — young roosters.
A severe critic of Mexico has described it as a land where flowers have no perfume, men no honor and women no virtue. Americans and Englishmen who have lived there generally report that the whole race of Mexicans are grossly immoral. Doubtless there is a great deal of exaggeration in these strictures. Such judgments have been formed largely from appearances, and, where it is so difficult for a foreigner to come into close touch with the intimate life of a people, it is surely only right for him to hesitate be-fore launching general indictments against them. There is no doubt much laxness in morals. The Mexican husband watches his wife as a cat does a mouse, yet very often she deceives him. All Mexican men are said to be unfaithful, and it is almost expected of any one who has the means, to keep two households at least. When an American friend of mine, who lives in Mexico, was recently making his will, his Mexican lawyer asked him if he had any children at home. "No," he replied, "I have none," whereupon the lawyer, with a quizzical look, asked, "Well, don't you have any other household?" putting the question as a matter of course. It is this very different point of view which makes mixed marriages in Mexico almost invariably failures. The American girl or her English cousin who mates with a Mexican generally lives to repent it. In the same way, the marriages of Englishmen or Americans with Mexican women are generally failures.
Under the system of seclusion of which she is the victim, the Mexican girl has but two things in life to occupy her, rove and religion. The classical Spanish picture of the maiden at the barred window or leaning, Juliet-like, from a balcony, while her sweetheart thrums music to her on his mandolin or guitar, is reproduced every evening in Mexico. Courtship is a delightfully difficult pursuit. A young man will, by chance, meet a girl in the street or on the plaza. Her languishing black eyes will haunt him and, having followed her home, he must content himself for days and weeks with watching the house. He has reached the stage which is known as "Racer el oso" (to play the bear), a phrase in comic allusion to his lovesick pacing up and down under the adored one's window as a bear walks backwards and forwards in his cage hour after hour. Now comes the girl's turn. Safe behind her curtain, or in the darkness of her balcony, she can make her coquettish little mind up whether he is quite the kind of bear she wants. If he is, she finds a dozen ways of encouraging him ; a smile, a wave of the hand, a suspicion of the blowing of a kiss are enough to make the bear happy. When she goes to mass or walks in the plaza, the faithful bear follows her, and although they cannot exchange a word, they can find happiness in looks.
Sometimes a flirtation of this kind reaches the love-letter stage,. servants or tradesmen. who call at the house being bribed to deliver the billets-doux, or perhaps the missives are fished up by the amorous young lady with a string from the balcony. This is the moment when fate must decide whether or not the course of true love is to run smooth. If the parents disapprove, the unfortunate bear will soon know; for the girl will be shut up either at home or in a convent to save her from his attentions. If, however, the bear is an eligible party, the parents do not interfere in the rather puerile course the love affair takes. For, having so far advanced, etiquette permits the girl to talk to her bear from the balcony or through the grille of her window ; and the moonlight nights are devoted to the pouring of sweet nothings into each other's ear. The patient bears are frequently content that this nonsense should last for years, and even then a bear may lose his prize.
Bears are very jealous creatures, at least these Mexican bears are, and they will disguise themselves as mozos or peons and watch their fair one's window to see if another bear is in the running. An English friend of mine who lives in an old Mexican town witnessed an amusing instance of this not long ago. A young Englishman who happened to be visiting him was very fond of listening to the music in the plaza and watching the people. One evening when he was out with my friend, he remarked, "I've found a ripping place to sit and smoke my pipe and listen to the band. I've been sitting in that old alcove window over there nearly every night. It's just off the plaza, and you can sit there and hear the music without getting in the crowd. Let's go over and sit down." They took a seat on the window ledge, and had been there only a few minutes when a red rose was thrown to them from an upper window. At the same moment they caught sight of a rather shabby-looking Mexican on the opposite side of the street, who looked up at the window, shook his fist and seemed to be in a great rage. He beckoned to another Mexican, who came up and spoke excitedly in Spanish. The English-men heard such words as "traidora" (traitress), "falsa" (false one), "corazon duro" (black heart). "Yes," said one of the Mexicans, "and there are actually two of them," pointing at the Britishers. My friend said : "Those fellows seem to object to our sitting here; we had better make a move." So they departed, wondering what connection there was between the red rose and the anger of the Mexicans.
The mystery was solved a few days later when my friend happened to call on an old lady in the neighborhood. He mentioned the red-rose incident, and his hostess became almost hysterical with laughter. "Pardon me, senor," she said, "but it is the best joke I ever heard. It explain a great mystery. My nephew, Don Carlos, is much in love with a young lady, Miss Concepcion, who live in that house and he play the bear. He is very jealous and think perhaps she have another bear, so he disguise himself as a mozo and keep watch with a friend. He see your friend sit by the window every night and believe he is playing bear too.
The senorita see her bear watching in disguise and just for mischief she throw the rose to your friend. Oh, Don Carlos is very angry ; he write bitter letters and say he is very much deceived, and Miss Concepcion now repent very much of her joke. I tell him now and everything will be all right." The next evening a very tame, subdued bear might have been seen standing below Miss Concepcion's window, making a very humble apology in choicest Castilian.
But bear rivalries do not always end so innocently. There is very hot blood in the veins of the young Mexicans, and again and again reports will find their way into the papers of fierce conflicts between the suitors for the same girl. Thus, quite recently one of the Mexico City papers reported a fatal encounter at Chihuahua, where two young fellows, members of prominent families, embittered by rivalry, met at night and fought a duel with pistols, both being killed. At Monterey the coquettish desire of a girl to attract attention nearly cost the lives of two men. In the plaza, at night, she mischievously threw a flower from her bouquet towards a young man whose attention she wished to attract. Her lover, furious with jealousy, flew at his rival, and the two left the plaza to fight it out at the back of the town, and one if not both lives would have been lost if friends had not separated the angry young men.
Before a bear can propose marriage he must, of course, interview the girl's parents. After a conventional period, accompanied by a friendly sponsor, he must formally call on the father and propose marriage. If he is eligible, the girl's inclinations are consulted. She will probably say, coquette that she is, that she cannot answer till she has met him. This, too, after months, perhaps years, of evenings on the balcony. When the bear is at last permitted the entree, every member of the family and even the servants have the right of witnessing his adoption as "son-in-law elect." Thereafter he is the "novis oficial" or accepted lover; but even then he never has the advantage of a tete-a-tete with his fiancee for some one is always playing gooseberry. And this very unamusing courtship also has the disadvantage of being extremely expensive. If, for example, the young fellow would take his sweetheart to the theatre or to a restaurant, he must entertain the whole family as well.
Everything, in fact, falls upon the unfortunate"bear; for when the fatal time approaches, not only must he pay for the furniture of the new home, but he is even expected to give the bride her trousseau. Among the wealthier people, it is true, the girl's parents pay for some of the latter, the bridegroom having only to provide the dresses and jewels. There are, in Mexico, two wedding ceremonies, the civil and religious, the latter taking place at the church, while the former is a contract made before the judge of the local court in the presence of six witnesses. After marriage, the wife uses, her husband's name as well as her own. Senorita Garcia, who marries Senor Fernandez, thus becomes Senora Garcia de Fernandez.
Religion means a great deal to the Mexican women. Most of them bear the sacred name of Mary, coupled with some incident in the life of the Virgin, such as "Conception," "Sorrows," "Assumption," "Gifts," "Miracles," "Tears," etc. In their own way they are devout enough, and are just as scrupulous in performing their religious duties as they are in the matters of toilet. They are very superstitious, a result of their ignorance, and still believe in signs, omens and other supernatural manifestations. As a rule, they are kind-hearted and charitable. Smoking is very general among them, and this is very often done in quite an open manner and in company with the male members of the family. Mexican women, on meeting one another, kiss each Other on both cheeks, but unlike the Frenchmen, the Mexican men do not imitate their wives in their greetings to their friends ; they simply embrace and pat each other on the back affectionately, the Mexican equivalent of "good old chap."
The Mexicans have a phrase, "muy simpatica," which literally means "very sympathetic," but really cannot be done justice to in English. It means that charming characteristic of personal attractiveness, the result of a sweet disposition, and this might be truly said to be a terse description of the better Mexican women. They are "muy simpatica," and this the lucky stranger will learn who experiences their kindly hospitality.
Indolence and a lack of domestic training are characteristic of even middle-class Mexican women and girls as well as of their wealthier sisters ; but it is more marked in large houses. All the marketing is left to the cook. She has a sum given her each day, and manages to squeeze a commission out of each shopkeeper. No Mexican housewife would dream of getting more than a day's Supply of food, — sometimes, indeed, only a meal's supply is kept, — because the servants would steal it, and also because there are no ice safes, and meat and other fresh eatables soon go bad. Such a system prohibits good housekeeping. Servants' wages are very poor. A cook will get about three Mexican dollars a week ($1.50). In a well-to-do household there is a door-keeper (portero), a coachman (cochero), a chambermaid (recamera), an ostler (caballerando), a man of all work (mozo), a cook (cocinera), a woman to grind maize (molendera) and a footman (lacayo). Servants are summoned in true Eastern style by clapping the hands, as in most houses there are no bells. In old-fashioned house-holds the domestics call their mistress nina. literally "little girl." Except in fashionable houses, the servants are always Indians. Their food costs but little, consisting, as it usually does, of tortillas and frijoles, and they rarely sleep in beds, preferring to spread a mat in the hall and roll themselves in a blanket.
The rigid seclusion of women is a good deal relaxed in the country where girls are seen more in the streets. They have a queer custom of taking a walk apparently after washing the hair, with their long tresses combed out and flowing down their backs. This they do not seem to consider at all strange. Their relations with the store people are equally unconventional. Even well-to-do women will come in and affably shake hands with the shopmen, talk in a friendly way with them, and inquire after their families. But all this freedom stops at the door. In the street the very same women cut their grocer. To do otherwise would be wrong — " no es costumbre."
A great deal of the severity of the old regime is breaking down under the foreign invasion. Rich Mexicans send their girls to schools in France, in England or the United States, and they gain new ideas of woman's sphere. But the change must be necessarily slow, and to all intents and purposes the average Mexican girl is not educated. When she has learned her alphabet and can write a stilted letter in a fulsome Spanish style, can murder a few pieces on the piano, and mangle a few French phrases, use her needle indifferently, and discover that her country is bordered by two oceans, her education is finished. But her greatest deprivation is the fact that she has no share in the happy outdoor life of athletics which has done so much for the present generation of American women.
Still, all this is bound to change. The emancipation of Mexican women is only a question of time, and the day may yet dawn when the suffragette movement will be cordially taken up in the land of the Aztecs. Young women of the middle class are going into business, taking work in the stores and in offices, and moving about freely in the city without chaperones. All this is affecting the prejudiced old Mexican families, who will gradually abandon their Eastern system of seclusion.
Not long ago the Mexican Herald published a paragraph about openings for women in Mexico, which was copied by a number of American papers. The editor of the Herald subsequently received hundreds of letters from young American women offering to come to Mexico as typewriters, clerks, etc., and demanding absurdly high salaries. But what would most excite the fears of the Mexican maidens was that most of the American girls added a P.S. to their letters, asking what chance there was of their capturing Mexican millionaires on their arrival ! It is unlikely that Mexican women will be content with their dreary lives of confinement when they see their country invaded by the ubiquitous Yankee business girl, taking her place in absolute equality by the side of their brothers. A trade invasion is one thing, a matrimonial invasion is quite another. The Mexican girls must look to their orange-blossoms.
One feature of modern progress which is certainly to be regretted is the tendency to abandon the picturesque Mexican dress, the Spanish mantilla type, and to replace
it with Parisian gowns and hats. Very few of the bewitching senoritas are now to be seen veiling their charms. with those exquisite lace wraps which one associates with sunny Spain. Modish costumes are now generally worn, and owing to the equable climate, there are no such things as winter dresses or furs, summer gowns being worn all the year round.
The Mexicans, like all tropical people, love color, and a strikingly tinted dress wins their admiration much more readily than the most costly of dull-colored silks. But the poorer girls cannot always indulge their taste, having to be content with a flower in the hair or in the dress, while they are usually clothed in a plain black skirt with a black cambric shawl over the shoulders, folded in front in old-fashioned style. This style of girl, whom one is always meeting in the streets, wears no hat. Many of them would be quite good-looking if they were only dressed properly. Ladies whom I interviewed on the subject told me that women's clothing is so expensive in Mexico that it is impossible for people of this class to buy anything better. Some of these meztiza girls, who have far more Indian than white blood in their veins, have rather an unpleasant look. They have dark olive skins, pronounced Indian features, and unnaturally black eyelashes, as if they had been dyed.