In The Land Of The Aztecs
( Originally Published 1905 )
The imperial city, her far circling walls, Her garden groves and stately palaces,
Her temples mountain size, her thousand roofs, And when I saw her might and majesty,
My mind misgave me then.
FROM El Paso, Texas, on the Rio Grande, the run to Mexico City is twelve hundred miles. For a thousand miles the Mexican Central passes through an alkali desert, frightful in the desolation of its solitude and its pitiful sterility. For forty hours not a solitary tree was to be seen, nor blade of grass to cheer us. We shipped volcanic dust in bucketfuls, and when at last we entered the valley of Mexico, by brush and whisk we began to unload the real estate presented to us by the Mexican Central on the way. At Zacatecas all nature changed; around and towards us sloped the volcanic hills hoary with age, and worn with aeons of time, atmospheric erosion and innumerable downfalls of sub-tropical rains. We passed through two hundred miles of a floral and vegetable paradise. Herds were browsing hoof-deep in the rich alfalfa grass; picturesque villages dotted the valley, and hundreds of acres of the maguey plant, from the juice of which pulque is distilled, added to the variety of the landscape. Pulque is the national drink of Mexico. The maguey plant is cultivated in fields, holding from three hundred and sixty to seven hundred plants. When extracted the liquid is like green water in appearance, and is odourless and tasteless. In a few hours it begins to ferment, and has the appearance of milk. The plant takes about eight years to mature, and produces for about five months, during which it yields three hundred and sixty gallons of pulque. From this plant is also distilled the alcoholic drinks, tequila and mezcal.
In many of its features Mexico is unlike any city in the world. Its climate is superb. Its splendid parks, alamedas and gardens, its magnificent churches and palaces, the museums and galleries of paintings and statuary, the historic cathedral, the brown races, offspring of Spaniards and Mexican tribes, the strangely picturesque costumes and the dwarfed and tawny complexioned Indians who silently appear and disappear on the streets like apparitions, separate Mexico from all other cities and place it in a class by itself. The centre of activity in Mexico City is the Zocalo, the most interesting and historic spot in the valley of Mexico. It is the soul of the capital—a beautiful, oblong square upon which no less than nine of the principal streets of the city focus, all the street car lines converge, and crowds of loafers, strangers and busy people gather at all hours of the day and well into the night.
Surrounded by the principal public buildings, it has been the scene of the most important events in Mexican history. All the riots and public demonstrations take place in the Zocalo. Here the wandering Aztecs saw in the heavens, in 1312, the cross, the symbolic sign of promise. Here, where now stands the great cathedral, they built their first temple, the colossal pantheon—Teocalli, they called it—where thousands of prisoners were sacrificed to the war god. Everybody passes there at least once, and often several times a day. If you want to meet a friend, all you have to do is to wait in the Zocalo and he will be sure to turn up sooner or later. Standing in the centre of the plaza, you are surrounded by historic monuments. Directly in front are the towers of one of the greatest cathedrals in the world. The east tower marks the western boundary of the Aztec temple dedicated to the god Tlaloc. To the right is the National Palace built on the site of the home of Montezuma. To the left is the City Hall, where once stood the Aztec Hall of Assembly. The Zocalo is always full of peddlers, beggars, and pickpockets, and here let me add that the Mexican pickpocket takes no back seat from any man of his profession in the world. He is, as Horace says of the poet, born, not made. He comes, and, like a ghost, disappears, and your watch vanishes with him. As a sleight-of-hand artist he has no equal on the continent of America. He is well-dressed, inoffensive, noiseless, and when he touches you there is no sensation.
The Thieves' Market is one of the sights and institutions of the city. Two blocks west of the Zocalo is a large square filled with booths, hucksters' shops, and stalls. This is the Thieves' Market, where the dishonest servant may dispose of his petty thefts, and the sneak thief who has "swiped" an umbrella may find a purchaser and no questions asked. The expert pickpocket never enters the precincts of the Thieves' Market; he disposes of his spoils by private sale or at the Monte de Piedad, the national pawnshop. This institution occupies a large space on the western side of the plaza, opposite the cathedral, where once stood the great palace of Montezuma, where the unhappy emperor was taken by Cortez. After the conquest Cortez made the palace his headquarters. The pawnshop was founded in 1776 by Pedro Romero, Count of Regala, and owner of the famous mines of Real Monte. His idea was to open a place where any one could borrow money at a very low rate of interest and be saved from the usurious charges of pawnbrokers and money loaners. He endowed it with $300,000. So low are the charges that it is really a boon to the people. When the trifling interest is not paid the articles are sold, and whatever remains over from the fixed charge is returned to the original owner. It is an immense establishment, one of the most noted institutions of Mexico, and has survived many seasons of financial depression.
A few minutes' walk from the Zocalo brings you to the Alameda, the Queen's Park of Mexico City, a masterpiece of landscape gardening. I know of nothing of the kind in America to compare with it. There are only forty acres, but these acres represent the application of Mexican art to the development of natural resources. The metallic castings of mythological designs, the bewildering variety of flowers, ferns, giant palms, and tropical plants, the glorietas—circular spaces with fountains in the centre—the cypress-rimmed promenades converging to a common centre, and the perfume of southern roses tempt one to return again and again to this terrestrial paradise. On Sundays and feast days it becomes a theatre of a most brilliant and fashionable assemblage. Bright coloured awnings are raised over the wide walks, chairs are placed on both sides, and at twelve o'clock the crowds begin to gather. A military band lends eclat to the occasion, and at one o'clock the promenades are a kaleidoscope of moving colours.
There are many fine streets in this city, though they are not all Mexican. It resembles Brussels more than any other city, and while it is not laid out on any particular plan one may easily find his way through it. One has to go into the narrow, crooked streets or visit the huge markets to find the real Mexican characteristics. Unfortunately the private residences now going up are built upon plans similar to those of Paris, and there are long blocks of apartment houses arranged upon the French plan. However, the palatial residences of the wealthy Mexicans of the past were built to last, and Mexico will continue to present to the guest within her walls fine examples of the spectacular architecture of the Moors, which is startling in colour, carving, and moulding.
Three blocks from the Alameda Gardens, the famous Paseo de la Reforma commences. It is a boulevard three miles long, running from the heart of the city to Chapultepec, the summer residence of President Diaz. It is a splendid avenue, with four broad asphalt sidewalks, two driveways and two tracks for riders, which are divided by rows of trees.
On feast days and on Sunday and Thursday afternoons, when there are concerts in the glorietas and at Chapultepec, the avenue is crowded with brilliant equipages. Every Mexican family with any pretension to social distinction must have a carriage and be seen on the Paseo. The family may feel the sting of close living at home, the ladies will dispense with household necessaries and figuratively eat crusts of bread in the kitchen, but it is all right if they can only appear in the afternoon on the Paseo in their own carriage, drawn by their own horses, with a coachman and footman in their own livery. This is the criterion of social respectability.
As the avenue is four hundred feet wide there is no crowding, and good nature, affability, and courtesy rule the brilliant procession. During the afternoon the walks are filled with promenaders, the carriages are full of brightly-dressed women and children, with coachmen and footmen in expensive and showy liveries. Young men and boys resplendent in charro suits, with broad-brimmed gold and silver braided sombreros, dash by on fiery ponies. The Paseo at intervals widens into circles called glorietas. These circles are two hundred feet in diameter, and enclose large beds of tropical plants. The banks of the central driveway are ornamented for three miles with colossal stone vases and statues of men prominent in Mexican history since the Declaration of Independence. Many fine buildings front upon the boulevard representing early Spanish and Moorish architecture, and attractive examples of the transition period in Mexican constructive art.
An heroic statue of Charles IV of Spain, the largest casting of single bronze and the most notable public monument on the western continent, stands at the entrance to the Paseo. The height of the horse and rider is sixteen feet, and the weight is sixty thousand pounds. This equestrian statue, by the famous sculptor Tolsa, was cast in 1802, and rests on a porphry pedestal ten feet high. Further on, at the Glorieta de Colon, stands the historic statue of Columbus, by the French sculptor Cordier. The base is of basalt, from which springs a pedestal of Rosa marble, on the squares of which are bronze panels representing the discovery of San Salvador, the façade of the monastery of Santa Maria de la Rabida, the raised letter of Columbus to Sauris, and a scene at the dedication of the monument to Escandon. Crowning all is the bronze statue of the discoverer of America, a masterly conception representing Columbus with his right arm pointing to the new continent.
But perhaps the most striking and fascinating figure of Mexican ferro-work is the statue of Guatemozin, the last of the Montezumas, who led the attack on the Spaniards on the night of July 1st, 1520. The night is known in Mexican history as La Noche Triste—the night of sorrow— when Cortez lost four hundred and fifty of his men and twenty-six horses. Tacuba is six miles to the west of Mexico City, and near the village still stands the tree under whose shade Cortez sat and summed up the terrible losses he had sustained. The statue is one of the most beautiful monuments in Mexico, well proportioned and perfectly poised. The Aztec chief is represented facing the foes of his nation, and in the act of hurling his battle spear. In the bas-relief of the pedestal are two panels representing Guatemozin in chains, and his torture by the Spaniards.
After the Spaniards had returned to the attack and recaptured the city, they held the famous bacchanal which occasioned the rebuke of the pious Father Olmedo, who, on the following Sunday denounced Cortez and his companions. A rumour had spread among the soldiers that Cortez and the Aztec chief had conspired to conceal the royal treasures of the Montezumas, and Julian de Alderete, one of the Conquisatadores, and treasurer of the Crown, waited on Cortez and asked him if he knew what his men were saying. Cortez, though aware of the gossip that was current in the army, feigned not to understand, and asked with unconcern, " What do they say ?"
" They say," answered Alderete, " that your honour, in connivance with Guatemozin, is concealing the immense treasure of the Aztec Crown and that—"
" By Santiago!" interrupted Cortez, making a movement towards his poniard, " I will cut the tongue out of any man who says so!"
" You may cut the tongues out of your soldiers, but not out of the king's treasurer," retorted Alderete.
Cortez seemed for a moment in doubt what to say or do, and then, biting his lip, replied:
" What you say is indeed grave, but what would you recomend me to do to silence this gossip ?"
" There is one course," said Alderete, " that will vindicate you in the eyes of your men, and in that of His Majesty the King. Guatemozin must know where the treasures are hidden. Tell him to bring them forth, and if he refuses, put him to the torture, and if that does not answer, hang him."
"Nothing of the sort shall be done," firmly answered Cortez. " He is my prisoner; I have given him my word that no harm shall befall him, and a Castilian never breaks his word."
" A Castilian keeps his word when pledged to another Castilian, but not when pledged to an infidel, a barbarian. Remember the torments of the sixty-four Castilians, sacrificed on the altars of their heathen gods," returned the treasurer.
"I remember it," said the great Conquisatadore, "but as Christians we should forget it."
"As you please," spoke back Alderete, "but remember that a friend came to warn you when you stood over the precipice. You are about to forfeit your glories and your conquests, and you will appear in the light of a defrauder of the king's revenue."
Cortez grew pale, and turning aside to the physician Murcia said, " Well, here are the keys of his prison; take him, but remember I wash my hands of this whole business."
Alderete, accompanied by the doctor, went to the prison and brought out the king of the Aztecs and the prince of Tacubaya. Their feet were dipped in oil and roasted before a slow fire. The Tacubaya chief, unable to endure the pain, cried to Guatemozin that he was in awful agony.
" My friend," said the last of the Montezumas, "do not think that I am as comfortable as I would be in my bath."
Such is the story of the torture of the Aztec chiefs, and the part of Pilate played by Cortez, as told by the Spanish historian Diaz, who accompanied Cortez to Mexico.*
A bust of this heroic Indian—its pedestal containing inscriptions on one side in the Nahuatl tongue, on the other in Spanish recording his "heroic defence of the city of Mexico," adorns the banks of the Viga Canal just outside the Mexican capital.
*The Aztec chiefs were not tortured to death. They were burned on the feet to force a confession from them, a practice common to all Europe in those days, and in force down to the opening of the eighteenth century.