Mexico, California and Arizona/Chapter 16

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Mexico, California and Arizona  (1900)  by William Henry Bishop
XVI. San Juan, Orizaba, and Cordoba Revisited




THE impressions of the first journey upward from the coast are too vague to satisfy, yet it is better to push on to the capital and not take off the edge of the novelty by dallying on the way. The intervening places are returned to afterward.

How different the feeling now The things that had seemed so formidable are harmless enough. You take now with gusto the pulque, handed up at Apam. You understand the motley figures, the interiors, the flavors of the strange fruits and cakes, the proper expressions to use, and prices to pay. The helpless feeling of standing in need of continual directions is got rid of, and travel has become a matter of confidence and pleasure. Our Mexicans of the lower class are not over quick in the matter of directions, to tell the truth. I recollect, as an example, asking a small shop-keeper, one day, the way to a neighboring street.

"There it is," he said; "but" (insisting, in a flustered way, on being puzzled by my accent, though he had comprehended what I meant) "no hablamos Americano aqui"—"We don't speak American here."

I found a lodging at a tienda at San Juan Teotihuacan, the ancient city of the dead. The owner had before entertained Americans. He had a dog to which he had given, in pleasant recollection of one of them, as he said, the remarkable name of "Lovis," which afterward proved to be "Lewis." Adjoining was a barracks of Rurales, whose bugles sounded a cheerful réveille in the morning. The central plaza is perhaps three miles from the station. On the way you cross a handsome stone bridge built by Maximilian. The river San Juan had vanished from under it and left a mere gulch, as is the way with most of the streams in the dry season.

The inhabitants have their houses, gardens, and all, often above the cement floors left by the extinct race, and the edges of these floors crop out beside the road, worn down through them. Nobody has framed a satisfactory theory of the place, but it is supposed to have been a great pantheon, or burial-place, for the dead of importance. Maximilian encouraged excavations, and a great Egyptian-looking head, unearthed in his time, is seen. Charnay dug there later, and so did my friend of the newspaper expedition. Probably a commission ought to be issued by the Government for tunnelling, without impairing their form, the two pyramids, to ascertain if there be not something of importance within. It is at present both conservative and apathetic in such matters. The larger pyramid, that of the Sun, has an excellent zigzag plane approaching its summit. A long road, called the "Street of the Dead," strewn on both sides with heaps of weather-worn stones, indicating constructions, extends from it to that of the Moon. Both are now grown with scrubby nopals and pepper-trees.

A couple of children ran out from a cottage at the foot of the Pyramid of the Sun, to sell "caritas" the little antiquities, the day I approached to climb it. From the top you see other villages, as San Francisco, Santa Maria Cuatlan, San Martin. The inhabitants of San Francisco
have erected a cross here, where an idol, with a burnished shield, once stood to catch the first rays of the rising sun, and come in procession each year, on the 3d of May, to conduct a religious ceremonial and drape it with flowers. The white summit of Popocatepetl barely shows itself above the intervening range of the Rio Frio. The officiators at the pagan altar may have hailed it sparkling afar, like another sacrificial fire. The country round about is garden-like, abounding in maize and maguey, sheep and cattle. I observed some large straw-ricks, fashioned by leisurely employés, in the prevailing taste for adornment, into the form of houses, with a figure of a saint chopped out in bass-relief. It was a calm, lovely Sunday. A fresh breeze played, though the sun was warm; cumulus clouds piled themselves up magnificently; and the tinkle of the church-bells came up from the surrounding villages.

The clouds—"luminous Andes of the air," as a poet has aptly called them—are of especial impressiveriess, I think, above this great plain. I noted them again with great pleasure at Huamantla, in the state of Tlaxcala. It is a shabby place of unpainted adobe, out of which rise the fine domes and belfries of a dozen churches, as if they were enclosed in a brick-yard. Thither Santa Anna retired for his last futile resistance, after the Americans under Scott had taken the capital; and there, according to the school history, "the terrible American guerilla, Walker, was killed in personal combat by an intrepid Mexican officer, Eulalio Villaseñnor." Near by is Malinche, a mountain dubbed with a nickname given by the Aztecs to Cortez, which is a feature of all this part of the country. It is not of great height, but of peculiar, volcanic shape. It is a long slope, made up of knobs and jags, reaching to a central point as sharp as an arrow-head. Peons are
ploughing, with oxen and the primitive wooden plough, fertile ground around its base, and its dark mass is thrown out boldly against dazzling banks of cloud.


At Orizaba you are down in the tropics again, but not tropics of too oppressive a kind. A young friend from Mexico was making a visit there in a family to which I was admitted, and I was glad to see something of the lace in a domestic way. It has, say, fifteen thousand habitants. The Alameda, with its two fountains, stone seats, orange-trees, and other shrubberies, is very charming; so is the little Zocalo, by the Cathedral. There grows in the gardens here the splendid tulipan, a shrub size like the oleander, the large flowers of which glow from a distance like scarlet lanterns. Tall bananas bend over the neatly whitened houses. My Hotel de Diligencias was white and attractive. Next to it a torrent tumbled down a wild little gorge, amid a growth of bananas, and, passing under a bridge, turned flouring and paper mills. I had this under my eyes from my window; and I had also an expanse of red-tiled roofs, gray belfries and domes, and the bold hill of El Borrego beyond. The city is enclosed by a rim of hills. It was now the season when the rains were growing frequent; and a humid atmosphere, and wet clouds, dragging low and occasionally dropping their contents, kept the vegetation of a fresh, vivid green.

At the hotel table d'hôte a couple of young men of very Indian physiognomy—lawyers, I should judge, by profession talked—pantheism and such-like subjects in the tone of Victor Hugo's students. A lady whose husband was a general officer told me that she had been in

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the United States at—New Orleans—accounting thus for a little knowledge of English. That meant that she had shared her husband's exile there. One comes to understand and smile at it after a while. "Tomo el rumbo á la costa, y salio de la Republica, embarcandose para Orleans"—"He took the road to the coast and sallied from the Republic, embarking himself for New Orleans"—has passed almost into a formula in the accounts of public men, New Orleans having always been a notable place of temporary refuge and plotting for their return.

  There was a gay party, of station, who had come down pasear a little, in a private car, and were taking back with

them a great supply of the flowers and fruits of the tropics. Shall I reluctantly admit that they all ate with their knives, and with the sharp edge foremost? Our waiter gave us, smilingly, soup without a spoon, this and that other dish without a fork, and hastened off for long absences; or he would apathetically say, "No hay"—"There is none" of a dish, but would bring it if it were insisted on with decision. A fellow-guest informed me at dessert that he had been in New York, and that the American fruits and dulces—sweets—were all alike and insipid. This shows that there is a natural equilibrium in things, for it is precisely the complaint that visitors from the North first make of those of the tropics.

My acquaintances in the place were the family of the Licenciado—let us say—Herrera y Arroyo. The names of both masculine and feminine progenitors are thus usually linked together by the "y"—and. They told me that there was very little formal entertaining done. They occupied themselves with embroidery, studying English, and domestic matters. Their house was roomy, but had little furniture. The rocking-chair can never again be called a peculiarly Yankee feature by anybody who has seen it in the lower latitudes. The typical Mexican parlor, or living-room, has, like the one here, a mat spread down in the centre, on a brick floor, and two cane rocking-chairs on one side and two on the other, in which the inmates spend much of their time.

We had a kind of picnic one day to the Barrio Nuevo, a very pretty coffee-and-milk-like cascade of the Rio Orizaba. Boys ran out from thatched cottages in the edge of town to pick flowers and offer them to the señoritas, expecting to be rewarded, of course, with a little consid-
eration. There is another cascade, even prettier—the Rincon Grande.

The next day we went to the sugar ingenio of Jalapilla. A fine wide avenue of trees stretched up to it. The locusts were singing in them. The grass and trees were exquisitely green. The snow-peak of Orizaba, hidden at the town itself, here rises above intervening hills. There were arcades, and monumental gateways, and a massive aqueduct on arches, which brings the water from a fine torrent. In the sunless green archways of the old aqueduct the señoritas found with rapture specimens of rare and delicate ferns growing. Ox-wains brought the cane to the mills. We watched it through the processes of crushing in the machinery, and tasted the pleasant sap when first expressed, and later at some of the stages of boiling-down. Aguardiente is also made on a large scale. The peasants along the road sell you a draught of it in its unfermented state, with tamales. The residence attached is a large, two-story white house, with a high iron gate between white posts. It was loaned to Maximilian as a country retreat by the conservative owners at one time. At present it is shabby and unfurnished, but a single room being occupied by the proprietor, who has the rongh-and-ready tastes of a ranchero, and little taste for display.


At one of the theatres at this time was playing, by a Zarazuela, or "variety" company, "La Torre de Neslo ó Margarita de Borgogña;" at the other, by a juvenile company, "La Fille de Madame Angot."

Whoever would thoroughly enjoy Mexico must have the taste for old architecture. There is no end to it, and it is often the only resource, It is of that fantastic ro- coco into which the Renaissance fell, in the luxury and florid invention of its later stages; but even where least defensible, from the point of view of logic and fitness, it redeemed now by its mouldering, its time-stains, and superposed layers of half-obliterated colors. Little can said, except in this way, for the carvings and various detail, but the masses are invariably of a grand and noble simplicity. The material is generally rubble-stone and cement, and cannot be very expensive. The principal lines of the style are horizontal. The dome, semi-circular in shape, plays a great part in it. I have counted not less than eight, like those of St. Mark's, at Venice, on a single church. The dome is built, if I mistake not, of rubble and cement also, on a centering of regular masonry, perhaps even of wood. It is a reminiscence of the Moors. These edifices were put up three hundred years ago, by builders in the flush of the Byzantine influence, which radiated from Granada, then lately conquered. I know of no school in which the niggling, petty, and expensive character of our own efforts in this line could be better corrected. Vamos! Will not some of our leisurely young architects with a taste for the picturesque travel here, with their sketch-books, and bring us back plans and suggestions from this impressive work, for use among ourselves?

Some of the old churches take an added interest from their present fate. It would have been monotonous to have them all alike in full ceremonial, and now they are pathetic. I used to linger to hear the buglers practise in the cloistered church of Carmen, used as a barracks. It is stripped of everything, the pavement broken, the walls full of bullet-holes, and painted with the names of detachments, as 18° de Infanteria, 7° Compaña de Grenaderos, which have occupied it. In the smoke-stains, the damp, to which patches of gilding still adhere, and the vestiges of scaling fresco, dim, mysterious visions are made out. The bare chancel dais, still surviving, gives to the interior the aspect of some noble throne-room. In our own country such a monument would be inestimably prized, and would become a pilgrimage-place from far and near; but here it is simply one of a great number.

In the little public plaza outside a few convicts were repairing the paths. A pair of them would bring some dirt, about an ordinary wheelbarrow full, on a stretcher, dump it in a leisurely way, and go back for more, all with plentiful deliberation. They might have been laborers, engaged by the city aldermen, on a New York boulevard. A couple of soldiers with muskets lounged on the stone benches to guard them as they worked. The punishment of the prisoners could hardly have been in what they did, but principally in the exposure—unless, indeed, they were taken from a different part of the country. I wondered if their friends came here sometimes and watched them; and what a pain it must have been for the sensitive to work thus, hedged round by an invulnerable restraint and infamy, in sight of the homes where they had lived and all the ordinary avocations of life in which they had engaged.

An important cotton-factory at Orizaba has a tine architectural gateway, and a statue of the founder, Manuel Escandon (1807 to 1862), in the court, after the practice heretofore adverted to. Paper is also made here. A series of fines is prescribed, in printed rules, for the hands coming late in the morning and falling into other misdemeanors. The sum of these makes up a fund for charitable use among themselves. A savings-bank department is also conducted for the benefit of the operatives. To encourage savings an extra liberal interest is paid when
the amount on deposit has reached fifty dollars. To avoid in part the interruption of the frequent church holidays, a dispensation had been obtained from the ecclesiastical authorities, allowing work to go on, on most of them, as usual.


From Orizaba the next stage was to Cordoba. Cordoba is in the full tropics, and there I first made acquaintance with the coffee culture, the leading industry of the place. The plant is less striking in aspect than I had expected. It is a bush, with small, dark, glossy leaves, its stem never over six or seven inches in diameter, even at an age of fifty years. It is twelve feet high at most, but usually topped and kept lower for greater convenience in harvesting the product. It bears a little axillary white flower, fragrant like jasmine, and the green berries at the same time. A coffee plantation has not the breadth of the platanaras, the fields of towering bananas; but it needs shade, and large oaks are left distributed through it which accomplish this purpose. If left to the sun wholly it yields large crops at first, then dies. The coffee plant should bear after the fourth or fifth year, and yield a half-pound yearly for fifty or sixty years. It should have cost, up to the time of beginning to bear, about twenty-five cents. This is supposing a high cultivation. By the more shiftless method commonly found in use here it costs but half as much, but, on the other hand, yields no more than three ounces on an average.

Some few Americans, and other foreigners, have established themselves at Cordoba, and lead a dreamy existence in the shade. At one time it was the scene of an extensive coffee-planting by ex-Confederate generals, but these attempts were not successful. I was fortunate enough to be conducted about by an old gentleman, of German birth, who had lived here forty years. He had the tastes of a naturalist and farmer, and the existence pleased him. He took in his hand a machete from the wall, and we set forth for a walk, with much improving discourse by the way, in the fields and plantations. The machete, a long half cleaver, half sword, opens you a path through a thicket, cuts you a coffee or an orange stick, lops an orchid from its high perch on the rugged tree-bark, or brings down a tall banana, and splits open its covering to serve as a protection to a budget of botanical specimens. Some small grandchildren of the house begged to accompany us. They had hardy, out-of-door habits, and ran by our sides with merry clamor, finding a hundred things to interest them along the way.

My genial guide had planted coffee himself. Much money has been lost at it, it seems, and it cannot be very profitable except under economical processes and an improved market. When transportation becomes cheaper we shall have introduced into the United States from Mexico also many choice fruits, notably the fine Manilla mango, not now known. The fruits of the country grow on you with experience. To my taste the juicy mango, which at its best combines something of the melon, pine-apple, peach, and pear, is the most delicious of them all. Other fruits are the chirimoya, guava, mamé, granadita (or pomegranate), zapote, chazapote, tuna, aguacate, and many more, the distinctive peculiarities of which I could not describe in a week.

The best soil for the coffee is that of virgin slopes, capable of being well manured. It should be manured once in two years, The planting takes place in the rainy season, and the principal harvest is in November and December. Women and children cut off the berries, which are then dried five or six weeks, and barked; or ire barked earlier by a machine. The chief labor consists in destroying the weeds, which must be done from two to six times a year. The plants are set in squares, it a distance of about seven feet apart. The trees recommended for shade are the fresno, or ash, cedro (cedar), the huisache, aguacate, maxcatle, cajiniquil, and tepehuajé, the characteristics of which I could hardly explain, more than those of the fruits, except that they are generally dark and glossy-leaved, and many of them as large as our elms. There is a theory, too, in favor of shading by bananas, and plantations are found where the two grow together.

But a native proprietor with whom I talked objects to this. "The platano is a selfish and grasping plant," he says, indignantly. "It draws twice and thrice its proportionate amount of nourishment from the soil. Is it not beaten down, too, in every storm? And the ravaging hedgehog comes in search of it, and, while he is about it, destroys the coffee as well. No, indeed, no combination of platano and coffee for me!"

The poor platano! However, it can stand abuse. How quickly it grows! Its great leaves, more or less tattered by friction, flap and rustle above your head like banners and sails as you walk about in the tropical plantation. It is called the "bread of the tropics." An acre of land will produce enough of it to support fifty people, whereas an acre in wheat will support only two. If the tropics had had a good deal harder time in getting their bread, by-the-way, they would not have been in so down-trodden and slipshod a condition.

I will not say that we had the better coffee at our hotel for being in its own country. It is the old story of "shoe-maker's children " again, I suppose. On the contrary, I recollect it as especially poor. The hotel—possibly it has improved by this time—was wretchedly kept and served. They gave us half a dozen kinds of meat in succession, without ever a vegetable, in such a luxuriance of them. The waiters were sunk in apathy, the management even more so. They seem often to say to you, with an ill-concealed aversion, at a Mexican hotel, "If you will stay, if you will insist on bringing your traps in, we will do what we can for you, but we are not at all anxious for it."

Pack-mules were kept in the court, and under a cloister at one side women and girls were stripping tobacco. Your room, at a provincial hotel, opens upon a gallery in which mocking-birds are hung in wooden cages—always one at least. It is the practice of the Mexican mocking-bird to sleep continuously throughout the day, so as to be in health and spirits for the exercise of the night. He begins at midnight, and continues his dulcet ingenuity of torture till daybreak. Naturalists have had much to say of the mocking-bird, comparing him to a whole forest full of songsters, and the like. It may be unwise to set up in opposition to so much praise, but there are times when a planing-mill in the vicinity, or a whole foundery full of trip-hammers, would be a blessing and relief in comparison.

Should the mocking-bird have injudiciously impaired his strength during the day, so as to allow of a brief respite, the interval is filled in by the shrill, quavering whistles of the street watchmen, who blow to each other every quarter of an hour during the night, to show that they are awake and vigilant.

You leave Cordoba at 4.30 in the morning; that is, if you go by the up-train. I was awakened an hour too soon at my hotel, which, having to call me, wanted it over as soon as possible. I had leisure while waiting to collect the views of one of these watchmen. He showed me the Remington rifle with which he was armed. He said that he went on duty at 7 P.M. and finished at 5.30 A.M., and received three and a half reals—forty-two cents—a day, which he did not think enough. There are no cabs at Cordoba. It is a tram-car, making a total of two trips a day, that takes you, bag and baggage, two dark miles or so to the station.


But I did not leave before first visiting the Indian village of Amatlan. I do not insist that erudition of incalculable value has been brought to light in these travels, but they were a succession of excursions into the actual heart of things. I was pleased when I could find something unmodified by the innovations of railway travel, and witness the familiar, every-day life of the people. Perhaps we never thoroughly understand anybody until we learn his routine. A stimulus to what we usually neglect, and take as a matter of course, is aroused abroad. Law-making, education, buying and selling, eating and drinking, marriage, and the burial of the dead, all yield entertainment. The traveller who spreads before us only the outré and startling that he has seen may still leave us very much in the dark about where he has been. In Mexico, however, almost everything is outré.

To Amatlan and back is a comfortable day's excursion. We found saddle-horses for hire, and a young Indian as a guide, and set off. My companion on this excursion was a commercial traveller, a sprightly young American of Spanish origin. Commercial traveller in machetes and other cutlery: such was his profession. The machetes were of American make. I have one hanging in my room at this writing which came from Water Street, in New York. This agent had taken his last order (having canvassed the little store-keepers in the plaza under my own view, as if they had been those of Kalamazoo, Aurora, or Freeport), and was awaiting the sailing of his steamer from Vera Cruz. Having nothing more to do, he entered into the examination of manners and customs for their own sake with a certain zest, though perhaps comprehending for the first time that such things could be worth anybody's notice.

Amatlan is the richest Indian village in—well, one of the richest of Indian villages. Its plantations of pine-apples are the finest in the state of Vera Cruz, to which all this territory from Orizaba down belongs, Orizaba being its capital. The pines grow about sixteen inches in height, and should last ten years. They are set in narrow lines, and the general aspect of the field from a little distance is that of large sedge-grass. You will buy three of them sometimes for a tlaco, one cent and a half. We met natives driving donkey-loads of them to market. There were some fields of tobacco, of fine quality, in flower. The Peak of Orizaba is magnificently seen from all this district. It is lovelier and bolder than at first upon familiar acquaintance. Church, the painter, finds the preferable point of view farther up the railroad, using the wild gorges of Fortin as a foreground. The village proved to be composed chiefly of wooden and cane huts, shingled or thatched, and the population to be exclusively Indian. They do not wish any others to join them. They display everywhere the same clannish disposition. If persons of European origin who might come to remain could not be got rid of by churlishness, it is thought that severer means would be resorted to.

The Indian race, as a rule, is patient and untiring in certain minor directions. They make long, swift journeys, for instance, acting as beasts of burden or messengers, so that, seeing their performances, the words of Buffon come forcibly to mind: "The civilized man knows not half his powers." But in the greater concerns of life, those requiring forethought for a permanent future, they are very improvident. Perhaps, however, those of Amatlan differ from others, or perhaps the general reputation may not be wholly deserved, for the Cordobans tell you that Amatlan is even richer than Cordoba. There are said to be a number of native residents worth from $50,000 to $80,000 each. They buy land, and bury their surplus cash in the ground. It may well enough be that the lack of savings-banks, or any more secure place of deposit for money than the ground, has something to do with the improvidence complained of. The alcalde, the chief of them, was estimated as worth a million, though this I should very much doubt. He had no large ways of using his wealth, but was said to incline to avarice and delight in simply piling it up. There was a project at one time to build a tram-road hence to Cordoba, the capital to be supplied in part by the Indians, but it fell through. Some of the well-to-do send their sons to good schools, and even to Mexico, to take the degree of licentiate. These favored scions, on their return, must put on the usual dress, and live in no way differently from the rest. The daughters, on the other hand, are never educated, but set, without exception, to rolling tortillas and the other domestic drudgery.


We dined at an open-air shanty posada, with dogs and pigs running freely about under our feet. Coffee, with- out milk, sugar, and pine-apples were all supplied by the fields about. Some few spectators were interested, but not very much, in a slight sketch I made of their buildings and costume. My commercial traveller, by way of arousing greater enthusiasm in this, represented that it was to be "put in a machine" afterward, and showed, by a dexterous chuckle and twist of the thumb, how it would then be so improved that you would never know it. But even this stirred them only indifferently.

We visited the alcalde in his quarters. He was bristly-haired, clad in cotton shirt and drawers, and bare-legged, like the rest. Official business for the day was over, but he showed us the cell in which on occasion he locked up evil-doers. He was said to administer justice impartially to the rich and poor alike, and with a natural good-sense. But for occasional perversions of justice effected by a Spanish secretary he was obliged to employ, he himself being illiterate, it was thought that his court averaged well with the more pretentious tribunals of the country.

We rode back by a different way, through a large, cool wood. It abounded in interesting orchids, and there was an undergrowth of coffee run wild, the glossy green of its leaves as shining as if just wet by rain. There was not that excessive tangle and luxuriance supposed to be characteristic of the tropics; our own woods are quite as rampant. All that is found, you learn, in Tehuantepec, for instance, and Central America. There tree-growths seize upon a dwelling, crunch its bones, as it were, and bear up part of the walls into the air; and it is vegetable more than animal life that is feared. We forded three pretty brooks, and came to an upland where cows were pasturing, and the steeples of Cordoba were again in sight. Our young guide lassoed a cow, led her to a shed where ` tobacco was drying, and offered us the refreshment of a draught of new milk.

Being asked if this were quite regular and correct, he answered that the cows were there at pasturage in charge of his uncle. I trust that this was so.