Mexico, California and Arizona/Chapter 4
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IV. The Capital
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THERE was a custom-house at the Buena Vista station. Part of its profits are national, part municipal. The capital is in a Federal District, ruled by a governor, not unlike the District of Columbia. There is little inter-state comity as yet among the different parts of the republic. Each state still collects dues at its own frontiers, and the towns take tolls (the alcabalas) on merchandise and food entering their gates.
Mexico is not a cheap city of abode. Its hackney-coaches, as in European countries as well, are an exception to the general rule; but even these, with the various commissionaires, who zealously aid you in putting your baggage upon them, after getting it through the custom-house, are dear for the first time. Travelling is like so many other things in the world: you pay a bonus, or initiation fee, in the beginning, after which the charges are in a declining series. The particular hackney-coach which conveyed us, a travelling companion and myself, may have been a trifle dearer on account of a driver who aspired to a few words of English. Not that we greatly wanted it. The injury to one's feelings in these cases of the indifferent reception by the native of your first overtures in his own language (as if his own language were not good enough for him, forsooth), is sufficient, without
a pecuniary burden added. But he charged for it, as I say.
"Well, good-night," he said, saluting us as patrons.
"Wass you wants?" And, after having passed the long, shady strip of park called the Alameda, he even ventured upon a certain facetiousness, as, "Wills you to want a wiskey?"
He had learned this proud acquirement in the military service on the frontiers of Texas.
A long, dark ride conveyed us to the principal hotel. As it was once the palace of the Emperor Iturbide, after whom it is named, it should have something stately about it, and so it has. There is a high, sculptured door-way, of an Aztec touch in the design, though not in the details, and long, grotesque water-spouts project into the street. Within is a large, dark, arcaded court, from which open café and billiard-room, the leading resort of the golden youth of the town.
The office is a dark little box of a place, with two serious functionaries, who seem to receive the visitor only with suspicion. The gorgeous and affable hotel clerk of northern latitudes is unknown. In the rear are more courts, not arcaded; and around all of these the rooms are ranged in several stories.
It is not so late on the evening of his arrival but that the traveller may, after dinner, still take a stroll. He will be apt to fancy at first, from the quietude, that his hotel is not on a principal street; but it is in the most central part of the city—on the street which, with three others running parallel for say half a mile, and the included cross-streets, contain the principal retail traffic.
It is an early discovery that Mexico is a grave and not a gay city. There are no crowds on the sidewalks, no eating of ices in public, no cafés chantants, nothing Parisian. By nine or ten o'clock the people seem to have retired, perhaps to be up betimes in the morning fur the work of the day. A military band plays three evenings in the week, but even these concerts, except on Sundays, are so sparsely attended that the men seem discoursing the music for their own amusement.
Policemen are stationed at short intervals apart in the quiet streets, with their lanterns set in the middle of the roadway. They are obliged, by regulation, to signal their whereabouts every quarter of an hour. The sound of their whistles, which have a shrill, doleful note, like that of a November wind, is heard repeated from one to another all the night through.
As Mexico has not, until lately, at any rate, expected tourists, there are almost none of the usual appurtenances for their pleasure and information to be met with. While this may have its annoyances, if an ardent curiosity be battled too long, on the other hand freedom from the sense of responsibility to exacting Baedekers and Murrays has advantages of its own. The visitor with an eye for the picturesque dips into a delicious feast of novelties, makes discoveries on every hand, and has the pleasure of testing the value of his own unaided conclusions. By daylight, with all its bright colors upon it, and its normal stir of life going on, the famous capital is a very different place from what it was at night. By little and little misapprehensions are shaken off. After the first moments of disappointment we like it always more instead of less, and in the end it takes a powerful hold.
Here at length is the great central plaza, in which events of such moment have been transacted. To actu-
ally sit down upon a bench in the midst of it, and gaze comfortably about—can it be possible?
The imposing cathedral makes a new pyramid on the spot where once stood the pyramid of the Aztec war-god. These stones should be ankle-deep with all the blood of various sorts that has been spilled upon them. For a moment one renews the pagan superstition. I would gladly see set up again, for a brief instant, old Hutzilopotchli, the war-god, aloft on his ancient terrace, hear the beat of the lugubrious war-drum, and see the mournful procession of captives winding up to the sacrifice, in charge of the sinister priests with their black locks flowing down upon their shoulders.
But not one instant too long. What! hideous priests, you will indeed lay them down on the sacrificial stone, and raise the knives of flint above their bared breasts for the monstrous slaughter? Not one hair of their heads shall be harmed. San Jago and Spain! When was Castilian ever known to turn his back upon a foe? Up the pyramid we go, leaping from step to step, though with no better weapon than a sun-umbrella in hand, to their deliverance. Ay, howl if you will, baffled miscreants, and rattle your spears and arrows like hail upon us! Down with your old Hutzilopotchli till he crashes in fragments below there. Your carven sacrificial stone shall be set up in the court-yard of the Academy of Fine Arts of San Carlos for this, and your great calendar-stone, a show-piece, against the side of the cathedral.
It is a good day's work. I estimate that there were in that train of captives not less than a hundred souls!
But it is hard to conjure up images of desperate conflicts, though there have been so many, in this bright sunshine, with the multitude of pretty, novel sights. On one side of the square a beneficent institution, the Na- tional Loan Establishment, occupies what was once the site of the palace of Cortez; on another, the long, white, monotonous National Palace, the site of that of Montezunia. In the centre is a charming little garden, with benches, the Zócalo.
The cathedral, like most of the earlier architecture, is in the Renaissance style, far gone to the vagaries of rococo. It is saved from finicality, however, by its great size and massiveness, except in respect to the terminations of its towers, which are in the shape of immense bells. Adjoining, and forming a part of it, is a parish church, in a rich, dark-red volcanic stone, with carving that recalls the fantastic facądes of Portuguese Belem. What a painting it would make, on one of the perfect moonlight nights, which bring out every line of the sculpture softly, and show the whole like a lovely vision!
There are little book-stalls in front, and gay booths devoted to the sale of refreshing drinks—aguas nevadas—from large, simple jars and pitchers of most noble and pleasing shapes. The drinks are dispensed by dusky Juanas and Josefas of Indian blood, with straight black braids of hair down their backs. With a characteristic taste the fronts of their booths are often wholly studded and banked up with flowers, and furnished with inscriptions formed in letters of carnation pinks and blue cornflowers.
Figures go by in blankets which one hankers to take from them for portières or rugs. The men of the poorer sort wear or carry, universally, the serape—a blanket with a slit in the centre for the insertion of the head. Apart from its artistic patterns, it is a useful garment in many emergencies. It is not the moot improbable thing in the world that, in the course of the Mexican revival, we may yet see it introduced in the States, and running a course of popularity like the ulster. The corresponding garment of the women is the rebozo, a shawl or scarf, generally of blue cotton, which, crossed over the head and lower part of the face, gives a Moorish appearance. The background of life here seems more like opera than sober existence. Two other sides of the square are occupied by long arcades, among the merchants of which, protected from the sun and rain, one may wander by the hour, watching the shrewd devices of trade, and picking up those knickknacks, trifling in the country of their origin, which are certain to be curiosities elsewhere. From time to time pass across the view, dark and Egyptian-like, in a peculiar dress of bluish woollen, trudging under heavy burdens, Indians who have yet preserved the tradition of their race. Followed to their homes, they are found to dwell, among the ruined walls of the outskirts, in adobe huts which can have changed little since the time of the Conquest.
These genuine Aztecs have peculiarly soft, pleasant voices, in contrast with the Spanish voice, which is apt to be harsh. They are shiftless and squalid, but their manners are above their surroundings. It is a favorite way with the Mexican to say, "This is your house;" and I have had said to me on being introduced, "Well, now, remember! number so-and-so, such a street, is your house."
Having looked into one of these Indian abodes, and asked an elderly woman, by way of making talk, if it were hers, she replied, "Yes, Señor, and yours also."Neither in the Zócalo nor the Alameda (a park, which holds somewhat the position of the Common, in Boston), are there trees with the hoary antiquity one might expect in such time-honored places. But it appears that the setting out of the trees, and the formation of the Zócalo
A FLOWER-SHOW IN THE ZOCALO.
The Zócalo is occasionally allowed to be enclosed, and an admission-fee charged, for select festivities. The orations were delivered there, for instance, on the national festival of the 5th of May. When I first arrived a flower-show was in progress. I have never seen anything more charming of the sort. Our florists might get a score of new ideas for the arrangement of bouquets. Strawberries were introduced into some for effects of color. Little streamers with gallant mottoes floated from others. There were lanterns, and birds in cages. A military band played, and people promenaded—dandies with silver-braided hats, stout duennas, and fathers of families, and slender, lithe señoritas, wearing the graceful mantilla instead of the Paris bonnet.
In front of the Zócalo a permanent flower market is held every morning, which is almost as pleasing.
Tramway cars run out of the plaza in numerous directions. The city early utilized this invention, and boasts of having one of the most complete systems existing. The inscriptions on them have an attractive look. One would like to take all the different routes at once. Patience! it is all accomplished in time. Shall we go to Guadalupe Hidalgo, with its treasures and its miraculous Virgin; to Tacubaya and San Angel, with their villas; Dolores, with its pensive cemetery, full of sculptures; La Viga, with its picturesque canal, giving access to the chinampas of flowers and vegetables; the gates of Belem and Niño Perdido, familiar in the story of the American conquest; Chapultepec? Yes, that shall be the very first—Chapultepec, theatre of exploits of American valor and of moving events in every historic epoch.
Mexico is extraordinarily flat, and laid out as regularly at right angles as our own symmetrical towns. At the ends of all the streets the view is closed by mountains. Its flatness, together with its position in reference to the
adjoining lakes, are circumstances which have occasioned great solicitude in the past, and still call for almost as much, on a different ground. Formerly it was danger of inundation; now it is defective drainage. Bad odors offend the nostrils, and stagnant gutters and heaps of garbage the sight, of the wayfarer about the interesting streets.
COMPARATIVE LEVELS OF LAKES.
The drainage problem, divested of the mystery with which it has been surrounded in learned treatises, is simply this. When the vast slope from the sea has been surmounted, and the Valley of Mexico—as high as the Swiss pass of St. Gothard—is reached, it is found to be a shallow depression, containing six lakes. These are of many different levels—Texcoco the largest and lowest. On the edge of Texcoco, or in the midst of it, like another Venice, with canals for streets, was built ancient Mexico. This principal lake received the overflow of the others, and the city was subject to frequent inundations. It is even now, after a large shrinkage in the lakes, but a little more than six feet, at its central portion, above Texcoco. The waters of the three upper lakes—San Cristoval, Xaltocan, and Zumnpango—were turned back as
has been done with the Chicago River of late. A great Spanish drain in the early seventeenth century, the Tajo of Nochistongo, was cut through the mountains, and got rid of them in the direction of the Atlantic.
But Texcoco itself has no outlet, and, as experience has proved, even with only Chalco and Xochimilco to be taken care of, is still liable to overflow. With relief from this peril is inseparably bound up the drainage problem. The fall is so slight at best, that though Lake Texcoco be preserved at a normal level, and kept from backing up into the sewers, there is no destination for the sewage received by it, which lies festering in the stagnant water. With the rest is complicated also the irrigation of the valley. No end of plans have been offered to resolve these difficulties. Their history would make an interesting chapter by itself. Some have proposed to pump out the lake by steam; others, to intercept the waters running into it, and allow it to dry up naturally; another, to exhaust it by means of a great siphon of stone and cement. But the judgment of most is in favor of establishing a current, through a canal, to some point lower than the lake; and the mountains in the neighborhood have been searched for the most favorable point of exit for such a canal.
The plan was officially adopted, in fact, and a considerable beginning made, under the direction of an able engineer of foreign education, Don Francisco Garay. But the works were allowed to languish. Neither government nor community seemed more than half-hearted in the effort to get rid of evils to which they had so long been used. The problem still remains one of the most pressing of those to be resolved, and one of the most interesting to foreigners intending to make Mexico their home.
Choosing any street at random where all are so attractive, and proceeding to its termination, in this direction or that, you arrive now at a mere cul-de-sac, now at a city gate, now at vestiges of adobe fortifications, with a moat. Few vehicles, apart from the hackney-coaches, are to be seen, but plenty of troops of laden donkeys, and everywhere the cotton-clad natives themselves bearing loads under which the regular beasts of burden might stagger. There is a story that when wheelbarrows were first introduced to their notice on the railroad works, the natives filled them in the usual way, and then carried them on their backs.
Each separate kind of business has its distinctive emblem. The butcher—elsewhere not a person noted for great taste in ornament—displays a crimson banner, and has his brass scales decked with rosettes. His supplies are brought him by a mule, trotting along with quarters of beef or carcasses of mutton on each side hung from hooks. But it is especially the pulque shops (corresponding to our corner liquor stores) which devote themselves to decoration in its most florid form. Not one so poor as to be without its great colored tumblers, and ambitious fresco of a battle scene, or subject from mythology or romance. They delight in such titles as "The Ancient Glories of Mexico," "The Famous St. Lorenzo," "The Sun For All," "The Terrestrial Paradise," and even "The Delirium," which often enough expresses the condition of customers who imbibe too freely.
On the tramways pass not only passenger-cars, but others for freight. They move the household goods of a family, for instance. There are also impressive cata-
THE HOMES OF THE POOR.
Both these ideas, it would seem, might be advantageously adopted by suburban lines of our own.
Presently comes by a more economical funeral a couple of peons (as the Indian laborers are called), at a jog-trot, bearing a pine coffin on their shoulders.
Battered old churches and convents on a great scale, and of a grand architecture, now for the most part devoted to other purposes, are extraordinarily frequent. Before the sequestration of Church property—in the war called of the Reform, under Juarez, in 1859—Mexico was well-nigh one great ecclesiastical estate. Without going into the religious question, and supposing only the operation of ordinary causes, it is easy to see how the Church corporations—repositories of the gifts of the faithful, moved by no feverish haste in speculation, and with no reckless heirs to spend their gains-must in course of time have become possessed of an enormous share of worldly goods.
There is no lack of sculptured old rococo palaces, of the conquerors and their successors, either. Many of these are of a peculiar, rich red stone, with carved escutcheons above their door-ways. There is one of which I was fond, in the Calle de Jesus, with immense water-spouts to its cornice, in the shape of field-pieces. Wheels and all project in high relief.
Only infinitesimal quantities of vacant land exist within the compass of the city. All is compactly built. The Continental system of portes cochères and interior court-
ENTRANCE TO A TENEMENT-HOUSE
yards prevails. How many glimpses, both pleasing and curious, into these interiors! What a pity that the severity of our winters prevents building in a style which would be so admirably adapted to our summers! Over the entrances of some tenement-houses are placed pious dedicatory signs, as "Casa de la Santisima," "Casa de la Divina Providencia."
One day, as I made a hasty sketch of one of these, with a water-carrier lying asleep in the archway, the custodian came out and offered strenuous objections. "You are mapping the house" (mappando la casa), he said, "and I do not see how it can be for other than evil purposes."
One of the most charming of all the mansions I saw stood nearly opposite our hotel, and was faced up entirely with china tiles, chiefly blue and white, and set with old bronze balconies, as dainty and quaint as a dwelling in fairy-land. I examined the interior of this house also, and found it faced within as well with the same simple, Moorish-looking, tiles, in staircase walls, ceilings, and even the high, banked-up furnace, or range, in the kitchen. An affable major-domo occupied his leisure with painting, in a large library on the ground-floor. He was just now engaged in copying and enlarging, very poorly, the photograph of a lady, over which he held up his brush for criticism. A maroon carpet was laid up the centre of a grand staircase, and the same uniform color prevailed in the carpets throughout. The rooms were large and high, the principal ones opening both on the street, and, by means of light glass doors draped with lace, on the balconies running around the courts. These balconies are edged in the general practice with climbing vines and rows of handsome plants. In one of the rear courts could be heard and seen the family carriage-horses, together with others for the saddle, stabled according to custom under the common roof.
There was a large saloon, with divans, and old-fashioned mirrors, sloped forward from the walls, instead of pier-glasses; and a little boudoir, with furniture entirely in gilded wood and cane. There was a pretty family chapel, with two prie-dieux for the master and mistress, and a couple of benches for the use of the servants. In the bedrooms of such houses are usually religious pictures, copies of Murillo and the like; and there are also found quaint effigies of sacred things, as a representation of the Nativity; a Christ, with purple mantle and crown of thorns; A life-size Virgin, in raiment of tissue of silver, standing upon the globe and a serpent's head. The men of the country are very widely imbued with the sceptical spirit of the age, but the women, whose property these objects are, are still devoutly Catholic.
These rooms, in such interiors, though less lofty and impressively finished perhaps than those at Havana, have not the complexity of objects with which we, in an ill-understood passion for decoration, overload our own in the United States. They are large, and contain a few simple articles, with plenty of space around, and have an unmistakable dignity of effect. When we can make up our minds to do that, instead of depending upon a complication of costly rarities in little space, we shall begin to be palatial, and not merely bon bourgeois.
We do not know how republican we are, after all our travelling abroad and reverence for things European, till we come to where the stately old Continental traditions are actually in force.
One of the enthusiasts of the new progressive movement, writing of late of Monterey, a city of 40,000 people, in the north, already connected with us by the Mexican National Railway, and coming into notice as a winter resort, notes, as one of the signs of improvement, that "the old Latin style of building, the square, flat-roofed house, with interior court, is giving place, in the new quarters, to American architecture." To which I reply, Heaven forbid! Let us never "improve" away with "American architecture" the Moorish-looking dwellings which, to lovers of the picturesque, should be one of the principal inducements for visiting the country.