Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 14

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Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer
LETTER XIV.



LETTER XIV.

ST. AGUSTIN DE LAS CUEVAS, AND THE FEAST OF SAN AGUSTIN.
GAMBLING AND COCK–FIGHTING.


San Agustin is one of the most charming villages in the neighborhood of Mexico. It lies, like most of the other villages, at the foot of the mountains, south of the city, and is reached by a level road about twelve miles long, leading through some of the most beautiful farms in the Valley. Here, not only are immense herds of cattle grazed and large quantities of grain cultivated, but you see extensive plantations of the maguey aloe, or Agave Americana, from which the favorite drink of the natives is made, in the valleys of Puebla and Mexico.[1]

When the plant reaches the age of seven years, it is usually ready to bloom. Upon the appearance of the first symptoms of a bud, the centre stalk is cut out, and a bowl hollowed in the middle of the large leaves; into this, for several days, the juice of the plant exudes plentifully; and as the bowl fills at certain periods during the day, it is sucked into a long gourd by the Indian laborers, who transfer it from this to hog-skins. In these it is taken to the haciendas, slightly fermented in large vats lined with bull-hides, whence it is again transferred to skins, and so carried to the city or the shops and sold. It is really amusing, thus to behold the skin of a stout porker injected with the heady liquid—his legs sticking out, and even the remnant of his tail twisting with its wonted curve!

The cultivation of the maguey is one of the most profitable in the Valley; the outlay is calculated generally at about two dollars per plant, and the return is from seven to ten, according to the size of it. I cannot say that the flavor is pleasant, though it varies greatly in different parts of the country. I have tasted some in Mexico that had been sent as a present from a hacienda near Puebla, which was delicious; but the ordinary liquid sold in the shops, seemed to me very like sour lemonade improved by the addition of cream-of-tartar. It was like the famous wine of one of the vallies that pours its stream into the Rhine, with which the old women of that neighborhood darn their stockings. One drop, it is said, put on any ordinary hole, draws it up for ever and securely like a purse-string!

The road to St. Augustin is remarkably insecure from robbers; many persons have been attacked, and there are still several suspicious spots where the rascals are supposed to hover on the watch. I therefore never ventured out except with a large company, or on days when some public amusement was likely to fill the country with strangers.

The 16th of May is set down in the calendar as the day of the year dedicated to St. Augustin, and this village is appropriated by the Mexicans to the celebration of his festival. Yet, unlike most other festivals, this one appears to have little or nothing to do, either with religion or the saint, unless they have a version of his story unknown to other nations.

As on the occasion of the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the road was filled, after daylight, with passengers in coaches, on horseback, in diligences, and even on foot. This is a frolic, chiefly for the great, the wealthy and the fashionable, (as those of Los Remedies and the Virgin, are for the mass of the people,) and gambling is the chief bait and attraction.

The square in the centre of the village was fitted up with temporary booths, and devoted to all sorts of festivity, play and music, for the lower classes, while many of the adjoining dwellings were adorned in magnificent style for the upper ranks who sported nothing but gold and silver.

Indeed, a chance is offered to all upon this occasion. Every man who has anything to lose, or the hope of winning, has the opportunity presented. There is no lack of temptation.

First, there are the humblest booths in the square where small sums of copper alone are played; next, there are others where copper and reals, or medios, are permitted; next, those for copper and dollars; then roulette, for all stakers; then banks of silver alone; then banks of silver and gold; and lastly, banks where nothing but gold, and that usually in doubloons, is ever ventured. You thus perceive, that the opportunity is liberally presented for every man's purse to become "small by degrees and beautifully less."

It is estimated that 25,000 doubloons or $400,000, are annually placed in these banks, and, as at least half that sum is brought on the ground to bet against them, the amount of money lost and won is enormous. This year all the banks lost except one, and its owners were exceedingly dissatisfied because their winnings, during the three days of the festival, amounted to only 25 per cent.; yet you will imagine how great must have been their gains, when this very bank had at one time lost near two thousand doubloons!

The saloons where gold is played are most tastefully fitted up in cool and airy situations. A long table, covered with green cloth, is placed in the centre, and in the middle of this lie the shining heaps, rolls, and piles of gold. Around, sit the patient and silent players. You do not see, as in France, the iron lip, frowning brow, pale visage, and clenched hand—indicative of anxiety, remorse, and the lust of greedy gain. The Spaniard takes it with the nonchalance of eastern fatalism. Nothing disconcerts, disturbs, or forces him to utter an exclamation of pleasure or a sigh of pain—but he sits in stoic silence receiving his ounces, if he win, without eagerness, or seeing them swell the bank without sorrow, if he lose.

The game of monté has become part of the very nature of the inhabitants of Southern America. Accustomed in the olden times under the Colonial Government, to immense wealth, "wealth (as the old people describe it,) in which they literally swam," gold lost its value and became but a counter, by means of which they passed their idle hours in an agreeable excitement that never ruffled or elated them. This habitual regard for the game has descended from sire to son, and the keeping of a table, or its ownership, is not esteemed disreputable, as in other countries. On the contrary, the largest sums are avowedly furnished by most respectable bankers, and the sport is held to be a species of legitimate trade.

Yet, great is the distress produced in Mexico by gambling. While a hundred establishments are opened in St. Augustin for three days, there are not less than hundreds, in the city of Mexico, open daily during the whole year! The consequence is, that although the wealthiest and boldest betters, who venture their 200, 400, or even 1000 doubloons on a single card at St. Augustin, play only there, or but once or twice a year, yet the constant drain on the small gamblers is kept up day after day and night after night in the Capital. Is it to be wondered then, amid a nation of such habits—so prodigal, proud, and easily ruined, that persons who venture and lose their all on a single stake, or habitually live by the risks of fortune, betake themselves at last to the road, and rob with the pistol instead of the cards? Both are short cuts to fortune or the gallows.

We adjourned, at two o'clock, from the gambling-houses to the Cock-Pit. The President, General Santa Anna, and General Bravo, with their suites, occupied one of the centre boxes of the theatre, while the rest were filled with the beauty and fashion of Mexico. It is the vogue for women of family and respectability to attend these festivals, their great object being to outshine each other in the splendor and variety of their garments. The rage is to have one dress for mass at ten o'clock, one for the cock-pit, another for the ball at the Calvario, and a fourth for the ball in the evening. These again must be different on each succeeding day of the festival!

The cocks were brought into the centre of the pit within the ring, the President's fowls being generally those first put on the earth. They were then thrown off for a spring at each other, and taken up again before the betting began. Brokers went round, proclaiming the amount placed in their hands to bet on any particular fowl. Whenever a bet was offered against Santa Anna's bird, the broker was called to his box and an aid-de-camp covered it. Besides these bets, the General usually had some standing ones agreed on beforehand with the owners of other cocks; and in this manner five or six thousand dollars were lost or won by him in the pit daily. Seven mains of cocks were fought each day—the President seeming to relish the sport vastly, while his aids were highly exited, and the ladies looked on with evident gusto.


Nothing can be more grossly mean than a passion for cock fighting. A bull fight, brutal and bloody as it is, has still something noble in the contest between the man and the animal; there is a trial of skill, and often a trial for life. Horse racing is a beautiful sport, it is both exciting and useful; and the breed of a noble animal is cherished and improved by it. But to see grown men, and among them the chiefs of a nation, sit down quietly to watch two birds kick each other to death with slashers and spurs, in order to make money out of the victory of one of them, is too contemptible to be sanctioned or apologized for in any way, except by old traditionary customs. Such were the old customs of Mexico. Their fathers gambled—they gamble. Their fathers fought fowls—they fight fowls; and if you speak to them of it, they shrug their shoulders, with a "pues que?"—"what will you?"


It is with pleasure, however, that I record one pleasant scene at least in this festival of St. Augustin. On the second day I did not go out early in the morning, but took a place in the diligence at half-past two P. M., reaching the village in a couple of hours. Disgusted with the gambling scenes and the cock-pit, I went only to see the Calvario, or ball given every afternoon at the Calvary, which adjoins the village on the west.

We walked to this spot through beautiful lanes of Oriental-looking houses, bowered among groves of orange and jasmine, and arrived about six o'clock. As the people were just assembling we strolled up the green hills, traversed by streams of crystal water, until we reached an eminence above the village, bosomed in an eternal shade, from which peeped out the white walls of the houses and azotéas, covered with the roost beautiful and fragrant flowers. Across the valley, the eye rested on the silvery line of Tezcoco, and as the slanting rays of the sun fell over the soft midland-view, and athwart the hills through the gaps of the western mountains, lighting the ravines, and throwing the bold peaks in shadow, I thought I had never beheld a more perfect picture drawn from fancy of the peace and beauty of a "Happy Valley." It was soon enlivened by figures, and became a scene worthy of the fairy fancy of Watteau.

From the top of Calvary, the hill-side sloped down amphitheatrically to a level meadow, a bow-shot in width, closed on the east and west by trees in their freshest foliage, and terminated at the north by a garden and azotéa just peeping over the leaves of an orange grove. On the side of the hill, seats had been placed for ladies, which were speedily filled by them attired in full dress for the evening. The fine military band of the garrison struck up directly in the centre of the sward, and in a moment the dancers were on foot. Galopades, waltzes, cotillons, Spanish dances—succeeded each other rapidly. It was difficult to say which was the more beautiful display—that of Mexican beauty tripping it with gay cavalier "to music on the green," or that of Mexican beauty lining the hill, side, and watching the festive scene with its pensive gaze.

The dance continued until twilight, when the crowd moved off to town, in carriages and on foot. In a moment all was bustle, and as I gained the road, I was a little astonished to see the hosts of beggars who were there to meet the returning mass of roystering lads, and gleesome fair ones. Nor were these; alone, the beggars of St. Augustin—the city had poured out its complement; all my well-known acquaintances were present, anxious to pick up the "crumbs from the rich man's table," and, for ought I know, to venture some of them slyly in the booths of the square. As this tide of joyous life swept home, I could not help noticing one of these wretches, who threw himself actually in the pathway of the returning multitude, and rolled along the road in such a manner that it became impossible to pass without treading on or over him. It was the old howling beggar of the Alameda: kicks, cuffs, stumbles availed nothing; still he rolled, and still he howled.

Such is the contrast presented continually between enormous wealth and squalid misery in the Republic of Mexico!


  1. This plant is one of the most useful in Mexico. It makes an excellent fence while it is growing after it arrives at perfection, pulque is extracted from its stalk: the leaves are then either cut up as food for animals, or are manufactured late rope, twine, coarse Indian cloth, or wrapping-paper of wax walled toughness.