Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 26

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

LETTER XXVI.


CITY OF MEXICO. PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS. PRISONS. PRISON STATISTICS.
ACADEMY. PRIVATE COLLECTIONS.


We will return now from the edifices of Ancient Mexico, to the modern institutions and erections of the Spaniards, who have displaced the Indians.

I have already given you some descriptions of the City of Mexico, and the appearance and character of the castle-like dwellings of the people; but, (with the exception of the Cathedral,) I have as yet said nothing of the public edifices and churches.

There are two Palaces in the City of Mexico, one of which is appropriated to the Archbishop, and the other to the President and Government officers.

The Archbishop's Palace fronts the northern end of the President's, and is plain and simple both within and without. The same may be said of the National Palace; it has no architectural pretensions, and until the year 1842, was a long low pile of unadorned buildings, filled with a miserable collection of comfortless rooms. Upon the accession of General Santa Anna, however, a change took place. The Minister of Finance fitted up a suite of apartments for his bureaux, in a tasteful modern style; and, in the months of August and September, the Grand Sala was entirely completed, and opened to the public for the first time on the anniversary of the crowning victory of Mexican Independence.

In this spacious and well-proportioned apartment they have gathered a quantity of gorgeous furniture, and placed, on a platform at the northern end, under a crimson canopy, a magnificently carved and gilded throne. Various flags, alleged to have been taken from the Texans, in battle, are affixed to staffs extending from the cornice. The walls are covered with large French mirrors, and the deep windows are festooned with the most tasteful upholstery of French artistes, I have wandered over the whole of this immense pile of edifices, but I recollect nothing else about it worthy of notice. The private apartments of General Santa Anna are plain, neat, and tasteful, and a full-length portrait of General Washington adorns an obscure chamber.

In an inner court, to the eastward, is the Botanic Garden, surrounded by the lofty walls of adjoining edifices. It is of small extent, and the poor flowers, shut up in the dreary inclosure, seem like so many beautiful nuns secluded for ever from the vulgar gaze. The chief gardener is a Roman—aged, he alleges, more than a century—who either knows little of his business, or has become useless by extreme age. He lives, like a hermit, in the shady nooks of his tangled and neglected garden, and amuses himself by pointing out to every visitor the greatest floral curiosity of the place—the celebrated Arbol Manita.


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hand flower.


The almost unpronounceable Indian name is Macpalxochiquauhitl, the botanic, Chiranthodendron pentadactylon;— but it is usually known as the "hand flower." Two trees only are said to exist in the Republic—one at Toluca and the other in the Capital;—and it is chiefly remarkable for the brilliancy of its tints, and the claw that protrudes from its thorny cup—a singular mingling of bird and blossom.

Behind the Palace are the Senate Chamber, and the Chamber of Deputies—both of them tasteful and comfortable apartments. The latter is of semicircular form, with a throne-like stage for the seat of the President on public occasions;—beneath its canopy are hung the Declaration of Independence, and the sword which Iturbidé first drew in defence of Mexican liberty. The chairs of the members are ranged in two rows, rising one above the other against the walls of the semicircle, without desks; and above these, again, are lodges, or boxes supported by pillars, for the audience. A well executed picture of the Victory of Tampico, occupies a panel over the door in front of the throne; and on the table of the secretaries is placed the omnipresent crucifix.

The buildings of the Mint form the back of the palace square, and are filled with the old and cumbrous machinery of the last century. I saw none of the modem improvements which have been introduced both in Europe and in this country; but I cannot pass over this institution without doing justice to the artistical skill of the artist, who is at present engaged in making new dies for the future coinage of the Republic. The taste and talent of this young gentleman were discovered by some of the chiefs of Government, and he was immediately dispatched to Rome, whence, after a few years study, he has returned to honor his native Capital with the works of his graver.

I will say nothing of the old edifice of the Inquisition, with its vaulted rooms, its inner chambers, and its monastic gloom; or of the neighboring church of the Dominicans, in the court-yard of which you are still shown the hollow among the stones, wherein the stake was erected that sustained the victims of their former auto's. There is no longer an Inquisition, or a faggot.

Near this is the Aduana—or Custom House—which, like the Diputacion, is a stately and commodious edifice. There are fourteen parish churches, six private churches, thirteen convents and seminaries for men, and twenty-two for women; six colleges, one university, and five hospitals and poor-houses.


MONTE PIO.


The Monte Pio—a species of national pawnbroker establishment—is in the great Square, occupying the building known as the Palace of Cortéz, said to be erected on the ruins of the ancient Palace of Montezuma. This is one of the most beneficent institutions in the world, and was founded in 1775, by the Condé de Regla, who endowed it with about $300,000. Since that period it has been administered faithfully by the Government, and affords succor daily to more than two hundred persons. It is ruled by a general Board of Directors, and receives pledges of clothes, jewels, plate, and every species of valuables. These articles are appraised at a fair valuation, the amount of which (deducting the interest) is paid to the pawner;—they are then retained for six months, during which period the owner is at liberty to withdraw them upon repayment of the sum advanced. If the debt is not refunded at the end of that time, the pledges are disposed of at public sale; and if they bring more under the hammer than the valuation, the difference is given to their original owners.

From the foundation of this admirable Institute—which has been the means of preventing so much disgrace and misery during the revolutionary difficulties of the Capital—2,282,611 persons had received succor up to the beginning of 1836. During the same period it had distributed $31,674,702, besides giving $134,746 in alms.

In the year 1837, it aided 29,629 persons by the distribution of $477,772, and gave $1,089 for masses to be said daily by three chaplains, who received a dollar for each of their services.

You may form an idea of the number and variety of persons who derive assistance from the Monte Pio, by a walk through its extensive apartments. You will there find every species of garment, from the tattered reboso of the lèpera to the lace mantilla of the noble dame; every species of dress, from the blanket of the beggar, to the military cloak and jewelled sword of the impoverished officer; and, as to jewels, Aladdin would have had nothing to wish among the blazing caskets of diamonds for which the women of Mexico are proverbial.


MINERIA.


The Mineria—or School of Mines—is one of the most splendid edifices in America. It was planned and built by Tolsa—the sculptor of the statue of Charles IV.—and is an immense pile of stone, with courts, stairways, saloons, and proportions that would adorn the most sumptuous palaces of Europe. But this is all. The apparatus is miserable; the collection of minerals utterly insignificant; the pupils few; and, among the wastes and solitude of the pile, wanders the renowned Del Rio—one of the most learned naturalists of this hemisphere—ejaculating his sorrows over the departed glory of his favorite schools.

An edifice used for the manufacture of tobacco, situated at the north-western corner of the city, and erected by the old Spanish government, has been converted into a citadel. I never visited it, and can give no account of its interior.


ACCORDADA, OR PUBLIC PRISON.

Passing westward, toward the Paseo Nuevo from the Alameda, you cross the square in front of the Acordada, the common prison of the Capital. In the front of one of its wings a low-barred window is constantly open, and within, on an inclined plane, are laid the dead bodies found daily within the limits of the city. It is almost impossible to take your morning walk to the adjoining fields, without seeing one, and frequently two corpses, stretched bleeding on the stones. These are the victims of some sudden quarrel, or unknown murder during the night; and all who miss a friend, a parent or a brother, resort to these iron bars to seek the lost one. It is painful to behold the scenes to which this melancholy assemblage frequently give rise, and hear the wails of sorrow that break from the homeless orphan, whose parent lies murdered on the stones of the dead-house.

Yet this is scarcely more shocking than the scenes presented by the living, within the walls of the loathsome prison. A strong guard of military is stationed at the gate, and you enter, after due permission from the commanding officer. A gloomy stair leads to the second story, the entrance to which is guarded by a portal massive enough to resist the assault of a powerful force. Within, a lofty apartment is filled with the officers of the prison and a crowd of subalterns, engaged in writing, talking, and walking—amid the hum of the crowd, the clank of chains, the shout of prisoners, and the eternal din of an ill-regulated establishment.

Passing through several iron and wood barred gates, you enter a lofty corridor, running around a quadrangular court-yard, in the centre of which, beneath, is a fountain of troubled water. The whole of this area is filled with human beings—the great congress of Mexican crime—mixed and mingling, like a hill of busy ants swarming from their sandy caverns. Some are stripped and bathing in the fountain; some are fighting in a corner; some making baskets in another. In one place a crowd is gathered around a witty story-teller, relating the adventures of his rascally life. In another, a group is engaged in weaving with a hand-loom. Robbers, murderers, thieves, ravishers, felons of eyery description, and vagabonds of every aspect, are crammed within this court-yard;— and, almost free from discipline or moral restraint, form, perhaps, the most splendid school of misdemeanor and villainy on the American Continent.

Below, within the corridor of the second story—from which I have described the view of this wretched mass of humanity—a rather better sort of criminals are kept; and yet, even here, many were pointed out to me as being under sentence of death, who still went about entirely without restraint.

In one corner of the quadrangle is the chapel, where convicts for capital offences are condemned to solitude and penance, during the three last days of their miserable life; and, at a certain hour, it is usual for all the prisoners to gather in front of the door, and chant a hymn for the victim of the laws. It b a solenm service of crime for crime.

I did not see the prison for the women, but I am told it is much the same as the one I have just described. About one hundred of the men, chained in pairs like galley slaves, are driven daily into the streets, under a strong guard, as scavengers; and it seems to be the chief idea of the utility of prisons in Mexico, to support this class of coerced laborers.

There can be no apology, at this period of general enlightenment in the world, for such disgraceful exhibitions of the congregated vice of a country. Punishment, or rather, incarceration, and labor on the streets, in the manner I have described, is, in fact, no sacrifice;—both because public exhibition deadens the felon's shame, and because it cannot become an actual punishment under any circumstances of a lépero's life. Indeed, what object in existence can the lépero propose to himself? His day is one of precarious labor and income; he thieves; he has no regular home, or if he has, it is some miserable hovel of earth and mud, where his wife and children crawl about with scarce the instinct of beavers. His food and clothing are scant and miserable. He is without education, or prospect of improvement. He belongs to a class that does not rise. He dulls his sense of present misery by intoxicating drinks. His quick temper stimulates him to quarrel. His sleep is heavy and unrefreshing, and he only rises to a day of similar uncertainty and wickedness. What, then, is the value of life to him, or to one like him? Why toil? Why not steal? What shame has he? Is the prison, with certainly of food-more punishment than the free air, with uncertainty? On the contrary, it is a lighter punishment; and as for the degradation, he knows not how to estimate it.

Mexico will thus continue to be infested with felons, as long as its prison is a house of refuge, and a comparatively happy home to so large a portion of its outcast population.[1]


I have collected some statistical information on these subjects, which I think will be interesting in connection with Mexican prisons, and prove how necessary it is, in the first place, to alter their whole system of coercive discipline; and, in the second, to strike immediately at the root of the evil, by improving the condition of the people—by educating, and proposing advantages to them, in the cultivation of the extensive tracts of country that now lie barren over their immense territory.


IMPRISONMENTS IN MEXICO FOR 1842.

During the first six months of 1842, there were imprisoned in the City of Mexico, 3,197 men.
1,497 women.
During the second six months, 2,858 men.
1,379 women.
Total of both sexes for 1842
8,861


Without specifying each of the several crimes, for which these persons were committed to prison, or being able, from all the accounts furnished me, to state the exact number of those who were finally convicted, I will present some lists of the numbers imprisoned for the chief crimes, during the whole year.

Men. Women. Total.
1. Prostitution, adultery, bigamy, sodomy, incest, 312 179 491
2. Robbery, 1,500 470 1,970
3. Quarreling and wounding, 2,129 1,104 3,233
4. Quarreling, bearing arms, &c. 612 444 1,056
5. Homicide, attempt at do., and robbery and homicide, 70 17 87
6. Rape and incontinence, 65 21 86
7. Forgery, 7 1 8
8. Gambling, 3 0 3
Which, added together, give the frightful amount of, 6,943

males and females, for the higher crimes and misdemeanors—leaving a balance of 1,927 only, to be divided among the lesser. It should be stated, in addition to the above, that numbers were committed for throwing vitriol on the clothes and faces of persons passing along the street;—that 113 dead bodies were found;—17 individuals executed,[2]—and 894 sent to the hospital.

The sum of $4,121 is expended in salaries of officers for this Institution, and $30,282 for the support of the prisoners.


ACADEMY OF ARTS.


Let us pass from this examination of vice and immorality in Mexico, to something more agreeable.

My expectations had been greatly excited by the Baron Humboldt's account of the Academy of Fine Arts; but how greatly was I disappointed, in its comparatively miserable condition at present! It has shared the fate of the University, Museum, Mineria, and other public institutions. The halls are untenanted. The multitudes, described by the Baron as attending the instruction of Professors, and sketching from the splendid collections of antique casts,—have departed. One artist occupies an illarranged studio in a dark corner of the buildings, and paints stiff figures of formal officers in gold lace, embroidery and crosses, in a style as disagreeable as his manners.

It is to be hoped that with the "regeneration of the Republic," this branch of tasteful science will be properly encouraged, and the remarkably ably acute and imitative talents of the natives subjected to a discipline, that cannot fail to rank the Mexicans high in the grade of distinguished art.

The old Spanish government supplied this Institution with a revenue of near twenty-five thousand dollars a year; and, at an expense of forty thousand dollars, safely transported to Mexico over the rough mountain roads and passes, a beautiful collection of casts of the most renowned statues and groups of antiquity. These, I am glad to say, are altogether uninjured, and still adorn the lonely halls of the neglected Academy.

I asked for the pictures of the former scholars, and a few were shown me, bad in coloring and worse in outline. I asked for the drawings; and the answer was, that there were none but a few sketches hung along the walls, bearing the date of long passed years. Among them, however, I could not avoid noticing a drawing in ink by one of the pupils, which, had it been executed on copper, would have yanked him high in the list of the engravers of the period.


PRIVATE CABINETS.


The private collections of Mexico are not very numerous. Don José Gromez, ex-Conde de la Cortina, has a rare collection of offensive and defensive arms, ancient and modern, chronologically arranged. In addition to this, he has gathered a number of interesting memorials of his own country, together with some original pictures, and copies of the most distinguished artists of the Dutch, French, Flemish, Spanish and Italian schools. Among the painters are Murillo, Morales, Julio Romano, Paul Veronese, Salvator, Watteau, Mignard, David, and Laflond.


PEÑASCO'S COLLECTION.


The Museum of Don José Mariano Sanchez y Mora, ex-Conde del Peñasco, is comprised in four branches:—Antiquities, natural history, paintings, and instruments of the physical sciences. His collection of coins is extremely valuable, consisting of upward of three thousand specimens; and his mineralogical cabinet is unquestionably the rarest in the Republic. The ores—amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds, would, alone, almost make the fortune of an European collector.

Don José was kind enough to permit me frequently to examine his Museum of Mexican Antiquities, and to present me with some rare and interesting idols. He possesses several Indian manuscripts in the ancient picture-writing, and a collection of dii penates talismans, amulets, and musical instruments made of serpentine, basalt and clay.

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The above cuts represent two stamps or seals of baked clay, with which the Indians were accustomed to impress marks upon their cottons. They go far to prove how near these people were to the discovery of the art of printing.

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In the National Museum and in the collection of the Conde, are seyeral masks, made of obsidian, said to have been found in Indian tombs, covering the faces of skeletons, the remains, perhaps, of some of the illustrious dead of the Empire. The one here represented was found in the Department of Chiapas. When you recollect the exceedingly frail and glass-like material out of which these things are out, you cannot fail to be struck with the skill and ingenuity of the person who contrived to work it into the semblance of human features, without fracturing the mass, and gave to the whole a polish resembling that of the finest mirrors. You will be the more surprised at this on looking at the following ring,


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also made of obsidian, and but one-tenth of an inch in thickness. It is perfectly transparent, beautifully wrought, and apparently so brittle and thin, that the slightest blow would fracture it.


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The above is also a mask, about a foot long, made, not of obsidian, but of serpentine. There are holes, as you perceive, in the upper part, which were doubtless used to suspend it before the face of some of the idols, according to one of the occasional rites of their worship. This mask is extremely interesting, because it is a perfect profile of the present race of Indians who frequent the very spot at St. Jago de Tlaltelolco, where the relic was found.
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This is an idol found at Tula—the ancient capital of the Toltecs. The second figure represents the bottom of the statue, and the whole appears to have been a Toad or Frog—the croaking annoyer of some marshy neighborhood, who was raised to the dignity of a divinity in stone and propitiated by the offer of an occasional sacrifice.


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And so, perhaps, was the Grasshopper in the following figure, found in the Capital, cut out of red marble and beautifully polished. It is said to be the god of Chapultepec—the "hill of the Cicala."

The next is a Sacrificial Yoke, similar to the one described at page 121.

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The two following figures are those of Serpents, ten and nineteen inches in diameter—and carved from basalt. They were no doubt connected with the worship of the god Quetzalcoatl, which I have heretofore described to you.


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The preceding are four figures of unknown idols. One seems to represent a deformed Dwarf; another, a gaping Baboon; the third is a monkey's or Idiot's head, cut out of white marble, found some years since in the Misteca; and the fourth is a mutilated body neatly carved in serpentine.

But the finest idol-specimen contained in the Conde's gallery, is the next that I have delineated. It was brought to him from Oajaca, the ancient country of Mitla and the Zapotecs—lying southwestwardly from the Valley of Mexico—and is beautifully carved from a white sandstone, similar, I think, in material, to those found farther south by Mr. Stephens

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You cannot fail to notice the tasteful arrangement of the head-dress, resembling those of our Indians as exhibited in the following designs, taken, for the sake of illustration, from the work of Mr. Catlin.

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In the first figure, you will observe feathers depending from the crest and back, similar to those on the sculptures of Xochicaleo and Palanque; and, in the second, you will perceive that they are arranged in a circle of rays, so as to be seen in front, as on the statue from Oajaca. Another thing is interesting in these figures of our Northern Indians. On the robe of the first Indian is an open hand. This, too, has been the subject of great speculation by recent writers. Mr. Stephens found it constantly in the temples he explored. It is in several places on the sides of the "gladiatorial stone," at page 124 of these letters; and Mr. Schoolcraft (unquestionably the best informed of our Indian scholars,) regards it as emblematic of strength, courage and power.

The figure in the collection of the Conde del Peñasco, is a deity connected with the Indian notions of fruition or plenty. The ears of corn in the head-dress indicate this idea, while the whole, perhaps, may be an idol of Centeotl, the "goddess of the Earth and Grain" or, (as she was more confidingly called,) "she who supports us."

I had just finished sketching the idols represented in the preceding plates, when I was called to the window by the noise of a crowd below, gathered around a man lying on his back. I presumed it to be one of the numberless street-fights or quarrels with which you are daily annoyed in this Capital, and was about retiring, when the fellow suddenly raised his legs in the air—balanced himself by his shoulders—and, pitching up a pole horizontally, caught it on his feet.

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This, too, was a remnant of antiquity, and having sketched the exhibitor alongside of an idol, I do not think him out of place in this letter.

The ancient Mexicans had a variety of similar sports;—such as balancing on each other's shoulders; on staves; and on wheels whirling in the air; but this exercise, with the pole or beam, was perhaps the most common of all, and ordinarily practiced, in the streets, as a decent mode of begging.

The operator is usually stripped to his trowsers, and his capital in trade consists of a pair of stout thighs and muscular calves. The pole once balanced on the soles of his feet, he plays all manner of tricks with it as easily as if it were in his hands; but I have never seen them sport, as the ancients are said to have done, with men seated on each end of the heavy bar.


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  1. As an evidence of the little value those léperos place upon their lives,—an old resident of Mexico told me he had once been the witness of a street fight between two women, which resulted in the use of knives, and the ripping on one's belly, so that her bowels were exposed. The wound was not fatal, and as soon as she had slightly recovered from the loss of blood, while the attendants were preparing a litter, she drew forth a cigarrete from her bosom, obtained a light from a bystander, and was borne off to the hospital, smoking as contentedly as if preparing for a siesta!
  2. The mode of execution in Mexico, as is Spain, is by garrote. The culprit is seated in a chair, and his neck is placed in an iron collar, which may be contracted by a screw. A sudden turn drives a spike thrugh the spinal marrow, at the same time that the collar closes round the throat of the victim. Lifeis almost immediately extinct, amd the sufferings are consequently but trifling. The crowds, to see those executions, in Mexico, are innumerable. According to Humboldt, there were in 1790, in all prisions of Mexico, 770 of both sexes, for all crimes, out of a population of about 130,000.