Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 10

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It is the custom for most of the small dealers to hawk their wares about the streets, and indeed, you may thus be supplied with all the necessaries of life. The aguador brings you water. The butcher sends his ass with meat. The Indians bring butter, eggs, fruit, and vegetables; the boatmen, fresh fish from the lake; and cakes and sweetmeats are carried daily in trays to your door. There are, nevertheless, a market and stalls, or small shops in the streets. In a large and poor population like this the competition must necessarily be very great.

One of the butchers in the Calle Tacuba always amused me. His shop is about the size of a stall, the whole front being open to the street with a fine game-cock, tied by the leg on the sill. Suspended from the ceiling, and but two or three feet from the doorway, hangs the entire carcass of a beef; at a short distance behind is the counter; and, in the rear of this again, is a row of kids and delicate morsels, festooned with gilt paper and yards of sausages, hung in the most tasteful lines and curves. In the centre of this carnal show rests an image of the "Holy Virgin of Guadalupe," under whose protection he thus places his larder and his "custom."

The most interesting figure, however, in the picture, is the butcher himself; a sentimental-looking fellow, with black eyes, curling locks, and altogether a most captivating personage, barring a sort of oily lustre that polishes his skin. I invariably find him lounging romantically over his saw and cleaver, strumming his guitar to half-a-dozen housemaids who, doubtless, are attracted to his steaks by his amorous staves. It is rare to see such a mixture of meat and music. What would be said with us at home, to see the celebrated Jones or Smith, in the Fulton market mounted on his block, with a blue ribbon about his neck, and a dozen damsels grouped around him, listening, with rapt air, to the pet morceas of the last opera! Yet the suggestion might be useful in these days, when invention is taxed to the utmost for new modes of attracting the people. In Mexico at any rate it is characteristic, and I have, therefore, noted it.


click image to enlarge.

head of a beggar

Go where you will in this city, you are haunted by beggars. Beggary is a profession; but it is not carried to quite the extent that it is in some of the Italian States, and especially the Sicilian dominions.

The capital employed in this business is blindness, a sore leg, a decrepit father or mother, or a helpless child; in the latter case, a stout hearty boy usually straps the feeble one on his back, and runs after every passer beseeching succor. With such a stock in trade, and a good sunny corner, or wall of a church door, the petitioner is set up for life. Placed in so eligible a situation, their cry is incessant from morning to night: "Señores amigos, por el amor de dios;" "for the love of the blessed Virgin!" "by the precious blood of Christ!" "by the holy mystery of the Trinity!" repeated with many variations between their eternal scratchings, winking of lids over sightless balls, and the display of maimed limbs and every species of personal deformity. There is no "poor-house" in Mexico, to which such vagrant wretches are forced to go.

One blind beggar, remarkably well dressed, and a person who has evidently enjoyed better fortunes, takes up his place on the seat around the chief fountain of the Alameda, every day at noon, and is attended by a couple of servants; his respectful demeanor is, doubtless, a valuable capital.

Another beggar has a burly porter to carry him seated in a chair on his back.

Then there are silent beggars—"poveri vergognosi,"—as you see in Italy; men who make no oral demand for charity, but crook their bodies, and bow their concealed faces, in such a shape of interrogative supplication, that the heart must be hard that could resist them. One of this species particularly arrested my notice. I never met him by daylight, and he may not have been what he appeared to be; but often at midnight, when returning from the theatre, I have encountered him, cold and shivering under the portales. He seemed to be at least 80 years of age; was bent almost double, had a shocking bad cough, and squeaked out in the most piping treble you ever heard, that "he was just waiting for some one to lake him home" He had been waiting thus for many a year!

They all have different voices according to the length of time they have been employed. There are your old sturdy beggars who bellow out their ritual; then the modest novice; then an old fellow who never utters a distinct word, but rolls on the ground and howls, as if with pain; the while his eyes glance from right to left to see how it operates! Near my dwelling, at a church door, always sat a gray-headed blind man, who was as much a fixture as one of the pillars of the edifice. The oldest neighbors could not remember when he first came there. He usually arrived about noon, as soon as the shadow of the church fell over his wonted seat and afforded shade. He begged stoutly for an hour or so, when a daughter brought him an excellent warm dinner. This dispatched, he went to work again with the "por el amor de dios," until he literally sang himself into a siesta. Yet the ruling passion never deserted him even in sleep. His head nodded, but his open and outstretched palm rested on his knee—a permanent money-box!

Although exhibitions like this are enough to shut the heart in a country where the earth yields almost for the asking, yet there are cases of misery that do not appeal in vain.

A poor little beggar-boy attracted my attention by haunting the door of the Gran Sociedad. We noticed him first by seeing something coiled up in the corner of the portal, which looked like a dirty puppy dog, shivering with the cold. Slowly, however, at our approach, it unwound itself from the lair, and a poor little boy tottered toward us with the most wan and wretched look I ever beheld, and the most beautiful black eyes that ever appealed for charity. He was a personification of poor Oliver Twist—a perfect little atomy. We gave him a real, and he trotted off delighted; yet his feeble limbs, around which there was scarcely any clothing, refused to carry him twenty steps: he tottered and fell against the wall to which he clung for support. I went to him again: "Muero de los frios, señor,"—I am dying of the chills, said he, in his little piping voice, rendered almost inarticulate from pain, accompanied by that slow motion of the head from side to side indicative of suffering.

We put a small blanket over him, gave him shoes and food, and thus strengthened and warmed, he gradually reached home.

The next day he made his appearance again, without shoes, shirt, or blanket, and with no covering but his ragged trowsers of cotton, tied across his shoulder with a piece of twine, and an old handkerchief about his neck. It was decided that he was a professional beggar, and his pains were but capital acting.

I did not think so, however; and while others speedily rejected him, I determined to satisfy myself that a human being would voluntarily starve himself until the bones peered through his shrunken skin, before I would deny the sufferer the comfort of a daily morsel. Upon inquiry, I found that his story was true: that he was the only child of a bed-ridden mother, who, confined with rheumatism to a mat stretched on the earthen floor of a hovel in the suburb, had been unable to provide food for herself or her son for more than a month. Besides this, the urchin had sold the shoes and blanket we had given him to buy bread for his parent.

He was a regular pensioner afterward, and his mother recovered. The last time I saw him was in the Alameda, to which he had crawled, saying that the "sunshine felt so comfortable, and that in its broad walks he did not suffer so much from the "frios."

For a long period, after this, I missed the urchin, and knew not what had become of him; until one afternoon passing the wall of the convent of Santa Clara, I saw a man trotting along at the usual Indian gait, with a tray on his head which appeared to be covered with roses. Behind him was a ragged lépera, in tears, with her long black hair hanging over her shoulders. As the man passed me, I looked into the tray and found it contained a corpse. It was that of a child who had died of consumption. The flesh, worn to the utmost emaciation, was stretched tightly-over the prominent bones; his little hands were bound over his breast, with a single thread of gold, in the attitude of prayer; the body was sprinkled with faded artificials, knd its mouth was perked up, and its lips parted, as if the sufferer had died with a wail of pain.

It was my little beggar-boy. The "frios" had been too much for him.