Six Months In Mexico/Chapter 16
THE FEASTS OF THE GAMBLERS.
The Mexicans, as a people, have an inordinate passion for gambling. They gamble on everything. Poor peons have been known, when their money was gone, to take the rags off their backs and pawn them in order to get a few cents to lose. Men possessing thousands have gone into houses at night to be hauled away in the morning a corpse, without a dollar to pay funeral expenses. Gambling reached such a stage that the government saw it must interfere. Consequently they prohibited all street gambling and started lotteries, in which prizes are drawn every other day. The main prizes range from $500 to$5,000. Crippled, blind, aged, poverty-stricken men and women are on the streets at all hours selling numbered strips of tissue paper marked "Lottery." The seller wears a brass badge in the shape of a half-moon as proof that he or she is employed by the government. No trouble is experienced in selling the tickets, as everybody buys, foreigners as well as Mexicans. The tickets range from twelve cents to twenty-five dollars. When the drawing is held a printed list showing the fortunate numbers is posted in the court. People of all nationalities and in all stages of dress crowd around the notice. Many turn away unhappy, while some few smile over their gains. It is said the proceeds are devoted to useful and charitable works. The income, at any rate, must be a princely one.
Gambling houses are also run on a large scale. They are licensed by the government. Once every year, in the month of February, gamblers procure a license and open houses at Tacubaya. During these four weeks all are allowed to gamble here in any style they wish. This chance picnic is called "the feast of the gamblers." At three o'clock every afternoon ladies in carriages, men on horseback, the poor in the street cars, all bound for the one destination—Tacubaya—present a beautiful sight. From the energy displayed, the hurry to pass one another, the evident desire to get there first, one would think it the first holiday they had had for years, and all were determined to get the most out of it! To reach the scene the tourist must take a two-mile drive along a wide road, bordered on either side with trees of luxurious growth and shade, beneath which beautiful, pure-white calla lilies and scarlet-red geraniums lift their pretty heads in the perfect abandon of naturalness and liberty. Dotted here and there over the lovely valley are green fields, adobe huts, and whitewashed churches, with superb Chapultepec ever in view, as a crown or guard to the vast valley beneath. The gates of Chapultepec, with its sentinels and mounted guards, are passed, and in a few minutes more we are in Tacubaya.
"We will have to alight here," said our guide. "The streets are so full it is impossible to drive through."
Impossible to drive; it was almost impossible to walk. As we stepped from the carriage several peons, who had come to meet us, knelt on the ground and spread out their serapes before them, displaying a few silver dollars, big copper one and two cent pieces and three cards; the cards were deftly crossed, face downward, one after another, with astonishing rapidity, while the "tosser" kept singing out some unintelligible stuff, apparently, "Which will you bet on?" Quickly a peon steps forward and lays a $10 bill on one card. The "tosser" shuffles again, the man wins and puts many silver dollars in his pocket. This excites the watching crowd, which presses forward, and many women and men lay down their money on certain cards, only to see it go into the pile of the "tosser." One failure does not discourage them, but they try as long as their money lasts, for it is impossible to win. The "tosser" has one or two accomplices who win the first money to excite the crowd or again to increase their waning energy.
The "tosser" and his accomplices will follow Americans, or "greenoes," as they call us, for squares. When you pause they prostrate themselves before you; the stool-pigeon always wins and tries to induce the stranger to play—even pinches off the corner of the card, saying "It will win; bet on it;" "Senor, try your hand." "Senorita, you will be lucky," whispers the accomplice as he gazes at you in the most solemn manner. Wild-eyed women, who smell strongly of pulque, with disheveled hair and dirty clothes, beg for money to try their luck. Each side of the street is filled with tents. In the center and along the houses are women squatted on the ground nursing their babies and selling their wares, which consist of everything ugly. Some build little charcoal fires, above it suspend a flat pan, and on it fry some sort of horrible cakes and red pepper, which are sold to the gamblers. At the foot of a large tree sat an ugly, dirty woman. From a big earthen jar by her side she dealt out pulque to the thirsty people; the jar was replenished repeatedly from filled pig skins. At another place tomatoes and salad were laid out in little piles on the ground. A little naked babe lay asleep on a piece of matting, and a woman was busy at the head of another—not reading her bumps, but taking the living off the living—and she did not have to hunt hard either. Similar scenes repeated themselves until one longed for something new.
The restaurants were numerous. A piece of matting spread on the ground constituted the tables, with the exception of three old wrecks that could hardly stand. Cups of all shapes, but none whole, lay claim to being the only dishes in sight. Large clay jars, tin boilers, etc., were the coffee urns.
Among all the mob that gathers here, a fight is an unheard-of thing. "It is old California repeated," said Joaquin Miller, "with the rough people left out." Rough, in a certain sense, they are, and ignorant, yet far surpassing the same class of people in the States; they possess a never-failing kindness and gentleness for one another; the police carried one woman who was paralyzed from pulque as tenderly as if she were their mother, while a sympathizing crowd followed; two peons supported between them a pulque victim, who was so happy that his spirits found vent in trying to sing a hiccough song. Another peon, only half sober, got his drunken companion on his back and trudged off, in a wavering manner, for his home.
In the tents along the street a second class of people gamble. Some tables have painted on them three faces—a red one, with a white and green one on either side—on which the men gamble. Musicians with string instruments furnish pleasing airs, and women in picturesque costumes do the singing and dancing. The most popular song is "I am a pure Mexican, no Spanish blood in me." The people scorn the idea of Spanish blood, and boast of being of pure Indian descent.
Over the top of high walls peep the green trees, and the vines crawl over, hanging low down on the outside. Enter the vine-draped gateway and you will see a garden as fine as any city park. A smooth walk leads to all sorts of cunning little nooks; large trees spread out their heavy arms; the perfume of thousands of beautiful flowers scents the air; playing fountains mingle their music with the exquisite melody of the string bands placed at intervals throughout the grounds; statues glisten against the green foliage; well-dressed men and finely clad women are visible on every spot—everything animate and in animate adds to the picturesqueness of the beautiful scene.
In the buildings, which are decorated outside with pictures from happy scenes in life, are tables and chairs, the walls being hung with fine paintings and expensive mirrors. On the green table-cloth is placed $10,000 and $20,000—the former sum on the roulette table, the latter on the card board. The money is half gold and half silver. Before the hour of playing these tables are left unguarded; people go in and out at pleasure, but all are too honorable to take one piece. Ladies and gentlemen sit or stand around, smoking their cigarettes and betting. One woman lost $500 in a few moments, but her face never changed. A man stood at a roulette table, and, commencing with $10, was in a short time the possessor of $750. He never changed countenance, and after getting the "pot" together he exchanged it for greenbacks and walked off. Any one playing can order what they wish to drink at the expense of the proprietor. Fine restaurants are also run in connection with the establishment.
One gambling hall is hung with Spanish moss in the shape of a tent, which reflects in the mirrors forming the walls. It is beautiful and reminds one forcibly of what fairyland is supposed to be. Every large house has a notice posted informing patrons that they furnish, free of charge, conveyances for the city at late hours. One man almost broke the bank and had to get a wagon to haul his money to Mexico. Others won $5000;