The Story of Mexico/Chapter 30
A clear picture of the state of society in Mexico, at this period is given in the journal, before quoted, of Madame Calderon de la Barca, published without her name in 1843, with a preface by Prescott, the historian.
For some time after the violent separation of the colony from the mother country, Spain made no effort to recognize her truant, grown-up Mexico. It was not until 1839 that its independence was finally acknowledged, and its right to be regarded as a friendly state, by Spain. In that year Señor Don Calderon de la Barca was sent by Ferdinand VII. as accredited Ambassador to the Republic of Mexico where Bustamente was then President. The occasion was hailed with satisfaction by all parties as a signal of peace between the two countries; the remaining Mexicans of Spanish blood especially hailed the arrival of such an agreeable accession to society as Madame Calderon, a very accomplished woman, whose lively letters, not at all intended for publication, give an account of Mexican scenery and manners, useful to help us in our knowledge of them at that time, a sort of interregnum between the old Spanish influences and the present full-fledged condition of the Republic. Civil war had already much disturbed the old Spanish landmarks, but much remained of the customs of provincial society, especially among the higher class in the capital. Balls, receptions, the opera, were kept up with something of the splendor of viceregal days, their revival stimulated by this fresh arrival from a European court.
Madame Calderon loved to wander under the cypresses of Chapultepec. In her day the viceregal apartments were lonely and abandoned, for the governor, in whose hands they then were, did not care to live there. The walls were falling to ruin, the glass of the windows and the carved work of the doors had been sold, so that the interior was exposed to every wind that blew around the lofty height.
She describes the gayety of the Paséo, a long, broad avenue planted with trees, with a large stone fountain, whose sparkling waters were cool and pleasant, ornamented by a gilt statue of Victory. Here, every evening, but more especially Sundays and fête days, were to be seen two long rows of carriages filled with ladies, crowds of gentlemen on horseback riding down the middle between them, soldiers at intervals keeping order, and multitudes of common people and beggars on foot. The carriages were for the most part extremely handsome—European coaches with fine horses and odd liveries, others in the old Mexican fashion, heavy and covered with gilding. Hackney-coaches drawn by mules were seen among the finer equipages. Most families had both horses and mules in their stables, the latter animal requiring less care than a horse, and capable of enduring more fatigue. Carratelas, open at the sides, with glass windows, were filled with ladies in full toilet, without mantillas, their heads uncovered and generally coiffées with flowers as jewels. Equestrians, on fine horses and handsome Mexican asses, passed and repassed the carriages without stopping for conversation. Her favorite promenade was the Viga, where, as in Montezuma's time and long before, in Humboldt's, in our own, the Indians, early in the morning, brought flowers and vegetables to market by the canal. There was profusion of sweet peas, double poppies, blue-bottles, stock gilly-flowers and roses. Each Indian woman in her canoa looked as if seated in a floating flower-garden, crowned with garlands of roses or poppies. "Those who sit in the market," she says, "selling their fruit or vegetables, appear as if in bowers formed of fresh green branches and many-colored flowers. In the poorest village church the floor is strewed with flowers, and with flowers are adorned the baby at its christening, the bride at the altar, the dead body upon the bier."
In answer to questions about the society women of Mexico, Madame Calderon writes: "I must put aside exceptions, which are always rising up before me, and write en masse. Generally speaking, the Mexican señoras and señoritas write, read, and play a little; sew, and take care of their houses and children. When I say they read, I mean they know how to read; when I say they write, I do not mean that they can always spell, and when I say they play, I do not assert that they have a general knowledge of THE VIGA.
music. The climate inclines every one to indolence, both physical and moral. One cannot pore over a book when the blue sky is constantly smiling in at the open windows." She says that there are no women in the world more affectionate in their manners than the Mexicans, and that they invariably make excellent wives, if they are settled at home with their husbands.
Madame Calderon describes the appearance of the Plaza on Good-Friday:
"The most beautiful and original scene was presented towards sunset in the great square, and it is doubtful whether any other city in the world could present a coup d'œil of equal brilliancy. The Plaza itself, even on ordinary days, is a noble square, and but for its one fault, a row of shops called the Parian, which breaks its uniformity, would, be nearly unrivalled. Every object is interesting. The eye wanders from the Cathedral to the house of Cortés (the Monte de Piedad), and from thence to a range of fine buildings, with lofty arcades to the west. From a balcony we could see all the different streets that branch out from the square covered with gay crowds pouring in that direction to see a great procession which was expected to pass in front of the palace. Booths, filled with refreshments and covered with green branches and garlands of flowers, were to be seen in all directions, surrounded by a crowd quenching their thirst with orgeat, lemonade, or pulque. The whole square, from the Cathedral to the portales, was covered with thousands and tens of thousands of figures, all in their gayest dresses, and as the sun poured his rays down upon their gaudy colors, they looked like armies of living tulips. Here was to be seen a group of ladies, some with black gowns and mantillas, others, now that their church-going duty was over, equipped in velvet or satin, with their hair dressed—and beautiful hair they have; some leading their children by the hand, dressed—alas, how they were dressed! Long, velvet gowns trimmed with blonde, diamond earrings, high French caps befurbelowed with lace and flowers, or turbans with plumes of feathers. Now and then, the head of a little thing that could hardly waddle alone, might have belonged to an English dowager-duchess in her opera-box. Some had extraordinary bonnets, and as they toddled along, top-heavy, one would have thought they were little old women, without a glimpse caught of their lovely little brown faces and blue eyes. The children here are very beautiful; they have little color, with swimming black or hazel eyes, and long lashes resting on the clear pale cheek, and a mass of fine dark hair plaited down behind.
"As a contrast to the señoras, with their overdressed beauties, were the poor Indian women, trotting across the square, their black hair plaited with dirty red ribbon, a piece of woollen cloth wrapped round them, and a little mahogany baby hanging behind, its face upturned to the sky, and its head jerking along, somehow, without its neck being dislocated. The most resigned expression on earth is that of an Indian baby. All these groups are collected by hundreds, the women of the shop-keeper class in their small white embroidered gowns, with white satin shoes and neat feet and ankles, rebozos, or bright shawls, thrown over their heads; the peasants and countrywomen, with short petticoats of two colors, generally scarlet and yellow, thin satin shoes and lace-trimmed chemises, or bronze-colored damsels, all crowned with flowers, strolling along, tingling light guitars.
"Add to this motley crowd, men dressed à la Mexicaine, with large ornamented hats and serapes, or embroidered jackets, sauntering along, smoking their cigars; léperos, in rags, Indians in blankets, officers in uniform, priests in their shovel hats, monks of every order; Frenchmen exercising their wit upon the passers-by; Englishmen looking on, cold and philosophical; Germans gazing through their spectacles, mild and mystical; Spaniards, seeming pretty much at home, abstaining from remarks; and it may be conceived that the scene, at least, presents variety.
"Suddenly the tinkling of a bell announces the approach of Nuestro Amo (the Host). Instantly the whole crowd are on their knees, crossing themselves devoutly. Disputes are hushed, flirtations arrested, and to the busy hum of voices succeeds a profound silence, filled only by the rolling of coach-wheels and the sound of the little bell."
This scene is almost the same to-day in the public square on Good-Friday. The costumes of the higher class have now surrendered to conventional Paris models, but there is a tendency to gaudiness and display, defying fashion, which makes a Mexican crowd bright with variegated color. Madame Calderon's accounts of the unsettled state of the country are comforting, as showing the immense advance in this respect, in the forty years since she was in Mexico.
Describing an hacienda not far from the capital, she says: "It is under the charge of an administrador, who receives from its owner a large annual sum, and whose place is by no means a sinecure, as he lives in perpetual danger from robbers. He is captain of a troop of soldiers, and as his life has been spent in persecuting robbers, he is an object of intense hatred to that free and independent body. He gave us a terrible account of night attacks from these men and of his ineffectual attempts to bring them to justice. He lately told the President that he thought of joining the robbers himself, as they were the only persons in the Republic protected by government."
"This pestilence of robbers," she says, "which infests the Republic, has never been eradicated. They are, in fact, the outgrowth of the civil war. Sometimes, in the guise of insurgents, taking an active part in the independence, they have independently laid waste the country, robbing all they met. As expellers of the Spaniards, these armed bands infested the roads between Vera Cruz and the capital, ruined all commerce, and without any particular inquiry into political opinions, robbed and murdered in all directions. Whatever measures have been from time to time taken to eradicate this evil, its causes remain, and the idle and unprincipled will always take advantage of the disorganized state of the country to obtain by force what they might gain by honest labor."
Frequent crosses by the roadside were marks of murders committed by these highwaymen, yet the Mexican robbers had the reputation of being kind and considerate bandits. She relates, as a proof of their occasional moderation, that some ladies "were travelling from Mexico with a padre, when they were met by a party of robbers, who stopped the coach, and seized every thing, amongst other articles of value, a number of silver dishes. The padre observed to them that as the plate did not belong to the ladies, but was lent them by a friend, they would be obliged to replace it, and requested that one might be left as a pattern. The reasonable creatures instantly returned one dish and a cover.
"Another time, having completely stripped an English gentleman and his servant, and tied them both to a tree, observing that the man appeared distressed at the loss of his master's shoes, they politely returned and laid the shoes beside the gentleman."
This drawback to Mexican travel, the terrible bugbear which still deters many timid people from venturing themselves in the country, has ceased to exist since the establishment of real law and order in the Republic, and especially since railroads have penetrated all the important parts of the country. The Guardias Rurales, a mounted troop of patrols, is now one of the finest military organizations in the world. It is said that General Diaz sent for the chiefs of brigandage, notorious leaders of pillaging bands, and after inquiring how much they earned on an average by their profession, asked them if they had any objection to receiving that sum honestly, in a settled income. The result was the organization, out of this material, of a body of guards to protect the rural districts. They are stalwart men, with splendid leather suits and gray sombreros, all ornamented with silver. Their horses are beautiful animals, all of the same color in one band, handsomely caparisoned. The men ride well, and the effect of this strong body, united in the defence of order, instead of lurking apart in defiance of it, is in the highest degree reassuring. The result is satisfactory. Tales of highway robbery are relegated to the same shadowy region as the legends of Aztec atrocities. In the northern, desolate regions of Mexico, murders and robberies are still perpetrated. It is often the case that these are committed by other races than Mexicans, and very seldom, in proportion, can they be charged upon Indians.
Elsewhere is quoted Madame Calderon's observation of a pronunciamento. The following note has an importance further on in our story, of which she was at the time unconscious:
"The whole world is talking of a pamphlet written by Señor Gutierrez Estrada, which has just appeared, and seems likely to create a greater sensation in Mexico than the discovery of the gunpowder plot in England. Its sum and substance is the proposal of a constitutional monarchy in Mexico, with a foreign prince (not named) at its head, as the only remedy for the evils by which it is afflicted. The pamphlet is written merely in a speculative form, inculcating no sanguinary measures, or sudden revolution; but the consequences are likely to be most disastrous to the fearless and public-spirited author."