Mexico – Busy Leon

AS the time for my visit to my friend Don Juan, who resided in Lagos, was drawing near, and I wished to spend a few hours in Leon, en route, I now returned to Silao, where I took the main line for Leon, arriving there the same afternoon. After securing lodgings at the hotel I went to call upon a friend I had made in Mexico City, who was one of Leon’s leading lawyers. As my stay must necessarily be brief, and as he was occupied at the time of my arrival, he introduced me to a young nephew, who kindly offered to go about with me.

Leon is destined to become a large manufacturing city. My friend the lawyer once said, ” We are not rich in Leon but we are all workers!” I saw few signs of extreme poverty, at least not the kind that begs; and judging from the fine residences, there must be plenty of wealth, but it is unostentatious wealth. There is an excellent street-car service in Leon, and its citizens seem to prefer this means of getting about to driving. I was impressed by the air of industry. It was late in the afternoon and the streets were full of people, carrying their work to turn it in at the shops. There were men with huge bundles of rebozos on their backs and women with their arms full of shoes. Until recently, all the manufacturing had been given out as piece work and done by the people in their homes, the work being paid for on delivery. We visited the tanning establishment of La Hormiga (The Ant), whose monthly output was three thousand hides and six thousand skins. The other large factories were for hosiery, zarapes and hats, respectively. Leon has a large brickyard and there are extensive quarries near, which yield a fine stone for building and a beautiful quartz-like rock, almost a marble. There is an abundant water supply, derived from a large reservoir and also from artificial wells in the center of the city. The theater is one of the best I have seen and quite appropriate for a city of Leon’s size. It is light and roomy, with wide aisles, and fitted with comfortable cane opera-chairs.

I learned of a novel method of ” playing bear ” (love-making) while in this progressive city. The lover boards a street car in the cool of the afternoon, making the circuit repeatedly, during which he passes his lady’s dwelling. This way of doing it has distinct advantages. There is a ” now you see him, now you don’t ” feature that must add to the zest of the lady’s enjoyment, while the ” bear ” has the chance to see all the other girls.

The derivation of the phrase ” playing bear ” is amusing. The lover begins his attentions by following, at a discreet distance, the lady of his adoration, or by standing for hours before her dwelling. If his pretensions meet with favor he presents himself daily before her home; the regularity and duration of his vigil being accepted as an indication of his ardor and constancy. It may be months before he receives so much as a word from the lady’s lips, or in writing. Mean-time his prolonged and patient waiting earns for him the appellation of “bear. ”

The evening I spent at the home of my lawyer-friend where I heard some of the musicians of the younger set and, as in all the cities I visited, their selections were good and remarkably well rendered. There were some beautiful voices and the playing was notably fine. I have concluded that Mexico’s best music is confined to the homes or to small and select recitals. As my train left at an early hour, I said good-by to my host, not expecting to see him again, but he was at the train the following morning, riding a superb horse; out for a gallop before breakfast, he said.

I arrived at Lagos in the evening. True to his promise Don Juan met me at the station and after a short drive, we alighted before an open portal, and I saw the patio, with the lights shining on a thicket of roses and turning the climbing bougainvillaea into masses of pink flame, and heard my friend saying, ” This is your house!” I shall not attempt to write of the manifold kindnesses and sweet attentions accorded the visitor in a Mexican home. Friendship with one member of the household means friendship with all, entailing the inter-change of Christian names and all the kindly relations which that implies. A delightful compliment is paid a guest in dispensing with much of the accustomed ceremony. “Do what pleases you!” is the assurance he receives. When the hour came for retiring and the daughter of the house, a lovely little señorita of fifteen summers, gave me her hand and said with charming friendliness, “You know you are in your own house!” I vowed inwardly I had never heard a prettier or more gracious flattery.

Lagos possesses an ancient and luxurious swimming-bath, hidden away in an old garden, amid a tangle of orange and rose trees. The repository of the huge, rusty key, that opens the battered portals leading to the garden, is known only to a few. Don Juan was in the circle, however, and we sought the garden and were splashing in the pool, when the sun first struck the water. The oranges were hanging thick overhead and the smell of roses was in the air. Then we returned to the house for almuerzo. My friend’s mother presided but took nothing herself. She had been to early service while the stars were still out, and had desayuno before we even awoke. Almuerzo is really an elaborate break-fast. There was a profusion of everything and much that was quite new to me. One thing I liked very much was a camote, deliciously prepared and served with thick cream. Then there were the best little tortillas, that kept coming on piping hot and were eaten with another cream, something like cheese. There is one woman in every well-organized kitchen who is called the tortillera, and whose business it is to provide these small, snowy, delectable wafers. I had never tasted such chocolate before. It was not so thick as they make it in Mexico, and far more delicious in flavor. Another drink, that I had for the first time in Lagos, was colonche. It is the juice of a special kind of cactus fruit, slightly fermented. My friends were lamenting that there was none of this fruit to be had, as colonche is a delicacy and they were anxious I should try it. They finally gave it up as hopeless, and naturally I was consumed with a thirst for colonche which was unexpectedly gratified. I had met once in Mexico City a little maiden-lady with silvery hair and a face like a cameo, who played the guitar delightfully. She lived in Lagos.

How she learned of my thirst is a mystery, but that day at dinner there was a large decanter of colonche, sent with her compliments. It looks much like currant wine and is the most delicious refreshment I have ever taken in Mexico. If the pulque, which Xochitl presented to old king Tecpancaltzin, impressed him as favorably, I don’t blame him for adopting it as his favorite tipple.

Lagos has an abundance of crystal-clear water. It lies in the center of a level plain which once held count-less lakes. Many have disappeared, but the whole territory seems underflowed by water and a well of a hundred feet invariably encounters it. There are some remarkable artificial wells quite near the city, in a tract that was once the bed of a lake. The soil, which carries a great deal of salt, produces excellent alfalfa and a thick, wiry grass which cattle like. At intervals are seen clumps of low bushes, called jara and a well, sunk at any of these points, results in a vigorous, unfailing flow of warm water. The wells are made by sinking an iron tube about five inches in diameter the required depth. There are some ten or eleven in all, less than a hundred feet deep, at a cost not exceeding eighty dollars each. The water registers about sixty-six Fahrenheit and is very soft and pleasant in taste. The ground throughout this section is fertile, and the people will tell you that if you break off a twig and put it in the earth it will grow. The trees are chiefly French elms, pepper trees and eucalyptus.

The farther north I traveled, the more freedom I observed in the intercourse of the young people, especially in the smaller cities, where the leading families are connected by long friendships and frequently by marriage. I saw this illustrated in Lagos. There were more pretty girls there proportionately than in any other place I had visited, and they flocked together like a big family of sisters. Every evening a bevy of senoritas, accompanied by a chaperon and attended by their youthful admirers, assembled in the moonlit corridor for an impromptu musical. I never wearied of the quaint folk songs and danzas, sung by the fresh young voices to guitar and mandolin accompaniment.

I had now been away from Mexico City considerably over a month, and was beginning to long for the metropolis. I had still to visit the city of Aguascalientes, where I also had friends, and while I anticipated the pleasure of meeting them and seeing the city, my de-sire was strong to be in Mexico City, the center of life and activity in the republic. After a week of what I have always remembered as golden days in the home of Don Juan, I took leave of his gentle mother, and all that radiant circle of youthful dons and lovely señoritas, and went on to the city of Aguascalientes or Hot Waters.

A gentleman, who first visited Aguascalientes long before the day of railroads, had been telling me of his early experiences in that delightful old town, of his cordial reception at the hands of its people, the grand entertainments to which he was bidden at adjoining haciendas, and the lavish hospitality of his Mexican hosts. His reminiscences recalled the letters of Mme. Calderon de la Barca, who wrote so delightfully of her life in Mexico in the early ’40’s. Aguascalientes is still cordial to the stranger, but her cordiality is of a more discreet and thoughtful kind than it was in the halcyon days, when the Mexican don assumed that every traveler-guest was a gentleman and treated him accordingly. In Mexico to-day, as in other lands, suitable introductions alone assure an entrance into Mexican homes.

The foreign colony of Aguascalientes is very large and English is generally spoken by foreigners and Mexicans alike. I had the fortune to be put up at the Casino where I found pleasant reading- and writing-rooms, card-rooms, billiard and pool, excellent baths and a cafe. There were some hundred members in the club, one-third of whom were foreigners. That night my Mexican friends took me to visit some English friends of theirs, whom they described as muy simpaticos (very agree-able). These young men, who, lived in bachelors’ apartments, had one room devoted to athletic sports; and we found several fellows, gloves 0n, pummeling each other for dear life. After our arrival, there was a round between two young Mexicans, and then one of our hosts put on the gloves with a Mexican. Fencing was also on the cards, although there was none on this occasion. We adjourned to the sala for music and refreshments, and I took occasion to make some inquiries regarding the nationalities of the different gentlemen in the company. The following countries were represented in addition to Mexico: England, France, Germany, Canada and the United States.

I was convinced of the sincerity of the friendship between these young Mexicans and their friends, by an amusing conversation that passed between two of their number. One of the young dons, it seemed, was some-what a Lothario, preferring to flit from flower to flower, or rather from window to window, instead of confining his amorous glances always to the same balcon. One of his Northern friends, a Canadian, twitted him on his inconstancy and then got off something like the following, to the great delight of the Mexicans. ” If I had a novia (sweetheart), how constant I would be! Always sighing, every night, beneath her window!”

” Why haven’t you one? ” inquired the Mexican.

” Because I don’t know how to ` play bear,’ ” replied his friend sadly.

” I will teach you, I will teach you!” said the young Mexican so earnestly, the genuineness of his offer was not to be doubted. Nor could any better proof be shown of disinterested friendship, than the willingness to initiate a foreigner into the methods of courtship employed in Mexico.

The warm baths, in which the place abounds, are near the station, although the most popular ones are at the end of the Alameda. I was glad to see free baths for both men and women and they seemed to be well patronized; but the Indians are strange creatures. Within a hundred yards of the depot and close to the tracks, were long, narrow ditches filled with this same warm water. Here scores of women and girls were bathing; there must have been between sixty and eighty in ‘all, splashing and ducking in the muddy water, while the children tumbled about in shallow puddles caused by the overflow. All seemed utterly unconscious and I presume they liked it better than being shut inside four walls. Their clothing had been washed and spread on the grass to dry, and when an Indian woman dresses she does it so deftly, there is nothing immodest about it.

In every locality the people have some dish which is peculiarly their own. From the time I arrived in Queretaro I saw camotes in abundance, and wished more than once the hotels would serve them, instead of their incessant meat courses. They are really a sweet potato, and if well cooked, delicious. The camote dulce or preserve of Puebla is famous, and may be bought at the capital, but I never saw them there in any other form. Here the women boil the potatoes and mash them up in a small wooden bowl, adding milk to suit the taste of the customer. I had boiled camotes with cream, when I was in Lagos, and liked them immensely. In Uruapan., the colored servant of a Southern gentleman recognized their kinship to the sweet potato, and fried them deliciously. At the hotel in Aguas, the Chinese cook prepared them the same way; and I was sad at the thought of all the time I had spent in Mexico without them.

I must not fail to speak of ” Mochte.” The proprietor calling him ” Moctecuhzoma,” but I compromised with “Mochte.” Mochte was the small, fat Indian boy who made my bed, tucking the covers in religiously at the head and leaving them loose at the foot. Perhaps he thought I slept wrong-end-to: or more likely assumed that my feet were as indifferent to cold as his own, and that, like him, I wanted to be well muffled up about the head. Mochte had a thick, stubby foot, with toes that looked as though they could perform the function of fingers if necessary.

Why the barbers of Aguascalientes charge just half what they do in other places is a mystery, but such is the case. I was riding with my friend Don Alberto through one of the outer barrios and in passing a small barber-shop he said, ” The barber-shops here charge three cents and do all this: they cut your hair, shave you, extract a tooth and apply leeches.” I accepted this as a jest, but when I later patronized the best hair-dresser in town and he asked the modest sum of twelve cents, I decided that after all my friend’s statement was not so unreasonable.

I relapsed into my old ways in Aguas, that is I went in pursuit of a gorgeous zarape and landed the prize. I resolved, on beginning my journey, not to buy a single zarape; but this one was irresistible, a genuine Saltillo, with greens, blues, reds and yellows, all faded and mellowed with age. The wearer went into a shop to buy cigarros and I hung around till he came out, and then inquired politely if he cared to sell his overcoat. Of course he did! Who ever saw a peon who would n’t sell his zarape after the sun came out? The purchase involved a long walk in the wake of the peon and considerable talk as to price, but it resulted in his handing it over. He would get a new one, red and warm, for the sixth part of what he sold it for; and I was at last the happy possessor of a Saltillo zarape. And yet I was not happy. I had acquired, through the ignorance of the owner, property at less than its market-value. It is difficult to judge what the value of an antique zarape is, but I felt sure this one would bring many times what I paid for it. And with the thoughtless greed of the trader I had offered the peon less than he asked. While I make no pretense to extraordinary fairness in trade, I have never experienced satisfaction, the excitement once passed, in having gained unreasonable advantage. On my next visit to the mines of my friend, Don Alfredo, I presented the zarape to Doña Marciana, who hung it up as a window-curtain. I discovered then that even a votive-offering does not atone for unscrupulous possessing.

I fear that I disappointed my Aguascalientes friends. They were constant in their attentions, and again I was bidden to their homes where I received the same kind and sincere welcome. My desire to be again in Mexico City increased; and while as in all great cities there is a hardness to surface-life in Mexico, there are also the brilliant accompaniments of hardness that attract. Then, too, my friends’ vacations were nearly over, and they would shortly return to the capital. So it was with the prospect of an early meeting that we said, ” Hasta luego ! ” and I took train for Mexico City.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, in effect, that the traveler, journey where he will, carries his personal worries, with him. This I proved on returning to Mexico. An uneasy, restless spirit possessed me, and, worst of all, I failed in my endeavor to analyze it. A Spanish philosopher has said, ” There is a remedy for everything but death!” I felt there was a cure for my restlessness if I could only discover it. As it was, a week in the capital was enough. The rains persisted, and the daily appearance, every afternoon, of dark, forbidding storm-clouds, with the close, oppressive air that in Mexico precedes the storm, proved unutterably depressing. At night the air, which was still sultry, was charged with a peculiar odor, suggesting salt-marsh; and as none of my friends could account for it, they all assumed that it was both noxious and deadly. To add to the festive conditions extant in the capital, the drainage-works were then in course of construction; and it seemed not unlikely the unwholesome smells emanated from there.

My friends, observing my unrest, recommended a visit to Puebla; and with slight urging from them, I set out for the ” City of the Angels,” with the added anticipation of seeing the pretty town of Jalapa, which enjoys a more mundane celebrity for the beauty of its women.

Puebla is well-named ” City of the Angels.” It proved little short of Heaven after la capital, with its heat, dust and drainage odors. I found that the salt-marsh odor, which had permeated Mexico City at night, was not pernicious, as I had feared. We had it for fully half an hour on the train after leaving, in crossing the flats which are full of alkali. I had a feeling of being near the sea. The ride to Puebla by day is charming. At Texcoco the salt smell changes for the scent of flowers, and from there on the air is sweet. At Mazapa, where there is a big hacienda, I got the pun-gent, resinous smell of pine, and then I saw that the hacienda advertises pine timber. Otumba, which I al-ways associate with battles (Cartes had a tremendous fight there) looked peaceful enough. I saw several people embracing but no signs of fighting.

Puebla’s population is 95,000. The city impresses you at once with its cleanliness. You have the feeling of being high up (it is nearly as high as Mexico City) and also a feeling that you are not shut in. This is partly due to the outlook, which is unconfined save for low hills; yet there is a buoyancy, a freedom from oppression in the atmosphere that adds to the feeling.

The churches are gorgeous. I did not appreciate the cathedral at first and I doubt whether it is possible to appreciate so stupendous an edifice on short acquaintance. I had to grow to like Mexico’s cathedral, while some of the smaller churches pleased me at once. The only cathedral that held me from the first was Morelia’s. There is an enchanting quality, a lightness, a grace of outline, that captivate the beholder. I ended by enjoying Puebla’s cathedral. The rains had washed the marble figures of the saints snow-white, and made the gray building-stone more somber. I place a great deal of importance on color in buildings and their surroundings. In this connection, I fancy cloudy skies and dull gray days suit this cathedral better than the golden light and the bright blue heavens that seem the fitting environment for Morelia’s. I never realized until now how I had unconsciously allowed these great churches to make for me the atmosphere of their respective cities. Mexico’s cathedral is big, massive, commanding; generous and spreading, rather than towering in its proportions. That of Morelia has something fairy-like about it; its romantic beauty seems to dominate the half-tropical city, with its silent houses, sleeping gardens, and air of mysterious repose. Puebla’s cathedral is cold, severe, magnificent. It towers to Heaven. While Mexico’s cathedral bells make a deafening tumult, cheery withal, and Morelia’s bells are silver chimes, the bells of Puebla’s great temple are deep-toned, solemn, austere. The city itself is dignified. The people have an air of quiet composure and there is little evidence of frivolity.

The hospital of Puebla is an enormous and very splendid structure, filling the whole of one square, north, east, south and west. The entrance is adorned with a row of superb columns, and the front of the central or main portion is entirely of red, yellow and black bricks, disposed in an agreeable design and making a fine color effect. The other edifice of first importance is the Palacio Municipal, an elaborate structure of gray stone, fronting on the plaza. Puebla’s houses are famous for their tiles, which give a picturesque variety of color, peculiar to this city alone, I believe. Often the fronts are of bright glazed tiles, with overhanging cornices of stone, elaborately carved and painted. You get the impression that the old residents were magnificent in their tastes; though such profuseness of ornament in building could only have prevailed where labor cost little. Many of the houses, where not of tiles, are painted in delicate colors. I saw one which was a fine old rose, with its wide, richly carved cornice and balconies painted white. The balconies were filled with geraniums which made a blaze of color. The effect was charming. As in Mexico, many of the churches are hidden by other more recent buildings. Across the stretch of some uninteresting roof, you get glimpses of fine bits of carving, the best part being effectually hidden. There are, too, many unfinished churches, though I never object to one tower being left incomplete.

On approaching Puebla from Mexico you have a fine view of the great pyramid of Cholula, crowned by the little church of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, whose graceful lines and slender towers are well-known from photographs. It is hard to realize that the hill is artificial, it is so covered with vegetation; and harder still to substitute in the mind’s eye, for the pure white church, the frowning walls of the old temple, dedicated to heathen rites and sacrifice. It is hard to realize that, at the coming of the Spaniards, where Puebla stands there was nothing; while quaint Cholula, now the merest pueblo, was then a great Indian city, a city of temples, the Mecca of the Indian empire. The ride from Puebla to Cholula is a matter of thirty minutes, but the contrast is that of an old, retired village as opposed to a proud and opulent city. The houses of Cholula are generally one story and the churches are plain in construction. The people as a rule are Indian in type, but thrifty and neat; and the town has a comfortable air, the plaza especially being attractive and well kept. The old church of San Andres, outside the town, is a venerable, moss-grown pile, and in it there is a quaintly carved confessional. The legend goes that in it a priest was murdered; and to this day you can see the blood stains on the rawhide covering.

Puebla has a fine paseo or alameda with two splendid monuments. There is nothing better in Mexico, unless it be the Cuauhtemoc statue which would be remarkable anywhere. One of these is to Nicolas Bravo. A plain shaft of gray stone rises from the pedestal, with the figure of the hero in bronze, in general’s uniform, and the angel of victory descending to crown him with laurel. The other, which is very large, is dedicated to ” Los Heroes de la Independencia.” The shaft is marble. The figures clustered about it, which are bronze, are Hidalgo, Iturbide, Morelos, Allende and Aldama. Then there is Pipila, with the great stone on his back, with which he battered in the doors of the royalist stronghold at Guanajuato, another peon with a torch, and the drummer boy, who peers up into Hidalgo’s face while he beats the peal ” to arms.” The old paseo, which has magnificent trees, is now deserted, save by the common people.

In the morning I went up to the hotel roof to view the city. I found a nice old lady up there, doing some odd chores, and she gladly showed me the various points of interest. She said she was born in the year of ” the big cholera.” I don’t know just when that was, but I think early in the thirties. She told me the names of all the churches in Puebla, and she knew them by their towers. Then she showed me the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe of Cinco de Mayo fame, and told me how, after the fighting, she saw the dead soldiers lying under the portales. Pobrecitos (poor things) she called them. She told me about the soldiers Americanos coming, too, and declared that some of the charro horsemen cast their reatas at them, and dragged them from the saddle. They, too, were pobrecitos, as, in fact, were all who were killed, whether friend or foe. While listening to her, I was reminded that it was my country’s birthday, seeing the stars and stripes floating from a housetop; and I was curious to see if she knew the flag. She said she was not sure, but she thought it was the Spanish flag: that some one was celebrating a dia santo. ” Perhaps it is Tio Samuel (Uncle Samuel),” I suggested. She looked a little mystified and said, ” Perhaps.”

As yet I had not seen the volcanoes for the clouds; but Abundio; the mozo in charge of my room, said at 5 A. M. they were resplandecientes, (resplendent) and volunteered to call me. I guessed that Abundio was from Oaxaca, and this gratified him so that he gave me a short history of himself. He is a Mixteco, and extremely warlike in his inclinations. He says his pueblo was continually in war with the adjoining one. He is n’t quite sure whether he ever killed a man or not; but after a fight, there would frequently be ten to a dozen dead. He said the Oaxaquenos are the bravest Indios in the republic, that they can live on little or nothing, even go two days without food; and that they can run up the steep hills and rocks like deer. He said he would not care to be a regular soldier, whom he contemptuously called a slave, but he thought it was good to fight for pure ‘ liking. He liked geography and seemed to have a general idea of the old world countries, asking whether Russia was as large as Estados Unidos. He was going to work till he had saved a hundred dollars. Then he would buy some good books, ” with which one could civilize himself somewhat,” and retire to his pueblo to study. Abundio assured me that all the most powerful men come from his state; and gave me a long list of names, beginning naturally with Don Porfirio Diaz, and also accounts of several battles in which he was the hero. I asked Abundio for fun if he had n’t some Spanish blood. He shook his finger and said, ” Not one drop.” This was quite evident. He had a mat of coarse black hair, rather small, snapping eyes, and his face was very dark, but bright and vivacious.

While in Puebla I had a pleasant morning with the good priest in charge of the ancient convent ” El Car-men.” I found him entertaining a brother-priest, and together we wandered through the interminable corridors of the old convent, founded by the early Spaniards over three centuries ago, with the massive, carved arches, tiled stairways, and dilapidated but priceless paintings on the walls of the patios, where the sunlight reveals the wonderful colors, and in dark recesses, where they are scarcely visible. The convent is now a home for poor boys, and as there were no classes, the youngsters were busy making toy balloons of colored tissue paper, which the padre said delighted them above all other amusements.

As we strolled about, we compared adventures and impressions in traveling through the republic. The padre had traveled much in various parts and on various missions. He told of a long journey in the State of Michoacan, where they entered pueblos in which the Indians neither spoke a word of Spanish nor wore any clothing, other than the primitive cape of palm leaves. In one village, the people cried when they saw them, ” Here come the revolutionists,” and ran to get their machetes. On learning their mission, they cast them-selves on the ground, face down, and begged their benediction. They then did everything they could for their comfort, bringing them a hot drink of chocolate and ground melon seeds, their one article of food at that season. How little we know, in our railway travels, of the primitive peoples in Mexico !

This was the pleasantest experience of my visit to Puebla, and I think the padres enjoyed it as well. I am sure that no thought of creed entered anybody’s mind. I knew them for good, devoted men, and they knew me for a fellow man.

It had rained the best part of the time while I was in Puebla. The city takes care of the water in the streets better than any other in the republic. Although apparently level, there is still grade enough to keep the water moving; and wherever two streets come together, there is a box-like gutter of masonry, directly in the middle, which collects the flood and conveys it past the crossing. The gutters are spanned by little stone bridges, which are patronized by the gente decente (de-cent people); the common people, usually barefooted, seeming to prefer splashing through the muddy stream. Constant rain in a big city becomes very monotonous, and I was looking forward with joy to Jalapa, with its balmy air, wealth of flowers and various tropical beauties.