Mexico – The City Of The Angels

THE difference between the American and his neighbor the Mexican is strikingly illustrated in the names and history of their respective cities. In a past age many a shrewd Yankee, with an eye to business, induced his friends to start a town, and while growing rich by speculating in real estate, perpetuated his memory by naming the place after himself. Thus we have our Higgsvilles, Smithburgs and other cities of prosaic name. The Mexican, with his more romantic nature and devotion to the church, usually named his town after some beautiful view near at hand, or some wonderful miracle which was supposed to have happened on the spot. It was a miracle that led to the founding of Puelba, a city with a population of 125,000, which claims to be next in importance to the capital.

The story is that a good friar, Julian Garcia, who lived in the early Spanish days, had a wonderful dream in which he saw a beautiful plain near two great snow-capped mountains. There were also two springs which fed rivers of abundant water. As he beheld this vision, two angels appeared with rod and chain and measured off streets and squares as if planning a city. Then appeared a flight of angels singing a song of praise to the accompaniment of heavenly music. The friar determined to find the place he had seen in his dream, and after journeying many weary miles he eventually reached the site of Puebla, which he at once recognized as the spot he had seen in his vision.

As this was sufficient evidence of a miracle, the good old man persuaded the Spanish settlers to build a town there, and this grew to be the City of Puebla, or as it was originally called, Puebla de los Angeles (The City of the Angels-).

With such a miraculous beginning it is not surprising that Puebla should have been much favored by the devout in early times. So lavish were their endowments and so wonderful the amount of building which followed that to-day there is hardly a street in the city that does not have its array of churches, their towers and domes rising in every direction. It is for this reason that Puebla is often referred to as “the City of Churches.” In former days pilgrims journeyed thither from afar to worship at the many shrines in the old city. It is still one of the “show places” of Mexico and attracts many visitors but most of these pilgrims are tourists bent on sight-seeing.

It is a curious fact that pilgrimages to holy places are usually difficult and unpleasant. The devout Mahommedan who travels to Mecca does not find it exactly a pleasure trip; and it is said that the journey to Lhasa has enough misery in it to last two ordinary lifetimes. It is probably on this account that the passenger trains of the Interoceanic Railway take about six hours to run, or rather jog, fro, Mexico City to Puebla, a distance of one hundred and twenty-nine miles. The passengers, I suppose, are regarded as pilgrims, and as such have no rights that a railway company is bound to respect.

This was the journey I took one bleak morning in December, starting at an unreasonably early hour. In the first-class car in which I travelled the temperature was undeniably frigid, and a little steam heat or a foot-warmer would have been extremely welcome. Some of my Mexican fellow-passengers had come prepared for the cold, and took frequent draughts from black bottles, with grateful exclamations of “Bueno.” As I was unprovided with a bottle, I sat and shivered. There is, however, a silver lining to the dark clouds of even a pilgrim, for as the day went on the sky became clear and intensely blue, while the sun made itself felt to such a degree that the temperature in our car became almost too sultry — the usual contrast.

The journey to Puebla is not without interest. On leaving the city the train crossed the plain and wound in and out among the sun-baked–hills , giving occasional glimpses of the snow-clad peaks of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl. From the hills there were long stretches of barren country; now and again plantations of maguey; frequent dry water-courses ; and sometimes maize fields, where the dry stalks remained from the last harvest. Half the trees along the way were bare of leaves, and when there was any grass it was sere and yellow. This, as I have already observed, is the prevailing appearance of the Mexican highlands during the winter months. The only green vegetation to be seen is on an occasional irrigated field.

In the tropical part of Mexico, where there is moisture and rain even during the winter, the vegetation is always green. But for the lack of rainfall and the difficulties of irrigation, the temperate zone of Mexico would be ideal for the growing of- all kinds of grain which flourish in Europe. As it is, the great staple food of the Mexicans is Indian corn, several million bushels of which are raised every year, while little effort is made to grow other crops. Wheat, which was introduced into Mexico by a Spanish monk, is grown extensively in some districts ; but as there is only enough for local consumption, a large quantity of flour is imported from the United States. This is used for making bread, cake and all the fancy rolls which are served in the better-class restaurants and hotels.

My pilgrimage to Puebla ended at two in the afternoon, when I reached the picturesque city of white houses and glittering church domes. Outside the station there was the usual array of heavy, lumbering cabs and also some diminutive tram-cars, drawn by two mules, which ran to all parts of the city. Each car was provided with a big gong which the driver clanged incessantly, as if to awaken any drowsy peons who might be in the way.

I took a cab to drive to my hotel, but soon repented of this rash act, for the street paving of unevenly laid cobble-stones was simply execrable. In some places the roadways formed miniature hills and valleys, so that my cab pitched and shook like a storm-tossed vessel. ‘ In the middle of the streets were deep gutters — so deep, indeed, that at some of the street crossings they were bridged over. I heard afterwards that the streets of Puebla — like those of Vera Cruz, Orizaba and some other towns — were to be repaved with asphalt in the course of a few months, and that electric cars would take the place of the mule tramway.

The Arcade Hotel, where my coche eventually landed me, is conducted in French style by an enterprising Mexican, and it has the reputation of being one of the best in the Republic. I found that its reputation is well deserved. After luncheon, at the invitation of mine host, I went to the roof, where I had a magnificent view of the city and the towers and domes of its churches, some white, some red, others blue, yellow and pink. Beyond the great plain surrounding the town are rolling hills and mountains of reddish tint, in the foreground the gaunt peak of Malinche; in another direction tower the snow-tipped peaks of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl ; and still further off, in the blue distance, rises the snow-dome of Orizaba.

A wonderfully quaint old city is Puebla, and much more typical of Mexico than is the capital. Its flat-roofed buildings, usually of two or three stories, look a good deal like the older buildings in Mexico City; but there is far less rebuilding, renovating and Americanizing in progress. Most of the houses are painted a cream white, but here and there they are tinted in some soft shade of color which gives a pleasing variety. Beautiful, too, are the fine old Spanish mansions in which Puebla abounds, many of them having their exteriors decorated with tiles of superb glazing and ancient Moorish design. These, in some instances, form mosaics representing figures of saints or birds and animals. The city was once famous for these tiles, which were made by the Indian potters, but the industry is now dead and the art is lost. In almost every street one passes church after church, in various architectural styles, some of them huge edifices large enough for cathedrals. Each is of a different tint; some of the exteriors are beautifully carved; the domes and towers of some are adorned with tiles and many of the domes are gilded. The tiled facades of the old houses and the varied hues and tiles of the churches combine to give the streets a wealth of color that would delight the soul of an artist.

Puebla, however, is not only famous for its churches and picturesque streets ; but it is closely associated with those inspiring words, “Cinco de Mayo” (the 5th of May), which mean so much to patriotic Mexicans. For it was at Puebla, on the 5th of May, 1862, that General Zaragoza, with a small force of Mexican troops, defeated a large French army, a brilliant victory which ultimately led to the triumph of the Republic.

Still other claims to distinction has Puebla. It is the capital of the State of Puebla, — the richest of the Mexican States, — which is immensely wealthy in agricultural and mineral products. The city is also an important manufacturing place, particularly for cotton goods, paper, and that article so loathed by the Mexican peon — soap. Iron founding, woodworking and a number of other industries also occupy the busy Pueblans.

Puebla nobly maintains its reputation as the cleanest city in Mexico. Its streets are remarkably well kept, streams of clear water continually run through the deep gutters and the sanitary regulations are carefully enforced. In different quarters there are parks and plazas, with trees, fountains, flowers and some good statuary, which add much to the picturesqueness of the city. Perhaps the most interesting of the public squares is the Plaza Mayor, where stand the cathedral and several fine public buildings, including the new Municipal Palace, designed by an English architect. There are some attractive shops in the plaza, and also in a fine glass-covered arcade leading out of it, which resembles the Burlington Arcade in London, but is on a larger scale. Some of the shop windows contain great displays of paper-weights, inkstands, picture-frames, and various novelties made of Puebla onyx in all shades of color, the most delicate being the red and green. Near the city there are some large quarries of onyx, quantities of which are shipped to all parts of the world to be used for interior decoration.

In Puebla, churches, of course, are among the principal sights, the finest of all being the cathedral, which was completed in 1636 and rivals that of Mexico City in size and grandeur. Onyx, rare woods and gold have been lavishly used in the interior, giving it a wonderfully rich appearance. Inside the choir, a superb specimen of architecture, there hangs a chandelier of solid silver which is said to have cost $75,000. The pulpit is carved from Puebla onyx, and the high altar — the work of a native artist — is a wonderful combination of onyx and almost every Mexican marble. Some fine Flemish tapestries on the walls of the sacristy were presented to the cathedral by Charles the Fifth of Spain. The churches of San Francisco (1532), La Compania (1557) and San Cristobal, of about the same period, are among the scores of churches which give Puebla its title.

The fact that I was in a city of churches was painfully recalled to me the next morning when I was aroused from my slumbers soon after daybreak by such a banging and clanging of bells that I thought an earthquake was in progress.

Being 7091 feet above sea-level, — somewhat lower than the capital, — Puebla is a little more removed from the “northers,” but when one is blowing, the temperature at night is far from tropical. When I reached the city, the day was as warm as a fine June day in New York ; but when the sun went down there was a sudden change to November, and a good blazing fire would have been a welcome addition to the comforts of my hotel. To while away the time, I went to a cinematograph show, but the cold pursued me even there. In order to ward off chills and pneumonia, I had to wear my overcoat in the hall, and even then I was unable to sit through the performance without going out now and then to get a hot drink. The Indians in the audience wrapped their blankets tightly about them and sat watching the pictures, grimly defying the cold. It was Christmas week, and a large number of these swarthy natives had come in from the country to do their marketing and see the sights. I witnessed an amusing example of their superstition.

An Indian family sat in front of me, and it was evident that they were seeing a cinematograph show for the first time. The worthy peon, his wife and children, seemed bewildered with amazement, and frequently crossed them-selves. At last some French colored pictures were flashed on the screen. The figure of a magician appeared, looking very much like Mephistopheles, and in front of him was a pumpkin. This he touched with his wand, and immediately it was transformed into six sprightly ballet girls. After several transformations the wizard touched the figures, which disappeared in a cloud of smoke and flame. This was too much for the Indians. The man rose, muttering ” Diablo, magio, no mas, no mas ” (the Devil, magic; no more, no more), crossed himself repeatedly and, followed by his wife and family, all apparently very much terrified, hurried from the hall. It is safe to say that these Indians had a horrible story to tell their padre when they went to confession the next Sunday.

As I strolled about the city that evening, I saw some other interesting sights. Many of the streets were lined with stalls for the sale of Christmas goods, dulces, toys, mats and baskets of colored straw, the crude earthenware of Puebla, colored clay figures and various knick-knacks. There were also gayly colored pinates, some of them in the form of oval jars, handsomely decorated with tinsel and streams of tissue paper. Others were made up in large, grotesque figures of clowns, ballet girls, monks and animals.

These pinates (pronounced pin-yah-tay) are the Christmas trees of Mexico, and take the place of those features of the English Christmas in the affection of the little ones. The jars or figures are stuffed with sweets, crackers, rattles, whistles and other toys, and parents — usually on Christmas Eve — hang them from the ceiling of a room or on a tree in the patio. Armed with a stick and blindfolded, the children are then led some little distance away. What they have to do is to grope their way towards where they think the pinate is and strike out at it. Each child is given three chances. Sometimes they are blindfolded a dozen times before any one of them manages to break the pinate and bring the sweets and toys tumbling to the ground.

Thereupon a great scramble for the dainties takes place. The blindfolded child who has been lucky enough to hit the pinate is sadly handicapped in the struggle, as all the others have been eagerly crowding round to swoop down upon the contents.

Pinates are a source of immense pleasure not only to the little folks but to their elders; and the bigger children are especially keen on this Christmas celebration, for during the excitement which ensues when the jar is broken, precocious lads and lassies find it possible to squeeze into each other’s hands ill-written little love-letters or to whisper tender words.

Christmas festivities in Mexico begin on the 16th and last until the 25th of December and are called posadas, a word meaning an inn or abiding place. Posadas are held in the towns and cities only ; they are participated in by the richest as well as the poorest classes, and are known in Mexico only of all the countries of Spanish-America. They are a memory of the Gospel story of the Nativity, when Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem and finding no resting-place in the inn were obliged to shelter in a stable. At the celebration, everybody in the house, the family, guests and servants — each one being provided with a lighted candle — walk together several times round the house, chanting a litany. As each prayer is finished they sing the ” Ora pro Nobis.” The leader of the procession carries figures of Joseph and Mary, formed of clay or wax, and figures of saints are sometimes borne. A donkey, too, often forms part of the procession to represent the faithful creature in the Bible story. At each door in the house the leader stops and knocks, craving admission, but no answer is given.

When the litany is finished, some of the party go inside a room, while the rest, with the sacred figures, stand outside singing a verse which is a plea for admittance. To this the churlish answer is given that there is no room for the visitors, and that they are regarded as vagrants or thieves. Finally the door is opened, and the figures gain shelter for the night, the closing scene of this ceremony being the depositing of the figures on a roughly improvised altar and a sort of mass being said in front of them.

The sacred side of the celebration over, the family and their guests start feasting and merrymaking, and this is prolonged to a late hour. In wealthy houses these posadas are very elaborate, and at the subsequent feast beautiful presents are given to each guest. At Christmas time all the Mexican cities are ablaze with fireworks and colored lights, which are the invariable conclusion for the posadas, the pinates and all the other festivities.

Puebla, like Mexico City, has no night life, and by nine o’clock most of the streets are deserted. After dark the city seems melancholy and depressing, and even during the daytime it is far from cheerful, which is probably due to the number of old churches with their sombre influence. There are a good many Americans in Puebla, and they do something towards brightening up the place. The city has already been invaded by the American book, curio and grocery stores; the American physician and dentist have arrived; and there are numerous agencies for American goods. There is also a comfortable American club, to which most of the English-speaking residents belong.

During my stay at Puebla I went out one afternoon by the mule-car to the town of Cholula, about eight miles from the city. Cholula was an important city in Aztec times and was the scene of a great battle between Cortes and the treacherous natives. Having been invited to enter the city, he discovered they were preparing to attack and overwhelm his little force. Being in the midst of a powerful d warlike people, he was compelled to attack with his six thousand five hundred men an army of twenty thou-sand Indians. The result of the battle was the complete rout of the latter, the Spanish cannon and cavalry slaughtering thousands of the defeated Cholulans. After the Conquest, the ancient city soon lost its importance and has since been reduced to a small village.

The ride from Puebla to Cholula is full of interest. Leaving the city, the car wound its way among the maguey fields, passed through several haciendas where cattle were grazing among the dry grass and crossed one or two streams where a fair amount of water was running. On every side was the great plain stretching to the mountains, above which towered the great snowy peaks, against a sky background of the deepest blue.

Cholula, like Puebla, was once a place of pilgrimage ; and on a high pyramid just outside the town there stood the great temple dedicated to the mystic deity Quetzalcoatl. It was on this spot that he was supposed to have dwelt. Cholula was also a city of temples ; Cortes has recorded that he counted four hundred towers in it, and no temple had more than two. Pilgrims came from all parts of Mexico in pre-Conquest days to worship in the great temple. Whenever the people lacked water or a drought threatened, children, usually from six to ten years of age, were sacrificed with horrible rites. The city swarmed with beggars, and Codes, much impressed by this, wrote to the king of Spain that “they were as numerous as in the most enlightened capitals of Europe” ! Of the great image of Quetzal-coatl, which stood in the great temple, Prescott has given the following interesting description in his ” Conquest of Mexico ” : “He had ebon features, unlike the fair complex-ion he bore upon earth, wearing a mitre on his head waving with plumes of fire, with a resplendent collar of gold around his neck, pendants of mosaic turquoise in his ears, a jewelled sceptre in one hand and a shield, curiously painted, the emblem of his rule over the winds, in the other.”

The pyramid now looks like a natural elevation, its sides being overgrown with trees and bushes; its base covers twenty acres, and it is about one hundred and seventy-seven feet in height. Around it have been occasionally unearthed obsidian knives and arrow-heads. Excavations at various points have shown that it is built of adobe bricks, clay and limestone. According to Indian legends, it was the work of giants who wished to reach heaven, but the gods, angered at their presumption, killed them before their work was completed. In attempting to give an idea of the size of this great teocalli, Humboldt has compared it to a mass of bricks covering a square four times as large as the Place Vendome and twice the height of the Louvre.

I climbed to the top of the pyramid by a long flight of rough stone steps, and reached the little church of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, which marks the site of the Aztec temple, razed to the ground by Cortes. In the vestibule of the church were some modern paintings, presented by persons whose lives were believed to have been spared through the miraculous interposition of the Virgin, to whom the church is dedicated. One painting represented a man falling in front of a railway train which was being stopped by the Virgin. Another man was under the wheels of a large motor-car; but the Virgin’s hand was on the chauffeur, and the car was unable to proceed. The knife of an assassin descending on the breast of an unfortunate peon was being stayed by the same guardian influence. In another of these pictures a murderous-looking ruffian is portrayed about to empty the contents of his magazine rifle into the breast of his victim ; but the weapon is being pushed aside by the same holy hand. There were over a score of these strange works of art, the execution for the most part being of the crudest. I afterwards saw similar pictures in other Mexican churches.

From the front of the church the view of the valley and surrounding mountains, the many churches with their glazed tile domes, and the numerous villages on the plain, with Puebla in the distance, is superb. Old churches are scattered all over the plain, and it is said that over fifty of them can be counted; most of them are isolated, without any dwellings near them. These churches were erected in the great building age of the Spaniards. Many of them were abandoned after the enactment of the reform laws, and some large, imposing structures, half in ruins, are occupied by peons and their families. Why all these churches were built, nobody seems able to explain. In Cholula alone there are about thirty, though it has but five thousand inhabitants.

The next day I took the train from Puebla to Santa Ana, where a horse tram-car carried me, in forty-five minutes, to Tlaxcala, capital of the State of that name, and the site of a great city visited by Corte s at the beginning of the Conquest. The government of the Tlaxcalans was re-publican in form; they were a brave race, and had reached a high state of culture. As they were at war with the Aztecs, Corte s gained them as allies, and so was enabled to conquer the latter and thereafter to subdue all the other Indian races.

According to some Spanish historians, Tlaxcala at the time of the Conquest had about three hundred thousand in-habitants ; but this is probably an exaggeration. Cortes expressed amazement at the civilization of the Tlaxcalan capital, its shops, market-places, public baths, barbers and police. To-day, Tlaxcala is a small town with a population of barely four thousand.

In the town many relics of the past are still to be seen. The Council Room of the Municipal Palace contains some fine old paintings, including portraits of the Tlaxcalan chiefs who allied themselves with Cortes and who were baptized in 1520. In a glass case is a flag said to have been presented to the chiefs by the Conqueror. There are also robes of silk worn by the chiefs at their baptism and the embroidered vestments of the priests who performed the ceremony. So remarkably fresh is the state of these relics that it is difficult to believe they are almost four hundred years old. The church of San Francisco in Tlaxcala is the oldest in America, its foundations having been laid in 1521. It still possesses the font in which the chiefs were baptized, and also has a pulpit from which the Christian gospel was preached for the first time on the American continent.