IN Mexico City a visitor sees Mexican social life scarcely at its best, if, he is anxious to learn something of the real manners and customs of the people. For the capital is not truly Mexico at any rate, so far as the richer classes are concerned. It is a city of motley civilizations; and in fashionable circles one finds a great deal of Madrid, a little of Paris and slight infusions of London and New York. Still all this is very superficial, and if the stranger has the good fortune to break through the adamantine barrier of etiquette, prejudice and precedent which stifle social inter-course among well-born Mexicans, he will be surprised to find how thin is the veneer of culture, and how much of seventeenth-century Spanish custom still survives in the daily lives of the owners of twentieth-century motor-cars, and among women who wear the latest Parisian fashions.
Owing her civilization to Spain it is, of course, natural that Mexico should be largely governed by Spanish social ideas; but the curious fact is that many customs long ago discarded in Spain are still observed in Spain’s former colony. Women are still kept jealously guarded from the outer world; strangers are rarely admitted to the family circle; and the whole social system is hedged in by as many precautions as a Chinese mandarin adopts to guard his household against the evil influence of the ” foreign devils.”
High society in the capital is largely a replica of Spanish society, but is far more exclusive and old-fashioned than that of Madrid. It is composed, for the most part, of those families who have been rich for generations, who own huge estates; and besides these are many of the higher government officials, successful lawyers and other professional men. The majority of these people are of pure Spanish descent, or represent French and Italian ancestry.
To any one familiar with the life of London, Paris or New York, society in the Mexican capital appears extremely dull. Dances, musicales and other social entertainments seldom take place, and it is quite unusual for people to dine in parties at fashionable restaurants. Such recreations as golfing and tennis are absolutely unknown to the fashion-able Mexican woman. The chief amusements of the upper classes are mostly limited to driving and family dinner parties, which are all very proper, very unexciting and must become very boring. If a stranger is invited to a meal, it is usually to luncheon, a heavy, full-course repast, served at one o’clock, followed by coffee and cigarettes, served in the drawing-room. Chocolate, a favorite beverage, is also often served, being made very thick, and accompanied with rich cakes.
There are some palatial houses in the capital, many of them situated in frowzy residential districts which are being rapidly transformed into business centres. Shabby and unattractive on the outside, they are often richly furnished within, and abound in wonderful old furniture, bric-a-brac and works of art. In recent years some wealthy people have built handsome houses of French de-sign in the new residential quarters, notably in and about the Paseo de la Reforma, these mansions being also decorated and furnished in modern French style. Hardly any of the houses, old or new, are equipped with fireplaces or other systems of heating, and on cold days are far from comfortable. In the old houses there are spacious patios, open to the sky, and in these meals are often served, even the winter time, when the temperature occasionally falls below fifty degrees, and a good blazing fire would be welcome.
Few Mexican women are domesticated, and everything is left to the servants; for the lady of the house would consider it disgraceful to do anything or to see to anything herself. This has a most deplorable result upon domestic arrangements, and even has the effect of deteriorating the value of some of the ancient plate and china, which are treasured possessions of the wealthier families. Left to the tender mercies of untrained and badly managed servants, they get tarnished and broken, lost or stolen. The care which an American or English woman will lavish upon the decoration of her dinner-table is inconceivable to Mexican women. Thus, to save themselves trouble in a land which is one large hothouse, they generally decorate their rooms with artificial flowers.
Many Mexican women of the fashionable class have been educated in French convents, and owing to this, French is very generally spoken in society circles. On the other hand, many of the younger men have been to English schools, and some of them have been at Oxford and Cambridge. They have thus acquired strong British sympathies, which they show by getting their clothes from London, and introducing various English customs, such as afternoon tea, which is popularly known as “5 o’clock,” Some of the wealthy families, too, employ English governesses, and it has become quite a fad among fashionable folk to have English coachmen. A knowledge of English is thus be-coming much more general among the upper classes. Many members of the Mexican smart set, too, visit New York and Washington during the social season, and have in this way acquired a few American ideas.
Children are brought up in much the same way as in Spain, but are kept somewhat more secluded from the outside world, this being especially so in the case of the girls. In the household, however, as visitors are mostly intimate friends and relations, the youthful members of the family enjoy great freedom, and the system of confining them in nurseries or schoolrooms is not generally common.
Suspicion of strangers, as already remarked, is the invariable rule among the wealthy classes in Mexico, and one must know a Mexican for a long time before being granted the privilege of entering his household as a guest. Once admitted, however, they are found to be the most charming hosts in the world. Nothing is too much trouble for them once they adopt you as a friend. When visiting a country house, your host will think nothing of riding many miles with you over rough roads on your leaving, simply as a mark of esteem.
Mexicans, in fact, are full of Latin enthusiasm; their southern blood is shown by their animated gestures in conversation, and by their flow of complimentary expressions which are never meant. They take sudden fancies for persons and things, gush over them for a time, and then quickly forget then. For this they must be forgiven, as it is simply a matter of racial temperament.
Despite the restrictions of society in the capital, there are many delightful people among the higher classes, who always take a foremost part in entertaining visiting foreigners of any distinction. President Diaz’ and his charming wife are, of course, the nominal heads of society, and preside at a number of interesting functions during each winter season. Another distinguished member of the official circle is Senor Landay Escandon, governor of the Federal District and mayor. He is one of the wealthiest men in the Republic, is the principal representative of the ristocratic Escandon family, and has a beautiful house on the outskirts of the city. He speaks English fluently, having been educated in England. Another popular host is Senor Limantour, the Minister of Finance, who is of French descent, and a man of great culture.
An important element in the social life of the city is the diplomatic corps, which is quite large, there being some twenty-seven duly accredited representatives of foreign powers, including even those of Russia and Japan. A great deal of entertaining is done by the diplomats, and especially by the Spanish, German and Russian ministers. The British government is represented, at the present time, by Mr. Reginald T. Tower, whose handsome residence in the Avenida de Paris is one of the finest in the city. Mr. Tower was appointed in 1905, and soon after his arrival in Mexico it was his pleasing duty to present to President Diaz the Grand Cross of the Bath, which had been conferred on the President by his Majesty, King Edward. Among British residents in Mexico Mr. Tower is deservedly popular, and he has done much to assist British commercial interests in all parts of the Republic. The United States has been represented for several years by Mr. David E. Thompson, who ranks first among members of the diplomatic corps, and he alone is an ambassador, the other foreign representatives being simply envoys extraordinary and ministers plenipotentiary.
Among the higher classes art and literature are keenly appreciated, and several painters and authors of Mexican origin are famous outside their own country. Mexico has produced many writers, some of considerable eminence. Perhaps the most interesting of these were the native Indians, Ixtlilxochitli, Tezozomoc and Nitzahualcoyotl, who lived at the time of the Conquest and chronicled the glories of their ancestors in Spanish prose and poetry. Verse has always played an important part in Mexican literature. The chief modern poets are Justo Sierra, Manuel Flores, Juan de Dios Pesa (known as the Mexican Longfellow) and Jose Peon y Contras. Among the novelists are Senor Irenio Paz, editor and novelist, whose stories are valuable for the pen pictures of Mexican life which they present, and Vincent Riva Palacio, whose works are noted for the elegance and purity of their style. Senor Mariscal, Minister of Foreign Affairs, is also a well-known writer, and has translated into Spanish the works of several well-known American writers. Some Mexican plays and books of verse have been widely read in Spanish-speaking countries, but as yet there have been no translations into English. The Mexican government does much to foster literary talent, and a deserving writer is certain of official patronage. Assistance is, also given to art students, over two hundred prominent young artists and sculptors having been pensioned and sent abroad to pursue their studies. Among the artists of national repute are Senores Leandro Izaguirre, Ramos Martinez and Alberto Fuster, who studied in Rome and Florence and have produced some notable works. Senor Juan Telles Toledo is the foremost Mexican portrait painter.
While on the subject of literature, a few words about Spanish as spoken in Mexico may be of interest. Most of the Spaniards who colonized the country came from Andalusia, and the Spanish commonly spoken to-day in Mexico is not exactly classical or Castilian. For example, the true Spaniard pronounces the word “cielo” (heaven) as theaylo, whereas the Mexican gives the c its English value, and never the sound as is given in this and other words in Spain. The Mexicans have another peculiarity of speech. When asking a question, they invariably end the sentence with “no.” For instance, a man will ask, “Are you coMing out, no ?” A shopkeeper says, “Will you buy something today, no ?” This strikes on the American ear as very strange. Many Spanish words, too, have been altered. Thus, manteca, meaning “butter” in Spain, has been changed in Mexico into mantequilla. A large number of Indian words have also been incorporated in the language, such as sarape, a blanket, for which in Spain the word ” manta is used.
People of wealth in the capital are taking a keen interest in motoring, and large numbers of cars, mostly American makes, are seen in the streets. It is due to the influence of these motor enthusiasts that the suburban roads have of late been greatly improved. While I was in the city, a new motor road was completed to San Angel, a picturesque and beautiful suburb a mile or two out, where many wealthy citizens have their houses standing among gardens of flowers and palms. The inauguration was marked by a military procession, the firing of cannon, a display of fireworks ; school children sang hymns and scattered flowers, and the governor of the Federal District, an enthusiastic motorist, made a stirring speech. In San Angel is a popular motoring resort a beautiful old Spanish mansion which has been transformed into a luxurious hotel, furnished in a style appropriate to its ancient character and with all its quaintness preserved. On the day of the celebration, I lunched with some motoring friends in the spacious patio, filled with tropical flowers and shrubbery, where a fountain tinkled merrily, and numerous singing birds soothed us into a feeling of manana.
Another motor road has been laid and opened to Toluca, a curious old town with a population of twenty-five thousand and a reputation for brewing the best beer in Mexico. The principal church there was built in 1585, and is remarkable as containing the first church organ made in the New World. The trip to Toluca is full of interest, the road commanding views of some fine mountain scenery.
Mexicans of all classes, especially in the country districts, are born horsemen, and are much interested in horse-racing. The races in the capital, however, are very different from those held in the United States. Ladies rarely attend them, and as they are not of a really public character, the crowds of spectators, the bookmakers and other followers of the turf seen at American races are never in evidence. There is a good track near Mexico City owned by the Jockey Club, but owing to the high altitude, which affects the breathing of animals as well as human beings, it is only about half the length of an American track, the horses being unable to cover a greater distance. As a rule, the horses are small and wiry, but wonderfully fast and enduring.
Motoring and horse-racing do something towards relieving the dulness of life in the capital; but dull as it is, the life of the upper classes seems positively gay in comparison with the humdrum existence of people lower down in the social scale. From an American point of view, the social life of the Mexican middle classes certainly seems unbearably monotonous, those recreations upon which the mass of the people in New York, for instance, so largely depend, such as out-door sports, exhibitions and music halls, being altogether unknown, while the cheaper theatres are patronized chiefly by men.
There are, strange to say, no music-halls, in the strict sense, in Mexico City. Latterly, however, there has been an outburst of cinematograph shows which advertise their attractions by electric signs and seem to do a roaring business. About five. moving-picture exhibitions are given every hour, each of these being called a tanda. At the conclusion of a tanda a collector passes through the hall and demands payment for the next. This system is also followed in most Mexican theatres, although it applies more particularly to the cheaper and smaller houses. In these places, people simply pay for an act, and then again for the next if they wish to remain. In all the theatres, between the acts, the men, with their hats on, stand up and survey the audience; and more curiously still, even the fashionable women rise from their seats and glance round the house through their lorgnettes.
The three chief theatres in the capital are the Teatro Principale, chiefly reserved for melodrama and vaudeville performances; the Renacimiento, which holds an audience of two thousand, where are presented Italian and French opera as well as the masterpieces of Mexican and Spanish dramatists; and lastly the Arbeu, reserved for concerts and dramatic performances. The Salon de Conciertos is a concert hall with a fine auditorium, while the Circo Teatro Orrin is a kind of hippodrome. When gala performances are given, the Circo is splendidly adorned with flowers and flags, bouquets and button-holes being presented to the audience. President Diaz has a box, and on state occasions is always present.
Mexicans are very fond of music, and in nearly every house of the wealthy classes you find a good piano, some-times of excellent make. Many ladies play well and sympathetically, but they do not often sing. The regimental bands are really excellent, and every town has its plaza centred with a band stand, where music is heard every night. In the interior of Mexico guitars, mandolins and violins are very common, as also crudely formed harps of an ancient pattern. The Indian music is usually of a very melancholy description, which is increased by the fact that the natives chant or rather howl their choruses in a style far from musical. There are, however, several pretty and stirring songs by native composers; while the Mexican national anthem is truly inspiring, and such songs as “La Golondrina” (The Swallow), the Mexican “Home Sweet Home,” are irresistibly sweet.
Until recently, it was the custom, even in large cities, for people of the upper class to promenade in the inner circle of the Plaza from half-past seven to half-past eight in the evening, while the band was playing, the ladies walking two or three abreast, strolling round and round in one direction, while the men walked in the other. As they passed, greetings would be exchanged, such as, “Adios, senor” and “Adios, senorita” (adios being a greeting as well as a farewell). Young men and women thus had a chance to see each other and start flirtations. The peons, the blanketed masses, also promenaded in the Plaza; but they always kept to the outer circle, the line between the two classes being distinctly kept. If a peon had dared to trespass in the inner circle, he would have been ejected by the police. Americans and other foreigners walked, of course, on the inner path.
Owing to the enormous influx of foreigners, many of them objectionable characters who haunted the plazas at night, parents and husbands found it undesirable to promenade in this public fashion, and it has been almost discontinued in most of the cities. When the band plays nowadays in the larger towns, people of the wealthy classes ride round the Plaza in their carriages, while the middle-class women stay at home.
In the matter of politeness and ceremonial, all classes of Mexicans are thoroughly Spanish. Imitation of Spain is also noticeable in the habit of procrastination; for Mexico is essentially the land of mananatomorrow. Time is idled away, and no man can be depended upon to turn up at an appointed hour, punctuality being regarded as the vice of a bore. Social calls often last hours, and the longer you stretch them out the more polite you are deemed. The foreigners who get on in Mexico are those who have patience with these native customs. Hustling Americans are pre-doomed to failure.
Mexicans of the upper class have a pretty way of telling you that their house is yours “Su casa es numero,” meaning literally, “Your house is number ,” giving their address. Of course this is a mere manner of speaking, and must not be regarded as a serious invitation.
A story is told of a “wild Western ” American who, visiting the capital, was casually introduced in the street to a Mexican senor who extended to him the formal invitation. Later in the day, when the Mexican returned to his home, he was amazed to find the American seated in his drawing-room in his best chair, his feet perched on another, his portmanteau at his side, puffing a big cigar, and at being greeted with a boisterous, “Wal, Colonel, I’ve come.” History does not relate what the Mexican said or did.
Men of all classes in Mexico lift their hats on meeting, and the laconic American how-d’ye-do is not at all to the taste of the Mexican, who will stop to inquire of his friend as to the health of his wife, children and household, name by name. The poorest Indian is just as polite. I was once fishing in a lake with a poor peon, who rowed my boat and baited my hook. We happened to go ashore and ‘ walked along the beach, where we met a tattered, bare-legged Indian hauling in a net, assisted by his wife. Taking off his battered old hat, my boatman said, “Buenas noches, senor” (Good evening, sir). The other Indian solemnly returned his greeting, and then with a sweep of his hat to the woman, he said, “A los pies de usted, senora ” (At your feet, lady). The whole act was marked by a grace and ease of manner which would have done honor to a cavalier.
The wrinkled Indian dame, despite her tattered garments, was equal to the emergency, and with the gracious manner of a grande dame replied, “Sus palabras, senor, son agradables” (Your words, sir, are sweet to the ear). It all meant nothing, but it was very wonderful. I asked my Indian companion his name, and with a bow he gave it to me, adding, “Su servidor” (Your servant). Even the lowliest peasant will not fail to say “Con permiso” (With your permission), if he must pass another person, even as lowly.
All Mexicans are the slaves of habit. If anything is not customary, it cannot be right or worth considering. Thus, if a servant were asked to scrub the floor when her usual duty was to cook, she would politely refuse, with the phrase, “No es costumbre” (It is not the custom). Foreigners in Mexico are constantly coming in conflict with their peon servants on this point, and it is quite difficult for the European or American to realize that these humble servants would far rather lose their situations than do anything, however trivial, contrary to their established custom.
It is natural enough that the matter-of-fact, prosaic way of the Anglo-Saxon should jar most unpleasantly on such people. Americans of the crude, “wild Western” type are the people who horrify the Mexicans most. They slap the ceremonious natives on the back after a slight acquaintance and interlard their conversation with strings of oaths. Mexicans look upon men of this kind as we should regard the average New York “tough.”
A Canadian business man told me an amusing story illustrating this point. He was calling one day, he said, on the Jefe Politico in a Mexican town, the Jefe (pronounced hayfay) being an important government official. This particular Jefe appeared to be laboring under suppressed excitement and said, at last, “You must excuse me this morning, senor, if I am deprived of your delightful company sooner than I wish; but I am expecting a visit from un Americano muy distinguido (a very distinguished American).” The slovenly sentry, marching up and down before the official residence, seemed to think that something important was going to happen; for he straightened him-self up, and kept looking down the street as if to catch a glimpse of the distinguished visitor. The Canadian deliberately prolonged his visit, being curious to have a look at this wonderful person, who, he concluded, must be a Pier-pout Morgan at least. Suddenly the door was darkened, and a grizzled Western American, with his hat on his head, looked in and drawled out, “Say, which of you fellows is the `Jeffy’ ?”
If you express admiration for any article in a house, the polite Mexican will take it up and say, “It is at your disposal, senor,” ‘and insist on your accepting it. You are, of course, supposed to refuse, firmly and politely, saying, “No, no, senor, many thanks, but it could not possibly be in better hands.” I was told of a Western mining man, however, who took a mean advantage of this venerable custom:
He had done some business with a wealthy Mexican in one of the large towns, and had spent quite a lot of money in entertaining him, giving him dinners, taking him on automobile drives, and giving him a trip in a private rail-way car. The Mexican, who was extremely parsimonious, did not return any of these little attentions. On the day he was leaving, the American called at the Mexican’s house, and there saw a fine collection of golden Aztec relics which had been dug up in that part of the country. He expressed unbounded admiration for them. The Mexican immediately summoned his man-servant and said, “Juan, the American senor has honored me by admiring these things.
Pack them up and send them to his hotel at once.” ” No, no, senor,” exclaimed the Westerner, sweeping the curios into a bag that he carried, “don’t put yourself to all that trouble. I’ll take ’em along with me right now.” Forth-with he said good-by and departed with the whole collection, leaving its late owner wild with rage. A friend of the Westerner, on hearing the story, said, “But didn’t you know that you were not supposed to accept those things but politely refuse them?” “Of course I knew,” answered the other, ” but I wanted to get even, so I simply called his bluff.”
With the march of progress the cost of living in Mexico is gradually becoming much higher. Ten years ago a man with a small salary could get a house in the capital, with four rooms and a kitchen, for $12.50 a month; but to-day the rental of such a house ranges from $25 to $75. Nowadays, two small rooms and a kitchen will cost at least $12 a month, while from $60 to $100 must be paid for a small flat or house of the better class. In like manner the price of many foodstuffs has greatly increased. It is true that fruit, vegetables, eggs and milk are, as a rule, about the same price as in New York; but meat is dear,at any rate, good meat, and all imported articles are abnormally costly. This, as already observed, is due to the suicidally high protective tariff.
The poor of Mexico City herd together in foul tenements in the slum districts, these dwellings, called viviendas, being usually of one story and built round a central patio. Two, three and even four families are often crowded together in a single room, the cheapest of these inhabited mostly by working people of the poorest class costing about a dollar and a half a month. These horrible places, reeking with filth and infested with vermin, look more like pig-pens than the dwelling -places of human beings. With such conditions it is not surprising to find typhus and other diseases extremely prevalent in the capital.
In some of the viviendas women and children sleep on old sacking on narrow boards, which have served for tables during the day, supported by piles of stones. The men sleep under their blankets, which they use as cloaks in the day-time. It is quite common for animals, dogs, cats, chickens and sometimes even a pig or a donkey, to sleep among the tenants of these dreadful abodes. In the centre of the patio is a water-tank, generally filthy, from which water for drinking and cooking is taken. No one living under these conditions could escape typhoid.
The government is doing everything in its power to improve matters, but the work is necessarily slow, as the bulk of the poorer population of the capital are Indians, who greatly resent any sanitary reforms. Some time ago, when there was a serious outbreak of typhus, President Diaz-ordered that every peon in the city must take a bath at least once a week. As the Indian masses regard water with aversion and soap with horror, this cruel decree almost led to riots. Police officers were compelled to go from house to house and literally drag the protesting peons to the public wash-houses, their victims the while struggling, kicking and shouting furiously, ” No jabon ! no jabon ! ” (No soap ! no soap !)
A better class of poor people occupy separate houses, or rather huts, on the city’s outskirts. These are usually nothing more than wretched hovels of adobe such as are found in the country districts, and contain hardly any furniture. They are generally surrounded with a broken-down stone wall and a hedge of tall, straight cactus. The tenants spend most of their time outside their doors, and the women can be seen making tortillas and doing the family cooking on a crude stove at the threshold.
The fact that Mexico is a land of startling contrasts can nowhere be seen more perfectly than in the capital, where almost in a street’s length there are the strangest transitions from civilization to barbarism. I stood in San Francisco Street one evening, among the brilliantly lighted shops, watching the procession of carriages with their fashionable occupants going by, noticing, on every side, the signs of modern luxury and progress. From this lively scene a walk of less than a mile in the direction of Guadalupe took me to a quiet road lined with adobe huts, with all the characteristics of Indian life, much the same as it was when Cortes landed. Unkempt Indian women were patting tortillas behind the cactus hedge, and half-naked children frolicked among the goats and pigs. Along the road came a train of burros laden with wood, fruit and vegetables for the market, driven by ragged Indians in their red blankets. There was nothing to remind me that I was so near a great modern city until suddenly a big automobile came whizzing along the road, its horn tooting gayly, and I was recalled to the present age.
From Indian huts to city restaurants is a sudden transition, but being typical of life in Mexico, it may serve as an excuse for the devoting of a few words at this point to the all-important subject of eating and drinking. This is a subject, in fact, in which the average man in the Mexican capital is keenly interested, for while there are a legion of restaurants there, very few of them are really good, either in regard to cooking or service. The best are a combination of French, Spanish and Italian establishments, and the charges are not exorbitant. Most of them are housed in dingy buildings, and have no external attractions for the diner. In this respect nothing could be more marked than the difference between Mexican cities and those of other countries, for, with the sole exception of the Chapultepec Cafe, there are none of those very ornate establishments which so largely add to the charm of dining out in most lands. The average Mexican restaurant is, in fact, very inferior. A foreign visitor gives first one and then another a trial, returning to the first in despair, after he had sworn never to darken its doors again. Many men of moderate means whom I met appeared to be like de Soto in his vain search for treasure, forever seeking, but never finding, a decent meal.
Of the few restaurants where the cooking can be relied upon, the best are the Cafe de Paris, the Cafe de la Paix, Sylvain’s and the Cafe Chapultepec. In all these the cooks are French, and one can order a dish with a quiet mind and the certainty that it will be eatable. The menu cards are usually Spanish, though some restaurant proprietors, as I have said, attempt English translations. In most of the large establishments, too, the head waiters usually speak English.
If a stranger is content to embark on a course of Mexican food and can stomach the highly seasoned dishes, filled with chilis and red peppers, he can get satisfactory meals at the Mexican restaurants, for some of the things which are served are piquant and excellent. But he must beware, for the dishes have a nomenclature all their own, and one can blunder badly. Therefore, unless the head waiter can ex-plain the composition of the various strange dishes, the uninitiated guest is in danger of being served with some very unappetizing messes, reeking with grease and filled with red peppers, chilis and other fiery condiments.
Of the foods most popular among Mexicans mention must be made of chili-con-came (chilis with minced meat), which is very palatable, although hot. Tamales, another favorite dish, are made of chopped meat, highly seasoned with pepper and chilis, wrapped in a corn husk and boiled quickly. Sometimes a tortilla is used as a wrapping, and the tamale is cooked in boiling fat. Enchiladas are some-thing like tamales, but are seasoned with Mexican cheese and onions and soaked in chili sauce. The native bread, tortilla, has already been described. Frijoles (par excellence the Mexican national dish), a vegetable equivalent to the roast beef of old England, are black beans boiled, then fried in lard and served reeking with grease. As such cooking is quite unsuited for a hot climate, it is not surprising to find that diseases of the stomach and liver are almost universal among Mexicans. At the cost of a few cents, enough frijoles can be bought to feed a family for a day. Few householders furnish their servants with any other food than tortillas and frijoles.
Eggs (huevos) in various forms are served at every meal, a plain omelette being called a tortilla natural or tortilla de huevos. Cocidas are a concoction of potatoes chopped in small pieces, beetroot, carrots, small pieces of meat, maize and cauliflower, all boiled together. A salad of cold sliced tongue, chopped olives, celery and lettuce, with mayonnaise dressing, is very popular. Stewed or roast chicken served with rice, highly seasoned, called arroz con pollo, figures on every bill of fare.
Roast beef is served in every style, always with some highly seasoned sauce, and is sometimes actually smothered with raisins. The meats, as a rule, are fresh, but generally stringy and tough, due to the fact that the grazing is poor, and that meat, on account of the heat, must be eaten very fresh. The same quality is noticeable in the poultry, which is always tough, as it is never allowed to hang long enough. In cutting up meat the butchers never disjoint the carcasses, but cut the flesh off in strips.
Fresh vegetables are not obtainable in Mexican hotels and restaurants as largely as they ought to be, and during the winter season American and French canned vegetables are chiefly used. There is no excuse for this, as vegetables of all kinds can be grown the year round in most parts of Mexico. On the other hand, fresh fruits are plentiful, such as apples and peaches, from the temperate zone, and pineapples, oranges and bananas from the hot country. One of the most interesting fruits is the aguacate, which resembles an enormous green pear, the inside of which is like butter, is almost tasteless, and is frequently used as a natural salad dressing.
Bread and rolls are invariably good. The native butter is usually uncolored and unsalted and has very little flavor, but is only served in the best establishments, Ameripan butter or oleomargarine being more extensively used. Milkas a rule, is rather poor and watery, but an excellent cream cheese is made in some parts of the country.
There are very few native drinks which are palatable to foreigners. The ill-tasting pulque is not drunk by the better-class Mexicans or served in the restaurants. French, Italian and Spanish wines and German beers can be had at most of the better-class establishments, and here and there the order “Cerveza de Milwaukee” will be under-stood. Some very fair light lager beer, brewed by German firms at Monterey and Toluca, is a very popular drink. There are also several native mineral waters, of which the best known is Topo Chico, derived from a spring of the same name near Monterey. The indolence of the Mexicans is solely to blame for their having no native wines, for excel-lent grapes will grow well all over the country. This is another instance of the Mexican being governed by habit. Wine-making was prohibited by the Spaniards in the interests of the wines imported from the mother country, and as the Mexican has not made wine for four hundred years, he cannot see why he should begin now.
Of course, all Mexicans love coffee but as a rule the coffee grown and served in Mexico is very strong, with a drug-like bitterness, partly due to the bean being too much roasted.
Service in Mexican restaurants is almost as unsatisfactory as the food. The waiters, mostly swarthy Indians, dressed in the conventional waiting dress, frequently present an amusing resemblance to opera-bouffe brigands, and seem quite out of their element. Very few of them, know any English, and unless a person speaks Spanish very well, they do not understand him. From my experiences, I became convinced that most of the Mexican waiters were recruited from institutions for the feeble-minded. If, for instance, I ordered a steak or any other dish which took a little time to cook, and wanted soup to precede it, the waiter, instead of serving the soup just before the steak, would rush off and bring the soup immediately. Twenty minutes later, when my appetite was all destroyed by the soup, he would appear with the rest of the meal. I tried in vain to induce the waiters to do otherwise, or even to serve the two courses together; but they merely shrugged their shoulders’ and murmured, “No, senor, no es costumbre” (No, sir, it is not the custom).
If you are in a hurry to catch a train, and implore the waiter to be quick, he puts his thumb and forefinger gingerly together and says, “Un momento, senor,” as if a moment were a fragile piece of spun-glass and he was afraid of breaking it. Then the swarthy villain strolls off and disappears for nearly an hour. That is costumbre.
But vengeance sometimes follows fast on the laggard footsteps of the Mexican waiter and turns his little comedy into an unexpected tragedy. Even while I was in the capital, the always reliable Mexican Herald published the following item in its news columns :
“In the Maison de la Providencia, at Toluca, yesterday, a hungry guest shot Margarito Lopez, a waiter of the establishment, through the hand, because the waiter did not answer his call promptly.”
This little gem of journalism is a fitting introduction to the subject of newspaper enterprise in Mexico, which is much older than the stranger visiting the country would at first sight believe. The first newspaper indeed was printed as long ago as 1693, and was known as El Mercurio Volante or Flying Mercury. Thenceforward other news-‘papers were founded, but they were always entirely under the thumb of the government, and the numbers of their readers was so small that they had no power in shaping policies for years after Mexican independence had been declared. To-day there are many newspapers and periodicals of all kinds published in Mexico City. There is, how-ever no Mexican yellow press, as a Mexican journalist would never dream of trespassing upon the privacy of a family to get copy.
When General Diaz became President thirty years ago, such newspapers as flourished then were fairly uncontrolled in their political criticisms. They appealed to the people much as do the French radical newspapers, and many revolutions were due to their turbulent editorials. President Diaz found these journals a considerable obstacle to the establishment of law and order. By his direction, some of the most mischief-making of the editors were arrested and lodged in Belem Prison, a jail reserved for the lowest type of criminals. After a week of solitary confinement and a diet of bread and water, they were brought before the President. “Now, gentlemen,” said he, “what do you think of my government?” “Senor Presidente,” they replied, “we think it is the finest government on the face of the earth.” “Just continue to think so, gentlemen,” said the President, “and we shall get along splendidly.” As the editors wisely kept on “thinking so,” there was no further trouble.
Today the libel laws are very severe, and the government is keen in suppressing political criticism in the press. The editors, also having a wholesome fear of Belem Prison, restrict their comments to the most respectful choruses of approval. Most of them are subsidized by the government, too, so that President Diaz and his cabinet have little fear that the obsequious gentlemen of the pen will lessen their own incomes by rash words.
The modern Mexican newspapers have a necessarily small circulation, for the amount of illiteracy in the country is appalling. Of the fourteen millions of population, over sixty per cent are still unable to read or write. Chief among the daily papers is El Imparcial, which might be called the Times of Mexico, but although it is the official organ of the government, its circulation does not exceed a hundred thousand, including the whole of the Republic. It is a fairly good paper, considering the monopoly it has long possessed, its editor being an influential member of Congress. An afternoon edition of El Imparcial is published, called El Heraldo. Both papers, though printed in Spanish, are in the matter of headlines and illustrations much Americanized and quite up-to-date. But strangely enough, though copying the methods of the press of the United States, El Imparcial is anti-American in tone and vehemently maintains the patriotic doctrine of “Mexico for the Mexicans.”
Next to El Imparcial in circulation is El Diario, a bright Spanish daily recently started by Messrs. Simondetti and Fornaro, able Italian journalists with American training. El Diario might be called the New York Journal of Mexico, having some tendency to the sensational. It evidently pleases the Mexicans, for it already has a large and rapidly increasing circulation. This paper has big head-lines, often in red ink, and its illustrations and cartoons bear some resemblance to those of Mr. Hearst’s newspaper.
While I was in Mexico City, El Diario was waging war against the local tramway company whose cars were constantly running over unfortunate peons and killing or maiming them. Every morning its front page contained a list of the victims, and articles bitterly denouncing the tramway management. These were accompanied with sensational cartoons with lots of red ink in them, bearing such cheerful titles as “A Vintage of Blood,” “A Carnival of Gore.”
Other papers published in the capital are El Pais, a Catholic journal, El Popular, La Patria, and Los Sucesos (Events). La Patria is a very old Liberal Party paper. El Tiempo is the leading Catholic or conservative publication, and circulates all over the Republic. There are also a number of weekly and monthly periodicals issued in Mexico, including magazines, literary reviews and various trade and financial journals.
Two daily papers in English are published in the capital, the Mexican Herald and the Evening Post, both owned and edited by Americans. They are read by the English-speaking population all over Mexico and by an ever increasing number of Mexicans who understand English. The Herald is edited by Mr. Frederick Guernsey, formerly of Boston, a very able journalist, who has lived in Mexico nearly thirty years.
In Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Oaxaca and some other cities with a large English-speaking population, Americans have started weekly newspapers in English. In Monterey there is quite an important American daily. Outside of the capital, however, most of the Spanish-printed newspapers are very insignificant one-sheet affairs. The best paper published in Vera Cruz, for instance, would not bear comparison with some of our American country weeklies.
In the smaller towns the Mexican editors all show a great lack of enterprise, rarely publishing any bright local news, and not hesitating to print intelligence that is at least a week old. An amusing reason for this was given to a friend of mine by the editor of a Mexican weekly. “Good news,” he said, “is like good wine; it improves with age. It is always better to hold news over for a week. If it is true, we shall get more facts ; and if it proves to be false, why should we print it ?”
The Mexican press is much hampered by a high protective duty on paper. Some members of the government are interested in a paper mill, which probably accounts for a policy which forces publishers to use Mexican paper.
Several of the more important American newspapers have correspondents in Mexico City, and one or two English newspapers are represented. The Associated Press of the United States also has an office and a daily telegraphic service.
The growth of the press in Mexico has been greatly assisted by the wonderful railway development which has taken place during the past twenty years. In the old days the circulation of newspapers was almost entirely local, but to-day El Imparcial, El Diario, the Mexican Herald and other city papers, thanks to quick delivery, are read in all parts of the country. Even twenty years ago, Mexicans did a great deal of their travelling in slow, lumbering old stage-coaches, while to-day there are over thirty railways in Mexico, with a total mileage of fourteen thousand.
Most of the Mexican lines have been built with the assistance of government subsidies averaging from ten to fifteen thousand dollars per mile, provisional on the rail-way becoming the property of the state, at a fair valuation, after ninety-nine years. Of the railways now in operation the two most important are the Mexican Central and the Mexican National, which run through the centre of Mexico from the United States boundary and have many branches. Each year new lines are laid down, and the railway communication between ports on the Gulf and Pacific coasts is being constantly increased. The policy of the government being to obtain a controlling interest in all railway undertakings, they have lately purchased control of the Mexican National, and are now to obtain a predominating voice in the Mexican Central, which will be an important step towards the scheme of nationalization of railways at which Mexican statesmen are aiming. It is noteworthy that the lines to which the Mexican authorities are devoting their attention are those which are American-owned, while the two English lines, the Mexican Railway and the Mexican Southern, have so far escaped official attention. No doubt the Mexican government fears that the great trunk railways of the United States would in time absorb the Mexican lines, and by extortionate rates and other trust evils seriously impede Mexican progress.
Heretofore the personnel of the National and Central railways have been almost entirely Americans ; but the Mexican government is dismissing the foreigners wherever possible and putting Mexicans in their places. A some-what tyrannical decree which was recently issued, that every American employee must acquire a working knowledge of Spanish in six months or lose his place, shows pretty clearly what the Mexican policy is. This decree applies to all railway employees except the managers and clerks.
Except in the capital, Mexican railway stations are usually built some distance from the towns, so that cabs or street-cars have to be used to reach homes or hotels. This was done to avoid the purchase of expensive rights of way. The Mexican Central and Mexican National rail-ways run fine vestibule trains between Mexico and the United States, with connections which enable one to make the journey from the Mexican capital to New York in less than five days.
Railway enterprise is doing much to change Mexico. The centres of population have always been on the great plateaus of the interior, the coasts being very sparsely inhabited. Until recent years, communication with the ports, except Vera Cruz and Tampico, was by rough mountain trails. Transportation of goods was slow and expensive and necessitated pack-mules, donkeys and armies of cargadores. Since railway development began, even mining has become of secondary importance compared with the great increase in commerce and manufacture and the impetus which agriculture has received.
Another important fact is that the railway extensions have greatly diminished the chances of successful revolution. In the old days it took so long to travel from the capital to any of the big provincial centres that revolutions might be brought to a successful issue before any considerable body of government troops could arrive. All this is changed now, as with the aid of railways, telegraphs and telephones troops can be concentrated at any place by special train at a few hours’ notice. With such a strong government as Mexico at present possesses, there is consequently little chance of a revolution succeeding, even temporarily.
The awakening of Mexico, with the advancement of her press and the development of her railways, has been accompanied by wonderful progress in public education. Much has been done of late under the educational system inaugurated by President Diaz in 1876, and at the present time even the smallest town has its public schools. There are today in these schools over eight hundred thousand scholars, while upwards of one hundred thousand pupils are attending private schools, institutions supported by the clergy, or those of a private nature. Education is compulsory, though there are great difficulties in enforcing the law. In the primary schools, where boys and girls are separately educated, the three r’s are taught, and in many cases instruction in the English language is given, so that in a few years Mexico will tend to become an English-speaking country. In passing a Mexican public school one hears a strange buzzing like bees, the custom being for the children to sing their lessons in chorus.
In Mexico City the national government maintains the following institutions : Academy of Fine Arts, School of Civil Engineering, School of Medicine, Law School, Academy of Commerce, Academy of Arts and Trades, Conservatory of Music, Military College, School of Mines, and schools for the deaf, dumb, and blind. There are seventy-two public libraries in the country, the National Library in the capital containing over two hundred and sixty-five thousand volumes.
In the army and the prisons there is also a system of compulsory education, strict attendance at the classes being enforced. The soldiers are for the most part Indians, and when they join the ranks are almost without exception illiterate. They are given instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, natural science, history, drawing and singing. This applies equally to the jails, where, if a prisoner is ear-nest in his study, he can eventually win his freedom. The Indians, as a rule, are bright and quick to learn. Op-pressed and enslaved for centuries, they had little chance to show what was in them ; the twentieth century has now given them their opportunity. The supreme importance of education among the masses has been keenly recognized by President Diaz, who, in speaking of the Mexican school system, recently said : “I have started a free school for boys and girls in every community in the Republic. We regard education as the foundation of our prosperity and the basis of our very existence. We have learned from Japan, what indeed we knew before, but did not realize quite clearly, that education is the one thing needful to a people.”
The spread of education among the masses of Mexico is destined to have an important effect in shaping the future of the Roman Catholic Church within the borders of the Republic, where it is still a power. A wonderful history is that of the church in Mexico, dating as it does from the Spanish Conquest, when missionary priests marched with the soldiers of Cortes and spread the teachings of Christianity among the conquered race. Once subdued, the Indians took kindly enough to the new religion, their cordial reception of it being strengthened by the shrewdness of the priests in blending the ritual of the new and old faiths. Aztec gods were cleverly metamorphosed into Christian saints, keeping many of their pagan characteristics. Thus the Goddess of the Rains is recognizable in our Lady of the Mists, to whom prayers for rain are often offered in true pagan fashion. Catholic churches were generally built on the sites of Aztec temples. Mexican Catholicism has indeed ever been marked by a strong tendency to idolatry, and Catholic clerics have noticed and denounced this straying from the forms of Holy Church. In some parts of Mexico pagan practices are still kept up, such as the dances in front of the church, while the offerings of fruit and even lambs and chickens at wayside shrines are also fairly common. The priests are unable to stop these survivals of paganism.
Less than a century back the church was all-powerful in Mexico, and its wealth was estimated at close on two hundred million dollars. It has even been estimated as high as five hundred millions. Gifts and bequests were made to it by rich and poor alike, and the best part of the farm lands in the country belonged to it. The church threw all its weight into the scale against progress, and it was the abuse of its power which brought about in 1864 its disestablishment. President Juarez was no man for half measures, and under his government’s decree church lands were seized, monasteries and nunneries suppressed, the priests were forbidden to walk in the streets in clerical dress and all religious processions were voted illegal. Marriage was made a civil contract, and in addition to losing this source of its revenue much of the church plate and the interior adornments were looted and sold as old metal.
Even at the present time, though of course looting is out of fashion, church property is still threatened. Quite recently the Mexican government has notified the bishops throughout Mexico that all church property and fittings belong to the state, and that under no circumstances what-ever have the priests the right to part with any article. The ostensible ground for this decree is said to have been the purchase of some ancient silver altar candelabra by an American millionaire. The Mexican authorities, hearing of this, prohibited the removal of the candlesticks. But the church sees in this latest move something far more serious than an attempt to restrain globe-trotters from filling their trunks with souvenirs of their travels. The church is probably right.
Still the hold of Catholicism on the bulk of the Mexicans is very firm, and during the past half century it may be said to have regained some of the power lost immediately after the disestablishment. The influence of the priests is almost unlimited, and there are many cases of their grossly violating the laws of the land. Women are the stoutest adherents of the priestly lawbreakers, the Mexican men seldom troubling themselves about church matters.
Though the ringing of church bells is regulated by law, they clang away discordantly all day long ; the priests openly appear in distinctive cloaks; and the villagers. will often raise money to pay a heavy fine rather than be deprived of their religious processions through the streets.
Slowly the church is once more acquiring much land. When a rich Mexican lies dying, he must restore any church property that he has become possessed of, or the priests will refuse him extreme unction. To defeat the law, the property is placed in the hands of a trustee. In the same way the law regarding marriage is disobeyed, the clergy teaching the people that the ceremony in the church is all that is needed. Thus the church has recaptured one of the most profitable of her sources of revenue, for the priests think nothing of charging the peons five dollars as a marriage fee, and the charge was recently as high as fifteen dollars, a sum entirely beyond the means of the ordinary Indian laborer. In consequence of these heavy charges, thousands of couples remained unmarried. While I was in the Sierras, a Jesuit priest came to a village and married, at greatly reduced rates, a large number of natives who had been living together for years unmarried, as they were too poor to pay the fees. Many of them had grown-up children.
Yet despite all this, one must not condemn Mexican Catholicism too bitterly ; for there are many among the priests who are entitled to be called patriotic and progressive men, who struggle to abate existing evils and improve the condition of the masses. The saying in regard to the sins of the fathers is well exemplified in Mexico, where the priests, however well-meaning, do suffer and are likely to go on suffering for the gross sins and abuses of their predecessors.
Under Mexican law there is complete religious toleration, Baptists, Methodists, and other Protestant sects being permitted to carry on an active propaganda throughout the Republic. Still Protestantism makes but little headway, and there are said to be but twenty-five thousand of its followers throughout the country. In Mexico City the Methodists, Baptists and other sects have their own publishing houses and produce a good deal of literature in Spanish. Christian Science is also making some progress. There are in the capital several Protestant churches whose pastors conduct services in Spanish and English, and there are the usual Sunday-schools and mission meetings. The Salvation Army alone is barred by reason of its processions and distinctive dress. In bigoted parts of Mexico Protestant preaching has at times provoked fierce attacks, and native converts have been the victims of terrible and often fatal assaults.
President Diaz has always been keen on religious toleration. His views on this subject were clearly and eloquently expressed in an address to some Protestant missionaries a few years ago, when he said: “I have seen this land as none of you ever saw it, in degradation, with everything in the line of toleration and freedom to learn. I have watched its rise and progress to a better condition. We are not yet all we ought to be and hope to be, but we have risen as a people, and are now rising faster than ever. Do not be discouraged. Keep on with your work, avoiding topics of irritation and preaching the Gospel in its own spirit.” Such an utterance from such a man proves that toleration has certainly dawned in Mexico. Official recognition has been freely given to Protestant missionary effort. Vice-President Corral is the honorary president of the Mexican branch of the Y. M. C. A., and President Diaz himself has attended its meetings. He and his cabinet have also been present at special memorial services in the Presbyterian churches. Less than a generation ago this would have been impossible, and such an action by a president would have invited assassination.
The extent of the power still wielded in Mexico by the ancient church is strikingly shown in the burial of the dead, the majority of funerals being conducted with Catholic rites. A number of curious burial customs also exist, some of which are due to racial and climatic reasons, while others have undoubtedly originated in churchly tradition.
In Mexico, as in all other tropical countries, a body must be buried within twenty-four hours after death. This necessarily entails much haste and worry on the part of the bereaved ones, at a time when they are least able to bear it. Haste being thus a prerequisite, coffins are in-variably purchased ready-made, and in accordance with the general custom, corpses are dressed in their best clothes, a dress suit in the case of a gentleman, while a lady is arrayed in her finest evening gown. A few of the old families, however, still adhere to a more venerable Mexican custom of dressing the dead as nuns and friars.
In Mexico City, and some of the other large towns, the cemeteries being some distance out, hearses and mourning coaches are not used at funerals, but the coffins of rich and poor are conveyed in funeral street-cars as described in a preceding chapter. The mourners are always men, as ladies in Mexico do not follow funerals. A brief service is there-fore read at the house of the bereaved family, a few concluding rites being observed at the cemetery. Instead of being screwed down, the coffin is provided with a lock, and before being lowered into the grave the lid is lifted, so that an official of the cemetery, who is present, can be convinced that the coffin contains a corpse and have it formally identified. The coffin is then locked, deposited in the grave and the key handed to the chief mourner.
In most parts of Mexico burial plots in the cemeteries are usually leased for a term of years. At the expiration of the time, unless the lease is renewed, the bones are exhumed and thrown into a charnel house. The cemeteries are little visited except on All Saints’ Day, when friends and relations flock to them with wreaths, crosses and bouquets of flowers to decorate the graves. Death feasts are also held in the cemetery on this day, tables being arranged near the graves and loaded with eatables which have some ghastly reference to mortality, such as cakes or sweets representing skulls and cross-bones, while a real skull and a bowl of holy water are set in the midst of these grewsome dainties.
Whenever a death occurs among the poor, a kind of Irish wake is held by the family and friends, in which there is much drinking of pulque and singing and dancing. The corpse is never left alone for a moment, for fear that evil spirits might tamper with it. Following the custom of their Aztec ancestors, the Indians still place torn, and some-times other edibles, in the coffins in order that the dead may have food to sustain them on their long journey to the land of spirits. For poor funerals, coffins are frequently hired for the day, the body being simply conveyed in it to the cemetery, the coffin being afterwards returned to the undertaker.
An interesting religious custom is observed in Mexico in the months of January and February. It is known as the “blessing of tlre animals,” and takes place in connection with the Feast of St. Anthony. On the appointed day, the people congregate in the churchyard, driving with them their household pets and other animals, all of which are decorated for the occasion. At one of these services, which I witnessed near the city, there were cows, burros, sheep and mules, painted and trimmed in various vivid hues. There were green sheep, pink goats and blue pigs, horses covered with scarlet and gold paper stars tied with bands and bows of flaming ribbons. Women brought their parrots and canaries in their cages, while turkeys, geese and old hens were carried in, all adorned with ribbons of gay colors. When the church bell sounded, a priest appeared in the porch, and the people made a rush for the door, driving or holding up their various beasts and birds to catch a drop of the holy water which was sprinkled.
Another remarkable religious celebration takes place on Easter Saturday, when papier-mache effigies of Judas Iscariot are hung along the streets, ranging from little figures to some which are almost life size. Each figure is filled with explosives and has a fuse attached to it. These are exploded in all directions until the noise is deafening. Some of the figures bear such mottos as, “I am the Devil’s son,” “Blow me to Inferno.” Everybody considers it his duty to blow up a Judas.