Tramping Through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras
By Harry A. Franck
BOUND ABOUT LAKE CHAPALA
With the coming of November I left Guanajuato behind. The branch line down to Silao was soon among broad plains of corn, without rocks even along the flat, ragged, country roads, bringing to mind that it was long since I had walked on level and unobstructed ground. The crowding of the second-class car forced me to share a bench with a chorus girl of the company that had been castilianizing venerable Broadway favorites in Guanajuato’s chief theater. She was about forty, looked it with compound interest, was graced with the form of a Panteón mummy, and a face—but some things are too horrible even to be mentioned in print. Most of the way she wept copiously, apparently at some secret a pocket mirror insisted on repeating to her as often as she drew it out, and regained her spirits only momentarily during the smoking of each of several cigarettes. Finally she took to saying her beads in a sepulchral, moaning voice, her eyes closed, and wagging her head from side to side in the rhythm of her professional calling, until we pulled into the one-story, adobe, checkerboard town. All the troupe except the two “stars” rode second-class, dressed much like peons, and carried their possessions in misshapen bundles under their arms. If the one performance I had seen was typical, this was far better treatment than they deserved.
The express from El Paso and the North set me down in the early night at Irapuato, out of the darkness of which bobbed up a dozen old women, men, and boys with wailing cries of “Fresas!” For this is the town of perennial strawberries. The basket of that fruit heaped high and fully a foot in diameter which sat before me next morning as we rambled away westward toward Guadalajara cost cuatro reales—a quarter, and if the berries grew symmetrically smaller toward the bottom, an all-day appetite by no means brought to light the tiniest. The way lay across a level land bathed in sunshine, of extreme fertility, and watered by harnessed streams flowing down from the distant hills. All the day one had a sense of the richness of nature, not the prodigality of the tropics to make man indolent, but just sufficient to give full reward for reasonable exertion. The rich, black, fenceless plains were burnished here and there with little shallow lakes of the rainy season, and musical with wild birds of many species. Primitive well-sweeps punctuated the landscape, and now and then the church towers of some adobe village peered through the mesquite trees. In the afternoon grazing grew more frequent and herds of cattle and flocks of goats populated all the scene. Within the car and without, the hats of the peons, with all their sameness, were never exactly alike. Each bore some individuality, be it in shape, shade, material, or manner of wearing, as distinct as among the fair sex in other lands; and that without resorting to decorating them with flowers, vegetables, or dead birds. Some wore around them ribbons with huge letters proposing, “Viva ——” this or that latest aspirant to the favor of the primitive-minded “pela’o,” but these were always arranged in a manner to add to rather than detract from the artistic ensemble. Many a young woman of the same class was quite attractive in appearance, though thick bulky noses robbed all of the right to be called beautiful. They did not lose their charms, such as they were, prematurely, as do so many races of the South, and the simplicity of dress and hair arrangement added much to the pleasing general effect.
As night descended we began to pant upward through low hills, wooded, but free from the rocks and boulders of a mining region, and in the first darkness drew up at Guadalajara, second city of Mexico. It is a place that adorns the earth. Jalisco State, of which this is the capital, has been called the Andalusia of Mexico, and the city is indeed a Seville of the West, though lacking in her spontaneity of life, for this cruder people is much more tempered with a constant fear of betraying their crudeness and in consequence much weighed down by “propriety.” But its bright, central plaza has no equal to the north. Here as the band plays amid the orange trees heavy with ripening fruit, the more haughty of the population promenade the inner square, outside which stroll the peons and “lower classes”; though only custom seems responsible for the division. One misses in Mexico the genuine democracy of Spain. The idea of a conquered race still holds, and whoever has a strain of white in his veins—or even in the hue of his collar—considers it fitting to treat the Indian mass with a cold, indifferent tone of superiority. Yet in the outer circle the unprejudiced observer found more pleasing than within. One was reminded of Mark Twain’s suggestion that complexions of some color wear best in tropical lands. In this, above all, the women of the rebozo were vastly superior to those who stepped from their carriages at about the beginning of the third number and took to parading, the two sexes in pairs marching in opposite directions at a snail’s pace. The “women of the people” had more sense of the fitness of things than to ape the wealthy in dress, like the corresponding class in our own land, and their simplicity of attire stood out in attractive contrast to the pasty features and unexercised figures in “Parisian” garb of the inner circle.
Guadalajara has the requisites of a real city. Its streets are well paved with macadam, and it even possesses garbage wagons. Indeed, in some respects it has carried “progress” too far, as in the case of the winking electric sign of Broadway proportions advertising a camisería—a local “shirtery,” before which fascinated peons from the distant villages stand gazing as at one of the seven wonders of the universe. Beggars are few and there is none of the oppressive poverty of other Mexican cities. This, it is agreed, is due not merely to the extreme fertility of Jalisco, but to the kindness of nature in refusing to produce the maguey in the vicinity, so that drunkenness is at its lowest Mexican ebb and the sour stink of pulque shops nowhere assails the nostrils. For this curse of the peon will not endure long transportation. An abundance of cheap labor makes possible many little conveniences unknown in more industrial lands, and the city has a peaceful, soothing air and temperature, due perhaps to its ideal altitude of six thousand feet, that makes life drift along like a pleasant dream.
But its nights are hideous. The Mexican seems to relish constant uproar, and if Guadalajara is ever to be the open-air health resort for frayed nerves and weakened lungs it aspires to, there must come a diligent suppression of unnecessary noises. As the evening gathering evaporates, leaving the plaza sprinkled with a few dreamy mortals and scattered policemen eating the lunch their wives bring and share with them, pandemonium seems to be released from its confinement. First these same preservers of law and order take to blowing their hair-raising whistles at least every ten minutes from one to another back and forth through every street, as if mutually to keep up their courage. Scores of the gilded youth on the way home from “playing the bear” before their favorite rejas join together in bands to howl into the small hours their glee at the kindness of life, the entire stock of street-cars seems to be sent out nightly on some extended excursion with orders never to let their gongs fall silent, and long before dawn even the few who have succeeded in falling into a doze are snatched awake by an atrocious din of church-bells sufficient in number to supply heaven, nirvana, the realm of houris, and the Irish section of purgatory, with enough left over to furnish boiling pots for the more crowded section of the Hereafter. Then with a dim suggestion of dawn every living dog and fighting-cock, of which each inhabitant appears to possess at least a score, joins the forty thousand vendors of forty thousand different species of uselessness howling in at least as many different voices and tones, each a bit louder than all the others, until even an unoccupied wanderer concludes that sleep is an idle waste of an all too short existence.
I brought up a day of random wandering in state’s prison. The Penitenciaría of Guadalajara is a huge, wheel-shaped building in the most modern style of that class of architecture. The bullet-headed youth in soldier’s uniform and the complexion of a long-undusted carpet, leaning on his musket at the entrance, made no move to halt me, and I stepped forth on a patio forested with orange trees, to find that most of the public had preceded me, including some hundred fruit, tortilla, cigarette, and candy vendors. Here was no sign of prisoners. I approached another stern boy armed like a first-class cruiser in war time and he motioned upward with his gun barrel. The dwelling of the comandante faced the patio on the second-story corridor. His son, aged five, met me with the information:
“Papá ‘stá dormido.”
But he was misinformed, for when his mother introduced me into the parlor, father, in shirt-sleeves, was already rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and preparing to light the first after-siesta cigarette. When my impressiveness had penetrated his reawakening intellect, he prepared me a document which, reduced to succinct English, amounted to the statement that the prison and all it contained was mine for the asking.
A whiff of this sesame opened like magic the three immense iron doors through anterooms in charge of trusties, in prison garb of the material of blue overalls and caps shaped like a low fez. Inside, a “preso de confianza” serving as turnkey led the way along a great stone corridor to a little central patio with flowers and a central fountain babbling merrily. From this radiated fifteen other long-vaulted passages, seeming each fully a half mile in length; for with Latin love of the theatrical the farther ends had been painted to resemble an endless array of cells, even the numbers being continued above the false doors to minute infinity. Besides these imaginary ones there were some forty real places of confinement on each side of each corridor, three-cornered, stone rooms with a comfortable cot and noticeable cleanliness. The hundred or more convicts, wandering about or sitting in the sun of the patio, were only locked in them by night. Whenever we entered a corridor or a room, two strokes were sounded on a bell and all arose and stood at attention until we had passed. Yet the discipline was not oppressive, petty matters being disregarded. The corridor of those condemned to be shot was closed with an iron-barred gate, but the inmates obeyed with alacrity when my guide ordered them to step forth to be photographed.
One of the passageways led to the talleres or workshops, also long and vaulted and well-lighted by windows high up in the curve of the arched roof.
These showed the stone walls to be at least four feet thick, yet the floor was of earth. On it along the walls sat men weaving straw ribbons to be sewn into hats on the American sewing-machines beyond. In side rooms were blacksmith, carpenter, and tinsmith shops in which all work was done by hand, the absence of machinery suggesting to the trusty in charge that Mexico is “muy pobre” as compared with other lands. Convicts were obliged to work seven hours a day. Scattered through the building were several small patios with patches of sun, in which many prisoners were engaged in making ingenious little knickknacks which they were permitted to sell for their own benefit. The speciality of one old fellow under life sentence was a coin purse with the slightly incongruous device, “Viva la Independencia!”
There was a complete absence of vicious faces, at least faces more so than those of the great mass of peons outside. I recalled the assertions of cynical American residents that all Mexicans are criminals and that those in jail were only the ones who have had the misfortune to get caught. Certainly there was nothing in their outward appearance to distinguish the inmates from any gathering of the same class beyond prison walls. Off one corridor opened the bath patio, large, and gay with sunshine and flowers, with a large swimming pool and several smaller baths. The prisoners are required to bathe at least every Sunday. Within the penitentiary was a garden of several acres, on the walls above which guards patroled with loaded muskets and in which prisoners raised every species of fruit and vegetable known in the region. The institution indeed was fully self-supporting. The kitchen was lined with huge vats into which bushels of beans, corn, and the like were shoveled, and like the prison tailor, shoe, and barber shops, was kept in excellent order. Several short-time prisoners, among them many boys, volunteered to stand in appropriate attitudes before the heavy wall at the end of a three-cornered court where condemned men are shot at three paces in the dawn of many an early summer day. In one corridor the prison band, entirely made up of prisoners, was practising, and when I had been seated in state on a wooden bench they struck up several American favorites, ending with our national hymn, all played with the musical skill common to the Mexican Indian, even among those unable to read a note. On the whole the prison was as cheery and pleasant as fitted such an institution, except the women’s ward, into which a vicious-looking girl admitted me sulkily at sight of the comandante’s order. A silent, nondescript woman of forty took me in charge with all too evident ill-will and marched me around the patio on which opened the rooms of female inmates, while the fifty or more of them left off their cooking and washing for the male prisoners and stood at disgruntled attention in sullen silence. Their quarters were noticeably dirtier than those of the men. My guide took leave of me at the first of the three iron doors, having still to postpone his exit a year or more, and these again, fortunately, swung on their hinges as if by magic to let pass only one of the thousand of us within.
On the mule-car that dragged and jolted us out to the “Niagara of Mexico” were three resident Germans who strove to be “simpático” to the natives by a clumsy species of “horse play.” Their asininity is worth mention only because among those laughing at their antics was a peon who had been gashed across the hand, half-severing his wrist, yet who sat on the back platform without even a rag around the wound, though with a rope tourniquet above. Two gray and decrepit policemen rode with him and half way out stopped at a stone hut to arrest the perpetrator of the deed and bring him along, wrapped in the customary red sarape and indifference.
The waterfall over a broad face of rock was pleasing but not extraordinary, and swinging on my rucksack I struck off afoot. The lightly rolling land was very fertile, with much corn, great droves of cattle, and many shallow lakes, its climate a pleasant cross between late spring and early fall. From El Castillo the path lay along the shimmering railroad, on which I outdid the train to Atequisa station.
The orange vendors lolling here under the shade of their hats gave the distance to Chapala as fifteen miles, and advised me to hire a horse or take passage in the stage. This primitive bone-shaker, dark-red in color, the body sitting on huge leather springs, was drawn by four teams of mules in tandem, and before revolution spread over the land was customarily packed to the roof and high above it with excursionists to Mexico’s chief inland watering-place. Now it dashed back and forth almost empty.
I preferred my own legs. A soft road led between orange-groves—at the station were offered for sale seedless oranges compared to which those of California are pigmies—to the drowsing town of Atequisa. Through one of its crumbling stone gates the way spread at large over its sandy, sun-bathed plaza, then contracted again to a winding wide trail, rising leisurely into the foothills beyond. A farmer of sixty, homeward bound to his village of Santa Cruz on a loose-eared ass, fell in with me. He lacked entirely that incommunicative manner and half-resentful air I had so often encountered in the Mexican, and his country dialect whiled away the time as we followed the unfenced “road” around and slowly upward into hills less rugged than those about Guanajuato and thinly covered with coarse grass and small brush. Twenty-one years ago he had worked here as mozo for “gringoes,” my compatriots. They had offered him a whole peso a day if he would not get married. But “he and she both wanted,” so “qué quiera usté'”? They had started farming on a little piece of rocky ridge. He would point it out to me when we came nearer. By and by he had bought another piece of land for fifty pesos and then poco á poco for forty pesos some more. Then for twenty-four pesos and fifty centavos he had bought a cow, and the vaca before long gave them a fine calf and twelve cuartillos of milk a day. So that he was able to buy another heifer and then an ox and finally another ox and—
Whack! It took many a thump and prod and “Bur-r-r-r-r-r-o!” to make the pretty little mouse-colored donkey he was riding keep up with me—and what did I think he paid for him? Eighteen pesos! Sí, señor, ní más ní menos. A bargain, eh? And for the other one at home, which is larger, only twenty-two pesos, and for the one they stole from him, fifteen pesos and a bag of corn. And once they stole all three of the burritos and he ran half way to Colima and had them arrested and got the animalitos back. So that now he had two oxen—pray God they were still safe—and two burros and three pieces of land and a good wife—only yesterday she fell down and broke her arm and he had had to cut sticks to tie it up and she would have to work without using it for a long time—
Whack! “Anda bur-r-r-r-r-ro!” and once he owned it he never could get himself to sell an animalito. They were sometimes useful to plow and plant anyway, and this life of sembrar and cosechar was just the one for him. The cities, bah!—though he had been twice to Guadalajara and only too glad to get away again—and wasn’t I tired enough to try the burrito a while, I should find her pace smooth as sitting on the ground. No? Well, at least if I got tired I could come and spend the night in his casita, a very poor little house, to be sure, which he had built himself long ago, soon after they were married, but there I would be in my own house, and his wife—or perhaps now he himself—would ordeñar la vaca and there would be fresh milk and—
So on for some seven or eight miles. Here and there the road passed through an open gate as into a farmyard, though there were no adjoining fences to mark these boundaries of some new hacienda or estate. From the highest point there was a pretty retrospect back on Atequisa and the railroad and the broad valley almost to far-off Guadalajara, and ahead, also still far away, Lake Chapala shimmering in the early sunset. Between lay broad, rolling land, rich with flowers and shrubbery, and with much cultivation also, one vast field of ripening Indian corn surely four miles long and half as wide stretching like a sea to its surrounding hills, about its edge the leaf and branch shacks of its guardians. Maize, too, covered all the slope down to the mountain-girdled lake, and far, far away on a point of land, like Tyre out in the Mediterranean, the twin towers of the church of Chapala stood out against the dimming lake and the blue-gray range beyond.
Two leagues off it the peasant pointed out the ridge that hid his casita and his animalitos and his good wife—with her broken arm now—and regretting that I would not accept his poor hospitality, for I must be tired, he rode away down a little barranca walled by tall bushes with brilliant masses of purple, red, and pink flowers and so on up to the little patch of corn which—yes, surely, I could see a corner of it from here, and from it, if only I would come, I should see the broad blue view of Chapala lake, and—My road descended and went down into the night, plentifully scattered with loose stones. Before it had grown really dark I found myself casting a shadow ahead, and turned to find an enormous red moon gazing dreamily at me from the summit of the road behind. Then came the suburbs and enormous ox-carts loaded with everything, and donkeys without number passing silent-footed in the sand, and peons, lacking entirely the half-insolence and pulque-sodden faces of Guanajuato region, greeted me unfailingly with “Adiós” or “Buenas noches.”
But once in the cobble-paved village I must pay high in the “Hotel Victor”—the larger ones being closed since anarchy had confined the wealthy to their cities—for a billowy bed and a chicken centuries old served by waiters in evening dress and trained-monkey manners. The free and easy old casa de asistencia of Guadalajara was far more to my liking. But at least the landlord loaned me a pair of trunks for a moonlight swim in Lake Chapala, whispering some secret to its sandy beaches in the silence of the silver-flooded night.
It is the largest lake in Mexico, second indeed only to Titicaca among the lofty sheets of water of the Western world. More than five thousand feet above the sea, it is shallow and stormy as Lake Erie. Waves were dashing high at the foot of the town in the morning. Its fishermen are ever fearful of its fury and go to pray for a safe return from every trip before their patron St. Peter in the twin-spired village church up toward which the lake was surging this morning as if in anger that this place of refuge should be granted its legitimate victims.
Its rage made the journey by water I had planned to Ribera Castellanos inadvisable, even had an owner of one of the little open boats of the fishermen been willing to trust himself on its treacherous bosom, and by blazing eleven I was plodding back over the road of yesterday. The orange vendors of Atequisa gathered around me at the station, marveling at the strength of my legs. In the train I shared a bench with a dignified old Mexican of the country regions, who at length lost his reserve sufficiently to tell me of the “muy amigo gringo” whose picture he still had on the wall of his house since the day twenty-seven years ago when my compatriot had stopped with him on a tour of his native State, carrying a small pack of merchandise which gave him the entrée into all houses, but which he purposely held at so high a price that none would buy.
From Ocotlán station a broad level highway, from which a glimpse is had of the sharp, double peak of Colima volcano, runs out to Ribera Castellanos. Sam Rogers was building a tourist hotel there. Its broad lawn sloped down to the edge of Lake Chapala, lapping at the shores like some smaller ocean; from its verandas spread a view of sixty miles across the Mexican Titicaca, with all vacation sports, a perennial summer without undue heat, and such sunsets as none can describe. The hacienda San Andrés, also American owned, embraced thousands of acres of rich bottom land on which already many varieties of fruit were producing marvelously, as well as several mountain peaks and a long stretch of lake front. The estate headquarters was like some modern railway office, with its staff of employees. In the nearby stables horses were saddled for us and we set off for a day’s trip all within the confines of the farm, under guidance of the bulky Mexican head overseer in all his wealth of national garb and armament.
For miles away in several directions immense fields were being plowed by dozens of ox-teams, the white garments of the drivers standing out sharply against the brown landscape. Two hours’ riding around the lagoon furnishing water for irrigation brought us to a village of some size, belonging to the estate. The wife of one of the bee-tenders emerged from her hut with bowls of clear rich honey and tortillas, and the manner of a serf of medieval times before her feudal lord. The bees lived in hollow logs with little thatched roofs. For several miles more the rich bottom lands continued. Then we began to ascend through bushy foothills, and cultivation dropped behind us, as did the massive head overseer, whose weight threatened to break his horse’s back. Well up we came upon the “chaparral,” the hacienda herdsman, tawny with sunburn even to his leather garments. He knew by name every animal under his charge, though the owners did not even know the number they possessed. A still steeper climb, during the last of which even the horses had to be abandoned, brought us to a hilltop overlooking the entire lake, with the villages on its edge, and range after range of the mountains of Jalisco and Michoacán. Our animals were more than an hour picking their way down the stony trails between all but perpendicular cornfields, the leaves of which had been stripped off to permit the huge ear at the top the more fully to ripen. A boulder set in motion at the top of a field would have been sure death to the man or horse it struck at the bottom.
The hotel launch set me across the lake next morning. From the rock-tumbled fisher-town of La Palma an arriero pointed out to me far away across the plains of Michoacán a mountain of striking resemblance to Mt. Tabor in Palestine, as the landmark on the slopes of which to seek that night’s lodging. The treeless land of rich black loam was flat as a table, yet the trail took many a turn, now to avoid the dyke of a former governor and Porfirio Diaz, who planned to pump dry this end of the lake, now for some reason only those with Mexican blood in their veins could fathom. Peons were fishing in the irrigating ditches with machetes, laying their huge, sluggish victims all but cut in two on the grass behind them.
Noon brought Sahuayo, a large village in an agricultural district, in one of the huts of which ten cents produced soup, pork, frijoles, tortillas, and coffee, to say nothing of the tablecloth in honor of so unexpected a guest and a dozen oranges for the thirst beyond. The new trail struck off across the fields almost at right angles to the one that had brought me. I was already on the hacienda Guaracha, largest of the State of Michoacán, including within its holdings a dozen such villages as this, but the owner to whom I bore a letter lived still leagues distant. Dwellers on the estate must labor on it when required or seek residence elsewhere, which means far distant. All with whom I spoke on the subject, native or foreigners, seemed agreed that the peon prefers this plan to being thrown on his own responsibility.
The traveler could easily fancy himself in danger in this vast fenceless and defenseless space. Enormous herds were visible for miles in every direction, bulls roamed here and there, bellowing moodily, cattle and horses by hundreds waded and grazed in the shallow swamps across which the dyked path led. All the brilliant day “Mt. Tabor” stood forth in all its beauty across the plain in this clear air, and the sun brought sweat even at more than a mile above the sea.
I was in the very heart of Birdland. These broad, table-flat stretches of rich plateau, now half inundated, seemed some enormous outdoor aviary. Every species of winged creature one had hoped ever to see even in Zoo cages or the cases of museums seemed here to live and fly and have its songful being. Great sluggish zopilotes of the horrid vulture family strolled or circled lazily about, seeking the scent of carrion. Long-legged, snow-white herons stood in the marshes. Great flocks of small black birds that could not possibly have numbered less than a hundred thousand each rose and fell and undulated in waves and curtains against the background of mountains beyond, screening it as by some great black veil. There were blood-red birds, birds blue as turquoise, some of almost lilac hue, every grassy pond was overspread with wild ducks so tame they seemed waiting to be picked up and caressed, eagles showed off their spiral curves in the sky above like daring aviators over some admiring field of spectators; everywhere the stilly hum of semi-tropical life was broken only by the countless and inimitable bird calls.
As my shadow grew ungainly, the dyked path struck across a long wet field against the black soil of which the dozens of white-clad peons with their mattocks gleamed like grains of rice on an ebony surface. Beyond, it entered foothills, flanked a peak, and joined a wide road leading directly to an immense cluster of buildings among trees. The sun was firing the western horizon. From every direction groups of white-garbed peons were drawing like homing pigeons toward this center of the visible landscape. I reached it with them and, passing through several massive gates, mounted through a corral or cobbled stable yard with many bulky, two-wheeled carts and fully two hundred mules, then up an inclined, cobbled way through a garden of flowers to the immense pillared veranda with cement floor of the owner’s hacienda residence.
The building was in the form of a hollow square, enclosing a flowery patio as large as many a town plaza. Don Diego was not at home, nor indeed were any of his immediate family, who preferred the urban pleasures of Guadalajara. The Indian door-tender brought me to “Don Carlos,” a fat, cheerful man of forty in a white jacket, close-fitting trousers, and an immense revolver attached to the left side of his broad and heavily weighted cartridge-belt. I presented my letter of introduction from an American friend of the owner and was soon entangled in the coils of Mexican pseudo-politeness. Don Carlos tore himself away from his priceless labors as manager of the hacienda and took me up on the flat roof of the two-story house, from which a fine view was had for miles in all directions; indeed, nearly a half of the estate could be seen, with its peon villages, its broad stretches of new-plowed fields, and the now smokeless chimney of the sugar mill among the trees.
The interest of the manager did not extend beyond the cut-and-dried formalities common to all Mexicans. In spite of his honeyed words, it was evident he looked upon me as a necessary evil, purposely come to the hacienda to seek food and lodging, and to be gotten rid of as soon as possible, compatible with the sacred Arabian rules of hospitality. I had not yet learned that a letter of introduction in Latin America, given on the slightest provocation, is of just the grade of importance such custom would warrant. Not that Don Carlos was rude. Indeed, he strove outwardly to be highly simpático. But one read the insincerity underneath by a kind of intuition, and longed for the abrupt but honestly frank Texan.
The two front corners of the estate residence were taken up by the hacienda store and church respectively—a handy arrangement by virtue of which whatever went out the pay window to the peons (and it was not much) came in again at one or the other of the corner doors. Adjoining the building and half surrounding it was an entire village, with a flowery plaza and promenades for its inhabitants. The owners of the estate were less churlishly selfish than their prototypes in our own country, in that they permitted the public, which is to say their own workmen and families, to go freely anywhere in the family residence and its patio, except into the dwelling-rooms proper.
When darkness came on we sat in the piazza garden overlooking the mule-yard. The evening church service over, the estate priest came to join us, putting on his huge black “Texas” hat and lighting a cigarette on the chapel threshold. He wore an innumerable series of long black robes, which still did not conceal the fact that the curve from chest to waist was the opposite of that common to sculptured figures, and his hand-shake was particularly soft and snaky. He quickly took charge of the conversation and led it into anecdotes very few of which could be set down by the writers of modern days, denied the catholic privileges of old Boccaccio and Rabelais.
Toward eight supper was announced. But instead of the conversational feast amid a company of educated Mexican men and women I had pictured to myself during the day’s tramp, I was led into a bare stone room with a long, white-clothed table, on a corner of which sat in solitary state two plates and a salt cellar. A peon waiter brought an ample, though by no means epicurean, supper, through all which Don Carlos sat smoking over his empty plate opposite me, alleging that he never ate after noonday for dread of taking on still greater weight, and striving to keep a well-bred false politeness in the voice in which he answered my few questions. He had spent a year in a college of New Jersey, but had not even learned to pronounce the name of that State. Having pointed out to me the room I was to occupy, he excused himself for a “momentito,” and I have never seen him since.
Evidently horrified at the sight of a white man, even if only a “gringo,” traveling on foot, the manager had insisted on lending me a horse and mozo to the railroad station of Moreno, fifteen miles distant, but still within the confines of the hacienda. It may be also that he gave orders to have me out of his sight before he rose. At any rate it was barely three when a knock at the door aroused me and by four I stumbled out into the black starlit night to find saddled for me in the mule-corral what might by a considerable stretch of the word be called a horse. The mozo was well mounted, however, and the family chauffeur, carrying in one hand a basket of eggs he had been sent to fetch the estate owner in Guadalajara, rode a magnificent white animal. Without even the formal leave-taking cup of coffee, we set off on the road to the eastward. For road in Mexico always read—at best a winding stretch of dried mud with narrow paths meandering through the smoother parts of it, the whole tumbled everywhere with stones and rocks and broken by frequent unexpected deep cracks and stony gorges. My “horse” was as striking a caricature of that species of quadruped as could have been found in an all-night search in the region, which indeed there was reason to believe had been produced in just that manner. But at least it had the advantage of being unable to keep up with my companions, leaving me alone behind in far more pleasant company.
We wound through several long peon villages, mere grass huts on the bare earth floors of which the inhabitants lay rolled up in their blankets. I had not been supplied with spurs, essential to all horsemanship in Mexico, and was compelled at thirty second intervals to prick up the jade between my legs with the point of a lead pencil, the only weapon at hand, or be left behind entirely. As the stars dimmed and the horizon ahead took on a thin gray streak, peons wrapped in their sarapes passed now and then noiselessly in their soft leather huarachas close beside me. In huts along the way frowsy, unwashed women might be heard already crushing in their stone mortars, under stone rolling-pins, maize for the morning atole and tortillas, while thick smoke began to wander lazily out from the low doorways. Swiftly it grew lighter until suddenly an immense red sun leaped full-grown above the ragged horizon ahead, just as we sighted an isolated station building in the wilderness that now surrounded us on all sides.
A two-car train rambled through a light-wooded, half-mountainous country, stopping at every collection of huts to pick up or set down a peon or two, and drew up at length in Zamora. It was a populous, flat-roofed, ill-smelling, typical Mexican city of checkerboard pattern, on the plaza of which faced the “Hotel Morelos,” formerly the “Porfirio Diaz,” but with that seditious name now carefully painted over. Being barely a mile above sea-level, the town has a suggestion of the tropics and the temperature of midday is distinctly noticeable.
Zamora ranks as the most fanatical spot in Michoacán, which is itself so throttled by the church that it is known as the “estado torpe,” the torpid State. Its bishop is rated second in all Mexico only to that of the sacred city of Guadalupe. Here are monasteries, and monks, and nuns in seclusion, priests roam the streets in robes and vestments, form processions, and display publicly the “host” and other paraphernalia of their faith; all of which is forbidden by the laws of Mexico. When I emerged from the hotel, every person in sight, from newsboys to lawyers in frock coats, was kneeling wherever he happened to be, on his veranda, on the sidewalk, or in the middle of the street, his hat laid on the ground before him, facing a high churchman in flowing robes and a “stove-pipe” hat strutting across the plaza toward the cathedral. Traveling priests wear their regalia of office as far as Yurécuaro on the main line, changing there to civilian garb.
Nor is the power of the church here confined to things spiritual. Vast portions of the richest sections of the State are church owned, though ostensibly property of the lawyers that control them. Holding the reins, the ecclesiastics make it impossible for companies to open up enterprises except under their tutelage. The population of the State is some eighty per cent, illiterate, yet even foreigners find it impossible to set up schools for their own employees. The women of all classes are almost without exception illiterate. The church refuses to educate them, and sternly forbids any one else to do so. An American Catholic long resident reported even the priests ignorant beyond belief, and asserted that usury and immorality was almost universal among the churchmen of all grades. The peasants are forced to give a tenth of all they produce, be it only a patch of corn, to the church, which holds its stores until prices are high, while the poverty-stricken peon must sell for what he can get. Those married by the church are forbidden to contract the civil ceremony, though the former is unlawful and lack of the latter makes their children legally illegitimate. The local form of worship includes many of the barbaric superstitions of the Indians grafted on the stems of Catholicism, and weird pagan dances before the altar are a part of many a fiesta. The town has already churches sufficient to house easily all the population, yet an immense new cathedral is building. The purpose of its erection, according to the bishop, is “for the greater glorification of God.”
I spent two days with the American superintendent of “Platanal,” the electric plant run by water power a few miles out of town through fields of head-high maize. The night before my arrival bandits had raided the establishment and one of them had been killed. The president of Zamora had profusely thanked the “gringo” in charge when he presented himself in town with the body. On pay-day the manager went and came from the bank with two immense revolvers and a loaded rifle.
The current supplied by the rapids of “Platanal” is carried on high-tension wires to several cities far distant, including Guanajuato, a hundred miles away. Let the dynamo here break down and the cage of “Pingüico” mine hangs suspended in its shaft and Stygian darkness falls in the labyrinth below. In the rainy season lightning causes much trouble, and immense flocks of birds migrating south or north, according to the period of year, keep the repair gangs busy by flying against the wires and causing short circuits through their dead bodies. Woodpeckers eat away the wooden cross-pieces on the iron towers with disheartening rapidity. The company is philanthropically inclined toward its employees. Even the peons are given two weeks’ vacation on full pay, during which many rent a patch of land on the mountainside to plant with corn. A savings bank system is maintained, strict sanitation is insisted upon in the houses furnished by the company, and the methods of the haciendas of the region, of paying the peon the lowest possible wages for his labor and produce and selling to him at the highest possible prices at the estate store, thereby keeping him in constant debt and a species of slavery, are avoided. The result is a permanent force of high Mexican grade. All attempts of the company to introduce schools, however, even on its own property, have been frustrated by the powerful churchmen. A bright young native in the plant was an expert at figures, which he had been surreptitiously taught by his “gringo” superior, but he could not sign his name.