1940s Archive

Mexican Mornings

Originally Published February 1947

All winter long, everywhere you went—whether it was at a cocktail party or just walking up Fifth Avenue—you heard and saw nothing but Mexico. People had just come home from Mexico—people were just going. Shop windows were full of Mexican embroideries, pottery, huaraches, and gaudy travel posters. Certain people who had always been addicted to the European scene spoke of Mexico as the Last Refuge.


It was, I think, the morning when the radiators were stone-cold, when the cupboard was bare of butter, bacon, and coffee that I spoke seriously to Wha Lin, the blue-eyed Siamese, about going to Mexico, too.

She sat on the kitchen table, her tail carefully curled about her paws, gazing into space. I privately believe that she is the reincarnation of an ancient Delphic oracle, and when her cerulean eyes go suddenly crossed—it is a portent.

In less time than it takes to tell, our Chelsea apartment had been snapped up by an eager friend, a carpenter had made a commodious traveling box for her Siamese Highness, and we had tickets to Mexico.

We crossed the border at Laredo, Texas, not without some difficulty with the Mexican customs officials. The first questions were: what kind of animalito was Wha Lin, and was she dangerous?

“She is,” I told our inspector, “a nondangerous Oriental cat from Siam.”

“But,” explained the official patiently, “the cats never have the blue eyes.” Before I could think of an answer to that, he was pawing through my luggage.

“What is this?” he asked suspiciously.

“That,” I replied, “is a book.”

He ruffled the pages; it was a volume of the poetry of Li Po, and the margins were well decorated with Chinese characters.

“They are not Japanese,” I added firmly. “They are Chinese.” His heavy eyebrows went up into black an sinister arches. He continued his explorations into the very bowels of my suitcase.

“And these?” he inquired, after he had made my underthings look like a mess of Italian spaghetti.

He held up gingerly an embroidered mandarin coat as though it might explode, and my very old and treasured address book. I explained what both articles were. He thoughtfully tugged at his black moustaches, his brows beetled threateningly, and he walked off down the platform to consult with other powers. I could see him gesticulating mightily to an interested group; it was only a little over an hour when he returned, with an almost amiable smile.

All difficulties, he assured me, had been overcome; he’d keep only the volume of Li Po and the address book. I could even take the animal and the coat with me. It was as though he were bestowing an honorary university degree upon me.

I was tired from the long journey and I stormed angrily, or as angrily as I could in Spanish, which was not very well. My address book I considered highly personal and, to me, valuable property. His tacit but knowing attitude suggested that he was indeed a very clever fellow who knew more than one way of catching a possible spy. I even wept a little, but my address book is still in Mexico, and I believe to this day many of my friends think because of my unbroken silence, I was probably murdered there.

Mexico is a land of sharp contrasts—high, snow-covered mountains and volcanoes, and tropical, palm-fringe beaches—gay cosmopolitan cities and Indian towns. We decided on an old Aztec village called Tamazanchale, which because it’s pronounced like Thomas and Charlie, you’d think ought to be on West 52nd Street, instead of in subtropical Mexico. The night the bus dumped us off unceremoniously in front of the little Tamazanchale Inn, and fat Don Esteban Montemayor rolled out onto the dining veranda to greet us, we felt we had temporarily reached journey’s end.

That feeling was pleasantly intensified the next morning on the bougainvillea-draped terrace where breakfast waited: strong coffee with hot milk, piles of smoking yellow tortillas, and a Mexican omelette whose exotic fragrance rose magnificently on the morning air. Don Esteban slip-slapped down the veranda on flat buaraches, bearing a plate which he set on the table with a flourish.

“Very good days to you, Señora. I hope you have rested well? This platito is for La Siamese; it is fresh fried robalo fish which came up from Vera Cruz this morning…”

“It smells as delicious,” I answered, “as the omelette I’ve just eaten—although my tongue still burns a bit.”

Don Esteban smiled—the man had a lazy, indefinable charm—showing his gold teeth, and said, “You find the Mexican food muy bravo, no? That sauce it is the invention of my wife; it is chile verde, but my wife she is not Mexican, she is Chinese so she add the herbs—coriander and oregano.”

Later, when I became sufficiently familiar with the inn to be accepted by its Oriental mistress, the Indian cook, and the barefoot, brown-skinned girls who pat-patted tortillas in the dim Mexican kitchen, I was permitted to witness the mysteries and rites that produced the tongue-tingling salsas de chile to which our commercial chili sauce is a very pale cousin.

Whether the salsas were the hot green kind or the hot red kind, the pepper pods were always roasted in a medium hot oven until they seemed about to burst. Then they were wrapped in a damp cloth and allowed to steam for a few minutes. Brown hands slowly and carefully peeled them, removed stems and seeds, cut them into small pieces. For a moderate amount of the sauce, six or seven pods were crushed in the molcojete, the corrugate clay mortar, with the mano, the small stone pestle, along with two or three cloves of garlic and salt. Then a small handful of fresh coriander leaves from the garden, along with another of oregano, either dried or fresh, were macerated in a separate mortar and then blended with approximately half a cup of lime water; the whole was mixed until smooth. The lime water is the kind used for babies; this, they said, made the hot mixture completely digestible. Whether this was so or not, I do not know, but I came to eat it with true Latin gusto—rolled in tortillas, compounded with dried jerked meat, or in sauce for chile con carne.

Mexico, besides being a land of infinite variety, is also a land of infinite leisure—the Land of Tomorrow. A wit has remarked that in Mexico tomorrow is the busiest day of the week. He might have added that the first lesson Americans should learn south of the border is that haste—even promptness—is in the nature of a vice; that the first essential Spanish phrases to learn are: mañana—which may be any indefinite future tense; mas o menos—more or less; todavía, which the dictionary defines as “yet,” but which invariably means “not yet;” and poco a poco—little by little.

Wha Lin took to the lotus-eating atmosphere as any Oriental would; she spent long hours on the purple bougainvillea arbor which became her blonde blue-eyed beauty outrageously, while I managed to spend hours strolling the banks of the Moctezuma which ran lazily blue through the valley where sprawled the village. The jagged emerald hills rose steeply on either side, their crowns in places dotted with flowering trees of a breathless pink. On the banks knelt the dark women beating their washing clean on the rocks, then hanging it on the low shrubs to dry as they have done since long before the time of the Indian emperor whose name the river bore. Small naked boys splashed and swam, their bronze bodies flashing in the brazen sunlight.

It was one of these small carefree persons who had observed my walks on the river path and attached himself to me one morning. He solemnly announced that his name was Napoleon de Jesus Benavides and was “a su servicio”—at my service. His charm was proportionate to his name. He wore a ragged little white shirt and seemed not at all embarrassed that his brown bottom was clearly visible through a large rent in the seat of his diminutive pants.

He offered me fascinating bits of information as we strolled along. The man who lived in that hut, he said, was now in the carcel because he had murdered his wife. When I asked why he had, Napoleon gave me the vague answer one everlastingly encounters in Mexico. Quien sabe? Who knows? He pointed out a haunted house, and a cave high in a mountain where lived a bruja—a very dangerous witch.

As we reached the end of the path on the way back, we passed a white stucco building, the most imposing in the village, which bore the legend, Hotel Cadillac.

Muy elegante,” murmured Napoleon.“Why does not the Señora eat her lonche here? Don Federico, who owns this magnificence, is Americano.”

This proved to be only the first of a long series of advice that I ultimately accepted from Napoleon, who squatted down in the portico to wait for me.

The dining room was deserted; obviously it was a place designed to catch the passing tourist trade—and just then there was none. A small malarial-looking man, scant of hair, sardonic of face, was the only person in sight. Obviously an American who had spent too many years in the tropics, he sluffed across the floor and handed me a menu.

“Since American fried chicken,” I said, “seems to be your specialty, I'll have that.”

“Yes,” he replied in a voice that managed to be at once weary, but faintly sarcastic, “fried chicken is our specialty, but today there is none. You will soon discover, Señora, that Mexico is the land of ‘no hay, no hay’, which is,” he added, “a very impersonal verb meaning ‘there is not, there is not…’”

“Well, then,” I said brightly, “I’ll find something else on the menu but could I have a cocktail first?”

“I'm sorry,” he answered, “times are so bad, what with the war, that I have no license, but if I may offer you my aguardiente with lime and fresh pineapple juice…?”

It was only natural that one should ask Don Federico to share his own hospitality. As he poured the two cocktails a not unattractive Mexican woman clicked across the room on high heels, passing close to the table. She paused imperceptibly to give her husband a sidelong venomous glance, another withering one at me, before she went out and slammed the door. We could hear her voice raised in sharp, imperious Spanish, berating an Indian servant.

The situation, I reflected a little sadly, was not a new or unusual one: the mestizo woman who had raised her social standing by marrying the Americano, and who then despised her own kind, who considered the pure Indian a species of slave, and whose resentment against the whites and their superiority, assumed or actual, filled her body an soul with a poison for which there is no antidote.

“The Easter festivities are soon due,” remarked Don Federico in his dry, toneless voice. “The Governor of San Luis Potosi will be here the Saturday before to campaign for reelection and there will be Indian dances in his honor. It's all old stuff to me,” he said in a contemptuous tone, “Indians hopping up and down—but it might amuse you. And the usual bombastic and rotten Mexican politics.” He smiled faintly, showing yellow teeth. “There might be some fireworks as there’s a pretty bitter opposition faction in the village.”

It occurred to me then that Don Federico was in almost as unhappy an anomalous a position as his wife: the man who’d lived so long in Mexico that he had nothing but withering contempt for his adopted land. And yet the sort of man who, when he went home, was unhappy until he found someone to whom he could talk, with brooding sarcasm, of things Mexican. And underneath it all he’d have disdain for the unadventurous stay-at-home. It was obvious that Don Federico considered himself a somewhat daring and unusual man.

He went on about the Governor. “There is to be a banquet here in his honor. Why don’t you come? You’ll get a laugh or two…”

Days, even weeks, went by uncounted, unnoticed. Wha Lin explored the small jungle behind the inn and caught lizards until her plaintive indigestion was such that she had to be shut in my room. Whenever I went in the village, Napoleon appeared out of nowhere to escort me and carry my purse and bundles. He became known among the merchants as my pistolero, my bodyguard. On Viernes Santo, Good Friday, Napoleon appeared on the terrace while I was having breakfast.

“Señora,” he announced, “you must hurry. Today they carry El Cristo around the patio of el templo in his coffin, and you must see him. He is muy bonito.”

I went to get my hat and purse and was followed back by Wha Lin who surreptitiously had watched her chance of escape. Napoleon, catching sight of her, stared with open mouth; he hadn’t seen her before—or anything like her.

“Mother of God,” he finally breathed, “can it be real?” He touched her beige silky fur reverently and looked up at me, his black, tip-tilted eyes shining with an almost holy fervor. “She is,” he murmured, “even more beautiful than el bebe Jesus. May we not take her with us to the church?”

I finally convinced Napoleon that I thought Wha Lin would not particularly care to go, and diverted his attention on the way by buying him a palito, a sort of frozen ice on a stick.

The church was the scene of considerable confusion; El Cristo had just been taken down from the cross an was being deposited in a glass-toppe coffin. The cheap plaster figure was like no other I had ever seen; the sallow face was weak and chinless, well-smeared with gore. The body was clothed in what looked like a tea gown of purple velvet.

Old Indian women knelt by the coffin, arranging the velvet folds, while other old women moved seats, mopped the floors, lighted candles, and arrange flowers. Young mothers squatted everywhere with nursing babies, while through the crush puppies and children wandered at will. Bronzed, intense young Indian men knelt motionless, hands outstretched before them, their faces mirrored in dark rapture.

Napoleon and I followed the procession which took the casket into the courtyard to march solemnly around and around. In one shaded corner a group of hill Indians—all young men and boys wearing elaborate headdresses of feathers, tinsel, and bright cloth sewed with tiny mirrors—were performing an intricate and beautiful dance to the monotonous but strangely haunting music of Indian violins, shaken gourds, and drums.

After we had watched until both dances and the procession were finished and were again on our way back to the inn, Napoleon, still bemused and ecstatic, said, “Tomorrow, Señora, El Cristo goes to Heaven. I will come and get you when it is time to go.”

El Sabado de Gloria was also the day of the Governor’s banquet; the streets were decorated with extravagant floral arches and gay with the town’s citizenry dressed in their best. The broad roadway in front of the Hotel Cadillac was lined with milling throngs, while the thoroughfare itself was the scene of dozens of groups of Indian dancers from the hills. Each group had its distinctive and often beautiful costume, with music and intricate dance steps peculiarly its own.

The hour came and went for the Governor’s appearance. An occasional cry went up, “Viene, viene,” but when it was proved false the Indian men went on tirelessly hour after hour in the broiling sun with their dancing and music.

Inside the hotel Don Federico hovered nervously over the long tables, supervising the flower arrangement, giving his servants directions. Earlier I had seen his mestizo wife, dressed in her most elegant, haughtily surveying the hoi polloi from the solitary seclusion of the hotel roof.

The great kitchen basement that opened on to a patio was alive with the activities of the Governor’s servants and cooks, as he had provided everything for the banquet. There were mountains of steamed chickens and turkeys, with iron caldrons of rich red molé sauce to pour over them; platoons of tortillas, both golden and white; huge platters of albondigas, the delicious pork dumplings in the traditional style of San Luis Potosi, tamales steaming in their corn husks, squash cooked with pineapple and bananas, great baskets of mangoes. There looked to be enough food to feed the entire village.

At last there were wild yells and shouts from the roadway; the Governor had finally appeared. The feminine elite of the village made a welcoming committee, their arms laden with gardenias, orchids, roses, and lilies. The Governor, who was a city man, and I suspect not too well versed in the more Indian ways of the villages, made a flowery speech.

It was another full hour before he had greeted all the local dignitaries from the Presidente down to the minor judges, and mopping a very damp brow, he entered the dining room and signaled that now the banquet could proceed.

Tequila, mescal, aguardiente, pulque, and beer flowed freely, as well as babanero, Mexican whisky. The assembled hundred or so guests, mostly men wearing fancy boots, tight velvet pants with bright satin shirts, broad sombreros, and very efficient-looking silver- or pearl-handled pistols, stood on no ceremony with the food and drink. There were intermissions when guitars were strummed and lusty male voices soared in rollicking Mexican lyrics; then the feasting and drinking started all over again.

It was about dusk when the Governor, looking tired and a little confused, rose to make his campaigning speech. He began with a very florid tribute to the noble town of Tamazanchale and its citizens who down to the last man were culto y correcto. He was launching into a paean of praise on its elegant institutions, when from the distance came a volley of shots, wild shouts, and more shooting. The Governor paled, and looked about for his bodyguards—huge, bewhiskered gentlemen whose pistols had earlier been much in evidence. But these gentlemen, replete with turkey and tequila, were slumped over the banquet table, fast asleep. If this were the opposition party announcing its arrival, it looked as though the Governor might be in a very tight spot.

At that moment the door burst open and in flew the small ragged figure of Napoleon. He caught sight of me and rushed to my chair. Silence had fallen over the room.

“Señora, come!” he urged. “You may yet be in time.”

“In time for what?” I asked.

“Did you not hear the shooting?” he inquired impatiently. “It is at the church to make holes in the sky, because it is time for El Cristo to go to Heaven. If we hurry we may yet see Him go.”

I rose from the table to go with Napoleon, then remembering, turned to say at least adios to my host, the Governor.

He stood, still quite pale but thoughtful, at the head of the banquet board. Then he smiled, a rather sad and charming smile. He held out his hand and said, “Asi es Mejico—thus is Mexico—is it not, Señora?”

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