1940s Archive

Mexican Mornings

Originally Published March 1947

You’re as mad as a hatter,” said Don Federico morosely. “You can’t take a house way out at the end of the village and live there alone among these Mexicans and Indians.”


“Why not?” I inquired.

“It’s a dangerous and undesirable neighborhood; it would be a very foolish thing to do. I tell you, you can’t trust these people.”

Don Federico went on with his arguments to which I hardly listened. I’d already paid the first month’s rent and was waiting impatiently for the whitewashing inside and out to be finished so that I could move in. The place, I thought, was idyllic: the pair of tiny thatched houses on a quiet road on the outskirts of the village; across from it the waving green of a banana plantation through which the trail led down to the river. There was a charming although somewhat casual garden behind the house with huge old mango trees. Just then it was fragrant with orange and lemon blossoms; there was a hedge of pink hibiscus.

“When these hill Indians are full of pulque,” suggested Don Federico darkly, “you never know … Why don’t you be sensible and live here at the hotel?”

Don Federico had been urging me for some time to do that. I couldn’t help but feel in spite of his generous offer that behind it lurked a mercenary motive. Also I couldn’t quite tell him that his arrogant and presumptuous half-caste wife and I would have mixed as do oil and water. Or that I wasn’t interested in absorbing at second hand an embittered, narrow view of a country which was still in the throes of becoming an integrated nation. The very wild savage elements of old Spain, which is the Orient of Europe, mixed with the Indians who after all are the Orientals of the New World, have in them all the ingredients of cosmic drama. I wanted my house to be in it.

Don Federico shook his head at my perversity, made a few dismal predictions about bad water, and warned me about food. I was relieved when he changed the subject saying, “I’ve just made a fresh batch of rompopé. It’s been on ice; will you try some?”

The day was hot and windless; anything cold sounded refreshing.

“Thank you,” I returned, “but what is rompopé?

“It’s a sort of eggnog,” he said, clapping his hands for Pancho who brought glasses and a bottle full of golden yellow liquid. When Don Federico poured the heavy stuff, it assailed the nostrils like a whiff of the Spice Islands. Its flavor was marvelously delicate and the texture as smooth as that of an exquisite mousse.

“I’d like to know how you make this,” I suggested tentatively, taking out my notebook.

“I make quite a lot of it at a time,” he said, “because it keeps well even without ice. You take the yolks of thirty eggs—you can make angel food or meringues of the whites—and swizzle them until you’re absolutely exhausted. Then you beat some more slowly, adding a half pound of sugar. I use the kind of cedar swizzle stick you find in the West Indies but I suppose you could use an egg beater. To this you add slowly, always beating, two quarts of milk which have been boiling with an ounce of cinnamon; then an ounce of pure almond extract. Now you beat in a cuartillo—a fifth—of the best aguardiente you can buy—or you can use rum. That makes between four and five quarts, but as I say, it keeps.” He poured me another glass of the delicious stuff which was almost a meal in itself.

Don Federico sat with me while I lunched, regaling me further with tales of untoward things that happen to gringos who “go native” in Mexico. His mood seemed to brighten in proportion to the gloom of his stories, and he remarked almost cheerfully as he accompanied me to the door of his hostelry that I’d probably be murdered.

In the portico Napoleon, as usual, was waiting for me. There was also another youth, a ragged, barefoot, strange-looking individual, who held out his hand and mumbled something about limosnas, alms.

Don Federico in the doorway shrugged his shoulders.

“That is Luis Loco, mad Luis—the village idiot,” he said.

“I never give him anything.”

I hesitated, but finally opened my purse and gave him a real—a ten-cent piece. The idiot took it, looked at it, wagging his head, then deliberately spat at me.

“You see,” said Don Federico, and there was malice in his voice, “he will be one of your neighbors…” But as we walked away from the inn Napoleon said, “No importa, Señora, I too know Luis.”

Napoleon seemed to know everything. He knew all about the new house and was well pleased with the situation as he and his mother, who was a laundress, lived in a hut just past the banana plantation near my house. He was doing everything in his power to get me settled as speedily as possible.

Today he said, “You must come with me, Señora, down on the river path. There is someone I think you should see.” Napoleon was proving more than my pistolero, my bodyguard. He was assuming the duties of minister of state, chief counselor, and aide-de-camp. He must have impressed upon his mother the seriousness of all his duties, for the large hole in the seat of his pants had been quite carefully mended.

We walked past the thatched huts that seemed to shrink away from the blue river and press themselves as if for protection into the sides of the overhanging tangled hills. We soon reached one I’d often noticed before—a veritable doll’s hut—and I’d wondered to whom it belonged. It had a tiny door yard which looked as though it were swept every morning; there were flowers growing everywhere in discarded tins. A mother turkey with her numerous brood rested somnolently in the shade of a gardenia shrub in full blossom.

Just as we reached the gate, which might have been that of the gingerbread house straight from the pages of the brothers Grimm, the door opened, and a wrinkled brown Indian woman with black braids over her shoulders stepped into the yard. A flock of white doves fluttered down from the thatch and wheeled around her head and shoulders. She smiled tentatively at Napoleon, who said, “This is the person.”

The woman glanced at me from shrewd old eyes whose corners were laughter-crinkled. Although she was barefooted, her white dress was immaculately clean and her little apron had lavender pockets on it. She gave me a small, bobbing curtsy and murmured, “I am Maria de Jesús Mondragon, Señora, at your service. I am a cook.”

It seemed Napoleon had found me a cook. It later developed that he had talked at length to her about what a fine thing it would be to serve La Gringa Americana. They had discussed the new house, Wha Lin and her blue eyes, the things Don Esteban had lent me to start housekeeping, the things I’d already purchased; in fact there wasn’t much they hadn’t covered.

After a few moments’ conversation, Maria de Jesús smiled; it was a rare and charming thing to see—the flashing white teeth in her brown old face—and the thing was done. I had a house in Mexico. I had an Indian cook whose low, bubbling laughter was a delight in the months to come.

Everything always takes longer in Mexico than you think it will, but eventually—poco a poco, Maria de Jesús and Napoleon got me and themselves settled in the new house. It wasn’t that Napoleon didn’t go home once in a while, but after he brought me the puppy it was less often.

He appeared one morning while I was breakfasting, with a handful of black dog which looked pure Aztec to me. He said it was muy caro, very dear; it would cost me two pesos, or forty cents in American money, but was muy inteligente, muy sabio. Since Maria went home nights I should have a dog. The tropic nights were warm, and soon Napoleon and El Sabio took to sleeping curled up together on a native cot under the orange tree in the garden.

Maria de Jesús always arrived promptly at six in the morning. I could lie in bed and watch her coming over the little hill and down through the garden in that proud-paced gait that only an Indian woman has. She carried her small, slender figure erectly, and usually she had on her head a clay water jar or a basket.

One end of the terrace which gave over the garden was our kitchen with its open charcoal braziers. Every time Maria went to market she brought home ollas, new clay jars, or comales, the clay griddles for toasting tortillas, which she hung in symmetrical patterns on the walls. The rest of the terrace was the dining room, but actually it was here the life of the house went on, and in the garden.

Sometimes Indian children from the huts on the brow of the garden hill came down to join Napoleon in a game, or to play with Sabio whom they understood; but of Wha Lin and her blue eyes they stood in great awe. I overheard Napoleon telling the other small Indian children that at night he had heard me talking to her in a strange language, and that she, after dark, could talk too. I think that even Maria de Jesús gave credence to this tale.

The first of the neighbors I met was the barber. He was just about to take his shaggy little burro down to the river for water one morning as I was walking to the village. He cordially waved me into his house to meet his wife and children. His wife, he said, was a fine seamstress if ever I needed new dresses, and in whatever way possible he was at my service. I admired the fine palm-woven mats that covered their couches, saying I hadn’t been able to find anything so good.

“Ah, Señora,” he told me, “I know just where to get them; it would give me great pleasure to buy some for you.”

I demurred, saying I couldn’t think of troubling him. He insisted. He intimated that he as a gentleman would be delighted to do a favor for a lady. His mother, he informed me not without pride, was a Spanish lady who had come from the province in Spain which was famed as being La Cuna de los Toros—the Cradle of the Bulls. After that I could hardly refuse.

When he brought the mats to me that afternoon he informed me, “It is very regrettable, Señora, but the price of these mats has gone up; it is la guerra ….” and he shrugged his shoulders. Since he stayed so late, Maria, unbidden, served him tea, too, but after he had left she shook her head and looked pityingly at me.

“Those petates,” she said, “have cost you five times what they are worth.”

When one of the barber’s small daughters appeared early next morning, holding out one egg for me to buy, I asked her the price. Twenty-five centavos, she told me.

“But,” I protested, “in the market they are only fifteen centavos.”

“Ah no,” she sighed as her father had done. Everything was very dear; it was la guerra… But after that I let Maria deal with the egg-selling children and the barber himself when he came quite frequently to borrow a peso until mañana.

But my new neighbor on the other side was a different matter. For some time I had watched the repairs—the new thatch going up, the garden being raked and cleaned, the whole place being put in exquisite order. Then its occupants finally moved in, and occasionally through the great mango trees which separated the two places I could see the mistress of the house in her garden, and her young maid feeding the chickens or doing the laundry. I wondered about Mexican etiquette; should she call first or should I?

One morning I got Maria off to market earlier than usual with her shopping list and baskets. For a long time I didn’t know that Maria couldn’t read the shopping list or even write down the amounts of her purchases, but, even after she knew that I knew, she demanded the written list. She’d go off counting the number of things to buy on her fingers and she always came back with all of them, except when she deliberately forgot something as an excuse to go back, usually to drop in on a special mass. Why it was always the olores, the herbs—literally the smells—she forgot, I never knew.

That particular morning I decided I’d call on my new neighbor. She greeted me cordially at the door and waved me to her living room, which was elegant with ponderous wardrobes which had mirrors and clocks inset in strange places. There were Grand Rapids rocking chairs and innumerable bloody lithographs of El Cristo and the saints with tightly packed vases of flowers before them. The floor was earthen, but she explained proudly that she would soon have a good floor of cement.

She was a young woman with deeply olive skin, lush of thighs and bosom. I don’t know whether you would have called her moon face and liquid, bovine eyes pretty or not, but her manner had a certain charm. In some curious way she made me think of a café-au-lait eclair—all rich creamy filling. Don Pedro, her husband, she told me, owned a truck and was away overnight a great deal on business, and sometimes she was rather lonely. When I asked her if she wouldn’t come for tea the next afternoon, she seemed pleased.

I consulted with Maria de Jesús as to what she thought would make good tea sandwiches. She promptly said “Guacamolé,” which turned out to be avocado crushed through a fine sieve, moistened with lemon juice, mixed generously with grated onion, chopped almonds, crisp crumbled bacon, well seasoned with green chili, black pepper, and cayenne—the whole mixed to a creamy smoothness. Then she asked with frank curiosity who was coming for tea.

“The Señora next door!” she exclaimed. “La Doña Virginia? Santissima Maria!” She giggled a little and said hastily, “She is a very nice woman.”

Bit by bit Maria de Jesús, who was an instinctive actress and loved to embellish a story with bits of histrionic business, told me about La Doña Virginia.

“You’ve seen that big white house on the left just down the road next to your landlord’s house?” she asked.

I nodded. “The one that so often has loud music at night and seems so gay?”

Si, si. Virginia lived in that house for six years. It is a casa publica, and Virginia was a mujer publica—a public woman.”

Maria de Jesús watched closely my expression which evidently was sufficiently astonished to satisfy her.

“But,” she continued, chopping up meat for chile con carne, her shrewd old eyes twinkling, “she entertained only los caballeros mas distinguidos, officials and officers of the army. It was only about a year ago that a Coronel, very culto, was shot to death in that house in a quarrel over Virginia. And it was right after that Virginia married Don Pedro and left the casa publica. Everybody knew that the Jefe de Policia, the Chief of Police, was loco for her, and Don Ferdinando, your landlord…” Maria ticked off another half-dozen men on her fingers. “But,” she said, “Virginia preferred Don Pedro.”

Since the situation seemed to be somewhat out of the ordinary I thought we might as well be lavish about the tea. When Maria went to market the next morning, her list was longer than usual, and her brow puckered as she walked off counting over and over on her fingers. She apparently entered wholeheartedly into the fiesta spirit, for she came home with an astonishing array of sweet biscuits, a bone for the puppy, a small steak for Wha Lin (Maria or Mexico had never heard of red stamps), and violent pink candy for Napoleon.

The heat of the day had subsided, and a cool wind drifted down from the hills when Doña Virginia appeared, gowned in lavender satin embroidered with pink beads. Her black hair was highly pomaded, and a strong perfume eddied around her not inconsiderable person.

We had just finished the first cup of tea; Virginia had praised the guacamolé sandwiches and was asking eager questions about the kind of lace-trimmed pantaletas one might buy on the Avenue Fifth in Nueva York when there was a knock at the front door.

Maria came back to the terrace looking a little disconcerted. There was a gentleman to see me. In the living room a very large, military-looking, and important man surveyed my belongings with bold, roving eyes.

“Señora,” he bowed. “I beg you excuse this intrusion. I am Señor Amador Gonzoles, Jefe de Policia.”

For a moment I was startled. What could the police want with me? Then it suddenly occurred to me that Maria had probably chattered in the market that morning and the whole village knew I was entertaining Doña Virginia.

The Jefe put an even finer point on his delicate waxed moustaches and smiled amiably. “Only,” he said, “a little matter of seeing that your papers are in order. It is customary…”

It was a very thinly veiled excuse, for he scarcely glanced at my Mexican visa and an old passport. He seemed conversationally inclined and asked me if I liked his country, my house, the climate and my neighbors? It was no use, I thought, I might as well ask him to stay for tea.

The Jefe bowed to Virginia with a click of his heels, his right hand resting lightly and gracefully on the enormous holster on his hip. He accepted the chair Maria de Jesús placed for him and a cup of tea which he held in a genteel fashion with the little finger crooked. His bold, slightly protuberant eyes traveled over Virginia from head to foot with unveiled approval. He turned to me and remarked with engaging simplicity, “La Señora as muy dama, no?” I agreed with him that she was indeed “very lady.”

I was groping for a suitable topic of conversation when there was another knock on the door and Maria informed me that there was another caballero to see me. This time it was my landlord, Don Ferdinando, to inquire if everything in the house was all right. He, too, seemed conversationally inclined, and as I led him to the terrace I wondered just how many more of the town’s caballeros knew Virginia was at my house for tea.

Conversation was proceeding a little more easily, as Virginia was adept in the art of pleasing gentlemen, when the third knock came, and Maria, I thought, looked a little pale as she announced this arrival. This time my caller was a gentleman with disheveled hair, grease-stained dungarees, a dark face glistening with sweat.

He smiled, but not too amiably, and said, “I am your neighbor, Don Pedro. Our servant said my wife is having tea with you?”

There was nothing to do but invite him also to the terrace where Maria quickly thrust tea and sandwiches into his hand which had begun to make motions in the direction of his holster. The three men were slightly reminiscent of strange dogs suddenly meeting—the moment before their hackles rise and the low growls begin. A faint pink had flushed Virginia’s fat brown cheeks, and she plucked nervously at the bead embroidery on her satin dress.

The situation was one I couldn’t remember Emily Post to have covered; it would have taken the merest word, a gesture, for my tea party to have ended in a shooting party.

Suddenly there was shouting in the street and the sound of running footsteps rounding the house. Into the garden like a meteor shot Luis Loco, the village idiot. In a strange dancing lope he cavorted about the garden, then turned on the small tormentors who had pursued him up from the river. He waved his ragged white trousers and yelled at them, his unbuttoned shirt flapping in the breeze. It was obvious that he had been bathing—and that he wore only half of his wardrobe.

I never knew where Don Ferdinando disappeared, but Doña Virginia squealed and fled in a flutter of lavender satin and strong perfume with Don Pedro at her heels. The Jefe de Policia with magnificent aplomb sprang into action, brandishing his pistol at the small boys who scurried away. He stood before the idiot shielding his nakedness. Then somewhat flustered he turned to me.

“Señora,” he said, “I deeply regret this so unseemly incident. This unfortunate youth is indeed afflicted…” He stood in deep thought. “He is more to be pitied than feared. We should pray to El Señor Dios to alleviate the ills that cause…” He struggled to complete this complicated reasoning and, failing, gently grasped the idiot by the arm and led him away.

In the gathering dusk he turned and said, “Asi es Mejico, Señora… puede ser en todo el mundo…” “Thus is Mexico, Señora… perhaps in all the world…”

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