1940s Archive

Mexican Mornings

Originally Published April 1947

Most people, I understand, from kins and presidents down to college professors, prefer their murder mysteries in the quiet and seclusion of dark nights. In Mexico I grew to be very fond of them served with breakfast—with hot strong café con leche papaya with lemon juice, and the little crisp rolls known as carteras because they look line pocketbooks.


Maria de Jesús served both breakfast and the murders with considerable élan. One morning it would be, “Señora, this morning a peon was found murdered by the river …”

“And why was he murdered?”

Quien sabe?” Maria always answered. Who knows? One always says that in Mexico.

Then I asked, “Did he have a wife?”

“Oh, yes, but she has disappeared.”

“Did he have any friends?”

“Just one, but that man has disappeared, too.”

“What are the police doing about it?”

“Nothing, of course, Señora; they are waiting.”

It seems that la Policia de Mejico are old hands at the arc of waiting—and, I discovered in the course of time, with good reason. The true Indian loves his land above all things; more than his wife, his father and mother, or his children. He may commit a pulque crime, be aghast when sober at what he has done, and flee to the hills where, being Indian, he can survive as a white man could not. But in time—it may be months or it may be years—the longing for his own bit of land overcomes him and some dark night he will return like a shadow. But the police while waiting develop long memories, and the Indian, though perhaps belatedly, is brought to justice.

One morning, breakfast was somewhat different and so was the story. Maria de jesús put the tray on the bedside table and helping herself to one of my Delicados, squatted down to smoke and chat. The fruit, the like of which I'd never before seen, she told me was mamé. She had stolen them from Don Federico as she passed his inn that morning because, she explained with her charming, wicked little smile, they had just come ripe, because he had more than he could possibly use, but more particularly because she did not like his wife.

She laid down her cigarette, tossed her head in the air, and picking up one corner of her apron gave me supercilious stare which was such a perfect imitation of the graces and airs that Don Federico’s half-caste wife assumed that I almost choked over a bit of mamé. Then she again squatted and watched with interest while I ate two of the decidedly strange fruit.

They were large and oval in shape with a curious barklike covering. The meat which you scooped out with a spoon was a deep bois de rose in color and the flavor a curious and subtle blend. The nearest description I can think of is a cross between a pine nut and a mango.

“You remember, Señora,” asked Maria de Jesús, “Don Manuel Martinez?”

“The man whose face was so badly deformed from the broken jaw?”

“No—that is his brother, Don José. Don Manuel is the one who took you that day to see his finca and tried to sell you some land.”

“Of course, of course,” I replied. One could never forget that soft, corpulent man.

It had been a very hot afternoon, so sultry that I had not been refreshed by my siesta and was drinking fresh pineapple juice that Maria had brought me when the man knocked on the door. He doffed his wide, ragged sombrero, mopping his fat, sweating brown face with a red handkerchief. His thin white shert and trousers were clean enough, but they clung limply to his soft body to which he tried to give some semblance of form by wearing too tight an elaborately embossed leather belt. The effect was rather that of a moist bag of bran tied in the middle.

His eyes were dark and enormous, liquid. They reminded me a little of the eyes of the sacred white cows in India as they lift their great heavy heads and stare, unseeing, at the passers-by.

“Don Esteban,” he told me, “said that you might be interested in buying land in Mejico. I have much property, beautiful land with forests and streams… Some of it I will sell, muy barato, very cheap. I could take you to see it this afternoon.”

Maria de Jesús came in from the terrance with another glass of cool pineapple juice. She walked deliberately in front of me and stepped on my toes as she handed it to me. Her dark old eyes shot me a quick and warning glance.

I wasn't in the least interested in buying land in Mexico or any other place. I dislike the tyranny of possessions, preferring a mobile form of existence. But also I had nothing in particular to do that afternoon, and the strange soft quality of the man’s manner. his speech, rather like some jungle fungus growth, had in it an impelling fascination.

“Is your finca far from here?” I asked.

“About six kilometers,” he replied, his manner visibly brightening. “Just a nice small paseo.”

I wouldn’t have walked six kilometers to see the king of England that broiling tropic afternoon, so I asked Maria please to go for a taxi. She turned and looked at me as she went out the door; a stern, reproving look, such as a governess might give her stubborn, headstrong charge.

Don Manuel, with an apologetic gesture, put his hands in his obviously empty pockets, then mopped his face again and sighed, “Just now, Señora, I am a poor man—land-poor, woman-poor. Fijese, imagine, Señora, hundreds of hectares of good land and seven—seven!—daughters.” He sighed again. “Eight women in my household—not a man to help me—pura mujer, pura mujer …” and he shook his head mournfully. Pure women, pure women, nothing but women.

The rattletrap old Ford that Maria summoned coughed and choked up the mountain road until it had gone as far as the rocky rutted condition permitted. We got out at the base of a hill, and giving instructions to the driver to wait, Don Manuel struck of ahead on a winding trail through heavy forest growth until we came to a stream with little waterfalls.

“It is beautiful here, is it not, Señora?” asked Don Manuel. I had to admit that it was. The property was evidently all hilly but it had, he said, many streams which in Mexico, a country of little water, is in the nature of a rarity, and valuable. He pointed out huge mango trees, wild almond and walnut, the cedar which is beautiful for cabinetwork. We followed the stream upward until we came to patches of cleared land planted with coffee and beans.

“The Indians who live here,” Don Manuel informed me, “cultivate the land.” Then he went into a long and complicated explanation in rapid Spanish which I could not follow completely because of unfamiliar terms. What it amounted to, I gathered, was a sort of sharecropper’s arrangement. But the thing that puzzled me was that as yet I had seen no Indians. Just then I heard dogs barking, and peering through the trees, glimpsed a thatched hut but still no sign of human beings.

Don Manuel led me on through mazes of faint trails, and what I sensed rather than saw was that just off the trails this mountain terrain was honeycombed with the huts of his Indian workers. I began to get the sensation of may dark eyes which saw us but which we could not see.

Here in the forest the heat of the afternoon was somewhat mitigated by the shade of the magnificent trees, but by the time we had neared the top of the mountain, I was tired and drenched with perspiration. Our approach to the summit was heralded by an outburst of savage barking, and as we entered a clearing where stood a sizable hut, I vaguely glimpsed an Indian woman in the dim interior. In the dooryard were chained two savage dogs; near them stood a thin little girl in a ragged shift with a shock of coarse black hair that hung over her low forehead and shadowed her dark animal eyes. The little brown face couldn’t have been anything but pure Aztec. For a fleeting second I could imagine myself back in the days after the first Spaniards had landed and Montezuma, trapped and cornered, fought while those wiser fled to the secret hills.

As we started downward, Don Manuel, mopping his dripping pudgy face with the wilted red rag, cast me a sad look from his liquid dark eyes and sighed again, as he had done many times during the afternoon. “Pura mujer, pura mujer. You understand why I am willing to sell—and to sell cheap? A man with no sons cannot cultivate or manage a place like this. One needs men.”

On the way back in the rattling Ford, I asked in a rather vague manner how much property he wanted to sell, what the price would be hectare, and if the titles were clear. He assured me with a firmness rather astonishing in so soft a man that yes, it was all his and only his to sell, that there could be no difficulties. As I paid for the taxi at the door, I thanked him and said I didn’t think I’d be interested in buying, but in the event that I changed my mind I’d let him know.

Darkness by that time was almost complete, and Don Manuel’s brown face was one with the night, but I fancied I caught a strange gleam in those liquid Spanish eyes. And it didn’t make me think of holy cows of India. He turned abruptly and rolled rather than walked away down the street.

The lamps were lighted on the terrace table, and Maria was bent over the red glow of the charcoal braziers in the kitchen corner. The fragrance of roasting kid smothered in Maria’s special blend of wild marjoram, tomillo, coriander, and chile rose on the still night air. Maria de Jesús ignored my greeting and went on with the dinner. It wasn’t until she served my coffee and helped herself to a cigarette that her mood softened.

“Señora,” she said, “you should not have gone with that man—he is malo, malissimo. Do you not remember I told you that he almost killed his brother, Don José, in the fight over that property? You’ve even seen Don José and how his broken jaw still waggles like a fish on a hook. …”

I meekly replied that I hadn’t connected the two men, that after all Martinez was a very common name. Maria cleared away the dishes and stood in the yellow lamplight by the table.

She tossed her black braids over her shoulders, which is usually a sign of something dramatic, and said in a low tone as though she might be overheard, “But Señora, it is worse even than that. There are three brothers, and, a few years ago when their father was still alive, they were even then quarreling among themselves about who would inherit that land. But the father died suddenly,” her voice dropped even lower, “and it’s never been proved, but everybody knows his sons poisoned him. Their mother died of broken heart … and the quarrel still goes on, each of the three claiming that the land is his …”

In what a fine entanglement, I reflected, any unsuspecting gringo who took a fancy to buy that property, might find himself. He could pay for the land but legal procedure could drag on for years in the local court. Then there would be voluble and high-priced lawyears in Mexico City, and perhaps the gringo would give up in despair. Or other things might happen to him—an accident in the hills.

I had forgotten about the whole episode until the morning that Maria de Jesús stole Don Federico’s delicious mamés for my breakfast.

She was refilling my cup from the clay pots with equal parts of hot coffee and milk when she said gravely, “En este momento, Señora, at this very minute mass in being said in el templo for Don Manuel’s soul. I myself believe that it is burning in purgatory, but after all it is the thing correct to do, no?”

I agreed that it was undoubtedly the correct and cultured thing to have mass said for a soul, even though a rascally one, but, I asked, how did he die?

“Not naturally, Señora, not un muerto natural. Do you remember that tempestad three, no, four days ago?”

I remembered it well. The storm had come up suddenly and rain had lashed down in tropic demonic fury, tearing the leaves of the banana plants on the plantations across the street in shreds. The great mangos in the garden had groaned and swayed, and the ground was littered with small gree oranges and lemons.

“Don Manuel, they tell, was on a mountain side—lejos, lejos, far, far at his finca, when the storm broke. Can you imagine, Señora, how those trees wailed and moaned and how the water rushed down the hillsides? An old rotting tree fell, Señora, and it fell on Don Manuel and pinned him to the ground, breaking his spine.” Maria paused, and as I said nothing she went on.

“When after three days he did not come back, his wife began to wonder where he was. Often he stayed in a hut he has there for one night, two nights, but never three. So she and her daughters went to the finca and—they found him there.”

“But the Indians who live on his land?” I questioned. “Surely they knew he was there? And the dogs would have scented him, even if he had cried out and they could not hear him.”

Quien sabe?” murmured Maria. Her dark eyes went suddenly blank, and she gazed out over the shredded green of the banana plantation.

Quien sabe?” she said again, and with a seeming effort drew her eyes back to look at me. “But it is very curious—is it not, Señora?—all the Indians on the finca know nothing of Don Manuel’s death, but when he was found he was covered, covered with ants and wasps, and” she whispered, “the old woman who washed his body told me there was honey on it!”

The picture was as clear as if it had been thrown on a screen … all the dark eyes that I felt but could not see. The injured man pinned under the tree calling for help, his voice growing weaker and weaker. After dark the shadowy shapes with a pot of honey for the tyrant.

Maria de Jesús took a last deep puff on her cigarette and crushed it out in the ashtray on the bedside table. She picked up pencil and paper and handing them to me, said briskly, “And now, Señora, write these things down and write them well, for tonight for la comida I shall make you a barbacoa with the sauce sabrosa. I shall need for that a kilo of the very pretty beef and. …”

This is the way that Maria makes barbecued beef.

The kilo of beef—usually a loin cut—Maria cut into pieces approximately four inches thick (utility beef does very well for this) and seared it well over the charcoal brazier. The sauce, which she then poured over it and allowed to cook in a clay casserole over a very slow charcoal fire for about two hours, she made as follows:

To two or three tablespoons olive or cooking oil in a hot skillet add two cloves garlic and two onions finely chopped. Stir and cook slowly until the onion is yellow and soft but not brown. Add four peeled and diced tomatoes, four crushed peppercorns, three whole cloves, either a one-inch piece of whole cinnamon or a half teaspoon ground cinnamon, one teaspoon salt, and a tablespoon brown sugar. Stir constantly, allowing the mixture to simmer for about ten minutes. When you have added to this one cup of chicken stock, pour the sauce over the beef in the casserole and if you haven’t an open charcoal brazier like Maria’s, bake it in the oven.

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