1940s Archive

Mexican Mornings

Originally Published October 1947

It was Sunday morning in Zacualtipán. You were aware of that fact long before you were really awake because before dawn there came to your half-sleeping consciousness the clop-clop of horses’ hoofs in the cobbled lane to the accompaniment of the daintier tread of the burros. At daybreak came the not unmusical clanging of the old cathedral bells and gongs, with intermittent bursts of ringing for high and low masses. For Sunday is market day in Mexico; from far, isolated farms and chacras came the peons and Indians with their wares.


From my living-room windows you could see them trudging in groups, singly, and by twos and threes, down the winding paths from the hills. Whole families from the father and mother down to the littlest ones came laden with great loads of red-brown pottery, cleverly laced together and towering high over their heads and bent backs. Some came with burros carrying the produce of the hills. Dark Huasteca Indians, always immaculate in their pajama-like costumes, brought beautiful handmade cedar chairs with rush bottoms to sell. One could acquire a beautifully proportioned armchair for about two dollars in our money; the tiny children’s chairs, which made you smile, for only about thirty-five cents.

Unlike an American Sunday morning with its rather oily sanctimonious atmosphere, a Zacualtipán Sabbath had always a feeling of suppressed excitement. One spent the morning in the market buying provisions for the week; you never knew what new and exciting thing you might find. In the first place the household underwent a complete metamorphosis because Angelita, the cook, usually brought her family to spend the day—that is, she brought the children. Angelita was young and pretty, and Lord Freddy and I were a little curious about her husband, but we never saw him. As Angelita explained it, he stayed home “watching the corn grow.” But she brought the three children—two little barefoot girls of about seven and eight, and a lump of a baby boy who bore the elegant name of Aureliano. Angelita and her daughters walked the four miles of rocky road in bare feet, but the spoiled and adored male of the family, who was too small to walk, was very well shod indeed.

The girls were like shy, furtive little animals with their dark, sidewise glances, but they made themselves useful sweeping the terraces and watering the plants which lined the balcony railings. Angelita, as usual, went about the business of building up fires for the coffee, keeping an eye on the scion of the family whom she kept in the kitchen with her, stuffing him with tortillas, soothing him when he howled, which was frequently.

Breakfast over, Angelita and her family retired to the kitchen terrace where she scrubbed them until you would have thought they would be skinless, braided their long black hair, and put them into fresh dresses which she carried in a bundle from home. In all they presented a picture of peon respectability that would have been hard to beat.

After breakfast there was an exodus of the entire household to market. The next lane up from the house was that of the pottery makers, who lined the wayside with their wares. Freddy could always find a jar or pot for flowers of a different shape from what he’d ever seen, while I never could resist a water jar of Indian design. Usually by the time we had reached the plaza, the party had scattered in the motley throng—Angelita first going to the market building for meat, selecting the best of the barbecued lamb, pork, and beef which had been roasted in pits all the night before. Then she proceeded to buy enough green stuffs for the week.

Some Sundays were better market days than others, and I remember that this particular Sunday had more to offer than any other I’d ever known in Zacualtipán. The entire square was crowded with Indians whose puestos were spread with goods and produce new to me. There were lovely wooden bowls of exquisite shape and workmanship—many long bateas which are used for laundry—which could be bought for anywhere from ten to fifty cents in our money. My purchasing grew so that soon I was trailed by several small ragged boys carrying things for me. Now and then I caught sight of Lord Freddy sampling strange fruits or examining hand-woven ponchos.

Angelita with her laden family and I with my retinue reached the house at the same time. Our purchases spread out on the long table on the kitchen terrace seemed truly to proclaim Zacualtipán La Tierra Bendita, for the oranges, limes, pineapples, bananas, figs, apples, pears, persimmons, and quinces alone made a glowing display. There were several kinds of meat, cooked and uncooked, two large baskets of vegetables with everything from potatoes and cabbages, onions and garlic, to bunches of fresh olores, including coriander, dill, and wild marjoram. There was a huge bowl of maza—the wet-ground corn meal for tortillas; enough charcoal had been bought for the week. And of course there was a sizable collection of new pottery, even including some quaint little figures of horses.

I had just come to the rather startling but satisfactory conclusion, with the aid of paper and pencil, that the day’s shopping had come to something over twelve pesos, or about two dollars and forty cents, when I heard Lord Freddy enter the sala. “Come,” he called, “and see what I’ve brought you.”

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