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Conversations in Mexico

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

To the north of the summit on which we stood, a vast mountain of palest cyanine blue ballooned up from below the horizon. To the south the brittle snow crests of the White Lady volcano were suspended among clouds. From the east a sea of shark-fin peaks ran in against the base of our mountain. Only on the west we saw signs of man, though somewhere in the knoll of pine forest below us an axe was ringing. To the west the forest rose by steep toppling waves and chopped escarpments to a crown-shaped peak, one slope of which had been cleared of trees. Maize stubble, like the rough-cropped coat of a poor man’s horse, covered the slope. Dark stripes of maguey cactus crossed the lower slopes; high among the pines lay isolated milpas, the yellow-grey maize patches of the poor men of the village.

We descended the western ridge, clambering over turrets of rock, threading our way across echoing corries into which pines had strayed, our bodies lightened by the joy that only high mountains give. We exclaimed with pleasure at every accident of the ridge, both of us frequently moved by that childish but intense desire to give things away which accompanies all thrilling discoveries. In Mexico we had found the fabulous land of untrodden hills.

Lower down the forest overran the ridge. As we entered a glade, sheep broke through the forest wall on the other side, and in a few moments a great flock was bleating around us. For some reason, to see flocks of sheep always creates in me a sense of innocence, of an age of innocence which I know well can never have existed. Perhaps because of long years of study of the Mesta in Spain, of many years of traveling j along Sierra tracks, or because of innumerable conversations with shepherds, whose knowledge is traditional, such encounters at once create in me the sense of past time, the feuds of which have been forgotten though its poetry remains. It is an unfailing association, so that on this day, descending out of the pure sky and meeting the flock of sheep, I felt that I was in the Golden Land. Had I thought of writing about Mexico at that moment I believe I should have conceived some mystifying nonsense in the manner of Lawrence or Huxley. But when we entered the forest again we met an Indian shepherd boy, perhaps ten years old. I asked him where the path would lead us and he answered, after a long silence, in the softest of speech. His voice was full of what j is called Indian melancholy, the same that haunted his eyes and molded the posture of his body.

An Indian girl of six years will sometimes gaze at one with a mischievous smile, or with coquetry, but suddenly that animation will vanish and the look of maternity will enter her eyes. It is the remoteness or the intense sadness of the I Indian face that has suggested to visitors that the race is mourning its overthrown splendors and its disgraced gods. The shepherd boy had such a face; violated innocence was in it, and this was to be heard in his voice also. I noticed that he did not address himself to me, but to my companion, perhaps because of her sex, or perhaps because of the hint of sadness in her Jewish beauty. I continued to talk to him, and with downcast face he answered me, letting his sheep disperse into the forest. As we were about to go on our way he said: “Jefe, will you not give me five centavos.” He addressed me as Chief or Boss, but again he looked at my companion as he spoke. I gave him twenty-five cents and we left him, with a vague disappointment that he had begged. A minute later I looked back. The boy was kneeling in the glade with his mother, who had probably been hiding behind a tree. They were upon their knees, facing one another, and both were gazing into the boy’s palm. As I watched, the woman laid her hand against the boy’s face.

I am not one to deduce disaster or salvation from columns of figures; the condition of man to me is more evident in encountering him, in his conversation and behavior. As I saw the woman and her son gazing at so insignificant a sum as twenty-five Mexican cents I realized clearly that it is not departed glories that the Indian mourns, but stolen lands. His submissiveness is the product of neglect, betrayal, and imposition. The remoteness of his gaze has no mystical origin: his will has been broken, and he has been robbed of his courage. There is the problem of Mexico; how to recreate in the Indian the desire for willful living. I believe the problem is being solved, blunderingly and with appalling errors no doubt, but it is being solved. During nine months of study, scores of conversations and experiences confirmed my belief that this is the case.

One day I was in the town of Actopan, photographing some very realistic statues of the suffering Christ. It is a peculiarly Mexican town, having nothing Spanish in its atmosphere though its principal elements are Spanish. The town is built around two vast plazas, the very size of which speaks of the diffusion of energy. In the principal square was a mournful statue of a hero; verbose political manifestoes had been pasted over his name and the record of his deeds. There were shabby patches of grass in the plaza, there was a cheap band stand far off in the center. A few vendors of sugared orangewater announced their service with indifferent melancholy. The plaza was too big to serve any social purpose; it could not be defended and conversation must needs be desultory in its unfriendly spaces. Even a public tumult would be a mere partisan brawl in the principal square of Actopan.

In the other plaza I had not strolled for five minutes before the most obsessive ttisteza took possession of me. One-story houses stood around it, feeble trees were dotted about it, its tiled fountain was filled with dust and shriveled scraps of paper; the sun beat unrelentingly into it. In that plaza I sat on a bench, with eyes half closed against the light, listening morbidly to the creak of a passing cart. A middle-aged Indian woman sat before her wares which she had spread out on the pavement. She had four heaps of chestnuts, each containing five nuts. She had three oranges, five speckled apples, and two bananas. These things were arranged in an orderly pattern on the pavement. During the course of a day, seven or eight men will cross the desert of the square and perhaps one of them will pay two centavos for a heap of chestnuts. Or only five men will pass and the one with two centavos to spare on a lazy whim will go by another route.

From the chestnut seller’s post one could see the mountain where the Cu Cu, the bird of fear, sings. The Indians of that town tell how a band of musicians were hurrying over the bare mountain one night when a grand senor rode up to ask them to play at his daughter’s wedding. They played festal music in a brilliantly illuminated palace all that night, until suddenly the bird cried “Fear, Fear” and the palace, the glittering lights, and the dancers vanished, and they were alone in the whispering wind on the black mountainside, too terrified to flee. The chestnut seller crouching in the light in the desolation of the square knew that story. She sighed as she finished telling me it.

While I was sitting in the square facing the Cu Cu mountain two men sauntered over and sat by me. “Will the Jefe be pleased to offer a cigarette,” one of them said. He was a mestizo. The other, an Indian, watched without even a look of request. I gave them cigarettes. “Ah,” sighed the mestizo as he drew in smoke into his lungs, “Ah—we poor devils of prisoners.”

“Prisoners?” I asked.

“Juanito and I are prisoners,” he answered indifferently.

“But why are you out here in the square?”

“In this plaza? Oh, they send us out every afternoon to sweep the plaza. They will be fetching us in about half an hour.”

“Why are you a prisoner?”

“Oh, the drink, the pulque in me stabbed a man, in a tavern.”

“It would be a tavern, I dislike pulque.”

“The one in the principal square.”

I believe the tavern is called “Make Yourself Happy.” It will have a name like that in any case, or it will be called “The Struggle for Life.”

“Your friend, the pulque also?”

“No, it can be said his offense was the product of water; as for pulque, it is detested by those who may dispose of money.”

“A quarrel over irrigation water, then?”

“He shot a Jefe in the leg, about water. Bad water, full of salt, it drains out of the vanished lake in the valley of Mexico. It will ruin his patch; but he knows that!”

I did not ask them why they did not seek to escape. The Indian’s mournful face and his submissive yet dignified courtesy told me why. When I gave them ten centavos each the mestizo sneaked over to a drinking house and bought himself a cup of pulque. The Indian wrapped up his ten cents in a piece of cloth along with his other possessions. We sat talking idly until the big-pistoled police guard returned and whistled, at which the prisoners sauntered away to be locked up.

One day, as I was motoring to Cuernavaca, my driver suddenly pulled up at a bend in the mountain road. A car was standing at the side of the road and its driver was pulling an Indian peasant from beneath it. The peasant, a middle-aged man, had been terribly injured and could not stand unsupported ; blood was streaming from his face, many of his ribs had been broken. Three Indian women ran down from the mountainside and held him up. “Ay ay!” he sighed, and the women wailed; he stared over the valley with no resentment, while the driver petulantly upbraided him. Presently the gentleman got into his car and drove away, leaving the women to carry the injured man to some hovel among the brush.

Upon another occasion we were driving down the Paseo de la Reforma to hear Sefior Chavez conduct a symphony for the prosperous vulgarians of Mexico City (most banal and cultureless of all the cities I have known). As we drove into a gloneta we saw a man lying on his face in the road, dressed in cotton clothes. A street light shone full upon him, the rain hosed down upon him, rebounding in dense spray from the road surface. We drew up and one of us ran to a telephone. Hundreds of drivers, hooting as only the Mexican car owner thinks it necessary to hoot, wove their way around the body. Not one stopped or even slackened pace, until a bus driver drew up and dragged the wretched man to the sidewalk and propped him against a tree. He was, of course, an Indian.

Below my apartment in Luis Moya Street in Mexico City is a waste plot, the center of a block surrounded by habitations of all kinds. It is a waste land, piled with building refuse, old tires, rusty wire, broken glass and pottery, with heaps of black mud dredged out of a sewer in repair. Rats poke their way through the garbage; miserable fowls stand about disconsolately; lean cats race nimbly across the waste plot and disappear into the hovels that form the cove of the block. The roar of main-thoroughfare traffic is heard faintly; a vast structure of girders looms above the plot. That skeleton building was begun by a politician who was expelled from office for corruption. It will never be finished.

One morning three children from one of the jacals were playing on the waste plot. They were dancing hand in hand, to the singing of a workman who was frying tortillas on a shovel. Presently a boy slid down the wall from the balcony of a well-to-do house. He did not approach the dancers, nor even look in their direction. They stopped, stared guiltily at him for a few moments and filed silently into their hovel.

The attitude of the directing whites of the Deep South towards the Negro may be appalling, but it is as nothing to the contempt for the Indian and the cynicism as to their own motives displayed by the people who have hitherto owned and governed Mexico. Nor has the Jefe possessed any redeeming feature; cultureless, mannerless, without initiative, he has contributed nothing to Mexico, even during the old regime. A Mexican capitalist’s idea of enterprise was to bring out a new aerated water. The gringo, the gachupin, and the ingles were allowed to buy the country and build its major industries. It is the same today. In a country where the raw materials for the cellulose industry are abundant and cheap, it has been left to Jewish immigrants to employ labor in beginning production. The Mexican coupon-clipper merely writes anti-Semitic letters about it to the world’s most venal press.

It is these spineless and unbelievably corrupt people and their forebears who have nearly destroyed the Indian’s will. Their politicians have used him in revolution, promised him land and water, and time and again they have betrayed him with the most revolting cynicism. The bitter and heartbreaking letter which Zapata, the peasant leader, addressed to Carranza at the close of the first stage of the Mexican revolution expressed this with no trace of Mexican rhetoric. What is happening in Mexico under the Cardenas regime is that the Indian and the mestizo peasant are beginning to have faith and the desire to live.

Recently I was holidaying in the lake town of Piitzcuaro. We walked down to the brilliant jade green shore to one of the white-walled villages that one sees from the highest street of the town. I have forgotten its name. In the fields of that village we talked with the commissar of the ejido, the tract of land given to hitherto landless peasantry. The ejido fields were badly cultivated, even allowing for all difficulties such as the absence of machinery, tools, and hauling stock. This is what Mexican reactionaries say is bound to be the consequence of the Land Reform.

“What is the reason for the poor cultivation of your ejido?” I asked the commissar. His reply was immediate and unequivocal.

“We have as yet no faith in the future. We raise what can be raised without enslaving ourselves to the soil.”

“You do not wish to enslave yourselves?”

“We have no confidence as yet. So many times we have been given land and it has been taken from us. Who knows what two years may do to us?”

I know he was speaking the truth, because his gaze slowly lifted to the white house on the slope in which Lazaro Cardenas spends his holidays. If the expression of his troubled eyes could have been mistaken then all conversation is worthless. The commissar was doubtless repeating ready-made phrases, but they were of his own making, however.

The churchyard and the ruined presbytery spoke of old turbulence and the ebbing of one faith. The ejido was the sign of a new faith, and its condition showed how hard it is to nourish that faith into vigor. The old faith had an easy task. After the Indians of this region had been broken in battle, dispossessed, and delivered into frightful exploitation, they fled into the inaccessible hills to starve slowly and to degenerate. The preaching friars of Michoacan, long honored as the fathers of that state, had as their task to practise charity and counsel resignation, and so to bring the Indians down to the valley lands which were no longer theirs. The contemporary task is far more difficult; it is to animate, invigorate, and educate the dispirited and illiterate dispossessed.

At the other end of the village, on the edge of a blue reach of the lake, out of whose dazzling water rose the heads of marsh grasses, we met a little old man, beady-eyed, bowbacked, wizened. We talked for twenty minutes with him. The fundamental rule in conversing with peasants is never to put a leading question. If one does so one will get a ready-made answer. This old man did not express himself easily in Spanish but we learned that he thought the Mexican revolutionary wars had been part of a war which encompassed the whole world, and that the Spanish war was a campaign of revolution. When I told him then, that the Spanish war still continued, he sighed and said, as if to himself, “Then I am more content to be here.” I do not know whether he had profited by the Land Reform, and he was certainly ignorant of the ideological conflicts of the Spanish war. But in his belief that it must be a part of the Mexican revolution he disclosed that he believed that civil strife must necessarily be about land. It is this simple outlook which must be developed into a philosophy which may animate the peasantry not only to agitate for land, but to work it once it is obtained. It must not be supposed that the state of the peasant will is everywhere weak. The period when that was true has passed. In innumerable cases I saw that the Indian land-worker was bringing great resources of will and emotion to his task and that he was possessed of long-enduring patience.

I was once invited to be present at a session of the commissariat of an ejido belonging to a village on the long slopes of the Malinche peak in Puebla. The commissariat met in a small room with one window high in the wall, at nine o’clock in the evening. The room was illuminated by three candles placed on the floor. There were no seats; all the white-clothed delegates sat tailor-fashion on the floor of beaten earth, or crouched, their buttocks resting on their calves. Unable to resist the fatigue caused by half an hour of this posture, I sat on the floor and leaned against a wall. The session lasted until daybreak, without recess, and during the whole of that time a peasant stood severely erect, sustaining a silken banner upon which was the name of the ejido and a revolutionary slogan. Nothing had been said until the banner, which must have cost a year’s wages of any of the delegates, had been ceremoniously unfurled. When the chairman at last brought the meeting to an end and the candle box was closed and gray light was gradually seeping into the room, the banner was furled with equal solemnity. First the floor was carefully swept. Then two peasants delicately took hold of the free corners of the banner and assisted the bearer in folding it. Next it was wrapped in a carmine faja (the waist belt worn by many peasants) and finally escorted to the bearer’s house.

That these Indians had a religious attitude towards this symbol is an easy assertion to make. I did not feel it to be religious, though on second thought I do not understand what is meant by the assertion, which has been made to me as often as I have spoken of the incident. If a religious symbol is at once a brief statement of dogma and a vehicle of grace in the sacramental sense, then the banner was not a symbol, On the other hand, I thought that this possession of the banner was felt by them to incorporate them in a vast worldwide movement. It was not an ecclesia to which they belonged, but they believed themselves to be leading actors in a universal drama and expressed their recognition of all other peasants in that fashion. I doubt whether the banner had any dogmatic significance to them, for in nine hours of unceasing discussion I heard no statement more dogmatic than: “The worker should not fight for land alone. He must look to his culture, as we have been told; therefore I propose that we put an end to this discussion by asking President Cardenas to lend us two thousand pesos to purchase the band instruments.” How to set up a village band had been one of the items on the agenda.

There was neither dogmatic discussion nor rhetoric at this meeting of the ejido commissariat. The only sign that one not knowing Spanish would have had that this was not an informal chat between friends, would have been a certain ceremoniousness and gravity, very moving to watch, which from time to time would steady the swift racing, softly uttered speech. At the end of longer speeches the delegates would finish with “lie dicho!” (“I have spoken!”)

My notes are incomplete, because much of the business was translated in Nahua, the ancient Mexican tongue, but here are some of the items discussed: how to persuade a certain peasant to contribute his share towards the repayment of a loan from the government; whether a peasant who had fallen only mildy sick might employ another to work his land (a thing permitted by ejido law only in exceptional circumstances) ; whether or not the engineer who had been employed to sink wells was sabotaging the work and wasting the governmental loan (the president counseled patience in this, but was obviously suspicious); whether it was any use waiting for the police or military to hunt down a notorious assassin who had shot three peasant leaders in the district; it was resolved to attempt the planting of wheat, and to consult an expert as to what species to sow; it was resolved to impose a small tax of two cents per week for the purchase of a new hatch for the irrigation conduit.

The only heated debate was that concerning the formation of the ejido band. One of the delegates nourished a petulant hatred of music. Everyone grew furious with his method of argument. “We cannot afford it,” he argued, and he gave incontrovertible proof that they could not, running through the profit yield, crop by crop, occasionally bringing in a contemptuous reference to music, and at once skipping lightly to the next undeniable economic truth. Perceiving that I, the ejido guest, was also becoming exasperated, he adopted the cunning practice of presenting his economics in Spanish while he couched his insults in Nahua. He greatly enjoyed this trick, which increased the general irritation. Alas, the compafleros will not get their instruments.

Such deliberations as these go on in almost every village where there is an ejido, and they are usually conducted with dignity. It is necessary to extend the peasant’s control over his own land, as a means of strengthening his will, which has begun to grow strong. At the Congress of Peasants in the Laguna cotton-growing region this demand was expressly made by the delegates. The Ejidal Bank was attacked for its heavy-handed interference. La Laguna, at first a failure, is now becoming a success. Discipline grows stronger, work is performed more steadily, and fewer and fewer abuses are committed.

Here and there, where the Indians’ will had not been broken, the Land Reform has led to considerable economic success and to a definite increase of energy. The Yaqui Indians provide an example. The Yaquis were never completely conquered. They retreated into the high and difficult hills of the Yaqui River Valley, but from there they continually made plunderous forays into the lowland. “AM vienen los Yaquis” (“Here comes the Yaquis”) was a terrible cry in the villages of the plains whose populations were again and again wiped out by the marauders. At one time they became the tools of religious fanatics and wrecked trains for the love of an alien god, putting scores of passengers to death.

Then came the Cardenas regime, and their good lands were returned to them. They were not grateful. “What was stolen has been tardily returned” expressed their feeling, and they said this to the government agronomists. Despite long years of struggle, or perhaps because of it, the Yaquis had preserved the customs proper to their race. They had their own concepts of private property, which existed only in a truncated form. Then, when they were brought into the Land Reform, such things as collective acceptance of the responsibility of repaying a collective loan were easily accepted. Today the Yaqui agriculturist is much more prosperous than even the Nahua, former master of the Mexican plateau, and infinitely more so than the Otomi or Maya. He often cultivates common land, with communally-owned tools and beasts; he sometimes accepts an equalitarian distribution of produce not as a consequence of indoctrination, but because it is natural to him. He is disciplined and content, and aware of what is happening around him. He has his own juridical system, and speaks of his tribal judge or chief as “El Pueblo” (“the people”). “Let us consult the people” to the Yaqui means laying the matter before the judge. El Pueblo is implicitly obeyed when consulted, but he does not posture and he can be deposed. More surprising still, it is the pure-blooded Yaqui who often becomes an organizer and works among the mestizo peasants who Jive on the opposite river bank. The reverse is usually the case. And whereas in some regions it has been possible for the Jefe to set the peasantry against the workmen of the towns, the Yaqui Indians, formerly fiercest of warriors, are largely organized in the Mexican Confederation of Labor. Their conduct in trade-union affairs is dignified rnd conscientious.

Perhaps the most startling instance of dignity, as well as of courage and patience, I witnessed at a congress of peasants in Mexico City. The delegates from Penjamo had a sad and dramatic story to tell. A local Cristero, or reactionary gunman, had obtained the help of a corrupt military commander and had had himself made chief of the Agrarian Reserve. This Reserve consists of armed peasants of the ejido whose task it is to protect the lands from politically-inspired marauders. At Penjamo, this gunman, whose crimes were well known to the people, had enlisted in the Reserve all those conservative peasants who prefer wage labor to ejido initiative, and they had killed several reformers and driven the rest into the hills. In this he had been aided by a corrupt town council. The delegates demanded the dismissal of the council and the arrest of the Cristero.

Now Mexico is a federation of states, and some of these states are no more civilized than certain states in the United States. There were difficulties, therefore, in the way of prompt execution of the delegates’ proposals. The peasant leaders promised to petition President Cardenas in their favor, but reminded the men of Penjamo that they also had responsibilities. We were standing back stage in a small theater in the Ministry of Education, among shabby scenery representing Ixtaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, in a draughty gloom. The conversation went thus: Miguelito, the agrarian organizer, laughingly said, “We’ll do what we can; you companeros want town councils removed like so many pieces of furniture!”

The first delegate deferentially replied, “They’ve killed Martin and Martin’s boy and Paco, who promised so well, and there are twenty-six families who have had to abandon their strips [of land] and are wandering in the Sierras for fear of death.”

The second delegate, who had made a quieter speech during the session, nodded gravely. “We think we have a case,” he said.

“All right, of course you have a case,” Miguelito continued. “You heard the other delegates? Everybody has a case. But we’ll do the best we can. But has it ever struck you that this state of affairs is your fault?”

“I opposed this man, son of a corn cob that I am! My wife and two sons are hiding in the forest, amongst lions.” The first delegate began thus hotly, but Number Two shook his head. This is not quite so rhetorical as it sounded, but it gives a hint of the delegate’s character. It was, of course, the truth.

“What I mean,” Miguelito said, “is that these men who drove you into the hills and killed Martin are poor men like you. If you’d done your work properly and convinced them about the Land Reform. . . .”

The second delegate nodded. “I have said the same,” he said. “We should perhaps have not taken possession of our land for a while until we had won them over.”

“However,” Miguelito began. . . .

“Then you’re proposing we come down out of the hills and talk to these bandits,” Number One said. His sarcasm, incredible as it may seem, evaporated before he had completed his remark.

“Why not?” Miguelito questioned. “There are risks, it is true. Remember they are not bandits.”

“Indeed there are risks,” Number Two commented dryly.

“There are risks,” Miguelito continued, and, ever ready to clinch an argument in the way that never fails with simple, active people, he referred to the fact that I had been an officer of the International Brigade in Spain. Both delegates put out their hands, and after renewed greetings (I had been introduced to them as a writer), the conversation at once became practical. The two delegates agreed to risk a return to their village in order to work among the conservative peasants. If one remembers the bitterness of this feud, the disillusionment, the apparent hopelessness of the situation, for the village had just obtained land after eleven years of petitioning the government, one will understand the nature of the effort these men were making. There was no element of bravado in their acceptance of these instructions. Nor were these men trained and tried professional politicians; they were simple Indians whose will to live had been restored by a new turn in Mexican history.

Such stories as this Penjamo incident rarely reach the North American critic of Mexican affairs. I have met many who had accurate knowledge of personalities and movements. But Mexico cannot be understood unless one realizes that practically every village is more or less a Penjamo. Last year in Vera Cruz State alone, between three and four hundred peasant supporters of the Land Reforms were assassinated. (The Land Reform, by the way, was duly and properly written into the Mexican constitution in 1917.) It is in this setting of violent drama that the peasants’ reawakening is occurring. That he does not relapse into melancholy resignation on the one extreme, or sweep the country with fire and machete on the other, is remarkable. He is slowly becoming convinced that justice is being done, and with this conviction there is reborn the will to live.


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