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Industry in Tlaquepaque

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

Ask much of the road from Guadalajara to San Pedro Tlaquepaque. A few miles only: what do you seek of the day? Sunlight? It is there—in that store which western Mexico holds for those who have had too much heat or too much cold or too much damp. It beats on the cobbles, it floods the ploughed fields beyond adobe walls. It is an even, penetrating, sensuous warmth that makes you glad to be not alone. Shade? But there are the trees by the straight highway, great boles and wide branches hanging dustily over the pavement and the accompanying web of burro trails. It is the cooling, relaxing aftermath of fire. Beauty? There is beauty in the trees and in the fields, in the lakelet that shimmers in a hollow, in the color of the land and of young wheat, in the men who make bricks by the roadside and lend their color to the scene. It is in the distance, pale tan and lavender distance, broad plains and smooth hills, warming sunshine, hazy sunshine veiling far flowers and the edge of a pale blue sky. It is a beauty that translates itself quickly into a mood of togetherness, not as a fact but as a thought.

Perhaps it were well not to speculate on type but to wonder as to the accompanying whys of Mexico. That great villa by the gate, so elegant in proportion and in its classic portico, the former residence of an eighteenth-century marquis—what does his ghost think of the square-faced houses adjoining his once estate? Those ancient, grey adobe walls bordering the highway—do they wonder why there are now a hundred thousand more mouths to feed in Guadalajara than when the fields behind them were younger? The fissures worn in the walls by the flooding of so much time—did Hidalgo march through them when he came to found independence and plan his death? Let a hundred years roll by and ask what Villa thought when he ordered his wild north-men forward on this plain while the ghosts of Indians who had fought with Spaniards watched. The huge fields which supply food—do they understand why other acres have been torn from other hands and given to little men who know not how to cultivate but are nevertheless, somehow, content? The remaining landlords—what do they think of wooden plows, they who once organized the cultivation of vast plains before revolution turned Mexico back to the hoe and the harvester’s knife? The priests who tended the stone well in the middle of the road, a great basin into which water drips from sculptured shelves tiered like the veiled ledges of a rainbow falls—do they believe that God has passed from this land because their ritual is no longer wanted? The men who toil in the fields and in the town—is it the same kind of toil?

One asks oneself so often, what is the use of striving? Full half of the people in the world live in a day to day situation which, if it is measured materially, is bereft of rewards or the urge to add to inherited resources. For such men, since nature is especially bountiful to them, the requisites of ] life are easily attainable. But a temperate climate ordained activity for the other half of people, and Christianity and Europe discovered duty. So Europe, the Americas, and certain fringes of Asia where imperialism has intervened, have accepted a hardier way of life: we must do better, let’s go, to hell with it! (For Chrisake, buddy, d’you wanna live forever: hurry up or you’ll bog the show: you goddam bolshevik, you don’t belong. . . .) That other half that lives by nature’s supply is static, abstract in a world of events, not conscious of itself, and it dies by millions. But it exists. It does not want, it is not inspired toward self-improvement, it is not inquisitive toward the reforming of a neighbor, it is not dissatisfied with its own slow stream of life. Where does Mexico belong in this dual world?

The Spaniards found a feudal Indian land. They taught it, bloodily, their own desires. They crushed its civilization —but, since they did not seek to understand its soul, being content with the quick conversion of the body, they did not rape its desire for life. So independence came; and, following it, an opportunity for other men who also had desires to get rich at the expense of Mexico. But even their tyranny has not stolen from Indian blood its wish to go on existing. Therefore the Mexico of the new revolution, true to a half-visioned oriental heritage, is turning away from occidental wish-fulfillment. It is ranging itself with that other half of people who are content not to strive.

There are of course many contradictions, and birth for new Mexico has not been free from pain. There is the redolent example of the United States which, in spite of depression, is a glowing example (or so many think it to be) of the rewards of reiterant effort. There is the pressure of foreign diplomacy which demands privileges for other nationals who spend a lifetime wishing that the thought of Porfirio Diaz could be restored. There are many Mexicans themselves who try to do as men too quickly elevated to power always do: there are strikes of the few against the many, unskilled graft, and the threat of renewed, self-seeking strife. But these things are not Mexico any more than depression is the wish of the capitalist or social tolerance is bolshevism.

We visit a pottery factory in Tlaquepaque, at the end of the short road that is so beautiful. There are men sitting under an old arcade in an open court, working. Their sandals and their wide-brimmed hats lie beside them, their materials are spread about, the pots they are painting rest on their knees. They are intent, they work with small brushes making fine lines on the round sides of pottery. Can we, senora, have a dozen of this plate, a dozen of that, or could you copy that blue vase we liked so much? We watch the work. The man, drawing thin colored lines across the curves of an urn, paints on, a stroke of green and, as we speculate, a stroke of orange. Why green and orange next to red? He likes it, says the seftora, see zat other man, he is painting a deer. He wants to, I suppose.

The unbaked pottery is earth-black. The liquid the man is using is transparent until, a second later, it dries to white: first the outlines of the head and body, then the legs, then the rounded form, then a spreading cactus. He mutters and the seftora translates:

“He says it is a maguey; ze deer is in its shade. You say century tree, I sink, he say he like to drink tequila which comes from zat. He is a good man, he paints what he sinks.”

But, good Lord, they are making designs, don’t you tell them what you want to sell, what do they copy? “Zey copy nosings, see, zere is nosings here for zem to copy. Zey paint what zey sinks. I tell zem when zey mix ze color in ze dish if it is good but zey tell zemselves what to do. He must know how to make a cactus. I do not know if he have seen a deer but zere it is. He have a deer in his head.”

In another room is a man at a potter’s wheel—a pair of superimposed, rotating tables, rather: one for his spinning clay and one below, attached to it, for his foot to turn. All day he sits crouched over the clay on the upper wheel, flashing a bare foot forward and back and making the lower spin. No, I do not tell zem what shapes to make. Zey know. All day long they know, and yesterday and tomorrow. Plates are formed in molds because the people who buy them insist on soup from an open dish that stands flat instead of from a pot; but when it is merely a question of enclosing liquid in a cobweb of wings and flowers, why then, says the senora, zey know. They do not think in terms of dozens or of sets.

Some few days before, we had visited a spinning mill in a similar countryside. A thousand men and women were tending carders and looms. Their methods also were different from the means employed in mass production because the men were too many and the machinery was ancient. Why the revolution left it when it broke through this way, I do not know. Revolutions smash indiscriminately, nor stop to count the cost of destruction—in Mexico, everywhere. The factory was spared; so now it clatters throughout the day, devouring great bales of cotton, sucking fluff through tubes, spinning fat white ropes into thread, weaving them into muslin, cheap muslin for the clothes of Mexican men.

The workers are stolid, indifferent, they gape at visitors and titter self-consciously. They are not even machine-like in their tending of machines, their arrogance is a shell to hide their insufficiency. They have no foundation nor self-discipline, they are unhappy. They do not understand. They have only to feed ancient, clattering machinery, they do not master it.

Mass production, as it is best practiced in those factories where management has provided a planned method and a maximum of labor-saving equipment, does not include that obliteration of individualism which too many commentators claim. They argue the submersion of creativeness, they fail to realize that the machine has replaced only brawn and that without an operator’s best brains it is helpless. It is the foe of common labor, not of uncommon mind. Machines are a necessity of life in those countries which ride on progress, price, and an ascending scale of living. They are as inherent to the well-being of capitalism as are owned homes and sanitation. Rut they are out of place amid civilizations where the static is the norm or where desire to improve is subservient to a delight in existence for itself.

The workers of the mill lived in close rows of grey, attached houses: twenty concrete dugouts, a packed grey yard where flowers struggled, a paved street, then twenty houses more. A few trees cast a mockery of the nearby shady valley. At an angle, another row of buildings—billar, cantina, tienda, cantina, botica, cantina—ran off toward a high wall, Some standing water stank. Children screamed after the motor. The burros in the road were molting filth. The high wall was broken in several places. The baked ground within the walled enclosure was treeless, flowerless. There was a chattering hum of machinery in the air. A mile away there was another village which may have been as dirty; it had tiled roofs and brown adobe walls, flowers grew in its gardens and trees in its streets. I do not know where the people of that other village worked—perhaps they were farmers.

The mill workers received good pay: four pesos a day on the average. The Indians in the factory patio at San Pedro Tlaquepaque earned less, but they were happy. They were artists: it takes an artist to be content with a job, There are many workmen in the mass-production factories of the United States who are satisfied with their jobs—because they are thus offered a chance to get ahead in the great democracy of industry. There are many workmen in Mexico whose labor, like that of the sefiora’s pottery makers, is hand-craft art; and they too are satisfied with their jobs. But the factory worker is not.

One cannot blame him for supporting subversive labor unions and direct action. He understands nothing of industry, there is nothing creative in his task. He knows only the tending of machinery and wages and work for a boss who looks upon him as a tool. And he is, really, only that. He is a misplaced pair of hands whose subconscious thought is with his ancestors in the mountains, weaving or molding clay or driving wood pegs into hand-hewn beams or gardening—or it is with the vast majority of his fellow countrymen who, with the revolution, have won the right to continue in those tasks where they find happiness. An industrialized Mexico would be dead. It would lack the color of creative work.

The pottery makers arc Indians. So are the mill hands, pure Indian or mestizos. The mixed blood is unreliable when confined within an unsuitable industrial system and it can never be as creative as the Indian. Otherwise, it provides the chief stamp of the new Mexican character. It is simpdtico. Pure Indian blood is more forceful than the mixed, more far-seeing, more settled. Pure white blood in Mexico is of the past. The mixture is telling because in it Indian traits are spread. The Indian half has preserved in the modern people much of the brain the Indian had developed before the Spaniards came. Indian ancestry, for example, is characterizing post-revolutionary life with a reflection of that socialism the mountain tribes once learned from nature. The nation has not lost the creative force that guides the fingers of the pottery painters—except when someone tries to cramp it within the limits of an organized system unwanted by the people.

All through the length and breadth of Mexico one feels, stirring deeply, contentment with the revolution and the freedom for individual expression it has brought. Everywhere, that is to say, except among foreigners. They invariably tell you how Mexico has lost financially by the revolution—which is probably true. Certainly there is not left in the country capital enough of its own to develop its natural resources, and certainly also the national financial attitude is far from encouraging to foreign investors. Thus by the policy of the Mexicans themselves, jobs and the chance of taxing exploiters are kept away. They tell you how, within the law, a peon may denounce planted acres owned by a landlord, live for a year or so on the crops that his boss had planted, and afterward let the land go to waste. He is helpless because of ignorance or idleness, while the former owner is paid in worthless bonds. This also may well be true: a land-hungry revolutionary party is seldom considerate of its admitted foes, and the expropriation of property is popular only with those who have nothing. Then they tell you that the currency is being deliberately depreciated (O Germany, O France, O Europe who thus paid your internal debts!), and they cap the indictment by proving that the few white “best people” are in the minority and can no longer control.

All true—and all an inconsequential detail in the story of new Mexico. Its people are aware that the departure of the Chinese merchants from Sonora has broken banks. They know that American mine companies and drillers for oil will not readily co-operate. They realize that farm production per acre has declined. Perhaps also they are agreeable to bankruptcy. These are evils in the capitalistic scheme of things—but a job is not so much sought for when a man can produce such few onions, squash, and beans as he needs and be content with that. Unless one can interpret individual satisfaction in other terms than gain, one cannot assess the Mexico that is.

Mexico is half pure Indian and half of the remaining dark-skinned blood is Indian by intermarriage. There are so few white “best people.” Remember that. Therein lies the secret of Mexico’s industrial situation, its ineptitude for mechanization, its ability to create. Men crouching on the floor painting original designs on pottery are of more importance to the state than men tending slothfully the equipment of an ancient spinning mill. If they had in them a desire to understand the inherent worth of real productive effort, it might be different. But they are Mexicans. They do not strive. For the United States, mass production, employment, prosperity, and the utmost reward for service to humanity; for Mexico, individual creative genius, land and a home, satisfaction with nature, and the full fruit of the Indian tradition—therein lies well-being for two peoples.

“We do not make a dozen plates,” said the seftora of Tlaquepaque. “I suppose we could. We do not. Zey paint what zey sink.”

A boy interrupted and she approved a new mixture of color. A girl came asking what price to charge for a bowl.

A glance, a word: she was the executive who made decisions, was this deep-eyed woman clad in black, a boss whom men followed.

“We make some sings for ze trade—all buyers have not taste—but most of zose statues of ladies and funeral vases are like ze Japanese. Ze Indios do not like zem.”

Said our taxi driver later: “But yes, the seflora is an India, too: did you not see her nose, her face, her eyes? She thinks like an Indio.”

One evening as we were dining in Guadalajara an itinerant orchestra appeared. Did we wish music? After a time one, who played the cello, stepped forward to admit of more English than our Spanish. “I have been in Houston. My son and my daughter are in Detroit, but for two years there is no work. I write him he is a Mexican, to come home. It was the same with me in Houston, I joined the union but the jobs went to the North Americans. So now I play in the streets. I am happy.”

It had almost escaped me until now that this sketch started to be about San Pedro Tlaquepaque. It is an old town and, in ancient days, was a place where the grandees of Guadalajara maintained suburban homes. The architecture is pleasant but not noteworthy, the patios one sees through open doorways are green with oranges and palms. Bougainvil-lea, trumpet vine, and roses grow in profusion. A grove of thronging eucalyptus trees makes the air sweet. There is an interesting municipal arcade around the square, with columned porches facing the street and also the garden within, where are flowers and sun and the deep shade of heavy arches. There are throngs of people in the streets, people with dark hair and hawk noses, come from afar and come from the patios to find the clinging thrill of Tlaquepaque’s peace. There are also the seflora and her Indians. They help you to understand.


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