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A Modern Don Quixote

ISSUE:  Spring 1943

For some years I lost track of my Mexican friend, Senor Aurelio Manrique. Exiled to the United States, he had vanished into that American jungle known as Hollywood. The next I heard, he was in the films, acting in parts requiring a black beard of Mosaic proportions. The rest of the time he taught Greek.

I was not surprised that he knew Greek; I was merely surprised, although I may be doing an injustice to Clark Gable or Dorothy Lamour, that anyone in Hollywood would want to learn it. If tomorrow Don Aurelio began talking to me in Hindustani or Zulu, I would not lift an eyebrow; nor would I jump to the conclusion that he had been on far travels, for I often heard him speak Italian, German, French, English, and Portuguese, as well as some Russian, long before he ever set foot outside of Mexico.

Don Aurelio’s flair for languages is merely a footnote in the busy, arduous, and important life of a personage who has held important posts and been a factor in the political life of his country. He is a big, picturesque man in a huge black hat, who can sway multitudes with his oratory, face danger calmly, and forever be himself. He stands in my memory as a pillar of fire because, at all times, he has never been afraid to do or say what he considered to be right, regardless of his own personal or political fate. At a time when men everywhere are becoming regimented and afraid and are bowing down to false gods of power and oppression, Don Aurelio’s dimensions grow larger. He is a curious combination of Jeremiah, politician, scholar, and humanitarian. Tremendous seriousness and ready laughter twine about this bulky man, like strong tropic vines. Perhaps I was always attracted to him also because he so reminded me, in physique, black beard, and character— even in his hat—of my hearty Civil War grandfather, who to the end of his eighty-year life was Jovian and august, yet full of endless pranks, never afraid to be a real individual, contemptuous of vulgar opinion, wholly tolerant of others, yet hewing to the line of his own convictions.

Don Aurelio reminds me of those bold and bizarre types that came to flower in the gay, grim, mauve nineties in the United States, characters flavored with the free soil of America, always unique in temperament and convinced of the power of each man to rule his own destiny and help others. They had curious intense beliefs, but they lacked the stream-lining of scientific thought; they were rambunctious and poorly disciplined intellectually, yet one recalls their vagaries, their humanness, and their bumptious Sir Galahad qualities with fondness: such types as “Sockless” Jerry Simpson and Carrie Nation of Medicine Lodge, Kansas, or Ignatius Donnelly, that wild Irish politician of Minnesota, the Sage of Nininger, orator and politician of lost causes, poet and best seller. Manrique belongs to this same quixotic breed,

I first heard of his bizarre doings when he was the loved and hated governor of San Luis Potosi in north central Mexico. In 1925, when returning to Mexico City by train, I was struck by the impulse to get off en route and see the governor whose incomprehensible doings were enlivening the life of all good reporters. That afternoon I sat in his antesala, telling myself that my impulse had been quite foolish, for I had no appointment and knew no one in the locale who could get me through the red-tape usually involved in seeing any prominent Mexican official. Except to satisfy my own curiosity, I had no business to transact.

Presently a door opened, and Manrique’s black beard poked out. “Who’s next?” he called. Without even the buffer of a secretary, he was receiving all comers regardless of rank or the importance of the visit, in the strict order in which they had entered his waiting-rooms. He was, he told me presently, determined to have no bars between himself and the people he governed.

Those waiting were a motley assortment: Indians, peasants in white “pajamas,” artists, several middle-class business men, ranchers in embroidered leather jackets and tight trousers. Now, at his query, a barefoot Indian woman, a blue striped shawl framing her broad face and black hair, entered the inner sanctum, her long bulging skirts swishing on the tile floor. A little white goat pattered at her heels, A colonel in tan uniform shifted his pistol and bit his moustache provokedly when he was preceded by such trash.

An elegant, handsome woman all in black sat very erect, tightly clasping a prayer book in her hands. Her black veil was a symbol of personal concealment required of a woman of the so-called aristocracy, when stooping to call on a politician, and especially one of the hated new dispensation. Later, Manrique told me she had come to enlist his good offices in persuading a vagabond son to return home and help an infirm father manage the family patrimony. The governor got all sorts of personal appeals of that sort, for it had become bruited abroad that he never turned a deaf ear to any appeal for aid.

Though my own call was frivolous, I was received cordially and told succinctly of his purposes as governor: to enforce the law impartially, eliminate all graft, promote efficiency, start new industries, and, at all times, protect and promote the interests of the poor and the oppressed.

His first act as governor was to reduce his own meager salary of forty pesos a day to fifteen pesos, and, by living in an humble pension in a small room almost bare of furniture, he was able to give most of the latter sum away to the needy. Several years later when he was ousted from the governorship, he had actually to pawn his watch to get the fare to go to Mexico City.

Whenever enforcement of the law was too dangerous, he strapped a gun around his waist, mounted his horse, and enforced it in person.

At that time, there was a prohibition law in San Luis Potosi, but liquor was sold openly. One of the major industries in the arid state of San Luis Potosi is the raising of maguey plants for the manufacture of mescal, the Mexican cognac. The law hit a mortal blow at the state’s economy, and Manrique, himself a prohibitionist, felt that it would have been wiser to develop other commercial possibilities for the maguey plant (fibers, medicinal and synthetic compounds) before striking the distilling industry down. But the law, until repealed, had to be enforced. This was difficult, for few officials, even under threat of losing their jobs, cared to antagonize the powerful liquor interests in the state. So Manrique provided himself with a weird assortment of padlocks and whenever he came upon a saloon, would ride his horse right through swinging doors, order the inmates out, and close up the establishment.

One evening, brooding on the ills of humanity and the numerous abuses of his predecessors in office, Manrique wondered how many State prisoners had been incarcerated improperly. He considered the whole Mexican penal system antiquated and unscientific. Corruption began in the courts and extended to the enforcers of the law. The prison itself did not rehabilitate.

With Manrique, to think is to act. And so, in the wee, small hours of a winter night—often it gets icy cold on the high plateau—he rode down to the State prison, routed out the warden, and went over the records. He ordered all but proven serious offenders brought into the prison patio and there addressed them, urging them henceforth to be good moral citizens. The gates were swung open and he cried out: “Go forth, my sons, you are free.” Something of an anti-climax resulted when several poor wretches refused to leave. “Jefe, it is cold. We have no home, no place to sleep, It’s warm and safe here inside.”

Once he smote down an abusive policeman who had overturned the wares of an old Indian woman, and I saw him, the governor of the state, get down on his knees in the gutter and pick up her scattered fruit.

Manrique was indefatigable in touring the state, even the remotest mountain corners. He listened to all complaints, attempted to rectify them. Often he set out alone on his horse, unprotected, telling no one of his destination, for he thus made it more difficult for local abuses to be covered up.

Once, thus riding alone, he came upon a band of armed men. Their leaders said they were going up to the capital, where they would slip into town in small groups, then reassemble and seize the governor, whom they intended to hang.

“Have you ever seen the governor?” asked Manrique.

“No, but he has a big black beard.”

“Like mine?”

“Yes, like yours.”

“I will ride with you,” said Manrique, “and if the governor needs to be hanged, I shall help you hang him.”

As they rode along, he listened to their reasons for their lawless expedition. Mildly he suggested that perhaps, before hanging the governor, they ought to call on him and state their case. “He receives everybody. If he is reasonable, you won’t have to hang him. If he isn’t, you can seize him on the spot.”

That night the band dispersed into the by-corners of the capital. The next morning the leaders went up to the capitol only to discover that their chance traveling companion had actually been the governor himself. Abashed and stammering, they backed out. They became two of his most ardent supporters.

Among certain Indian groups in Mexico, it is customary to greet all travelers with music. Once when Manrique was riding incognito and all alone among the remote hills in a poor section of the state, three old Indians rose unexpectedly out of the rocks and the cactus and began singing a song. They then invited the unknown traveler to their little thatched village, where they fed him as best they could, for there was little food. All the time they apologized for their meager hospitality, especially in the way of music. They were too poor to buy musical instruments and so could only sing for him.

He departed and some time later a string of burros plodded over the hills laden with drums, horns, trombones, clarinets, a complete orchestral outfit, with the simple words, “From the governor to the kind and hospitable folk of Arroyo Seco.”

With it came an invitation to the three old singers to pay a visit to the governor at the capitol.

When they arrived they were greeted by the best military band and seated at a banquet under the dome of the capitol itself, and there in the presence of well-dressed state officials, Governer Manrique told of his appreciation to the three old men in peasant costume, their heads poking through their hand woven serapes, their feet clad only in leather guaraches, or thonged sandals.

More than a year later, when Manrique had fallen from power and was living in a little room in a poor back street of Mexico City, the villagers of Arroyo Seco, who had in the meantime learned to play their instruments, showed their gratitude by traveling on foot over five hundred miles, to serenade and comfort Don Aurelio in his hour of defeat. Until late at night they played under his window out on the cobbled street, and came back at dawn to play mananitas those hauntingly sweet morning songs which, once heard in drowsy waking moments, will never be forgotten.

The story of Manrique’s downfall at this time is briefly told. He was too honest and fearless not to create many enemies and difficulties. Soon he clashed with the federal military commandant, General Saturnino Cedillo, who, like all the upstart revolutionary generals of the time, acted like a violent little Tzar over men and property. He took the law into his own hands, and encroached upon civil jurisdiction. Manrique resisted this fearlessly, especially as Cedillo was busy plundering the poor folk of the state, both for his personal enrichment and in behalf of certain powerful but unscrupulous hacendados.

Some months before this rift developed, President Plu-tarco Elias Calles said bitterly in a public address that Manrique was one of the only two honest and loyal governors in all Mexico on whom he could depend. But Cedillo was one of the powerful militarists of the revolution, and rather than offend him, Calles bowed to expediency and, although Manrique had been elected by free vote of the people, illegally removed him from office.

How wrong Calles was in his dictatorial act, was revealed by the subsequent career of Cedillo. Much later Cedillo himself seized the governorship. One of his first acts was to kidnap dozens of school teachers, who were demanding their back pay, a year overdue. Several were killed, several completely disappeared, others were forced to mow the governor’s lawns under armed guard. Later Cedillo tried to betray Calles and still later, abetted by Nazi advisers and sinister foreign interests, he attempted to start a treacherous revolt against President Lazaro Cardenas.

Manrique, booted out of the governorship by Dictator Calles, pawned his watch and went to Mexico City, where he lived in a cubby-hole room so small that his piles of books overflowed onto his bed. At night Manrique would laboriously have to change them to the free space on the floor before retiring. There I used to play chess with him, a rather one-sided encounter, for Manrique, without any particular effort or study, was within one rung of being the chess champion of Mexico.

Despite the opposition of Calles, he staged a political comeback by getting elected to the national Chamber of Deputies. His great idol at that time was ex-President Alvaro Obregon, who, in 1928 at the expiration of Calles’ term, was re-elected to office. But before the former president could take his post, he was assassinated by a religious fanatic. Manrique, however, considered that the outgoing administration, and particularly the plump labor leader, Luis N. Morones, had created the violent and dictatorial “moral atmosphere” which had led to that violent act. Manrique made bold charges against him and Calles, and indeed came close to driving Calles out of office at that time.

I remember one very exciting scene, when Mexico City was bubbling with political unrest immediately after the assassination. In a joint session of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, Calles made his famous speech that caudillismo, or militarism and the rule of the generals, had forever ended in Mexico and that henceforth the country would be governed by law and civil rights. The speech was a slap at the martyred president-elect; it was a threat to the generals not to revolt at a ticklish moment, and it was also a threat to the assembled Congress to do his bidding. It was a threat because Calles had assembled on the platform at his back all the Division Generals of the country. They sat there in solid phalanx, uniform and braid and gold epaulettes and medals. It was a threat because from the high cupola frowned down upon that assembled body of supreme legislators, a sinister circle of machine-guns, manned by dark-faced Yaqui Indians.

Only Manrique had the courage to express his opinions. After the speech had been delivered and the Congressmen rose cheering en masse as Calles started down the long carpeted aisle, Manrique stood quiet, arms akimbo, his black beard bristling, a derisive smile on his lips. As the Dictator President passed Don Aurelio’s seat, the latter, who towered head and shoulders above his colleagues, shouted out in a ringing voice that echoed to the dome, with its machine-guns, and back to the marble panels, where were seated all of Mexico’s Division Generals, “Farsante! Farsante!” The challenge rang out across the Congress and to the galleries and the diplomatic box, where little five-foot Ambassador Morrow had risen to his feet to clap his hands enthusiastically, and the cheering died away, to be succeeded by a confused babble.

For a split second, Calles’ step faltered, then with cold, white grimness he passed on out through an assembly suddenly reduced to dead silence. So ended a historical moment.

Manrique hated militarism and force with all the vehemence of his nature. But this did not mean that he was physically afraid. After Obreg6n’s death, he went to view the President’s remains. There at the foot of the bier he encountered a Calles general. This particular lean, brutal-faced fellow had been treacherous to Obreg6n and was the most feared individual in all of Mexico. He was nicknamed “The Killer.” He dutifully disposed of unwanted political prisoners by the famous Ley Fuga; he had shot down everyone who crossed his path and some for even less tangible reasons. There was scarcely room for any more notches in his gun. Manrique, who was wholly unarmed, called him into the next room and there told him bluntly that he should have had at least the decency to remove his pistol before coming into the same room with the dead President, that, in any case, his presence at the bier of Obregon was disgraceful. Manrique emphasized his remarks by slapping the general across the face and ordering him out of the place. The famous killer slunk out.

It was inevitable, though far from wise, that, after the election of puppet President Ortiz Rubio, Manrique joined the Escobar revolt against Calles. Besides his personal grievances, Manrique considered Calles to have betrayed his promises to the people and to have established a ruthless dictatorship. The joker was that Escobar was merely another bird of the same feather. But though Manrique was no soldier by profession, curiously enough he was the very last revolter to leave Mexican soil. The so-called rebels were driven back until finally only a small nucleus remained in Sonora, and these were obliged to flee into the United States. Manrique was the last man to cross. He raised his fist against the federal pursuers, who dared not fire upon American soil, and like a great Jeremiah, his black beard waving in the breeze, he shouted, “We shall return.”

Later he did return, named by the Cardenas government as Director of the National Library. He was one of the earliest apostles of the good-neighbor policy when it was still chiefly a matter of nice phrases, and immediately set about using his post to promote international literary contacts. He and Archibald MacLeish would have hit it off well together. But he had made many enemies, and one night a group of hoodlums seized him and cut off his beard.

I thought of Samson, but Manrique’s moral strength did not reside in his impressive black beard. A turn of the political wheel saw Manrique ousted. The National Library was put in the hands of Jose Vasccncelos, pro-Nazi propagandist, and hater of things American.

I do not know what Don Aurelio is doing at the moment. Perhaps he is waiting for his beard to grow back. I would not be at all surprised if I heard he were teaching Sanskrit to the Indians. But I know that Manrique, wherever he is or whatever he is doing, will be pouring over his books, filling his brain with knowledge, that he is helping everyone who comes to him in need. He is, for me, a symbol of courageous individualism, democratic and civil rights, an enemy of militarism, an eternal friend of the common man, and never afraid to defy power omnipotent; he put his convictions above his personal fate. He used victory to promote justice, and when he fell, he used justice to rise again. And whatever his personal fortunes, he never forgot to be himself. His convictions and deeds were ever in behalf of those simple human decencies, everywhere so menaced now in our changing world.


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