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ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

We hung our heads out of the window every time the train stopped, raising false hopes in the hearts of the Indian women, who ran along beside us even after the train was moving away. “Fresh pulque!” they urged mournfully, holding up jars of thick grey-white liquor, and “Fresh maguey worms!” they called after us, waving lumpy viscous leaf bags.

K——, the business manager, shuddered. “Isn’t it horrible, the things they eat and drink? I have just come back,” he said, “from God’s country,” which we are to understand is California. He ripped open an orange trademarked in purple ink. “What a relief to eat fruit that isn’t full of germs. I brought them all the way back with me” (I could fairly see him, legging across the desert with a knapsack full of oranges). “Have one, it’s clean,”

K—— is very clean too; washed, shaven, clipped, pressed, polished, brisk and firm looking in his new tweeds. But his nerves are bundles of dried twigs, they crackle at every touch, they jab his insides and keep his blank blue eyes fixed in a white stare. The muscles of his jaw jerk in continual helpless rage. Eight months spent piloting a group of Russian moving picture men through Mexico have about finished him off, he told me. “My heart skips every other beat. The altitude!” he said. But that wasn’t all. These Mexicans would drive you crazy in no time. In Tehuantepec it was frightful. Those people don’t know the meaning of time. It would take him a week to tell the whole story, but just for example, they had to bribe every step of the way. Bribe, bribe it was, from morning until night, from fifty pesos to the Wise Boys to a bag of candy for a provincial Mayor, before they were allowed to set up their cameras. Then they lost ten thousand dollars flat by obeying the laws of the country—something no one else does!—and passing their film of the earthquake before the board of censorship. Meanwhile some unscrupulous scoundrels who knew the ropes had beaten them to it and sent a newsreel to New York. “It doesn’t pay to have a conscience, but if you have one, what can you do about it?” He had written and protested to the censors, charging them with letting the Mexican film company get away with murder, accusing them of favoritism and deliberate malice in holding up the Russian film—everything, in a five-page letter. They hadn’t even answered it. Now what can you do with people like that? Bribe, graft, bribe, graft —well, he had been learning too. “Whatever they ask for, I give ‘em half the amount, straight across the board,” he said.

Crickle, crackle go the twigs at every slightest jog of memory, every footfall of the present, every cold wind from the future. He is afraid of his brother-in-law, a violent prohibitionist who would be furious if he ever hears that K—— is even now drinking beer, on the train. Beer is the only thing he can trust; fruit, air, and water are alike poisoned. But suppose his brother-in-law should hear? He is afraid the picture may not succeed, may not be finished on time. “What time?” asked A——, the assistant camera man. “When it is done it is done.” “Yes, but it isn’t enough merely to finish a job,” said K——, going on to explain that making good involves all sorts of mysterious interlocking schedules; it must be done by a certain date, it must be art, of course, that’s taken for granted, and it must be a hit. There are thousands of things to be thought of, and if they miss one point, bang goes everything. I thought of K——’s life in Mexico, of K——’s life anywhere: lying awake nights fuming, rising in the mornings, grey-faced, stupefied, pushing himself under cold showers and filling himself up on hot coffee and slamming himself again into the fight. Everything is against him, but he will win! His loud voice and commanding stride must advertise to the world that here walks a man nothing can stop. As he sat there, eating American chocolate bars and drinking his third bottle of beer, sleep took him suddenly, upright as he was, talking as ever. Assertion failed, sleep took him mercifully. His body cradled itself in the tweed, the collar rose about his neck, his closed eyes and limp mouth looked ready to cry.

The famous director is making a part of his picture at an old hacienda in the pulque country, and all the peons belonging to the estate are working in it. So much entertainment and excitement have not touched their lives since the last Agrarian raid. . . .

A——, the assistant camera man, went on showing me pictures from the scenes they have made on the hacienda. Here are innate outlines and postures of tragedy, the human body a thin shell stiffened in the shapes of pain; servitude has stamped these faces, so that the arrogant features are a mockery of the servants who live within. By now suffering is a habit of the spirit; the dark faces carry a common memory, as the eyes of cruelly treated animals look all alike: they know that they suffer, they do not know why, and they cannot imagine a remedy. So the figures move with the ritual solemnity of their burial processions with no symbol of grief omitted. These pictures are alternated with interludes of life in the master’s house, where all the characters are dressed in the fashions of 1898. They seem to bring to life again a world long since dead, and always a portrait of Diaz looms in the background. Why is this? Only to show, I am told, that these conditions existed in the time of Diaz, but have been swept away by the Revolution; it is one of the requirements of their agreement here. This without cracking a smile or meeting my eye.

At the last station before we reach the hacienda, the Indian boy who plays the leading rôle in the picture came looking for us. He was already a hero in his village, being a pugilist. Fame added to fame has given him a brilliant air of self-confidence. He shines in new blue overalls, a red neckerchief, a wide new straw hat. Ordinarily, his face has the histrionic ferocity of the professional boxer, but it is broken now by simple excitement, live, gleaming, dark, almost gay. He has news worth hearing and will be the first to tell us. What a to-do at the hacienda this morning; Justino killed his sister, shot her, and ran for the mountains. Vicente chased him on horseback, yes, and brought him back, and now he is in jail in the village. He had been working all morning on the set. . . .

Neither A—— nor K—— speaks Spanish, the boy’s words were a jargon from which I snatched key words to translate quickly. K——leaped up, white-eyed. “On the set? My God, we’re ruined!” But why ruined? “His family will have a damage suit against us!” The boy wanted to know what this meant. “They can collect money from us for the loss of their daughter! It can be blamed on us!” The boy was fairly baffled by this. “He says he doesn’t understand,” I told K——. “He says nobody ever heard of such a thing. He says Justino was in his own house when it happened, and nobody, not even Justino, is to blame.”

“Oh,” said K——. “Oh, I see. Well, let’s hear the rest of it. If he wasn’t on the set it doesn’t matter.”

All the way we asked questions and the boy repeated his story. Justino had gone to his hut for the noon meal. His sister was grinding corn for the tortillas, while he stood by, waiting, throwing the pistol into the air and catching it. The pistol fired, shot her through—touching his ribs level with his heart—, she fell forward on her face over the grinding stone, dead. Seeing what he had done, Justino ran leaping like a crazy man, throwing away his pistol as he went, and struck through the maguey fields toward the mountains. . . . His friend Vicente went after him on horseback, waving a gun and yelling, “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” and Justino yelled back, “Shoot, I don’t care!” But of course Vicente did not. He just galloped up and bashed Justino over the head with the gun butt, set him across the saddle, and brought him back. Now he is in jail, but Don J—— is already in the village getting him out. Justino did not do it on purpose.

We are jogging away in the little mule car, facing each other three in a row, with the bags under our feet and the straw falling off the seats. The driver, craning around toward the mule now and then, flicking the reins, adds comments. An unlucky family—this is the second child to be killed by a brother. The mother is half dead with grief, and Justino, a good boy, is in jail. The big man sitting by him, in striped riding trousers, his hat bound under his chin with red cords, adds that Justino is in for it now, God help him. But where did he get the pistol? He borrowed it from the firearms being used in the picture. It is true he was not supposed to touch the pistols, and there was his first mistake. He meant to put it back at once, but you know how a boy of sixteen loves to play with a pistol. Nobody blames him. The girl was nineteen years old. Her body has been sent to the village to be buried. Don J—— went according to custom to cross her hands, close her eyes, and light a candle beside her. Everything was done in order, they said, piously, their eyes dancing with rich, enjoyable feelings. It is always regrettable and exciting when somebody you know gets into such dramatic trouble. An, we are alive under this dark sky, in this thin air fresher than flowers, jingling away through the yellow fields of blooming mustard, with the pattern of spiked maguey shuttling as we pass from straight lines to angles to diamond shape and back again. A—— sings: “Ay, Sandunga, Sandunga, Mamá, por Dios!” and the Indians shout with joy and delight at the new thing his Russian tongue makes of the words. A—— laughs too, this laughter is an invitation to their confidence: with a burst of song in Russian the young pugilist throws himself in turn on the laughter of A——. Everybody laughs loudly, even K——, eyes meet eyes through the guard of crinkled lids, and the little mule goes into a stiff-legged gallop. A jack rabbit leaps across the track, chased by lean hungry dogs. He is cracking the strings of his heart in flight, his eyes start from his head like crystal bubbles. Run, fellow, run!

The hacienda lies before us, a monastery, a fortress, walled, towered in terra cotta and coral, sheltered against the mountains. The heavy door in the wall opens, we slide into the main corral. The upper windows in the near end are all alight. The first camera man stands on one balcony, the art adviser on the next, for a moment the famous director appears with waving arms at a third. They call to us even before they recognize us, glad to see anyone coming from town to ripple the long monotony of the day. Horses are standing under saddle in the patio. Big polite dogs of expensive breed come out to meet us and walk with dignity beside us up the broad steps.

The Russians are concerned with aftermaths. It is not only a great pity about the poor girl, but both she and her brother were working in the picture; the boy’s role was important, and now everything must halt until he comes back, or if he does not, everything must be done again. The art adviser is Mexican, full of Spanish elegance and detachment. “I am sorry for everything,” he says, lifting a narrow pontifical hand, waving away vulgar human pity which threatens and buzzes like a fly about the edges of his mind. “But when you consider”—he makes a small bow in the general direction of the social point of view represented by the three Russians—”what her life would have been in this place, it is much better that she is dead.”

With his easy words, she is dead indeed, anonymously entombed. A—— turns off the mechanical attachment of the player-piano, sits and sings his favorite songs. The Porfirian Gothic doorways soar towards the roof in a cloud of gilded, stamped wall paper, from an undergrowth of purple and red and yellow plush armchairs. Such spots as this, fitted up for casual visits, interrupt the cold darkness of the apartments marching along the cloisters, now and then casting themselves around patios, gardens, pens for animals. The weeK——end crowds are gone, the grandfather of Don J—— is absent, and our party scarcely occupies one end of the long dining table. The famous director sits in striped overalls; the camera man in flannel slacks and polo shirt; the art director in riding trousers and puttees; A——’s no-colored wool shirt is elbow to elbow with the brash tweeds of K——; all provide contrast for the young wife of Don J—— at the head of the table, a figure from a Hollywood comedy, in black satin pajamas adorned with rainbow-colored bands of silk, black hair sleeked to her round skull, eyes painted, apparently, in the waxed semblance of her face.

Don J—— joins her, and he is in a fury. This fury is part of his rôle. He is a blue-eyed Spaniard, formed and hardened by inherited authority, smoothed over and speeded up by life in Europe and the capital; a rich young hacendado having his fling before settling down to lord it over serfs on the family estates. He has old fashioned tastes for drink, for gambling, for ladies of the theater; he rides always at a tearing run, hurling himself at the saddle and careering out of the patio with his mounted man pounding at his heels. He drives his car at desperate speed, taking the road by right. He is thinking about an airplane to cut distances; nothing can move too fast for him, whether a woman, a horse, or something with machinery in it. If you opened his skull you would find there, neatly ticketed and labelled, a set of ideas unchanged in essentials since 1650. Life stales on him suddenly and unaccountably at intervals, and he lashes about him until the foam rises again. He is pleased and entertained to have the famous director making a picture on his hacienda, puts all at his disposal, and watches the mimic wars of his own peons against Oppression, symbolized by himself, if he bothered to think about it: but he does not think, his springs of action are automatic and ready, and he knows how to manage Indians.

He sits beside his wife and brings his fist thumping down on the table as he talks. That imbecile judge refuses to let him have Justino. It seems there is some crazy law about criminal negligence. “The law does not recognize accidents in the vulgar sense,” said the judge. “That has nothing to do with it,” Don J—— told him; “Justino is my peon, his family have lived for generations on my hacienda, it is my business. I know what happened and all about it, and you know nothing, and it is necessary for me to have Justino back again at once.” It was no use. The judge wanted two thousand pesos to let Justino go. “Two thousand pesos 1” shouts Don J——, thumping the table. “How ridiculous,” says his wife, smiling brilliantly.

He glares at her impersonally for a split-second, as if he did not recognize her, then goes on, shaking off the pause: “Well, I’ll see about that! I’ll go up to the capital tomorrow and see my friends in the government. We’ll see then what happens!” His fury passes suddenly, as if it had served its purpose. lie spends the rest of the evening talking amiably and playing billiards with the camera man, who wins and therefore has his respect, because Don J—— is very good at billiards and it must be no ordinary man who can defeat him.

It is very late and I am in a large square bedroom with a balcony directly above the vat rooms where they ferment the pulque. I recognize the smell that has never left my nostrils since I came. It rises below through the thick drone of flies, sour, stale, like rotting milk, and this smell and this sound belong together. From the next window the Russian voices murmur along: the famous director loves to sit up all night talking over the work with his assistants. Below, next to the vat rooms, are the apartments of Don J—— and his lady, puffy with silk, glossy with polished wood, restless with trivial ornaments and tables and boxes of sweets and down pillows. There is a long, quiet wing above the terraces to the back, facing a garden with an old fountain, near the chapel, opening to the south on the old monastery garden and stone bath, where once surely it must have been pleasant to live, and could be so again. Yet all the life of the place clusters around this focus of decay and evil odors, as if to be reassured by touch, by smell, by the rumble of barrels and the shouts of the men, that pulque, the good river of life, is still unquenched. Pigs grunt and root in the soft wallow near the washing fountain, the women are still kneeling in the darkness, thumping wet cloth on the stones, talking, laughing. All the women seem to be laughing tonight; the high bright sound sparkles again and again from the long dark rows of huts down the corral. The burros sob and mourn to each other. I am attracted by a slight flurry at the arch of the inner patio. One of the polite expensive dogs has lost his dignity and is chasing a little fat-bottomed soldier back to his proper place, the barracks by the wall opposite the compound of the peons.

Can it be jealousy? For this soldier is part of the guard sent by the government to defend the hacienda against assault by the Agrarians, who have made Don J——’s life, and the life of all other hacendados in the district, a hell on earth of late years. During a ruinous season of war, Don J—— himself operated a machine gun from one of his towers, and the number of Agrarians he killed is matter for tall talk among his hangers-on. In a pinch these soldiers might fail him, but their presence is a visible sign of government approval, for which Don J—— must pay; he tolerates them and resents them, and so do the dogs.

He should be grateful to his ancestors for having gained the concession to make pulque instead of raising corn, or wheat, or sugar, or coffee, or tobacco, or cattle. Nowhere are the great haciendas so secure as in this maguey country.

The Indians drink pulque. It is their traditional liquor, part of their ancient mode of living brought over the gulf of the Conquest. They account for its discovery in one of their most familiar legends. Even now, each vat room is decorated with a fresco, as unvarying as the Stations of the Cross in the chapels, relating how a young woman made this divine refreshment from the honey water of maguey, and was rewarded with semi-deification. Her apotheosis coincides with that of Maria Santísima, who stands always in a painted niche with a shrine lamp and paper flowers. Maria Santísima enjoys a formal preeminence, but the two live side by side in harmonious confusion. Both are anodynes: pulque and the merciful goodness of Maria Santísima. The Indians drink pulque and call upon the Mother of God. (These are of course peons, not the fighting Indians of the free villages.) I remember stories of how Zapata’s tough warriors rose and pillaged, living on parched corn and brown sugar ground up together. On this food they broke up the corn and sugar haciendas of Morelos. No man wants to fight on pulque. He gets his bellyful and wants only to sleep, So the revolutionary government sends soldiers to help Don J—— when he is attacked by the Agrarians, and in turn Don J—— gives the government about a third of his income from the hacienda for the privilege of holding it, as do all the other hacendados of the district. The Indians drink the corpse-white liquor, swallow forgetfulness by the riverful. Pesos pour by the hundreds of thousands into the government treasury. When the Agrarians attack these haciendas, each peon is given a rifle and becomes a burning patriot, defending his little fatherland.

What is the peon fighting for? Literally, for sixty centavos a day and a half pound of corn unless the corn is scarce. On this he lives with his family, all work and eat on this, with the help of pulque and Maria Santisima. He will not give this up lightly, to be thrown naked on the hard risks of the world, for he is an enslaved being, no longer by violence, for that is not necessary; he has consented at last. He is stabled worse than his own burro, but he eats his corn and cannot be persuaded away from it. For who would give him corn but the master?

This smell is abominable, stale sap-soaked mud, maguey juice and flies fermenting in the stinking, frothing bull-hide vats. But I have drunk pulque cold, freshened with strawberry juice, and remember yet the good taste in my mouth, the soft sleep that drew me away from all memories and dreams, the suave cure of my racked bones after days on horseback. Maria Santísima, why shouldn’t they have their pulque? Or should such a man be ripped violently out of his sleep, all his poppy juice and maguey honey taken away, shaken until his teeth clatter, and told: “Look at this world by daylight. Is it not a beastly place? Come now, get ready to die changing it!” For he is the born victim, the first who will be killed. Shout slogans in his ear (slogans invented by bright young men in Universities to drape upon the figure-head of Zapata, who is safely dead and can no longer embarrass them by acting upon their theories): “Land and Liberty for all forever!” Quote an old epitaph at him: “It is more honorable to die standing than to live kneeling!” He can answer—does answer the Agrarians so, by means of bullets—that here are his mountains and the place where his mother bore him, here are the sorrows he is best acquainted with, here are his sixty centavos and his half pound of corn, here are pulque and Maria Santísima, here is Don J——, the master, who has friends in the government, who does everything properly: is even now in the village getting Justino out of jail. What would become of Justino if Don J—— did not take care of him?

While I am thinking about these things, I wrap myself in a blanket and sit on the balcony, huddled, knees under chin. It is growing cold, late, the tides have drawn away to the center of the earth. In the vat room the men are filling and counting the barrels, calling the numbers in a long chant, wailing and wailing again, like a litany: “twenty- . . . one!” A barrel is rolled down thundering and lifted on to the car under the window: “Ave Maria Santísima!” Before sunrise they are off to the station to send away the pulque. Other men and small boys are leaving for the maguey fields, driving their donkeys. They shout, and whack the donkeys with small sticks, but no one is really hurrying. The tired men are driving themselves, it is themselves they lash when they strike the donkeys.

Not long ago, an old schoolmate of the grandfather returned to this hacienda for a visit after sixty years of absence. He walked about looking at everything, and at last smiled and nodded his head. “How beautiful,” he said. “Nothing has changed at all.”

“My God!” says K——, over coffee in the morning. “Do you remember,”—he beats off a cloud of flies, and fills his cup with a wobbling hand—”I thought of it in the night and couldn’t sleep—don’t you remember,” he says to the camera man, “those scenes we shot only two weeks ago, when Justino played the part of a boy who killed a girl by accident, tried to escape, and Vicente was one of the men who ran him down on horseback? Well, think of it—think of it I The very same thing has happened to the same people in reality! And”—he turns to me—”the strangest thing is, we have to make that scene again, it didn’t turn out so good, and look, my (rod, we had it happening really, and nobody thought of doing it then! Then was the time. We could have got a close-up of the girl, really dead, and real blood running down Justino’s face where Vicente hit him, and my God! we never even thought of it! Now what was the matter with us all, I wonder?” He looks accusingly at the camera man, who takes his elbows off the table and examines his coffee spoon attentively.

“Well,” he says, “that would have been a little too much in cold blood, don’t you think?” His eyes flicker open, click shut as if they had taken a snapshot of something.

“If you want to look at it that way,” says K——, “but after all, there it was, it had happened, it wasn’t our fault, and we might as well have had it.”

“The light was poor, anyhow,” says the camera man, “and we can always do it again when Justino comes back, and there is time for a rehearsal.”

This is even better. “Imagine!” says K——, pouncing. “Just try to imagine that! When the poor boy comes back he’ll have to go through the same scene he has gone through twice before, once in play and once in reality! Reality!” He licks his chops. “Think how he’ll feel. Why, it ought to drive him crazy!”

Don J—— remembers something and thumps the table. “That imbecile judge,” he says, “asked me why I worried so much about one peon. I told him it was my affair what I chose to worry about. He said he had heard we were making a picture over here with men shooting each other in it. He said he has a jailful of men waiting to be shot, and he’d be glad to send them over for us to shoot in the picture. He couldn’t see why we were just pretending to kill people when we could have all we needed to kill really. He thinks Justino should be shot, too. Let him try it! But never in this world will I give him two thousand pesos!”

In the evening, Don J—— plays billiards with the camera man. A—— sits at the piano and sings Russian songs. The wife of Don J—— is curled up on the sofa, with her Pekinese slung around her neck like a scarf. He snuffles and groans and rolls his eyes in a flabby swoon of enjoyment. The big dogs sniff around him with pained incredulity on their knotted foreheads. “They cannot believe he is a dog!” says the mistress in delight. I am learning a new card game with a thin dark youth who is some sort of assistant to the art adviser. “When Justino was here,” says this boy, shuffling the cards, “the director was always having trouble in the serious scenes, because Justino thought everything was a joke. In the death scenes he smiled all over his face and ruined a great deal of film. Now they are saying that when Justino comes back we will never again have to say to him, Don’t laugh, Justino, this is death, this is not funny.”

Don J——’s wife turns her Pekinese over and rolls him back and forth on her lap. “He will forget everything, the minute it is over,” she says gently, looking at me with soft empty eyes. “They are animals.”

At midnight Don J—— is off somewhere. His powerful car roars past the vat rooms and flees down the wild dark road towards the capital. In the morning there begins a gradual drift back to town, by train, by car. “Stay here,” each one says in turn to me, “we are coming back tomorrow, work will start again.” By afternoon I too wish to go. I cannot wait for tomorrow, in this deathly air. “If you should be here again in about ten days,” says the Indian driver, “you would see a different place. The green corn will be ready, and ah, there will be enough to eat again!”


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