Skip to main content

Mexico—And Indianismo

ISSUE:  Spring 1932

Mexican Maze. By Carleton Beats. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott. $3.00. Mexico: A Study of Two Americas. By Stuart Chase, in collaboration with Marian Tyler. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.00. Prologue to Mexico. By Marian Storm. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $3.50. Old Mother Mexico. By Harry Carr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.00.

A few years ago, a Mexican friend and I started out on a mule-back journey into the interior of the Yucatan Peninsula. At the end of our first day on the trail, we rode into an Indian village, and as is customary in that land where hotels and inns are not, we went to the town hall and asked to see the mayor, one of whose duties, we knew, was to see to it that travellers found lodging and food. The town hall was a clean, mud-walled building, with rows of hammock pegs placed conveniently along the walls of the council room. When the mayor arrived, he proved to be a distinguished-looking old man, apparently of pure Maya stock. He readily gave us permission to swing our hammocks in the town hall, and told us where we could get food supplies, even arranging to have a buxom young matron do our cooking for us. As he was leaving, he invited us to come to his house if we should want any fruit, slyly suggesting that his was the best in the place. His whole conversation with us was in excellent Spanish, with an archaic flavor that recalled to our minds the sonorous speech of the Conquistadores.

My friend and I set out, after a while, to purchase eggs and tamales and a dressed chicken and tortillas from various families along the village street, and in due course we arrived at the mayor’s dwelling. He came out at our call, and greeted us in Maya. Thinking that this was merely forgetfulness on his part, I responded in Spanish, and suggested that we had come for some of his famous fruit. The old fellow smiled agreeably and asked, in Maya, whether we had had a pleasant journey—and said not one word about fruit. I tried again in Spanish, insinuating that at least we should like a few bananas. The mayor spoke again—in Maya—and to my amazement, the purport of his remarks was that he had heard that it often snows in the United States, and he had never seen any snow—what did it look like? My companion, I noticed, was looking at me with unconcealed amusement, and the mayor’s eyes were twinkling. Light broke upon me then, and I managed to stammer out in Maya what we wanted. Ah! Fruit! The mayor was all attention. In a few minutes, we were loaded down with oranges and bananas and sweet-lemons and pitahayas and mameyes. When we offered to pay, the old Indian would not hear of it. He assured me—in Maya, of course—that it was a pleasure to present some poor fruit to a foreigner who could speak his language so well. (I trust that God has forgiven his courteous falsehood!)

That small incident, it seems to me, symbolizes a spiritual state that makes of Mexico one of the most interesting and perplexing countries in the Americas. For that old Indian mayor, despite the fact that his ancestors had, for four hundred years, been under the domination of the Spaniards and their descendants, who had made a major effort to impose their civilization upon the natives, refused to be anything but a Maya—except officially. He had accepted from the government of the State of Yucatan the office of mayor, and when he was acting as such, he condescended to use the Spanish language. But at any other time, if one wanted to talk with him, one had to use the language that was spoken at Chichen Itza some seven hundred years ago.

The incident, furthermore, lends corroboration to an opinion that more and more students of Mexico are coming to hold: that in the long run, the Indian is the decisive factor in Mexican history. When one contemplates Mexican census data and discovers that the white race is represented in Mexico by only about one-twelfth of the population, that pure-blooded Indians account for about one-third of the total, and that the remainder is composed of mestizos, in whose veins the proportion of white to Indian blood is not fifty to fifty, but nearer twenty to eighty as a rule, this opinion appears reasonable. But until very recently indeed, all that was thought about Mexico, all that was considered to be of importance in Mexico, practically all that was made the object of special studies, whether in politics, economics, or sociology in Mexico, was limited to the twelve per cent of whites and their activities; and the Indian was practically ignored.

But the truth of the matter seems to be that despite all the disasters he has suffered, despite the four-hundred-year effort by the Spaniards and their descendants to impose upon him a European type of civilization, a European religion, and a European language, and despite the crushing effect of a social system which relegated him to a status but little better than that of the ox and the burro, the Mexican Indian has saved his soul alive, and has managed to conserve enough spiritual force, not only to resist with considerable success all efforts to compel him to accept a way of life he does not want, but to flower into a most astonishing artistic renaissance.

The spirit—or whatever it may be—that created the Indian’s life-pattern centuries ago, and which has preserved it to this day, is a curious compound of passive and dynamic forces. The Indians discovered the effectiveness of non-resistance long ago, and knew all about non-cooperative methods several centuries before Mahatma Gandhi was born. On the other hand, there is a sort of steady, relentless, subtly destructive pressure against everything that does not harmonize with the Indian’s life-pattern. We are just beginning to suspect that throughout the history of Mexico, since the beginning of Spanish colonization, this force has, at fairly regular intervals, found weak spots in the social structure designed to destroy it—and when it did, the social structure yielded somewhere. Now and then, it produced a drastic revolution. And when the storm was over, it was usually found that the Indian had won something, however little. In the end, every true revolution leaves Mexico a little more Indian, a little less Spanish.

Recent books on Mexico by Carleton Beals, Stuart Chase, Marian Storm, and Harry Carr offer us four views of the present state of Mexico. They depict the results of the tremendous revolution unwittingly set going by Madero in 1910 —unwittingly, because he did not realize the effect that the famous “agrarian clause” in his programme was going to have. Each of the books is, in its way, excellent. Taken together, they give a fairly complete picture of the aftermath of the revolution—and the outstanding thing about them is that they are all four written with the idea in mind that the Indian is the most important element of Mexican population.

It would take far more space than is available here to discuss the books in detail. To do so would necessitate a discussion of what the Latin-Americans call Indianismo— which might be freely translated as “the back to the Indian movement” in economics, education, art, and politics. But I shall try to indicate in a few words what the books signify, and to offer a few cautions to readers who peruse them, and books like them.

Carleton Beals’ “Mexican Maze,” with its vivid, impressionistic treatment and its fascinating illustrations, gives us far and away the most accurate reporting of facts—good and bad—and the sanest interpretation of those facts, of any of the four books under review. He knows the country and he knows the people, because he has lived and studied there for some twelve years. He has a really thorough knowledge of Mexican history. He ventures to suggest that the Indian’s pattern of life, especially if certain modifications can be made in it by medical, sanitary, and engineering procedures, is a fine thing—for the Indian who evolved it. He does not know whether the white man would or could endure it for any appreciable length of time. He appears to believe that in the long run, provided foreign military or economic intervention does not prevent, the Indian will dominate the Spanish element in Mexico. The Indian will also, probably, be able to assimilate, and keep in control, a certain amount of industrialism that can hardly be avoided in this age. But he sees no prospects of an earthly paradise in the land of the Montezumas, even if Indianismo completely succeeds. And he is pessimistically convinced that the revolution that will effect the rehabilitation of the Indian has not occurred yet, and is not likely to occur for some time to come. Mr. Beals has written a sound, closely reasoned book which deserves to be widely read.

Stuart Chase’s “Mexico” is not nearly so good as Beals’ “Mexican Maze.” In the first place, Mr. Chase seems far too ready to believe that the Indian way of life is, to employ Uncle Remus’ explanation of the rabbit that climbed a tree, “jest ‘bleeged” to be better — even for us — than our own. I seem to recall that he thinks the same thing about the Russian way of life, too. He writes persuasively, but he spent too short a time in Mexico really to understand the people, and his point of view is too utopian for my taste. I fear that Mr. Chase, for all his powers of observation and style, is too ready to subscribe to the idea (which seems to be fairly commonly held in this country right now) that the foreign thing, the exotic thing, is superior to the thing near at hand, here at home. His opinion that the Indian way of life is superior to ours may be quite true—if it is lived by an Indian, who is psychologically adapted to it. One suspects that it is better when one observes how much quiet contentment and freedom from worry and strain the Indian gets out of it, and how little we get out of ours. But to jump to the conclusion that the way to cure our troubles is to scrap our civilization in order to adopt another similar to the Indian’s, is going too far. I really believe that if Mr. Chase had to live for a couple of years in even the most favorably conducted Indian village, he would be quite willing at the end to go back, even to Chicago. Mr. Chase should, it seems to me, reflect upon the obvious fact that, in spite of all his enthusiasm about the Bolshevik system, Mr. Shaw did not tarry long in Russia!

Miss Storm’s “Prologue to Mexico” and Mr. Carr’s “Old Mother Mexico” are frankly nothing more than rather ecstatic records of personal experiences and impressions of two people who love Mexico and who feel a deep sympathy for the Indian. The two writers saw an idealized Mexico, of course. But they are quite honest in their attitude, and their books are very good reading. Marian Storm’s style is exceedingly effective, and Mr. Carr has brought to light some fascinating facts upon which he bases the title of his book— for it is very true that for a considerable part of the United States, Mexico is the old mother.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading