IN Tepoztlan one does not say "north" or "south" when giving directions; one says "up" or "down." This holds true for most of Mexico. It is a country set on edge; where straight lines and plane surfaces are virtually homeless. One goes up, in loops and zigzags, and one comes down. Topography is the despair of railroad and mining engineers. Topography, more than any other single factor, has saved Mexico from becoming Hispanicized, westernized, mechanized or Americanized; saved it, by and large, from becoming anything but itself.
We loop up from Mexico City to the 10,000-foot pass which divides the central plateau from the valley to the south, the pass over which Mr. Dwight Morrow was wont to drive his car to his charming country seat in Cuernavaca. We loop down the southern wall to a tiny railroad station and disembark. For an hour we see the smoke, of our locomotive descending towards Cuernavaca. We take a burro road which also twists downward but at a different angle, and come finally to a place where beetling cliffs w it us on every side. The burro trail proceeds, finding its way somehow between the precipices. We turn left on a foot-path, soon to be lodged, like ants in the crack of a tree, in a perpendicular crevice which splits the eastern rock wall. Ladders help us from time to time. Climbing at 8,000 feet one's breath comes shorter than it should. We wriggle and crawl, and at last emerge on the little mesa which crowns one of the lower pinnacles of the cliff. The main mass still towers above us to the north.
We come out upon a tiny field of grass, a thatched hut where somebody has recently slept, a ruined pyramid which seems to grow from the living rock, and one of the fairest views which it has ever been given mortal eyes to see. Before us lie a good many hundred square miles of Mexico; a great section of the land which mothered the Aztecs and taught them to build pyramids, weave cloth of humming birds' feathers, and read the stars with almost Greenwich precision.
In this temple lived a god named Tepoztecatl. He was the presiding deity of pulque, a drink made from the milk of the maguey, or century plant, to which the Aztecs were much addicted, and which their descendants still drink in enormous quantities. It is about as intoxicating as strong beer. He was also the god of Tepoztlan, the patron and protector of the little town which lies below us, as the stones of Broadway lie under the Woolworth Tower-except that it is 800 feet to Broadway and twice as far to this red-roofed village. Looking down as from an airplane, we see the roofs as red pavements on the ground; the only structure which actually rises is a great white cathedral at the head of the green square which must mark the plaza. Yes, there is the tiny circle of the bandstand.
About the town lie cornfields, with here and there a patch of vivid green which may mean an irrigation ditch and sugar-cane. Near one of these green strips, a puff of smoke rises lazily, and two seconds later, a dull report. Another rises, and another. "A battle l" we cry. "Bandits; a revolution 1" "No," says the friend who has brought us here, "rockets. It's probably the beginning of a fiesta. I understand they are -always having one in Tepoztlan."
Directly opposite us, perhaps five miles away, the village fields terminate in another sheer rock wall, castellated and carved as though by human hands. Here is a sculptured chasm which looks like a huge fortified gateway, there a turret which would dignify any castle on the Rhine. The whole mass is perhaps four miles long and 2,000 to 3,000 feet high. It blocks the valley to the south, but above it rise, in waves of blue and lavender, higher and fainter mountain ridges. To the west dreams Cuernavaca, twenty miles away, faint white towers in an opal haze, and beyond them the fields and mountains of the state of Morelos. To the east, the village lands dip to a throat between more of the fantastic cliffs. We catch a glimpse of a long rolling plain below, and then, springing half-way to the zenith, the snowy masses of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, the Mountain who Smokes and the White Woman. Hand in hand these great mountains stand, the one in his glittering cone like Fujiyama, the other a broader, serrated peak. Where their hands join in a lofty pass, Cortez caught his first glimpse of the city he had come to conquer.
A fitting place for any god to live. With what an infinity of consecrated labour must men have toiled up these precipices to build a house for Tepoztecatl. Small wonder that their descendants in the village, despite the shifting centuries, the ruined walls, the encroaching forest, the graven image overthrown by the good Dominicans, feel his brooding presence, and in solemn pantomime and dance still celebrate his divinity. We turn to the pyramid. Like all Mexican pyramids it is terraced rather than straight lined. The great pyramid of the sun at Teotihuacan-with a total mass said to be greater than that of Cheops has four indented terraces before the broad top is reached, 200 feet above the plain. Tepoztecatl's house is tiny in comparison. It is perhaps 100 feet square at the base, with three low terraces; and in its ruined state rises nowhere more than forty feet. An enclosed altar rests on the flat summit, and here we find great stones with curious and still beautiful carvings replete with undeciphered words. There is a date which corresponds, according to the German archeologist Seler, to 1502, about twenty years before the Spanish conquest. The temple covers every foot of the pinnacle upon which it is built (the little field lies somewhat lower to the east), yet carries on the design of nature with flawless rectitude. It seems to have been born with the stony hills, and will remain until they too crumble.
We place a flagon of wine on the altar stone, and eat our lunch in the holy of holies. Tepoztecatl will not care, for Mexican gods are notoriously worldly. It might have been more courteous to have replaced the wine with pulque, but none of us can abide the milky brew with its abominable smell. No more rockets rise from the fields; the village looks infinitely peaceful sleeping in the sun; a green shelf set in a mountain side. "How do you drive in to it?" we ask, perplexed, disclosing the naivete of the newcomer. "You walk," our guide replies, "or go on horseback. Mostly, if you are an Indian, you walk."
"But how does one get supplies?" As an economist, I cannot repress a
base interest in the means by which people eat.
I toss the empty wine bottle to hear it crash in a gulch 1,ooo feet below, and ponder this remark. Indeed, questions have been growing ever since we set foot in Mexico, some weeks before. The buried cities with their white pyramids which we saw in the jungles of Yucatan; the spotless Maya Indians with their carved, fine faces; the great calendar stones in the National Museum in Mexico City; Mexico City itself, part Seville, part Atlanta, part indigenous Indian, embroidered with billboards, electric lights, tabloids, Tom Thumb golf courses and taxicabs; the eye-shattering spirals by electric engine from Vera Cruz to the rim of the plateau 7,000 feet above (and how did Cortez ever negotiate the ascent without annihilation?) ; these great churches, monasteries, palaces in the most dramatic and inaccessible places, decaying with such charm; and these massive temples of an earlier age which bid fair to long outlast them.. . .
In the country that I call home, the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, we have dignified and moderate mountains, not these fantastic crags. We have modern buildings, Victorian buildings, and a few colonial buildings which we call old. There the record stops. Here, on the other hand, are a few modern buildings in the cities; a vast architectural wealth of Spanish colonial structures, invariably in stone, not only in cities but on plain, hilltop, mountain side, already older than anything in my country; and underneath it all, solid and eternal, these pyramids and temples built 1,000, 2,000, unknown thousands of years before.
At home we have Americans, Negroes, and assorted immigrants, more or less naturalized. Here we have Indians, a reasonable number of mestizos-half and quarter breeds, most of them living like Indians-and a few whites in the cities. The Indians built the pyramids, the Indians built the churches and the palaces for their Spanish masters, the Indians and the mestizos do ninety-five per cent of the nation's work today. This is their country; they have always lived in it; and, as the traveller looks about him, it is evident that they always propose to. In my nation, the old world has wiped out the Indian and made a totally new culture. Here, despite onslaught after onslaught for 400 years, the Indian has withstood the Old World. It has twisted him, changed him, but it has not broken him. Europe and Africa have taken over the land north of the Rio Grande. South of it the indigenous continent of North America sturdily survives. Suddenly my heart warms to these Indians for the fight that they have made. Mailed chargers and gunpowder, money changers and Christian crosses, prime movers and high-pressure sales talk have not prevailed against them.
How would this village have looked today if Cortez had never come; if his stout lieutenant, Bernal Diaz, had not reported "fine women and much loot" in Tepoztlan? What was Aztec civilization really like, and how much of its culture persists? When the forebears of these villagers marched out to meet the Spaniards, how were they dressed, how did they deploy, how did they fight? Would that we might see the meeting from this cliff. How did the Spaniards change the country, and how did it change them? What did Tepoztecatl do to the trinity and to the Saints of Rome? There in Cuernavaca, where water tumbles in every street in the driest season, royal viceroy after viceroy maintained his palace. Cortez lived there for a time, building the first sugar mill in Mexico; after him, 300 years of grandees and dons. What legacy did they leave, and why were they at last so summarily overthrown?
Among other bequests it is certain that they left a century of revolutions, nor is the end in sight. In a romantic interlude, an emperor and an empress, Maximilian and Carlotta, worshipped in one of these hazy towers across the plain. Why did they come, and why was an emperor murdered who meant so well? This valley knew the peace of Porfirio Diaz, and the march of the grey-clad rurales, and anon, of all the valleys in Mexico, it flamed most violently when that peace was ruptured. Through it Zapata stormed, shouting Land for the landless! And Tepoztlan became a town of the dead, its citizens living in caves here in the cliffs, "coming down in the night to rob their own fruit trees." What is the meaning of that wild cry, and what sort of peace was that of Diaz, that ended in such a holocaust?
What do these people want? Only to be left alone? What has a roving American, watching a soaring zopilote, to learn from them; aye, what has America itself to learn from them, and what has it to give them? And why, in the face of this timeless pyramid, should we arrogate to ourselves the name "America" at all?
It is pleasant to lie here in the sun, to commune with gods and philosophize at random, but if we would sleep in a bed tonight we must somehow march on our own feet to Cuernavaca, and that is twenty and something miles away. We retreat gingerly down the crevice with its ladders, take the burro trail again, and drop, at say seventy degrees instead of eighty-nine, to the foot of the cliff, a tiresome descent and very hot. We emerge, perspiring and thirsty, in a miniature garden of Eden. A stream of water gushes from the rock face, filling a masonry pool which proves to be the town water supply. Only by the most rigorous concentration on the sublimities of sanitation, can we restrain ourselves from diving in. For a fellow citizen of Colonel Goethals to corrupt an Indian's drinking water would hardly do. So we drink, and wash, circumspectly in the overflow. Above us are mulberry: trees, ahuehuetes, and the great green machetes of banana trees. It is divinely cool. Here is a little clearing with stone bench or two, and a globe of stone, five feet i diameter, surmounted by a cross. It marks the spot, a cording to hearsay, where the image of Tepoztecatl w-, shattered when the Dominicans hurled it from the pyramid, thereby proving to the benighted natives that their god was not omnipotent. What the good monks did not quite understand was something the Indians were we aware of-and still know for that matter-that a go does not die when his man-made image is broken. shows deplorable manners, hardly more.
The fragments were borne away to be incorporate into the walls of the church, and the natives were baptize according to a sort of ecclesiastical mass production, in the fountain which flows from the rock. That was in 157 or thereabouts. As the conquest of the Mexican platea was well concluded by 1525, it seems to have take the Church some fifty years to bestow the blessing o baptism upon Tepoztlan. Thousands of villages are more remote (Teppztlan is only about sixty miles from Mexico, City) and presumably took even longer to be baptized Indeed it is a matter of record that to some the true faith has not yet penetrated, so high on the mountain are they, or so deep in the jungle.
Refreshed, we follow the iron water pipe down to the town, a distance of only a few hundred yards. It has bees said, and I think with some truth, that Mexico is slightly in the general, and messy in the particular; that it look; clean and tidy, but does not always survive a closer in spection-say the inquiring nose of a New England housewife. Or to put it another way: in Mexico, the com. munity is always fair, while the individual may be untidy. In the United States, the individual is often clean, while the community-say the average Main Street-is a blistering eyesore. Mexico is easier on the eyes and harder on the nose. Which is worse I do not know.
Tepoztlan, then, is very good to look at. Here are some 700 houses-the total population is 4,000 soulsarnaanged along little shaded streets, many of them bowered in flowers. Flowers are more important to Mexicans than are motor cars, radios, and bathtubs combined, to Americans. The houses are small and very simple. Their walls are of adobe brick, sometimes whitewashed; their roofs are of red tile or of thatch; they have no chimney, frequently no windows, no glass; very little woodwork. In the front yard stands the circular corncrib made of cornstalks, precisely as it stood in the days of Montezuma; behind there is often a vegetable garden. There may be a shed for horse, cow or burro, while turkeys, chickens and pigs wander introspectively over the foreground. Dogs invariably take their siestas in the street. As why should they not? Wheeled vehicles are unknown.
We are beginning to meet people. They are stolid but polite. To each one of our party they give a "Buenas tardes" and receive one in return. Our somewhat bizarre tramping costumes excite them not at all; the quiet children stare gravely, a woman looks curiously from a doorway. A little boy asks "What pueblo do you come from?" We answer Mexico City, and he is filled with awe. What Spanish blood there is, is admirably concealed; men, women and children look pure Indian, with beautiful bronzed skins, high cheek-bones, black straight hair, and a haunting touch of the Mongolian. Señor Bernal Diaz reported many beautiful women in Tepoztlan in 1521. In 1930, most women are comely, but few are pretty. In all Mexico there are few pretty women judged by northern standards. In the cities one finds a certain number of ravishing señoritas, creole or mestizo, but the Indian women are rarely beautiful save in the matchless grace of their carriage. Some of the older women have that carved, serene beauty which one associates with the face of a philosopher. And it is only fair to say that Chariot, the French artist, after seeing the flowing garments of the Indians, compares them with the virgins of the Parthenon, and holds the fitted clothes of western women to be absurd.
The men are mostly in white pyjamas, sandaled and sombreroed. Many carry, almost as an article of dress, a long, murderous-looking machete. This ferocious blade, however, is rarely used on human beings; it is in constant demand for the humbler uses of wood chopping, bush clearing, carpentry, agricultural and household tasks generally. In Tepoztlan, the blade curves at the end. In other parts of Mexico it may be straight. In Acapulco, on the Pacific, it is frequently as long as the boy who carries it. The women are in some such clothes as upcountry farm women wore a generation ago in the United States, petticoat, skirt, and blouse-save for the reboso, or blue shawl, the vivid colours, the earrings, and save the fact that most of them are barefooted. Everybody looks reasonably well fed, and nobody is hurrying. Unconsciously we moderate our gait. Here are some men and boys making adobe bricks in a backyard. Tall ochre piles of finished brick and tile are drying in the sun. Here a man and a woman are spinning rope of horsehair, employing a curiously whirling wheel. And here through a cottage door we catch a glint of metal, and going nearer find a sewing-machine. Thus the machine age makes its breach in the Aztec wall. The town also boasts, we are told, a phonograph, and a rickety steam flour mill which the housewife, pounding her own cornmeal is usually too proud to patronize.
We turn a corner, no children following, and advance upon the zocalo, or plaza, a little grass-covered par: with flowers and shade trees and a small Victorian band- stand (doubtless erected in the days of the Diaz peace) About it are several two-story houses with wrought-iron balconies, belonging to los correctos, the quality of the town. Here too is a little general store which puts me i mind somehow of the genera stores I used to see in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It smells the same; but of twenty bins of dried seeds and berries recognize only three.
Beside the plaza rises the great church, cream coloured, and streaked with grey and rose. It is clear that ever iota of surplus wealth-labour, materials, artistic ability -of the entire community has gone into its construction even as in Aztec days it went into the temple 2,001 feet above. Like many Mexican churches, it has two, towers flanking the entrance doors of old carved wood- and a long nave, terminating in a big dome which rise almost as high as the towers. The dome is tiled, am the towers are full of bells. As everywhere, part of the structure is decomposing-but with what charm any grace! To the right are the ruined arches of a long clois-, ter, where Dominicans once told their beads. In front of the doorway stands a stone cross whose arms end in symbolic Aztec serpents. On the screen inside the door is suspended a sign to the effect that a lottery for dead souls is in progress. The names of departed parishioner are listed, each with a lottery number, and a mass in promised the soul of the winner on a given date. But the loser need not despair; a sort of blanket mass will be celebrated a few days later for all the remaining luckless candidates together.
Two pigs are asleep in the churchyard among the graves. A hen approaches, with some misgiving, the church door. A pony with a resplendent silver-studded saddle waits patiently in front of the store. Men, women, children, and animals are sunk in a divine lethargy. It is the siesta hour, which even the northerner on schedule must come to respect. We shall drink our beer here in the shade, watch the sleepy zocalo, admire the old rose and ivory of the crumbling church, try to believe that the cliffs from which we have descended are authentic and not a Hollywood backdrop, and presently, when it is a little cooler, ask an Indian boy to guide us over the pedregal-a heaving waste of lava rock-to Cuernavaca.
I stayed in Tepoztlan but a short time in the spring of 1930. Some months later there came into my hands a book by Mr. Robert Redfield, an American ethnologist from the University of Chicago, who had remained there nearly a year, studying every phase of the town's life. With this invaluable document, I was able to check my own impressions, and still better, to draw evidence for a more serious study in comparative civilizations. Robert Redfield's Tepoztlan, laid upon Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown, provides as exciting a series of parallel columns as any sociologist could wish. One can compare item by item the work habits, play habits, religious habits; the food, houses, clothing, education, social organization of two communities, one north, the other south of the Rio Grande, but a whole world apart. The one is still following the leisurely pattern of the handicraft age, with many cultural traditions from the greatest indigenous civilization which the Western Hemisphere produced; the other is firmly locked into the culture of the machine age, deriving most of its traditions and mores from the Eastern Hemisphere. The machine has entered Tepoztlan, as we have seen, but it is as yet the shyest of visitors. If it and its products were barred tomorrow, the white pyjamas of the men would have to give way to native cloth woven from a local tree fibre (the old looms still survive). Otherwise the village life would proceed largely unimpaired.
Tepoztlan is far more American than Middletown, when all is said and done, but it is alien to everything we regard as typically "American." Nor does the irony end here. Middletown, you will remember, is the pen name for Muncie, Indiana. If there is an Indian in Muncie, Indiana, he belongs in a museum. Of the 40,000 people in the town, ninety-nine per cent are of European or African stock. It has been estimated, on the other hand, that no more than fifty Spaniards ever settled in Tepoztlan. After 400 years this Hispanic strain does not amount to much. The southern community is ninety-nine per cent Indian. Thus in race as well as in culture, Tepoztlan is almost pure American, while the northern community, in the state called Indiana, is an omelette of English, French, Poles, Italians, Czechs, Russians, Negroes, Germans, Irish, and heaven and the Bureau of the Census know how many other nationalities.
The Lynds estimate that of all the great tonnage of factory goods which Middletown produces, only a tiny fraction-perhaps one ,per cent-is locally consumed. The rest to takes rail and moves to the ends of the earth. The city grows a somewhat larger fraction, but still a negligible one, of its food supply. With its railroads and highways cut, Middletown would very shortly starve to death. It exists only as a cell in a vast interdependent industrial structure. About both towns stand fields of corn-that maize which the forebears of the Aztecs learned to domesticate. Middletown does not eat corn in any quantity, and most of its enveloping crop is used to fatten steers. But the cornfields of Tepoztlan take on a sacramental dignity. For centuries these milpas have been cultivated from father to son, and their sowing and harvesting are the outstanding ceremonies of the year. It is said that no Mexican revolution can survive the harvest season. The army deserts in a unit to tend its ancestral milpas. From this corn, from the squashes which grow between the furrows, the beans clambering on the cornstalks, and the wild fruits in the hills, Tepoztlan can feed itself if it must. Probably nine tenths of its food comes from within its own boundaries. It trades with the surrounding villages, the storekeeper buys cotton cloth and a few notions from Mexico City, but by and large, in dramatic contrast with Middletown, it is not a cog in the wheel, but an economically independent community. This costs something to be sure in terms of the efficiency of specialization, but it also gives something, as we shall see.
Indeed there is no end to the dramatic contrast. The typical community in the United States is urban and industrialized; the typical community in Mexico is rural and lives from the soil and the forests. The gospel of Middletown is work, and the gospel of Tepoztlan is play -one day in three, the year around, the southern community is celebrating a major or minor fiesta. Yet for all their hard work, a fraction of the men of Middletown is constantly unemployed and bowed down with fear and worry. Unemployment is unheard of in Tepoztlan, and fear stalks only when earthquakes rumble, or a Zapata comes riding over the mountains, federal troops at his heels.
Middletown is essentially practical, Tepoztlan essentially mystical in mental processes. Yet in coming to terms with one's environment, Tepoztlan has exhibited, I think, the superior common sense. Middletown has its due quota of neurotic and mentally unbalanced individuals. In Tepoztlán a Freudian complex is unthinkable. The min of the south are craftsmen-many students call them artists-they can put their hands to almost anything, fashion it, repair it, recreate it. Their popular arts, their weaving, pottery, glass work, basketry, are as authentic and delightful as any the modern or the ancient world has seen. (Tepoztlan has not a craft specialty, as have many other villages, but every boy is taught to work with stone, wood, metal, clay and thatch.)
I fear I am tipping the scales. In this dreamy haze, amid snow-capped volcanoes, it is all too easy to become sentimental. Let us endeavour to right the balance. There is-not a bathtub in Tepoztlan, or a telephone or a radio (to the best of my knowledge), or a movie palace (but the village band boasts one saxophone), or a pair of silk stockings, or a refrigerator, or an electric light, or a spring bed, or a newspaper, or an overstuffed davenport, or a cocktail shaker, or a decent cup of coffee, or a baseball team, or a dance hall (they dance in the church), or running water from a tap, or a straight eight. Children do not sit on trees and establish records; nobody sends copy to confession magazines; to three districts in the town the postman never delivered a letter in the months of Mr. Redfield's residence. There are only two small schools, and the majority of the population is illiterate. All speak two languages, however, their own Aztec and Spanish.
There are thirteen native herb specialists and ten midwives, but not a doctor in the town. A lawyer would have nothing to do. The people look healthy, but according to Dr. Ernest Gruening, commenting on Mexico generally, the question of public health has been seriously neglected. Particularly appalling is infant mortality. I suspect-Mr. Redfield does not help us here-that despite its neurotics and its industrial and automobile accidents, Middletown has a better health record than Tepoztlan. Certainly in the matter of health and sanitation the pointer swings sharply to the north, and here we touch upon one of the harshest features of Mexican village life. The weak die early. Only the strong survive.
There are other harsh features, as we shall see in due time. Nowhere in Europe, not even in Russia, have I seen a community so alien to the way of life in my own country. Yet we are both members of the same continent, a muddy river between us. It is the purpose of the following chapters to generate a modicum of understanding between-shall we say?-old family Americans and their parvenu cousins. Ordinarily I am proud of the nine generations of New England behind me, but I feel like the rawest immigrant compared to the little brown boy up there in the belfry, who, with all the gusto in the world, is tipping one of the great tower bells in full somersault to announce the hour of vespers.