Mexico

CHAPTER V

THE DECLINE OF MEXICAN CIVILIZATION. I

THE capital city of the Aztecs fell in 1521. Porfirio Diaz, dictator of Mexico, fell in 1910. Between these two dates lie almost four centuries, and as I read the records, a slow and steady decline in civilization. This opinion will meet indignant denials in various quarters. The pious will object that during the period Christianity was sub­stituted for the worship of the sun and the plumed ser­pent. The Spaniard will object that his civilized culture replaced that of Montezuma. The admirers of constitutional democracy will object that Mexico threw off the yoke of Spain in 1821 and shortly after introduced ballot boxes, two houses of Parliament, and a president in frock coat and tall silk hat, all complete. Finally, the American colony in Mexico, and not a few business men at home and abroad, will object that the administration of Porfirio Diaz, with its safeguards for foreign per­sons and property, was as near Utopia as it is possible for investing aliens to get on this unreliable planet. As one goes about Mexico today, two decades after Diaz took the first available liner for Europe, never to return, one has only to mention his name to affluent Americans and old family Mexicans to receive a reaction as automatic as the knee jerk. "Don Porfirio! There was a man. The best thing that ever happened to Mexico. Ah, if we but had him back!"

Yet in the face of these hostile ranks I maintain that civilization rolled steadily downhill in Mexico for 400 years, and that the close of the Diaz regime was its low­est point. Not many pages back I defined civilization quite simply as city living. Here I must be allowed to add to the original definition a modicum of well-being on the part of the underlying population.

Christianity was not substituted for paganism. The religion of the Indians was diluted with dashes of Roman Catholicism, here weaker, there stronger; but the way­faring Mexican Indian is neither pagan nor Christian, but a mixture of both as we shall see. He dropped the blood sacrifice, which was an excellent thing to do, but he gained spiritual confusion. His ancient certainties were uprooted, and he was too stubborn, or too wary, to accept the new certainties imported from Jerusalem and Rome.

Whether sixteenth century Spain exhibited a higher type of culture than Montezuma's Mexico is arguable, but beside the point. Granted that Spain was on the whole superior, it distinctly does not follow that that culture was introduced into Mexico to supersede Aztec and Mayaa cultures. Like the church doctrines, scraps and patches of it were introduced, but only in single communi­ties, one might almost say in manor houses. The Indians would have none of the Castilian pattern, or very little of it, and as we shall reiterate throughout this book, it is the Indian and not the white that makes Mexico, that is Mexico. North of the Rio Grande, the whites elbowed the Indian steadily westward, and Europeans bearing European culture flowed freely into the vacuum. Not more than 300,000 Spaniards ever settled in Mexico, forming only an eddy in a deep constant river of ten or more million Indians. I doubt if any Mexican city with the exception of the capital was ever as Spanish as, say, New York in its early days was Dutch. The Spanish in­fluence, such as it was, undoubtedly added some valuable things to Mexican life, but it also made very grave sub­tractions. No. If Cortez and his captains had slaughtered the entire Indian population with the thoroughness ex­hibited in the city of Cholula, and thereafter Spaniards of all classes had colonized an uninhabited country, we might - possibly - have held that the new civilization was an improvement on the old. But the facts make no such conclusion tenable.

A great deal is made, both by foreign historians and by Mexicans themselves, of the revolution of 1810. It is compared not unfavourably with the glorious days of the American Revolution. The tyranny of Spain - like the tyranny of England - was cast off. Father Hidalgo - like George Washington - went through the days that tried men's souls to establish independence, freedom and democracy. Father Hidalgo was undoubtedly a great man, but alas there was no soil into which freedom and democracy could be sown. Independence from Spain was won, paper constitutions were set up, but again the Indian population negatived the programme. It had no tradition of individualism, of property holding in the western sense, of ballot boxes, of free speech. The Indians had retained a certain amount of democracy in their villages from Aztec times, but they had no conception of it in national terms. The world ended with the mountains which encircled their pueblo. (And still does.) All that happened, accordingly, was an exchange of Spanish rulers and exploiters for native creole rulers and exploiters. The viceroy gave way to the "president," and which was the greater rogue it would be difficult to de­termine. To the political historian Mexican independence is a major fact, but to the economist and sociologist it appears a minor phenomenon, setting in motion no forces tending either to mitigate the evils of the feudalism established by the Spaniards or genuinely to raise the level of Mexican civilization. The curve was downward to Hidalgo, and continued downward for another century.

Finally as to Diaz. The man was an excellent adminis­trator; he made the country safe both for foreign bankers and for tourists. He had a programme for Mexico and I think he was sincere in putting it into effect. But it was the wrong kind of programme. He tried to Westernize Mexico, to introduce the machine and industrialism. To this end he gave foreign concessionaires every encouragement, and the Indian population - who went to work for the aliens - every discouragement. The peon was driven to a point below that ever witnessed in the Spanish regime. He was stripped of his communal lands; stripped of his human dignity. The proof of the unsoundness of the Diaz regime lies in the completeness of its collapse. Nothing enduring had been built into the national fabric. A few whiffs of gunpowder, a few speeches about land and justice, and programme and system liquidated like a cracked egg.

A toboggan slide for 400 years. But at last, if I am not mistaken, the bottom of the run has been reached and the course starts up. It started up in 1917. In that year Mexico turned from prostrating herself before white men from all points of the compass, and regarded her own brown men, their imperishable traditions, their authentic artistic gifts, their gentleness and essential dignity. And this, if you please, is the best thing which has happened to Mexico since the Mayas built their shining cities.

Let us try, in a few brief pages, to catch at least a hint of the flavour of these slowly sinking centuries. The record, while discouraging to the social philosopher, is replete with colour for the artist.

THE INCOMPLETENESS OF THE CONQUEST

Mexico City has fallen. The great temple is torn down. Montezuma's successor is most villainously tor­tured to disclose the treasures of his people. The Spanish enemies of Cortez recede before his colossal fait accom­pli, and the king of Spain appoints him Governor Gen­eral, with grants of land in Mexico as vast as European nations. From the conquered city, files of men in armour, supported by armies of Tlaxcalans and other allies, wind their laborious way north, south, west, over mountains and down barrancas, to consolidate the conquest. As one looks from a train window at shattering cliffs guarded with great green sentries of organ cactus, one wonders how they ever made their way at all. Perhaps the trails were better then. The Aztecs kept them up. One by one the plateau peoples were subdued, their temples over­thrown, their leaders killed, the surplus products of their lands taken by the adventurers and the clerics who followed the looting armies. Some surrendered voluntarily; others died fighting; others held out against the invaders for decades.

Upon the plateaus lived a sedentary population, schooled for centuries in maize civilization. They could be dealt with, and sooner or later conquered. "They continued," says Tannenbaum, "their stagnant agricul­tural life with such changes in land holding, crops, tools, methods of cultivation as were introduced by the Span­iards." But the mountain peoples were another matter. They moved suddenly, they were experts at ambush, they travelled light and fought desperately. When the ridges began to rise too steeply, the Spanish domination ended. Most of the mountain tribes were never conquered, although most of them, in due time, came down into the valleys to trade, and to absorb something of the invader's culture. Some races, like the Pumas and the Apaches, practically disappeared. Others kept rigidly to them­selves. A missionary speaking of the Kikapus in Coahuila (a border state) says:

It is pre-Cortezan America. They are a proud race and have conserved ninety-five per cent of their costumes, ideas, religion, government, spirit of warfare - which they now take out in hunting. They hate the white man. They use bows and arrows and look upon schooling as a means to learn evil.

The Huichol is another haughty people. "Never for a moment will they allow any race superior to theirs. Even when far from home, they hold themselves as though they had never known a master." The governor of the territory of Quintana Roo-on the Yucatan peninsula is to all intents and purposes a figurehead. The Maya Indians possess the region and obey only their caciques. Speaking of them, a Mexico City paper said editorially as late as 1927, "We are concerned with an important part of Mexico which it is necessary to re­conquer."

The Tarahumare Indian rarely keeps horses and never pigs. Pigs are held to be Spaniards in disguise. The Cora Indians plant maize once a year, sowing with the first rains. They do not occupy themselves with work after that but pass the time in celebrating feasts, and have for their main distraction dancing with their idols. (Re­ported in 1922.) These Indians will come down from the mountains from time to time to work for the haciendas, and barter in the markets, or even go into the mines for a short period. But they always return to their mountain villages, shunning the white man, and preserving their own language, songs and religion.

I saw an island in Lake Cuitzeo in Michoacan where, we are told on good authority, a tribe of Tarascans speak no word of Spanish, allow no white man to approach, and keep their ancient customs uncorrupted. On the slopes of the dead volcano of Malinche, named for that brown mistress of Cortez who did so much to betray her own people - and whose ghost, it is alleged, repented there lives a tribe of Tlaxcalans who also permit no white man to approach. The Mexican Exploration Club must take a roundabout route to the top of this rugged giant, despite the fact that it stands close by the large city of Puebla. Who knows if these people inherit their revulsion from some branch which seceded when Tlaxcala helped Cortez take Mexico?

There are authenticated instances of tribes which embraced - or were forced to accept Christianity, which later reverted to the worship of their idols. In Oaxaca I penetrated to a mountain village, nominally Catholic, near which on the Day of the Dead, November 1, 1930, was found the fresh blood of a sacrificed turkey, candles, tobacco and other offerings in front of a sculptured monolith. In Oaxaca, furthermore, the valley people wear wide straw sombreros with designs in red and green worked upon them; the mountain people wear little black peaked hats, like gnomes in fairy stories. One can never hope to understand Mexico unless he fully realizes how incomplete the work of the Spaniards was. They left great gaps in the map - chiefly where the contour lines make rich, brown smudges - which acted as reservoirs to perpetuate the ancient way of life. Even on the plateau and in flat Yucatan, "we were conquered physically but our cultural life persisted. We retained our language, costumes, type of house, food, songs, dances, social relations." Which all runs current with our expedition to Tepoztlan,

THE HACIENDA

Two hours on horseback from Mexico City brings one to the fine old hacienda of San G raising wheat, cattle and pulque. It is quite possible to go over a bumpy road in a car, but more in keeping with the spirit of colonial times to ride across the vast dry fields which surround the capital, Popo and the White Lady shim­mering to the east, along the banks of irrigation ditches, up and down the steep sides of dry barrancas, and so at an easy gallop up the mile-long avenue of eucalyptus which forms the entrance to the estate. As we canter along - the hour is near sunset - we pass the workers coming in from the fields. There are a score of Indians in white pyjamas with wide straw sombreros, and twice as many mules. Each man is driving a pair yoked to an iron plough. It is ancient and battered, but incontrovertibly metal. This, then, is an enterprising hacienda, in a land where the great majority of ploughs are made of wood. Underneath the blade as it scrapes along the ground is a broad leaf of maguey to save its edge and make it slide more easily.

We pass old stone walls and water channels of moss­green masonry. Eucalyptus trees, towering 100 feet or more, form a green arch above our heads. We enter a gate guarded by huge, stone towers and find ourselves in a large compound encircled by high walls of incredible thickness. To a motor car or to pedestrians the foreman might be surly, but the man on horseback is welcome. He gives us an adios - that Mexican good-bye which also means how do you do and God bless you, answers our questions with the utmost friendliness, and waves us the freedom of the establishment. On the left is a large, deep pool with a touch of green scum, but at­tractive in its border of trees and flowers. This is the general reservoir of the estate. Behind it is the arched portico o the manor house in pink stone. It is shuttered; the family is away. Between the pool and the mansion is a garden, rank with flowers. It has tried to be a formal garden, but nature has been too much for it. The flowers lean against the white wall of the little hacienda church.

To the right of the compound are the barns, and a glimpse of other compounds through massive arches. There is hardly a splinter of wood to be seen; everything is of stone, tile or adobe brick. We note a tall stone silo and beside it a little creamery, operated by a steam engine well nigh as ancient as the ploughs. This is the only mechanism to be seen on the place. We trot through the courtyard to the workers' houses. They form a small village. The little lanes are alive with babies, pigs, chickens, turkeys, dogs. The babies regard us with round, serious eyes, the pigs grunt slowly out from underfoot, the mongrels snap at our horses' hoofs. The huts are of adobe brick, their window sills bright with flowers. I note with amazement that each hut has a small, square chimney - the first chimneys I have ever seen in a Mexican village. Smoke, curling from under the tiles, reassures me, however. The chimney is not working, or has been deliberately stopped up, and smoke from the charcoal cooking brazier is following its normal course-out of the eaves or out of the door. (Charcoal, however, does not produce much smoke.)

Perhaps after mañana, which means tomorrow, which means everything that had better not be done now, there is no word more common in Mexico than hacienda. Riding across the country whether by railroad, motor or horse, one's notice is constantly drawn to broad fields culminating in the facade of a great stone structure. Sometimes it looks like a stockade, sometimes like a palace, sometimes like a monastery. Sometimes it is resplendent, sometimes in utter ruin. It is so and so's hacienda - or it was so and so's hacienda. In the cities, this man and that man is pointed out. "He has a huge pulque hacienda in Hidalgo. . . . That little dark chap over there owns a string of haciendas in Jalisco." The curio shops, the Thieves' Market deal in old iron, furniture, bric-a-brac retrieved, stolen or pawned from haciendas located at all points of the compass. Visiting foreigners dream of the ideal hacienda which may be purchased cheaply and made inordinately productive. There is hardly, if I may say so, a politician in Mexico who has not his eye upon a neat hacienda to which he may some day retire. In many cases the hand has already supplanted the eye. As for the Indians, they are divided between the desire to have an hacienda functioning nearby about which they may orient their economic effort, and to split up the lands of adjacent haciendas and add them to those of their own village. On the whole the latter urge pre­dominates.

Repeatedly in these pages we refer to free village and hacienda village. The former is dominated by primitive communism and the agricultural methods of the old civilizations; the latter by a landlord, and a heavier infiltration of Spanish crops and methods. The former tends to lie in mountain valleys, the latter on the plateaus. Both are populated by Indians, and many ancient mores survive in hacienda village as well as free. Both are deplorably inefficient in the light of scientific agriculture, but the free village at least maintains a balanced economy, promoting its survival over centuries, where the hacienda may collapse from over-specialization and consequent soil destruction, or from loss of market. Free villagers often come down to work on the hacienda when ploughing or harvest labour is in demand, but when the stint is over they return to their own fields and homes.

To my mind the hacienda was the major contribution of Spain to the organic life of Mexico. Where it func­tioned strongly, it twisted the Indian pattern more violently than any other imported institution. The Church twisted souls, but the hacienda affected bread and butter - or better, corn and beans; it went straight to economic roots. An hacienda was - and still is to a degree - a giant farm, under the absolute domination of an individual with powers often running back to royal grant, and a largely self-sustaining economic unit. It is feudalism plus. Along with the grant of land went a grant of Indians. The inhabitants of one or more villages were assigned to work the farm of the patentee. Gradually they lost their status as citizens of the Aztec confederacy, and became to all intents and purposes serfs of the landowner. As such they co-operated to make a little self-enclosed world. As farm labourers or herders they worked the lands and produced their own food; as carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, potters, weavers, they erected the buildings, kept them in repair, and fabricated practically all necessary tools and utensils; as servants they kept the owner - the hacendado - and his family from ever doing a stroke of useful work; as consumers they were forced to purchase their salt 'and trinkets, brandy and cotton cloth at the company store, and were kept by monstrous bookkeeping safely in debt thereto from generation to generation. These debts made them in effect bound serfs; so far as possible paid in kind rather than money. To round out the picture, one seldom sees a sizable hacienda without its private church. Noble and clergy co­operated to keep the Indian in his place.

On the typical hacienda were found:

An administrator
Mayordomos, or superintendents of local ranches A priest, clerks, and in rare cases, a schoolteacher
Foremen and cattle herders Resident indentured workers Resident crop sharers
Resident renters
Temporary renters and crop sharers
Seasonal harvest gangs (Indians down from moun­tain villages)
A police force and prison A magistrate
Handicraft workers-smiths, carpenters, masons, etc.
Household servants
And once in a blue moon - an hacendado

By and large the agricultural methods employed, whether the chief crop was corn, maguey, henequen, wheat, sugar, coffee, fruits, or cattle, were marvellously inefficient. We have already noted how water and fertility were restricted by a wholesale levelling of the pre­conquest forests. Some authorities hold, with consider­able show of evidence, that despite the animals, tools and methods brought in by the Spaniards, output per man declined as compared with Aztec production. We remember that Cortez found the valley of Cholula so rich "that not a hand's breadth was left uncultivated."

The hacendado made his chief home in Mexico City, Merida, the city of Oaxaca, or even Europe; left the farm in charge of an administrator, paid a few regal visits to the estate-or estates-and demanded only one thing: a salable surplus crop large enough to keep him and his dependents in the style to which they were accustomed. This demand operated to kill all initiative in the direction of improved methods and processes. The overseer's job was to produce a crop large enough to prevent the local Indians from starving, thus conserving the labour sup­ply, and to keep the señor in velvet, wine and French mistresses.

The hacienda system produced a static economy which never changed, never progressed, took no chances, eluded most of its taxes, drove to a single objective - the master's cash crop. It effectively prevented the development of a middle class, and muffled with a vast apathy all attempts of Mexicans to exercise their minds.

Inefficiency was further increased by the economic policy of Spain in respect to her colonies. Products both raw and manufactured which she herself produced were, in many cases, proscribed in Mexico. Thus the most effective crop or process for a given soil or area often could not be utilized. It was the fixed policy of the mother country to drain her colonies of wealth. Imposts, duties, fees, monopolies, charges, commissions, royalties, tributes, licenses were laid on every person and every article of sale. Gruening cites unlimited evidence to show how these were enforced. The royal monopolies included salt, tobacco, quicksilver, gunpowder, playing cards, cock fighting, indulgences, lotteries, the sale of titles and offices, and, if you please, snow and ice from Popocate­petl! The king of Spain took an average of $7,000,000 a year from Mexico. In 1804 this amounted to two thirds of all the royal revenue. Colonists were forbidden to trade with foreigners, even with other Spanish colonies. Everything must clear through the mother country, re­sulting in such fantastic transactions as the following:

  1. Raw materials were shipped from Mexico to Spain.
  2. Spain shipped them to other European countries where they were made into manufactured articles.
  3. As such they were imported back to Spain.
  4. Spain then shipped them to Mexico - duly loaded with freights, duties, imposts, commissions and profits.

A barrel of wine worth six pesos in Spain cost forty­eight pesos in Mexico City. Consider calmly the economy if Mexico had been permitted to manufacture her own wine and kindred articles. The growing of olives, grapes, flax, hemp, silk, saffron was prohibited. In 1557 a Mexican, de Medina, discovered the quicksilver process for refining silver - a really great industrial innovation. Spain immediately appropriated the process, and literally prevented Mexico from refining her own silver with her own mercury, by throttling the supply. Inventors, men with ideas, sought kindlier shores.

In due time the hacienda spread throughout Mexico. On the plateau it became the dominant economic system. The big estate was not unknown in Aztec days, but it amounted to little compared with the free village and its communal land. Now the free villages were forced farther and farther up the mountains, the haciendas rolling snugly over most of the fertile, reasonably level territory. The plateau peoples went by the millions into peonage. Back over the centuries comes the Indian cry as the institution gained: "Ni tlaca" - "We are also human."

Occasionally they were bought and sold as slaves, but normally this was unnecessary. With debts and penalties they were bound to the hacienda just as efficiently as though legally chattels. Some holdings were so huge that their owners never saw, or could even locate, their boundaries. In 400 years the grants to Cortez, still held by his descendants, had swollen to one city, fifteen towns, 157 villages, eighty-nine haciendas, 119 ranchos, and five estancias, embracing altogether 150,000 people. As late as 1925, Prince Pignatelli of Italy came to Mexico to protest against the breaking up of the hacienda Atlacomulco in the state of Morelos. He descended from Cortez through the Dukes of Monteleone. For nearly four centuries income from that hacienda had been going to absentee owners in Italy. Alvarado, Cortez' captain, who executed one of the most brutal massacres of the whole conquest, was rewarded with Xochimilco, its floating gardens and 30,000 people. A favourite of the king was given the entire state of Guanajuato. By 1572, some 500 huge grants accounted for most of the plateau and fertile lands of Mexico. Later the Church was to make vast in­roads into these properties, until, by 1850, it owned a good half of all landed property in the nation. Diaz accelerated the hacienda system. He gave over 30,000,000 acres to seven owners in Chihuahua; 5,000,000 acres to two owners in Coahuila; 12,000,000 acres to a single woman. In Morelos, thirty-two people owned the entire state.

An hacendado, reviewing his workmen as they went to their huts for the night, noted that each carried a bit of wood from the considerable forest on the domain. He remarked in clear tones to the friend who stood beside him that it would be a good idea to tax the men five centavos a log, and use the proceeds to buy farm equipment. One straight old Indian dropped his log at his master's feet and marched on without a word.

Here is the valley of Teotihuacan. Before the conquest it was in a flourishing state of civilization. It contained the great pyramids of the moon and of the sun, with their stupendous architecture, sculpture and painting. It produced pottery, textiles, industrial implements, exquisite jade, obsidian jewellery, feather cloths, a fantastic and beautiful mythology, and splendid rituals. Its glory had declined when the Spaniards came, but it was still a rich agricultural and industrial district. The haciendas spread over its face, but a number of free villages were spared. Its real calvary came with Diaz. In 1917, Dr. Manuel Gamio made an intensive study of the valley, and published his findings in three large volumes. He investigated every phase of its economic, social and artistic life. And this is what he found (remember it was before the land distribution of the real revolution) Arable land, 25,935 acres. Population, 8,330-5,657 Indians; 2,137 mestizos - mostly following the Indian way of life; 536 whites. Average acreage - three per individual. More than adequate to provide comfortably for every man, woman and child.

But 7,907 persons owned no land whatsoever. Four hundred and six persons owned 2,594 acres of poor land. Seven persons, living in Mexico City, owned 23,341 acres, or all the rest of the arable land, amounting to a cool 90 per cent. Their crops were sold in the capital, thirty miles away, leaving the resident population with the choice of starving or going to work on the haciendas at fifty to seventy-five centavos (twenty-five to thirty-seven cents) a day.

The result: overwork, undernourishment, villainous housing, an infant mortality rate at fifty-six per cent, no medical service in the valley save native herb doctors, illiteracy at sixty-six per cent. Nearly all the old arts and crafts had evaporated, or woefully degenerated. In the school he started, Dr. Gamio had to teach the Indians all over again the ancient and beautiful pottery designs.

The valley of Teotihuacan, in the shadow of the capital, is an extreme case. But it shows the trend. Latifundia have cursed Mexico even as they did Rome. For centuries, fewer than 10,000 families have dominated the country. Tannenbaum found, in 1921, 12,782 properties of more than 2,500 acres and thus legitimate haciendas, embracing some sixty per cent of all Mexico's land not owned by the government. They held in fief 50,000 villages and not far from 4,000,000 persons. Northern states like Coahuila had ninety-four per cent of their area in haciendas. In 1921, furthermore, the tide had begun to turn. The peak of the hacienda system was in 1910, the year that Diaz was overthrown.

Ten thousand principalities ruled by the man on horseback; 10,000 little self-sufficing economic empires as primitive and backward in their technical methods as in their sociology - such was the principal gift of Spain to Mexico; a gift made even more poignant by Don Porfirio. But we must remember that through all these dreadful centuries, up on the mountains the free village, accounting for half the population, still stubbornly held its own.

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