WE return to Tepoztlan as a symbol of the Mexico of today. Here lies our dominant interest. And we have to keep a steady head. On the one hand the inquiring traveller carries with him the usual complement of American prejudices, conditioning him to find dirt, squalor, inefficiency, banditry, laziness, political peculation and instability to the exclusion of all else. On the other hand he is bound to spend long evenings in the company of compatriots who have gone virtually native, listening as they remove cover after cover from the surface of Mexico until he stares dizzily into a bottomless pit of mysteries, atavisms, sorceries and primitive profundities. . . . Beyond that mountain lies a village. . . . Sometimes you can hear the drums. . . . On the Day of the Dead. . . . Descended from a conquistador and the last prince. Down this street lives an Aztec sorceress. You saw these herb charms in the market? . . They are making vases in that valley exactly as they did 1,000 years ago, but you can't buy them. . . . Tombs of three Zapotec kings. If the department would only excavate here. . . . He tried to find out the secret, and has never been heard o f since. . . . Being simpatico is not enough, you have to establish confianza. . . . Still mining the gold they hid from Cortez. . . . Three men have tried to dig it up and all three have died. . . .No white man has ever been there, but an old Indian has promised to take me. . . .
Between this Scylla and Charybdis the traveller must steer, on guard against crude Nordic reflexes, and against sheer sentimental mysticism. Personally I found it not over-difficult to subdue my bathtub and Listerine complexes, but exceedingly difficult to neutralize the powers of the air. There is a mystery about Mexico; there is something in the atmosphere incredibly old and not a little fearsome, heightened, doubtless, by the raw violence of the scenery. Some of the weird stories are grossly exaggerated and some are literally true. I have, however, not gone native and do not propose to. Mexico, like any other considerable area of the planet, is here, drab and dirty, there, colourful and mysterious. Only the drabness is not quite so dreary, and the mystery more encircling and pungent. While the colour is more vivid than in any land I know.
Which brings me-I do not quite know why unless it be a violent attempt to be practical-to the definition of a "Mexican." It is a matter which perplexes every observant traveller, and had best be clarified forthwith. There are five distinct connotations of the word:
This is all very confusing; particularly as nobody seems to know where the word "Mexico" comes from. The most likely clue is a derivation from an Aztec god of war, a ferocious gentleman named Mexitli. In Tepoztlan the matter is admirably taken care of. The more educated, with a dash of white-or two or three-are called "los correctos"; the rank and file "los tontos," the simple. Perhaps the distinction which holds most currency at the present time, though appallingly undemocratic, is "Mexican" and "Indian"; the former applying to the educated, particularly the townsfolk with white blood, the latter to the villagers. I think, however, that I shall speak for the age that is dawning, and call all citizens Mexicans, even as I term a southern negro with one mule, a Dakota farmer, Mr. A. Drexel Biddle, and myself, Americans.
Our business in Tepoztlan is lodged in three portfolios. We want to know how a community of machineless men carries on; how a handicraft culture actually functions; how it compares with an American community, the best documented being Middletown. We want to know the extent of the legacy from the Aztecs; how much of the pre-Columbian civilization survives. Finally we shall inquire into the specific inroads of the machine age to date, and speculate as to the future course of that invasion. While, due to the indefatigable researches of Mr. Redfield, we know more facts about Tepoztlan than about any other native community of the free village type, and it becomes our symbol, we shall not confine ourselves to this locality. The experience of other regions will be drawn upon as the analysis develops.
Tepoztlan, you recall, is a town of 4,000 people, sixty miles south of Mexico City, in a mountain valley embracing a few square miles of arable land, about 6,000 feet above the sea. Not fifty citizens show plainly their white blood; the town is thus overwhelmingly Indian and everybody speaks Nahuatl (Aztec) as well as a varying amount and quality of Spanish. It was a town when Cortez landed, and the same seven barrios, or wards, with their peculiar organization, are still actively functioning. Very few Spaniards ever came to settle in Tepoztlan, and thus the outside influence, such as it is, has been derived chiefly from natives journeying to Mexico City and returning with new ideas. Of the present population, all but fifty of the men were born in the valley. The town is primarily to live in, trade in, play in; one goes outside to the fields or forests to work. Under the Aztec system, village lands were held by the whole community, with specific fields allotted to each family, inalienable so long as properly cultivated. Today the families of Tepoztlan continue to cling to these ancestral fields, although they now have legal title and in theory can buy and sell. The less fertile areas and the mountain slopes are still held communally, and called ejidos.
Indian pueblos and Castilian villages 400 years had much in common-and doubtless still have. It was accordingly not difficult to introduce certain Spanish ways upon Aztec soil. Indeed all handicraft cultures of a relatively high level have much in common, and tend to a kindred pattern. The same rhythms of agriculture, trade, worship, play, the same inexorable limitations of environment are in operation. Mexican villages remind me constantly of Russian villages-the rows of huts, the enormous colourful church, the market produce spread in the dust. We must beware accordingly of conceiving Tepoztlan as an Aztec pueblo. It is a fusion of Aztec and Castilian, with a dash of modern. The resulting compound can only be called Mexican. Aztec civilization, as we have seen, was decapitated by the conquest. The brain ceased functioning; the body still lives.
The first municipal government was established about 1820, at the time of independence from Spain. Previous thereto the Aztec cacique system was in operation, and, despite the aforementioned government, continued in operation until recently. A cacique is a chief, a head man with a life term dependent on good behaviour, or behaviour adequate to prevent his overthrow. He is judge and land distributor. I was invited to go and see the "king of Tepoztlan," who now lives in Xochimilco.. If time had allowed, I might have found the mystic reins of invisible government-or I might not. Today the local political unit embraces Tepoztlan and seven adjacent hamlets. (Not to be confused with the seven barrios.) There is a municipal council consisting of a presidente and eight assistants, a secretary and a judge. The latter hears local complaints-some of them-and when overwhelmed by technical points, transmits them to the court at Cuernavaca, the capital of the state of Moreios. -The theory is that these dignitaries are elected by the suffrage of the town. Actually they are appointed from Cuernavaca, or were in 1927.free
This sad collapse of democracy is not, however, so ominous as it sounds. The theoretically elected, practically appointed municipal government has no serious business whatsoever. Above all it has no revenue. Occasionally it makes a left-handed drive for local taxes with the most dismal success. Actual pesos are forthcoming only when the state tax collectors arrive, gun on hip, remaining "only long enough to exploit and defraud the natives."
The presidente presides; the council sits-and sits. Actual work is done communally, as it has always been done. If a street is to be repaired, washing stones replaced, the water supply remodelled, citizens toll themselves off to do it-apparently automatically. It is not always done promptly, but it is done. To keep the village functioning is as necessary a part of one's daily work as to keep one's household functioning. The two are inseparable. This is what village communism means. It is surrounded with no body of theory; it is a set of rooted habits. The new "government" comes in each January first, accompanied by a lonely rocket or two and complete public indifference. Its only real function is to preside and assist with the fiesta schedule. When all is said and done it is "a form of play." Thus the working of the sublime principles of Jeffersonian democracy in Tepoztlan. In more remote villages, perhaps in the majority of Mexican villages, we do not find even the pretence of elected officials. The cacique still rules, or in his absence, citizens draw on their ageless communal habits. At the other end of the scale, a great metropolis like Mexico City with 1,000,000 population has a very highly organized municipal government. The chief of the Federal District is one of the great politicos of the republic. The responsiveness of this government to democratic control, however, is not on a scale to create enthusiasm in the breast of Mr. Frederick C. Howe or the National Municipal League.
The street layout of Tepoztlan is pre-conquest. The division of families in seven barrios, each with its chapel and santo, is derived directly from the Aztec calpulli, or kinship group, with its local god, religious structure, military organization, judge and public buildings. Even the old names survive. There is the barrio of the "toads," of the "ants," of the "lizards," of the "maguey worms" (the latter a Mexican comestible). These names are held aptly to describe the people of the barrios. The "ants" are so called because there are so many of them-it is the largest barrio in town-they run over the ground in all directions and get into all manner of trouble. The "toads" swell with their own importance. When the saint day of the barrio of Santo Domingo on January 12 approaches it will be said: "Ye acitihuitz ilhuitl cacame: Now comes the fiesta of the toads." The "lizards" are quick and light-minded, they like to sing at night on the street corners. The "cacomixtles" live under the rocks like the creature whose name they bear. Of the highest barrio in town, with huts below beetling precipices, the designation is sound.
Time is measured by sun and climate, not by clocks. If you ask a Tepoztecan, shortly after high noon, what time a given fiesta dance will start, he is likely to reply "It will take place right now at about three or five o'clock." This is as definite to him as it is infuriating to one who, like the author, was reared in sight of the Waltham Watch factory. Mexicans, even as Russians, have no mechanical time sense. "Mañana," tomorrow, stretches from 12:01 A.M. through the weeks and months to infinity. It is far more difficult and painful for a westerner to rid himself of his clock habits than of his appendix. But once the operation is over and the wound healed, there is much to be said for right now at about three or five o'clock. There is much to be said for consigning unpleasant business to an endless mañana. It was Mark Twain, if I remember rightly, who held all his incoming letters for six months, and was amazed and delighted at the small percentage which then required answer. The clock is perhaps the most tyrannical engine ever invented. To live beyond its lash is an experience in liberty which comes to few citizens of the machine age.
Arriving in Yucatan in the late fall of 1930, I found local hacienda owners and business men in the depths of despair. The price of henequen fibre was scraping an alltime bottom; production had been suspended for two months; the trade of the peninsula was at a standstill. The overwhelming majority of the residents of Yucatan are Maya Indians.
"This," I said, "is terrible. Unemployment spreading, starvation in the villages. Is the Red Cross active; have you appointed suitable relief committees? In the United States we have many millions of unemployed, and two relief committees to every man." This with a certain pardonable pride. I was met with a blank stare.
"Unemployment, starvation, Red Cross? What do you mean, señor? Times are very bad. Nobody has any money, but everybody has enough to eat."
"But how about the poor Indians?"
"The Indians? There is nothing the matter with the Indians. They have their corn and their beans. Nothing ever hurts them. But trade with us is a calamity. . . ."
Out in the bush, I verified this astonishing generalization. The world-wide depression affected a few bankers and business men in Merida, the capital; a clerk or two was out of a job; but the third estate did not even know there was a depression. The villages were largely self-sustaining. Even the peons who work on the henequen ranches have their own milpas.
Corn, beans, squash, eggs, chickens, turkeys, wild game, chocolate, is the village menu. Nobody is ever seriously hungry; famines are unknown. Stomach-ache is the ranking disease.
Tepoztlan is 1,000 miles from Yucatan, with utterly different topography, but the same ability to eat obtains. With Mr. Redfield's aid let us examine the sources and organization of its provisioning. Every family in town, with one or two exceptions, has its milpa. During the harvest season the carpenter leaves his bench, the merchant his counter, the arriero his mule, and all make their way to the cornfields. The ripe ears are piled in great heaps in the house yard, and a year's food supply for the family is stored in a circular corncrib. Any surplus may be exchanged or sold. Every woman in Tepoztlan knows how to take the kernels, pound them in a stone metate, add a little lime water, slap the meal out in her hands to. thin, round cakes, cook them over a charcoal brazier, and produce tortillas - the national dish of the old civilizations; the national dish of Mexico today.
(They taste as flat as they look at first, but one grows to like them.) She knows how to roll the tortilla, like a French pancake, around a bit of meat and sauce for enchiladas, or surround the meat with cornmeal, slip it into a corn husk and so produce the tamale, famous in Mexico as the hot dog in America, and far more nourishing.
Wherever one goes, from capital to remotest hut, the pat pat of women's hands fashioning tortillas is constantly in one's ears. It is impossible to conceive Mexico without maize. Remove it, and the country would shrink, weaken, aye, dissolve, before our eyes. Substituting an even more nourishing staple would do no good, for it is the tradition and the habits of the maize which make Mexico what it is. Nor should we of the North forget how Indian corn kept the first New Englanders alive. Mary Austin tells of a baby food made by Indian recipe of "boiling cornmeal many hours, straining it, making hickory nut cream, and combining them in given proportions. On this the little Puritan babies were raised."
Mexican food is not so lurid as generally painted. I have been for weeks in the back country living altogether on the local diet without ever scorching my throat-and it is easily scorched. The mole is a red-hot Aztec sauce, chocolate brown in colour. I tasted it first in a cool grotto, but even there it brought the tears starting to my eyes. Thereafter I avoided moles. One can go through a fortnight of regular table d'hótes, and never connect with a single overspiced dish. Fire-eaters can order them, but they are not continually in evidence.
On the whole I like Mexican food. Like French cooking, it is always tasty. It is innocent of pie-to me, though a New Englander, a great blessing. The soups are delicious; the eggs are always fresh (as cold storage is unknown) and admirably cooked; the rich brown frijoles (beans) are good; the crisp rolled bread is good-despite its lack of butter; an astonishing variety of exotic fruits is generally available, as well as bananas, oranges, and a kind of green lime, failing which one has never tasted a real cocktail. Drug store counter addicts suffer frightfully in Mexico, but a cosmopolitan palate has no cause for alarm. The major weaknesses are coffee and meat. The former is roasted until it burns, and to cap the indignity is often served cold from a bottle, hot milk being added to produce café-au-lait. Meats are generally tough and forbidding. Chicken and turkey, however, are normally good and very common. In some places food is thickly lubricated with oil and lard, but hotels generally desist from this practice.
Not only goods are exchanged, but equally important, news. Stop an Indian on a mountain trail, market-bound with a load of pottery on his back, and offer to buy the lot at his own price. Nine times out of ten he will refuse to sell at any figure. To part with his pots would deprive him of excuse to go to market. Money is but heavy metal; the plaza is colour and news and life.
In many village markets, exchange by barter still obtains. In Tepoztlan, the cartwheel pesos, the tiny silver ten centavo pieces, the coppers in assorted sizes-particularly the coppers-will be the usual medium. No paper money is ever seen, and very little gold. Indeed the traveller in Mexico must revise all his money habits. He must secure a canvas bag and carry around a dead weight of silver pesos sufficient to sink him to the bottom of the saltiest sea. Paper money is unpassable, and his travellers' checks are regarded with suspicion in the provinces. If happily he can cash them, he must be prepared to sacrifice a stiff percentage of the going exchange between dollar and peso. I came to find that worry as to ways and means of transporting cash far exceeded worry as to its safety from theft. Outside the cities, Mexicans are a scrupulously honest people. Aztecs, you remember, valued silver and gold primarily for their ductility. At a wayside station in Michoacan, I gave a newsboy what I thought was a nickel five-centavo piece. He took it and departed for another customer. The train began to move. I heard a yell outside the window. It was the newsboy running beside the track, holding up fifteen centavos change in coppers. . . . Yes, I told him to keep it. No, he had no racket. I had given him too much money, and he was simply giving it back. But if there is a similar urchin in Mexico City, he belongs in the National Museum.
The great bulk of the goods on sale in the Tepoztlan market is either produced in the valley or brought in by vendors from the neighbouring valleys which constitute an economic region. In order to gauge the extent of local self-sufficiency, let us classify the foodstuffs and their point of origin.
Canned foods for sale in the stores at high prices (but not Bottled foods)- heavily patronized.
The above tells us both what Tepoztlan eats, and why business depressions do not affect a handicraft culture. Cut off from the outside world, she would eat just as well as heretofore. In fact, better; the canned foods I saw on the store shelves looked old and unappetizing. At a pinch she can feed herself; but as is so often the case in Mexico, the self-contained unit is not the village so much as it is the region. Sample the goods on sale at the Sunday market. Plot on a map the villages from which they come, and you have the economic unit, all within a day's march on a burro trail. Within the unit, furthermore, it is customary to stagger the market days, so that each section of the area will have regular access to all the products of the area. Wednesday market at village A; Thursday market at village B, and so forth.
About half as far north of Mexico City as Tepoztlan lies south, is the valley of Teotihuacan. Here Dr. Gamio paints for us a very different picture. In 1917, of the 8,000 odd people in the valley, the great majority were utterly dependent on money wages for food. They worked for seven great haciendas, and raised only a small fraction of their own supplies. When hard times hit the haciendas-say world low prices for wheat-the Indians promptly suffered. Nearly all their food was imported into the valley. This makes it only too clear that economic specialization is possible in a handicraft culture. Fortunately, between the free village system and the self-supporting hacienda system-a more common type than the specialized haciendas of Teotihuacan-the majority of Mexicans are within calling distance of their food supply. The cities of course are fed by imports, often foreign imports. Most of the butter in Mexico City comes in tins from Kansas; in Yucatan it comes from Denmark. Of late years, urban areas in the heart of maize civilization have been importing corn from Africa.
Now let us glance at the extent of the Aztec tradition in the diet of Tepoztlan. A list is again the clearest method.
With corn as the great staple, and meat a rarity, by far the larger share of Tepoztlan's diet is still set in the Aztec mould. The contribution of Spain, however, is manifestly important. The machine to date has hardly scratched the surface, either in tools and devices for farming and processing, or in factory-made foodstuffs. Wooden ploughs and Aztec tools are still the prevailing agricultural instruments. Perhaps the chief contribution of the factory to the menu of Tepoztlan is bottled beer.
Middletown, on the other hand, would be lost without its tin cans, its bottles and its packaged goods. The kitchen shrinks visibly before the delicatessen and the chain grocery store. The town gave up feeding itself from its own soil fifty years ago-if it ever fed itself. It eats far more meat, sugar, candy and wheat than Tepoztlan. It engulfs oceans of ice cream soda, unknown in the southern community. Tepoztlan likes sweets, but tends to get them in the natural state, in fruit or by chewing sugar-cane. As a result its teeth would bring a resident dentist close to bankruptcy. Latterly Middletown, like all America, has been eating more vegetables, a move which Tepoztlan would do well to follow. Were it not for pulque, Mexican village diet would be seriously short of vitamins. Many regions do not drink pulque, and perhaps all fail to achieve a soundly balanced diet. Intestinal disorders rank very high in the list of Mexican diseases.
As one rides over the plateau about Mexico City, the maguey plants, like files of soldiers, march away to the foothills, and often over the foothills. This is the great pulque region. Here the hacendados keep themselves in the style to which they are accustomed, selling the milky fluid secreted by these great plants to town dwellers and villagers in regions where the maguey is not grown, like Tepoztlan. The only occasions when I have tasted pulque -or rather pre-pulque-were when, dismounting from a horse in the midst of a maguey field, I have removed the covering stone and dipped a cup of the liquid straight from the natural bowl cut in the plant's heart. This is the raw sap draining in from the fat, flat leaves to the measure of several quarts a day. It may run for months before the plant finally bleeds to death. It tastes like coconut water, only worse-insipid, sweetish, and muskily disagreeable.
The sap, when treated, readily ferments, and produces a dirty white liquid with a most forbidding smell, and about the same alcoholic content as beer. This is pulque proper. Distilled, it becomes tequila or mescal. The Aztecs were very fond of pulque-witness Tepoztecatl and his temple in its honour-and the tradition is unimpaired. Indian and mestizo often swill it in unimaginable quantities-ten, twelve, fifteen litres (quarts) a day. With this cargo aboard, one becomes markedly befuddled. For such two-handed hoisters, pulque is undoubtedly a curse and a campaign against it is in full swing. But the majority drink it more moderately. It is even fed to children. Far from doing them harm it now appears that they could hardly survive without it. Aztecs, and Mexicans after them, never ate enough fruit and vegetables to offset properly the high protein intake of corn and beans. Why did they persist so sturdily? Dr. Jose Zozaya, a brilliant young investigator who has been called Mexico's foremost scientist, tells me that the answer is pulque. It follows the law whereby all surviving primitive peoples, after long centuries of trial and error, balance their diet. The Chinese peasant has worked out the same law with rice and greens. To prohibit pulque means the breaking of this ancient and excellent balance. Despite its abuse, manifestly it should not be prohibited unless something of equivalent value is substituted. Beer has been advocated, but beer is equally intoxicating and not so rich in vitamins. More vegetables and fruits would right the balance, but it is hard to grow them in some areas, to say nothing of the lack of dramatic appeal. One cannot wind up a fiesta on cabbages. Perhaps it can be done in Indiana, but not in Mexico. It is a pretty problem, calculated to give the embattled Drys plenty of room for thought. But if we know our Drys, they will probably overleap it. Meanwhile the prevailing unsanitary and frequently disgusting methods of fermenting pulque should certainly be prohibited.
Alcohol is a mixed blessing-or evil-in Mexico as elsewhere on this reeling planet. It is abused by nature peoples as by the ultra-sophisticated-proving that Nature does not give her favoured children quite all their natures crave, and warning us not to become too lyrical as to their psychological satisfactions. First and last I saw a good many drunken Mexicans, but never a fighting drunkard or one who made it his business to annoy the passer-by. Mostly they mumbled and dropped into a stupour. The most serious case which came to my personal attention was an intoxicated mestizo driving a Buick at sixty miles an hour through the narrow streets of Cuernavaca. He barely missed a squadron of soldiers, and knocked down and painfully injured their officer. I suspect he will never drive another car as long as he lives. . . . But if a Prohibition law were enacted, there would be a revolution inside of half an hour.
A friend took her cook, an Indian woman from Taxco, to see the mummies, the pottery, and other artifacts excavated under a lava flow at San Angel near the capital. The cook was stolid until her eye lighted upon a grinding stone in the collection. She was enchanted with its shape, and implored the mistress to secure it for her kitchen. "The metate I've been looking for. Ah, if I only had it; such beautiful little tortillas I could make you l" That stone was used by some pre-Aztec woman, overwhelmed by volcanic eruption two thousand years or more ago. The maize tradition does not die.