FARMHOUSES strung along the turnpike are rare in Mexico, as in Russia. People live in compact villages, with their fields encircling them. The most that one sees in the open country are crude huts run up for temporary shelter during road making, charcoal burning, herding animals on far pastures. These villages vary greatly in size; Tannenbaum estimates the average population at 300. Tepoztlan with its 4,000 people is thus more town than village. On a steep pine hillside beside a roaring stream in Oaxaca, I found a miners' village of seventeen families, which is close to the minimum.
The material of which houses are built also varies widely, but follows one relentless law: It is local material. Every youth as a part of his education will learn how to work that material and build, if need be, his own house. So we find mud, adobe brick, rough stone, cut stone, rubble and occasionally wood on the plateau, and thatch, bamboo, native grass, wood, and mud in the tierra caliente. Roofs run to thatch in the latter and red tile in the former, but a long, lean sort of rough shingle is also much used.
Villages to the approaching eye thus change their colour from region to region. In' Yucatan they are mostly white-basket work covered with mud and then immaculately whitewashed. In the jungle they may be green; on the plateau a dusty grey or brown, brick red, cream colour. Sometimes one finds a pink village; or even a rainbow village with whites, blues, pinks, yellows. I remember one little town up a rocky gorge which my travelling companions laid entirely to a bottle of beer. They simply refused to admit its existence. I called the conductor to my defence. Yes, it was San Pedro. The señor had good eyes. It was made of the same rock which lined the gorge. Travellers rarely saw it, though it was only a mile away. There were five hundred people living there. It was as perfect a sample of protective coloration as an iguana on a stone wall, or a green caterpillar on a leaf.
Once inside the door, however, diversity gives way to uniformity. All over Mexico a single pattern animates house interiors of the common people. There is one room, a griddle, a metate for grinding corn, a huge water pot, brightly painted wooden bowls, a square tin oil can, assorted pottery, hammocks or straw mats (petates) to sleep upon-the former in the hot countries; a little shrine with tinsel and candles-now not so frequent as in the Diaz days; two dogs, three hens, four babies; a broom of rushes, and somewhere flowers. This is not quite so primitive as it sounds, in that the total household equipment includes various outbuildings set in a walled compound. In many regions, the wall will be of organ cactus, furnishing at once a comely design and all the practical utility of barbed wire fence. The outbuildings often include a storehouse for maize, small stables for livestock, a fowl house, sometimes a separate shed for cooking, and in various sections the old Aztec bathhouse.
Where topography permits, the village plan tends to be uniform throughout the nation. It holds for towns and cities as well. It consists of a central plaza, with the main church at one end, shade trees, bandstand, fountain or well, space for market. Around the plaza are grouped the palacio municipal or town hall, the whitewashed village school, a store or two, and the houses of "los correctos," lordly structures perhaps two stories high with balconies and actual windows of glass. Lanes of dirt or cobblestone run out from the plaza, usually in gridiron formation, and along them, pretty well bunched, will be the compounds and houses of the commoners, with the poorest on the outer fringe. Mr. Franklin P. Adams will be glad to learn that even in the meanest village, a hundred miles from nowhere, the lanes will be named-"Calle Cinco de Mayo," "Calle Hidalgo" and a six-inch street number painted on the hut wall. We were informed that this is a recent development, and due more to the tax department than to the post office. To most of the dwellings in Mexico the postman never comes, and his offerings could not be read if he did come.
The poorest village will attempt a plaza, and often contains a vast pile of crumbling masonry which once was a great church. Pathetic are the attempts to come to terms with the iron law of depreciation. I have seen stone walls with beautiful old carving surmounted by a huge thatched roof. The stone arches had fallen in, and thatch was the best that local talent could substitute. The architectural ensemble was deliciously fantasticlike an eskimo hat on top of Bishop Manning. I have seen great buildings, shattered by earthquake, where only one tiny chapel has been salvaged for current religious needs. I have seen curtains of shingle laid across a huge nave, 100 feet wide and 100 feet high, to divide utter ruin from an area where mass may still be chanted.
Increasingly Mexico runs to the little white school-house. Three years ago in the state of Oaxaca, fewer than 100 villages had federal schools; now (January, 1930) there are 417. When journeying across country on horseback one may secure a letter from the educational authorities giving permission to sleep on the schoolhouse floor. It is the most sanitary place in town. There may be no municipal building, no bandstand, no iron balconies, no store-but increasingly there will be a school. Again and again, as the little square white building with its red-tiled roof shone out from the prevalent village grey or brown, I was reminded of my own country. The outstanding piece of architecture in the American town is almost invariably the high school. Mexico, at a totally different economic level, is following the same trail.
The plaza buildings tend towards the Spanish colonial type, but the compounds are almost pure pre-conquest. In the larger towns, the plazas are often very beautiful. Witness Taxco, with the great cathedral towers, warm brown and heavily sculptured, looming above the wild fig trees, and the booths and rainbow market. Near the plaza we find the open court style of architecture-sometimes in the hands of one family; sometimes the court with its fountain and flowers serves a whole regiment of families. There is nothing more fascinating than to glance through iron grills into these patios, drenched in sunshine and lurid with colour.
Most poor families in Mexico City live in large courts like this called vecindades-neighbourhoods. Each family has its room, its shrine, its livestock and garden by the door. The plumbing is do-operative; sketchy as it may be, the law requires it. For health and sanitation these homes would compare unfavourably with a New York tenement, were they not so close to earth and sun. By rights a vecindad should be sordid, but the birds, the flowers, the smiling babies, even the women slapping tortillas and washing in a dirty tank, make it gay instead.
Let me soberly set down from my notebook the points of the compass as observed from one spot in the lovely old city of Oaxaca. (The city was badly shaken by an earthquake an even month after my visit.) It is true that it was fiesta time, and thus more resplendent than usual. It is true that it stands-or stood-among the foremost exhibits of the republic. But it serves to show the kind of architecture into which the traveller is suddenly precipitated as he wanders about Mexico. The picture is taken from the upper steps of the Church of the Virgin of the Soledad, at noon on December 18, t 930. The sun is blazing and the thermometer stands at about eightyfive degrees.
To the South:
Stone steps lead down to a little park with fountain, shade trees, rows of red hibiscus flowers, and canvas covered booths. The steps are lined with Indians in varied costumes, taking their midday siesta. Below the park more broad steps descend to a street with pink houses, and paper flags stretched from roof to red-tiled roof. Over the houses rise wooded hills, and above them the deep blue sky.
To the West:
The two towers of the Virgin's church rear their hundred feet of pale green stone, between them a facade of amber stone, richly carved, and bisected by a tall cedar. At right angles to the towers runs a smooth high wall of green masonry, pierced by an arch in white and rose. Over the wall, edged with jagged glass in every colour (a common sight in Mexico) we catch a glimpse of the paved churchyard, where the "Apaches" are performing their five-hour dance, their green, white, and red plumes bobbing rhythmically up and down. The wall about them is lined with brown boys, white-pijamaed, straw-sombreroed, and barefooted. To the right of the arch is an old pink parish house, with overhanging eaves and massive walls. The iron-worked balconies are full of flowers and wooden bird-cages. A soldier lounges in the archway, and above him shrubs, vines and flowers are growing from crevices in the masonry itself.
To the North:
We look up a steep street, charging a hillside in cobbled terraces beyond the capacity of a Ford tractor. The houses are low, massive, coloured white, pink and cream. A drainage gutter flows through the middle of the street, great flagstones for pedestrians beside it. Pennants in blue and white paper stream from roof to roof. The street divides about a little yellow chapel, trimmed with white, a great bronze bell swinging in its tower; and goes winding up in two lanes bordered with bougainvillea, and with sheaves of yellow-green sugar-cane piled against house walls, until the lanes lose themselves in a heavy grove.
To the East:
The wall of another green church, pierced with grilled, pink-fringed windows. Long stone gargoyles lean from the roof, and between them scrub cactus sprouts. There is a squat green tower, a lofty pink one, and between them stone windows over a wooden door, both sculptured. Electric light wires cross the palm-shadowed wall-they are never concealed in Mexico-and out of one round window, if you please, clicks a typewriter. To the left of the church is the open door of a large lemon-coloured house. We glimpse an interior court with a carved stone fountain, banana trees, multicoloured wash hung out to dry, dogs, cats, hens, babies, a goat, an old stone bench, washing stones, flowers and green squashes on the roof. Practically the entire scene is Spain's legacy to Mexico, and it is no small gift.
Tepoztlan, as we saw in the first chapter, follows the standard village pattern. It has its plaza, shade trees, cathedral, bandstand, stores, municipal building, schoolhouse, balconied mansions, gridiron layout, street numbers, all complete. Let us classify the houses of its citizens who live in the seven barrios reaching back from the plaza.
Of these furnishings, the majority, in both number and tonnage, come from the valley, or may be had in the plaza market by virtue of regional exchange. From the outside world arrive kerosene for the flares, bar iron and silver for local fabrication, and the furnishings for the houses of "los correctos." None of the outside shipments are in any quantity. The few local specialists who assist in this department include three carpenters, four masons, brick and tile makers, rope spinners, two iron workers, silversmiths, charcoal burners, woodcutters-all on part time.
It is clear from the above that the Aztec influence is very strong in Tepoztlan's housing, stronger relatively than in the case of its food. No such innovations as meat, hen's eggs, wheat, rice, sugar, coffee, have occurred in the equipment of the compound. And precisely as in the case of food, the great bulk of this equipment may be had either locally or in regional exchange. Only a minimum of necessities and a few luxuries for "los correctos" trickle in from the outside world. In this department, however, we find the major contribution of the machine age to Tepoztlan. Since the old looms were discontinued it has taken on considerable importance. The town would undoubtedly be handicapped without its sewing-machines.
All over rural Mexico, huts, houses and their furnishings follow strongly the pre-conquest tradition. In Yucatan, the old elliptical wattled huts still obtain. Inside are the same hammocks, griddles, pots, cabinets and grinding stones. In the valley of Teotihuacan 300 families live in caves, an equal number in crude huts made of maguey leaves, and the balance of the common people in jacales, one room stone or adobe houses, set in their compounds, guarded with hedges of organ cactus. Is it unreasonable to suppose that before the coming of the Spaniards none lived in caves or in flimsy huts of maguey?
Of the furnishings of "los correctos," the less said the better. The observation holds for all upper class Mexicans. Indeed the more wealthy they are the more appalling their taste. With exteriors in the gracious colonial pattern; with flowering patios, great high rooms beautifully dimensioned, charming ironwork balconies-the furnishings themselves remain inconceivably bad. They date more or less from Maximilian and Diaz, and are assembled from the worst products of late Empire French and Victorian English. They show how desperately this class of Mexicans sought to evade their own country. The lovely old Spanish pieces have gone to the Thieves' Market-or into foreign museums; the handicrafts of the Indians have never been admitted, and we are faced, if you please, with iron alligators whose tails writhe up to support a marble table top on which perch china shepherdesses, kewpie dolls, and collections of sea shells. This I saw in a village near Toluca.
Here is a bedroom, thirty feet square and twenty feet high, in a rich man's house in Yucatan. The ceiling is in pink and baby blue plaster, tortured with scroll work and rosebuds. The floor is of marble slabs. There is one colonial remnant-a fine carved armchair, encircled with three hideous gilt Empire chairs. A marble-topped table surmounted by a Neptune-apparently expiring. A carved pedestal, five feet high, for a non-existent bust. It can doubtless be spared. A wardrobe, ten feet high, of carved wood and mirrors, pure Victorian. One electric bulb hanging like a drooping lily out of an enormous brass chandelier beset with countless glass dangles. One bureau of jig-saw fretwork and brown marble. One jigsaw double bed with a twelve-foot canopy. One copy of a copy of a Murillo in a gilt frame six inches thick. . . . You receive, I trust, the general picture.
The houses of the well-to-do in Middletown are in violent contrast with those of Mexico. They are worse outside and better inside. Approaching them we are struck with a culture which has found neither dignity nor unity-early American jostles half-timbered English, mansard roof is cheek by jowl with Florentine villa. The houses themselves are often well enough, particularly those built in the last decade, but the total effect is an architectural vegetable soup, boiling the leftovers of centuries. In Mexico the solid colonial pattern lines the street; massive stone walls, overhanging tiled roof, grilled balcony, portal of old carved wood. The eye follows the just proportions, the clean lines, the blended colours, and is at peace.
Inside, however, American taste, for all its standardization, is vastly better. The black walnut, plush and marble have been all but eliminated, giving place to shaded lights, overstuffed davenports and cheery colour schemes. Even iron dogs upon the lawn are growing scarce. Indeed the only advantage of the Mexican interior-and this reflects particularly upon the American apartment house-is its feeling of unlimited space. Stuffy furniture loses something of its oppressive biliousness in a room that one can hardly see across. There are a few old Mexican palaces furnished in colonial Spanish and Indian handicrafts. Mr. Morrow has one in Cuernavaca. When so arranged, they are without exception the most delightful houses in the world.
The habitations of the commoners south and north of the Rio Grande disclose a contrast even more violent. The Indian village is compact, comely, unified. Often it melts into its background of forest and field. The poorer districts of the American town are screaming eyesores, whether back of the railroad tracks, or out in the newest suburban development. They assault the surrounding landscape; they shatter perspective; they insist truculently upon their own ugliness. Inside, their crayon portraits, ball tassels and insurance company calendars are only less bad than Mexican palacios because there are fewer of them. But the supreme contrast is a matter of tonnage. In the consumption of food the wayfaring Mexican eats as much in bulk, or more, than the wayfaring American. In the consumption of housing I would estimate that the American leads in a tonnage ratio of at least ten to one. His house is larger, more complicated, more interconnected with public utilities, and replete with far more stuff. One reason of course is the northern winter with its mandatory heating systems and tons of fuel. Another reason is that Indians have never been educated in the philosophy of acquisition. The rise of the Joneses leaves them cold. Their wantlessness is the despair of travelling salesmen. But I must admit, when all is said and done, that I should grow uncomfortable, being limited for any length of time to the ascetic furnishings of an Indian hut.
The men of Tepoztlan wear shirt, blouse and trousers cut by their women-folk from bolts of white cotton cloth. This is where the importance of the sewing machine is demonstrated. The general effect is that of pyjamas, although the blouse is shorter, the trousers crossed in front, and the total costume less negligé than what we term pyjamas in the north. Males are given to coloured vests and gaudy sashes on occasion. Sombrero, sandals and curved machete complete the usual attire. In addition a man may have an outfit of store clothes, sack suit, felt hat and factory shoes for use when he goes to the city. Men of "los correctos" will be found in European costume or in the tight trousers of the charro, rows of silver buttons down the side, like the keys of a flute.
Women wear white cotton underclothes, petticoat, overskirt of ankle length, full and gored, a collarless blouse tucked into the skirt, an apron, a sash, usually locally woven. Overskirts and blouses may run to vivid colours. For Sunday and fiesta a one-piece dress may be available. Earrings and necklaces appear. Bare feet are perfectly good form. Hair will be worn in long black braids, tied with bright ribbon. The bulk of this clothing is home made from store cotton. Children's clothing will tend to reproduce that of adults. It is not uncommon to see a barefooted mother in peasant dress leading by the hand a little boy in full store regalia-shoes, sack suit with diminutive long trousers, straw hat and black ribbon.
The only specialists in Tepoztlan catering to the above confections are the storekeepers, two shoemakers, and five barbers. Barbering is a great industry in Mexico. As the sanitation displayed is normally non-existent, we are again brought to a full stop in the matter of baldness. Common combs, common shears, common parasites, fail to affect these luxuriant shocks of straight black hair.
Every item on the clothing list is obtainable from the valley or from village exchange in the market, with these exceptions: cotton cloth, factory woven rebosos, figured handkerchiefs, bone buttons, store clothes. They are important exceptions. Without the bolts of cotton cloth it is safe to say that the present clothing regime of Tepoztlan would break down, but not immediately. Garments last many a long month in a Mexican village, and never go out of style. Once textiles were woven from a local fibre. The old looms are still to be seen, and at least one is occasionally put to work. Cut off from the outside world, Tepoztlan would doubtless revive them. But the period of re-education, one suspects, would be painful.
In Yucatan, the Maya women also wear white cotton cloth, but it is cut on the old henequen fibre pattern. Around the hem and the collar run strips of flowery embroidery, largely home sewn. The work is as beautiful as it is colourful-some of it fit for the museum-while the whole effect is more unique, indigenous and pleasing than the costume worn by women of Tepoztlan and the plateau. It gives us a hint of what pre-conquest women really looked like. In the valley of Teotihuacan, clothing, like food, has ceased to be a local industry. Much of it is bought ready made from Mexico City-fearful stuff from the slop shops. And sandals are made from old automobile tires. . . .
Middletown of course has a vastly more extensive and costly wardrobe than Tepoztlan, but I doubt if it gets full value for its money. Its men are far less appropriately and picturesquely attired; indeed the costume of the male in the machine age is a scandal and a disgrace. His smokestack suits, his horrible derby, his mandatory coat in summer, render the poor wretch as uncomfortable at certain seasons as he is unappetizing at all seasons. Only in some of his sport costumes can he be said to look like a human being. One would no more think of painting him in his normal regalia than of lithographing a gas range. Nine Mexican men out of ten make one itch for brush and palette.
Not so much can be said for the Mexican woman. She tends towards the European dress of fifty years ago. On the whole I think the girl of Middletown today is more becomingly, as well as more expensively, attired. The south has three advantages, however: a bold use of bright colours which sun and atmosphere sanction; bare feet or sandals which give one the carriage of a queen; complete indifference to changes in style. These are not inconsiderable virtues when all is said and done, particularly when one computes comparative costs. Where an American working girl may spend $20o a year on clothes-usually more if she works in an office-a Mexican village girl will not spend ten dollars, plus her own labour as dressmaker. For her outlay she does pretty well. There has however been a sad retreat from preColumbian days-a touch of which still lingers in the charming costumes of the Indian women of Yucatan. Perhaps it was the costume, white above the hips and black below, which made Bernal Diaz report many pretty women in Tepoztlan.
The contribution of Spain to the health of Tepoztlan was smallpox, whooping cough, diphtheria, syphilis, and fear of the Evil Eye. These maladies were unknown to the Aztecs. Yet against their inroads the only therapy continues to be the Indian one. Spain dumped the liabilities with no offsetting assets. There is neither doctor nor nurse in town. There are, however, thirteen curanderosor herb doctors, two magicians, one priest and ten midwives, dealing in the 110 remedial plants and herbs which are collected in the surrounding hills, together with a reasonably rich output of therapeutic hocus-pocus.
If one falls ill of el espanto, "the terror," one trembles and grows weak and does not wish to eat. Anything frightening may cause it, as waking up suddenly in the night and seeing a ghost. The patient must be bathed with laurel that the priest has blessed, and with orange and shaddock peels which have been placed on the altars during Holy Week." Or again, for la mohina, a kind of extended peevishness. "Children do not get this disease. The remedies are various quieting drinks. Spiced drinks are common, a tea made of lemon leaves, and especially an infusion of turnip peels."
The commonest explanation of sickness in Tepoztlan is that one has been attacked by los aires (the airs, the winds). They are the evil spirits of the air, and are found at water tanks, in ravines, at public washing places, in the rain. They are thought of as very little people. This concatenation of little people and water is most unfortunate. It makes washing extra hazardous. Remedies are various, including anointing with certain herbs and internal doses-such as a tea made from powdered woodpecker's head. Amulets compounded of mucuna seeds are also worn. The anointing with herbs should be done at the intersection of two streets. When completed, the bundle of leaves is flung away and the patient must rush into his house without looking back. "Sometimes los aires demand a chicken. Then you take a live chicken and tie it by the water tank or wherever the sickness came, and leave it there until it dies. If you ate it yourself you would die." Symbolic sacrifice, of course.
For a short time in 1925, a Bulgarian doctor moved into the town and attempted to establish a practice. He was well liked but people continued to patronize the curanderos; and he had to move on to Yautepec. There is a hospital at Cuernavaca, and doubtless by this time health posters in the Tepoztlan school. The central health authorities in Mexico City have an excellent habit of calling out the army, encircling a given village, and vaccinating every man, woman and child. Knowledge of modern medicine is making headway.
As it grows, it causes a certain amount of confusion. Here is J. S., perhaps the best educated man in Tepoztlan. His baby falls sick of an intestinal disorder on Monday. On Tuesday he goes to the shoemaker for medicine. The savant prescribes opium and mercury pills, and rubbing the baby's stomach with cold water. Fortunately the baby still breathes, but faintly. The father then (1) sends to Yautepec for a regular doctor, and (2) rides up into the mountain to find a special kind of rose, which, steeped, is held to be good for intestinal trouble. The rose tea is administered. The doctor's medicine is administered. The child is no better. More herbs are given at the advice of a neighbour, and its stomach rubbed with suet. The child is worse. Nothing is done about its diet. The next day the doctor rides up from Yautepec, barricades the herbalists, and cures the baby.
The interweaving of medicine and magic could hardly be better shown. The distracted father rushes from one to the other. There is reason to believe that the preconquest peoples, besides having fewer fell diseases to combat, came nearer to a genuine therapy. Their priests were very intelligent men, and had an extraordinary knowledge of herbs-certain of them, such as quinine, perfectly sound for specific disorders. Herb doctors today are less intelligent, the body of knowledge has degenerated, while the Spanish contribution of the Evil Eye has run riot in Mexico, complicating the situation. The miraculous Spanish virgins and santos offset the Evil Eye, and at the same time double the complications. When thousands kiss the same polished stone, contagions are uncontrollable.
Child mortality under ten years as calculated by Pani averages about forty per one hundred for all Mexico, rising to fifty in the capital. This compares most unfavourably with ten in Norway, fourteen in France, twenty-seven in Russia. The death-rate from the Spanish legacy of syphilis is more than seven times as great in Mexico City as in the United States. Gruening, himself a medical man, gives us a very gloomy report of the national health.
Village Mexicans, with rare exceptions, look healthy. They have to be, to survive the infections that come their way from faulty diet, spoiled meat, impure drinking water, concourses of invalids at miraculous shrines, pulque first sucked from the plant by peons and then fermented in pigskins. "It is not surprising," observes Flandrau, "that a population perpetually in the throes of intestinal disorder should be somewhat lacking in energy." Nevertheless those who escape the village graveyard, what with sun and air and exercise, look sturdy. Elementary hygiene would make them really so.
In an experimental school centre near Pachuca, which has trained physicians to serve the surrounding villages, as well as training classes for pharmacists and midwives, great emphasis is laid on proper diagnosis. The lessons are beginning to penetrate. An Indian boy with a stomach-ache refused the gory chicken his mother wanted to tie upon the afflicted part, walked several miles to the school where he again refused a hasty diagnosis, and insisted with dignity on having an examination to give "los datos exactos." Which shows what Indian boys are capable of. The most striking piece of modern architecture in Mexico is the new Salubridad, home of the Department of Health. The building is there; its influence on the national death rate has yet to be established.
One morning the little plaza of the suburb of San Angel near the capital was audible five miles away. Coming to the centre of the pandemonium, I found every dog in town foregathered in leash and yelping his heart out. There must have been 500 of them, and they put Mr. Ringling's big tent completely at naught. Every last one of them had been, or was to be, vaccinated against rabies. Please, Mr. Presidente, remember the babies as well as the dogs.
Tepoztlan is indeed self-sufficient in respect to its medicine, but in this prime essential, contact with the outside world would be not a mixed blessing but a consummation devoutly to be wished. The door needs to be flung wide open for the sanitation and hygiene of the machine age. . . . With perhaps a shade of hesitation as to the descent upon the village, in full regalia, of a brigade of tonsil-snatchers.