THE first of the year finds the men of Tepoztlan engaged in late harvesting, coffee-picking and the drying of coffee berries, for which the only engine employed is the sun. In February some go off for a few weeks to work on the sugar haciendas. The state of Morelos used to be called "the sugar-bowl of the world." Fields of yellow - green cane and the tall chimneys of refineries dominated the landscape. Fortunes were made by hacendados, but peons led a miserable life. When Zapata came riding on a white horse, shouting "Land and freedom," they joined him almost to a man. Now the green fields are dimin- ished and iguanas rattle over ruined hacienda walls. Nowhere in Mexico was there such ruthless destruc- tion.
One has only to motor along the new road from Cuernavaca to Taxco to realize the vast underground pressures which Diaz had engendered. Like a new vol- cano, they burst the plains of Morelos, destroying not only the feudal system but its physical plant as well. It would have been wiser to oust the hacendados and spare their mills and buildings. But revolutions, like lava flows, do not intellectualize their courses. Some sugar-growing continues-indeed the industry is slowly reviving under different leadership-and there a group of Tepoztecans find a little work to help balance their annual budgets.
In a sense, it is so much velvet. Twice a week they return to the village for a load of food. Their women grind and grind.
In March and April comes the nadir of the agricultural cycle. There has been hardly a drop of rain for six months. At Santa Catarina, one of the encircling hamlets, the wells are empty, and a burro, a barrel and an Indian must go a mile for water. The fields are yellow and dry as tinder. Up the shoulders of Popo dust storms swirl, dense as thunder clouds. The air is acrid with smoke from the milpas, fired in anticipation of the next sowing. When all our northern world is blossoming into spring, Mexico grows drier, dustier, more barren. Except for the firing and a little brush clearing, field work is at a standstill. This is the time for putting new tiles on the roof; repairing the compound fence; choring about the house. It is the time for community work repairing roads, walls, fountains, water tanks; for cleaning chapels, inserting new stones in the town laundry. Mexican town laundries consist of running water and massive washing stones in rows. They are never, at any season or any hour, deserted. Women washing beside a river are almost as much a symbol of Mexico as the som- brero. Community work is called cuatequitl. A group of men go from one house to the next announcing in Aztec: "Tomorrow it falls to you to do cuatequitl." The irrelevancy of the formal municipal government is sealed in these words.
Then the face of the world changes. In May the rains begin; the desert turns garden; the barrancas begin to roar; billions of tons of water fertilize the parched earth and slide to the sea. Corn planting starts at the hamlet of San Juan, the grains inserted with the same pointed stick the Aztecs used. In the main village, old ploughs are being repaired, and timber hewn into new wooden ploughs.
In June plough and oxen furrow the fields. The whole town is hard at work. By the fifteenth, the last kernel is in. Cultivation is done with the coa, a flat hoe, not quite Aztec, not quite Spanish, and so pure Mexican. Through the summer, the daily downpours and the cultivation continue. In the mornings the sun shines on a world washed and green. The flowers are incredible. In October the showers slacken; by December they have altogether ceased. The corn stands high and green in the milpas; harvest has come. It is the season of the town's maximum activity. All other work is dropped; men, women and children are in the fields. The corn factors prepare to dispose of the surplus. The ears are pulled by hand, and the husks slit with a broad needle of wood or iron hung on the wrist. The cobs are piled into sacks for transport by back or burro to the circular storehouse in the family compound; the husks bound into bundles for tamales; the stalks cut down with machete for fodder, or in some cases left standing as poles for beans. In Michoacan I saw a great cornfield resembling a camped army, with rows of big stacks like tents, and smaller stacks like soldiers on parade-all in precise geometrical pattern.
It is impossible for Mexicans to produce the humblest thing without form and design. A donkey wears a load of palm leaves arranged on either flank in great green sunbursts. Merchants hang candles by their wicks to make patterns in both line and colour. Market cocoanuts show white new moon strips above the dark, fibrous mass. Sarapes are thrown with just the right line over the shoulders of ragged peons, muffling them to the eyes. Merchants in the market will compose their tomatoes, oranges, red seeds and even peanuts into little geometric piles. Bundles of husks will be tied in a manner suitable for suspension in an artist's studio. To the traveller from the north, used to the treatment of cold, dead produce as cold, dead produce, this is a matter of perpetual wonder and delight.
Work in the milpas goes on from dawn to dusk. While each family harvests its own field, community spirit is strong as in old New England barn raisings. For machineless men generally, it is both necessity and pleasure to assist, and be assisted by, one's neighbour. The owner whose field is ripe announces cuatequitl. A group of men whose fields are not yet ripe, or already harvested, foregather to assist him. He has helped or will help them in due course. A minor fiesta is declared. The owner secretes "the little mule," a bottle of brandy, under the pile of corn; the housewife prepares a special dinner, assisted by the wives of the other men in the group, and the meal is carried with ceremony to the field.
The last loads taken to the village are the little round green squashes which grow between the furrows. The cattle are turned out to forage; harvest is over. In the yard of one of the houses near the plaza, a score of boys are sitting on the ground learning to sing the songs of Los Pastores, the shepherds, taught by the maestro who is the repository of this local tradition. The mayordomos begin to decorate the barrio chapels with flowers, boughs of cedar, and coloured tissue paper. To celebrate the harvest, the long fiesta of Christmas and the New Year is approaching.
So runs the work cycle of Tepoztlan. It is also the cycle of education. There are two small schools in the town but their influence is only beginning to dawn. About 100 children out of a possible 1,200 attend these schoolsfor a few months in the year. Real education begins at about ten years of age. Boys are instructed-through the medium of helping their elders-in house building, construction and repair of furnishings, textile working, milpa-tending, community labour, fiesta work, all the home crafts. Girls learn to prepare food, grind and bake tortillas, sew, use the washing stones, and select food supplies at the market. Their sales resistance is very high. All children learn two languages. In actual prepa- ration for life, Tepoztlan's educational methods are superior to Middletown's.
Agriculture, maintenance of household equipment,
community repair--such are the chief tasks of the men
of Tepoztlan, and of most Mexican villages. In addition
we find some of them giving a varying share of their
available hours to certain specialties. In earlier chapters
we have specified some eighteen occupations concerned
with food, shelter, clothing and health-bakers, butchers, storekeepers, masons, shoemakers, midwives and the
like. To complete the list for Tepoztlan we must add:
This gives us seven more occupations, and brings the total to twenty-five. And that is all. These are the only specialists this handicraft community of 4,000 people requires. Tepoztlan, furthermore, might be even better off if a few were stricken from the list-say the herb doctors and the magicians. We must remember too that most are part-time workers only, and that certain talented individuals appear in two or more categories. Here for instance is E. V. He is mason, woodcarver, gilder, mask-maker, and has a post in the city government as well. Here is L. V., cobbler, mason and musician. Both, of course, are farmers.
Middletown, with 40,000 people, has more than 400 distinct occupations. In an American town of 4,000 there are undoubtedly half that number, Zoo against Tepoztlan's twenty-five. The machine age requires far more skills than the era it replaced, despite the lamentations of William Morris. Tepoztlan demands more in the way of all-round skill, but its craft specialties are few. Where would a journalist, electrician, garage man, clerk, stenographer, telephone operator, chauffeur, laundryman, movie actor, radio broadcaster, elevator boy, janitor,chef, pressman, street car conductor, advertising man, broker, realtor, engineer, professor or flagpole sitter get a job? A photographer might do a little business; a hot dog vendor would certainly be sampled. Mexicans will eat anything. But most of the occupations north of the Rio Grande have no point or purpose in Tepoztlan. Similarly with our staggering inventories of material equipment. In Sears Roebuck's catalogue are 30,000 articles, a good fraction of which will be found in every American town as large as Tepoztlan-I should guess at least 10,000 different sorts of tools and devices in a great variety of shapes and sizes. In Tepoztlan I doubt if there are 500 different sorts of things, and the size varieties are meagre. There are, perhaps, fifty items in the average family compound; sundry contraptions for harness- ing animals, a few fixed styles of clothing, an assortment of very simple agricultural tools, and minimum equipment for preparing and serving food. There are a few devices--water pipes, hinges, bronze bells, office materials--in the public buildings. Food, shelter, clothing, education, recreation, are all provided for after their fashion. Certainly nobody starves spiritually or physically. Yet these groaning shelves, these heaving freight cars, these mountains of fabricated tonnage, simply do not exist. Nor is there the slightest demand that they should. What in heaven's name would Tepoztecans do with the stuff? There are no wages to produce purchasing power, to produce sales, to produce profits, to produce capital, to produce purchasing power, to . . . recurring decimal. So the village population get on with enough to get on with. They could stand a little more, as we shall see. Which does not mean that Middletown could not stand less.
To devote a chapter to work in Mexico will seem tomany Americans a task of supererogation. It is a dreary business, but I suppose the time-honoured saw must be answered. Are Mexicans lazy?
Mexicans are never in a hurry; they like plenty of sleep, and are much given to fiestas. Unfortunately they have to eat. Eating involves, among other things, cultivating cornfields on top of picos, three or four thousand feet above one's village; it involves carrying one hundred pounds thirty miles in a day over a mountain trail. (When wheelbarrows were first introduced on railway construction work, Indians removed the wheels and carried the barrows on their backs.) It involves grinding corn with a heavy stone pestle for six hours on end; it involves arising normally at dawn. On occasion, Mexicans are the world's champion workers, though, being wise, they never labour any harder than necessity demands--a formula which, through the meshes of a New England upbringing, I am striving to make my own. Americans receive their impression of the peon's laziness chiefly from plantation and mine owners. Indians, as we have seen, have been forced, often by the most brutal methods, to give up the free village, which they love, and go to work for a boss, which they hate. Is it to be wondered at that the bosses report a certain apathy? They tell us that even higher wages will not make Indians work harder, but the contrary. According to them, a man who does not want money and the things money can buy must be lazy and probably immoral.
THE POPULAR ARTS
Time was when Tepoztlan produced copper tools and fine paper; when it had, in common with most pre-conquest towns, a real handicraft specialty to exchange withother districts. During the colonial period it wove sarapes of tree cotton, and fabricated most of its own clothing. Today it possesses no outstanding specialty, and is the poorer for it. We shall have to turn elsewhere to follow that bright pattern known as the popular arts of Mexico. Twenty miles across the pedregal to Cuernavaca brings us headlong into them. Here we find Indians making hats, chairs, shoes of coloured leather strips-to which even young women on Fifth Avenue are beginning to take a fancy.
Tannenbaum gives us an excellent idea of regional specialization in eleven villages comprising one district in the state of Hidalgo:
Number one, like Tepoztlan, lives primarily by agriculture.
We might divide Mexican handicrafts into three main classes
First, articles made by the householder for his own use. These include all manner of devices and contraptions--furniture, saddles, bowls, gourds, cradles, basket work, metal work, tile, crude pottery. Most of it will be quaint and comely, but there will be little to excite the collector. Tepoztlan possesses handicrafts of this order.
Second, articles made for the tourist trade, and for urban demand. Some of these are exquisite and some are inexcusable. The tendency to date has been to debase the local crafts. Fortunately there are new forces working in the opposite direction, as we shall see.
Third, articles made by the Indians for exchange in their own village markets. Here lie the popular arts in their purest form. They fulfil both a utilitarian and an esthetic function. They are normally made by a village which specializes in one particular line, and which expects, in exchange, wares and even food from other villages. The items of this output constitute an important factor in regional economy. They are bought as household necessities, or because they are bright and pretty--the latter applying particularly to children's toys and inexpensive jewellery. Some of them show a high order of workmanship and design.
Let us take a turn around the Oaxaca market on fiesta day and note the things which are for sale. This market is reasonably "pure." We are the only tourists in town; indeed the harrowing twelve hours by narrow-gauge railroad from Puebla keeps tourist traffic at a minimum. These things are certainly not made to catch our eye. Again, Oaxaca is a small city of 40,000 people. There is little proletariat to cater to. The goods in these booths are largely made by village Indians for village Indians. Over a radius of a hundred miles and more they have brought them in. When the fiesta closes, the goods will go out over that same radius, though on different brown backs.
For each item on the following list, there will generallybe one or more booths. Each booth is presided over by two or more persons. One person fulfils every economic need, but two or three can gossip, comment on passers-by, and have a better time. This is a fiesta, not a bourse. Mexicans have an incurable habit of performing by groups rather than individually. Taxi drivers take a boy friend along and often two-one on the front seat and one supine on the mudguard. Kitchens drip with human- ity; railroad trains sometimes have more crew than pas- sengers. One can live in a ten-room hotel for a week and still be unable to compute the staff which drifts in and out of the lobby.
THE OAXACA MARKET, 1930
So much for the handicrafts. To complete the market picture we should note:
I think it is fair to take the above as the standard pattern of the Mexican market. I saw much the same display at a big fiesta at Patzcuaro in Michoacan, at Tecalpulco in Guerrero, at the great festival of Guadalupe, on the Alameda in Mexico City itself at Christmas time. Many of these things can be found in the market of Tepoztlan. In Michoacan the lacquer exhibits are finer and the pottery less exciting than in Oaxaca. The accent changes from region to region, colours and shapes change, but the main classes tend to be constant. Connoisseurs come to know the exact village where a given sarape or clay vessel is made. The ordinary traveller picks up a working acquaintance with the crafts at about the same rate as he picks up Spanish. It takes years to master either. As good an introduction as any to the popular arts is Susan Smith's Made in Mexico. But to see them at their most typical, you should have some article made to order. Everything depends on whether your design catches the artist's fancy. If it does, he will add a few embellishments which undeniably improve it, and perhaps keep it half a day after it is ready (that is, from a week to a month beyond the date originally agreed on) to trace the pattern for his own future reference. Nothing ever comes out exactly as ordered.
Let us recapitulate the outstanding handicrafts together with the most famous points of origin:
If you look at a map of Mexico you will see all these names well south of the border states. The handicrafts persist where the Aztec, Maya, or Tarascan influence was strongest. The nearer one approaches the Rio Grande, the weaker grows the craft influence. Indians in these northern regions were more nomadic and less civilized to begin with, and latterly have been influenced by cultural penetration from the United States. One does not really get into Mexico until he strikes Guanajuato, some 400 miles south of the border.
The old civilizations produced marvellous craftsmen. Their pottery, though unglazed, was distinguished; their feather robes, turquoise masks, silver and gold work, carving of bone and obsidian, textiles, embroidery, wood carving, frescoes, and sculptured stone were of the highest order. To this tradition the Spaniards added excellent arts of their own, notably iron work, glazed pottery, leather working, glass making. In addition, certain crafts purely Mexican, such as sombrero and sarape weaving, have been evolved since Cortez landed. But I am afraid that, as in the case of basic civilization, Mexican handicrafts have been slowly declining since the conquest. Working in bone and obsidian is almost gone; there are only three feather robes left in the world--those robes which Bernal Diaz used to count by the score of man-loads; both feather-painting and certain lacquer work have decayed to the point of copying the more florid variety of picture postcard.
Despite these breaches in the wall, our stroll around the Oaxaca market makes it clear that the handicrafts are still amazing enough. Their freshness and vitality cause the traveller on his return to wonder why American shop windows look so lifeless. The glare of neon lights only makes the contrast gloomier. Mexico has made Fifth Avenue a duller street for me, and I am not sure that I am grateful.
Perhaps we can understand why this is so by looking in at a shop where three men and two boys are making glass. Two brothers are in charge whose family has produced glass for generations. The only machine in the place is a blower, operated by a small motor, for the furnace. The raw materials are shovelled in by hand, the clay bowlfuls of dye are mixed by hand; the blowing and fashioning are done with long, hollow rods and curiously shaped pincers. Had we looked in two hundred years ago, the scene would have been identical-round, brick furnace with square apertures filled with blinding light; high, smoke-filled room retreating into velvet shadows, the stooping backs of men and boys bearing long staffs with glowing ends, like huge fireflies. . . . The master craftsman welcomes the friend who has brought us. His face lights up. "Presently I shall make something for you," he says, "something very beautiful. I have a new idea. Wait and see."
We waited, and it was beautiful--a big-bellied pitcher in pale green glass with broad flat handle, scalloped rim, and spiral grooves from neck to base. With the help of one of the boys he fashioned it, from molten mass to oven, in fifteen minutes. "Nobody has ever made a pitcher like that before. Tomorrow it will be cool and you will come and get it. It is for you." To have offered him money would have been to strike him in the face. That is why glassware coming out of a factory on an endless belt misses something that only a craftsman, in a hopelessly antiquated shop, with a beautiful new idea, can give. Incidentally this same maestro came to New York a few years ago. No interior decorator discovered him, and all he could find to do was run an elevator up and down, down and up, in a tall hotel. He did not stay long.
We are speaking of glass, and pottery, and sarapes. No craftsman, though bursting with lovely new ideas, could make an electric light bulb, or an automobile engine, or a bathtub faucet, a fraction as justly and well as machine and factory can.
All over Mexico today men and women, mostly Indians, are making the homely things which they need and their neighbours need, with something of this glass blower's spirit. I do not doubt that that spirit is repeatedly crucified with dull ritual, with monotony, but enough of it breaks through to make an Oaxaca market, or such a repository as that of Mr. Frederick Davis in Mexico City, as exciting to me as any art museum. This is the kind of work which millions of these machineless men engage in, sometimes in lieu of, but far more frequently in conjunction with, their agricultural labour. In front of looms as hoary as the glass blower's shop, at cottage benches, in the frowzy, colourful courtyards of town dwellings, in the market's dust, I have seen their dexterous fingers, their timeless patience, their concentrated interest as they weave and cut and hammer something a little different than anyone else has made. They punch no time clocks, prepare no job tickets, visit no employment office, receive no welfare work, say yessir to no boss. They work when they feel like it, stop when they feel like it, sleep when they feel like it. According to the doctrines of the Manchester School, under whose dispensation we of the north live, they are Ishmaelites, utterly beyond the pale. Yet all the masters, and all the men, and all the factories, and all the steam in Manchester, working day and night for one hundred and fifty years, have never produced a tithe of the excellence in human goods to be found in one holiday market in one small city in the south of Mexico.
We have touched on the debasement of certain crafts. Is the process to be indefinitely extended? Are the handicrafts ultimately doomed? I know of one positive counterirritant, and at the same time I feel a vague foreboding. Rene d'Harnoncourt has to my certain knowledge revived the art of feather-painting and the lacquer work of Olinala. By showing the Indians the old designs, by finding a readier market for the revived as against the debased, he has started an eddy in the other direction. D'Harnoncourt did not teach, he only showed examples--and suddenly, mysteriously, something long dead came back to life. Perhaps other true friends of Mexico will follow his example.
My foreboding is concerned with the American tourist. In a few months (this is June, 1931) he will be able to drive his Buick clear through to Mexico City. Clouds of Buicks, swarms of Dodges, shoals of Chevrolets--mark my words, they will come. They will demand souvenirs to take back, and the souvenirs to which these cars are accustomed are found in shiny log cabins beside the hot dog stand in the Profile Notch, New Hampshire, or at Niagara Falls, New York, or in Glacier National Park, Montana. Travelling up from Vera Cruz I asked a fellow national if he cared for Mexican popular art. Yes, he said, he was greatly taken with Mexican art. He had indeed bought two fleas, one dressed like a bride and the other like a groom; he had bought a walnut with a glass top and a whole landscape, mountains and everything, painted inside. Clever people, the Mexicans. They will have to be clever to preserve their craft integrity against that southward-moving cloud of dust. . . . Perhaps the Buicks may fall off the unguarded hairpin turns which distinguish Mexican mountain roads. Even better, perhaps these cars will learn, following the chastening years of business depression, to discriminate between sound workmanship and junk.