High Lights of the Mexican Revolution - J. L. McLeish

Life Across the Rio Grande

In Mexico history has shown a remarkable number of repetitions.

Again and again the popular idol of yesterday has degenerated into the "malo hombre" of today. For example:

In 1823 the blanketed hoi polloi had worked themselves into a frenzy of enthusiasm over their Liberator General Iturbide. They acclaimed him Emperor. One year later they lined him up against a mud wall at Padilla and shot him from a living perpendicular to a dead level.

Some little time thereafter another of their national heroes, old Vicente Guerrero became President. When the fickle masses had wearied of his rule, they conveniently deposed him and bestowed upon him the fate accorded Iturbide.

Time and again, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna triumphantly entered the national capital to a deafening chorus of "vivas," and time and again he was forced to flee. Always he was shrewd enough to carry away with him all such government securities as proved portable. Then from a safe distance the wily old diplomat would inchoate negotiations for a recall. He generally succeeded. You see, the Mexicans needed the money. Then as now they were over-burdened with financial desuetude.

Perhaps, when you fully understand the peculiar psychology of the Mexican peons who constitute two-thirds of the population, you can form a conception of how very uncertain is this country's future, based upon the past performances of this vacillating and bromidic people.

As the peon was yesterday, he is today, will be tomorrow.

Human nature seldom changes. Types remain the same.

Peon customs, traditions and habits of life are as firmly fastened upon them as were almost identical characteristics upon the serfs of the old world during the middle ages.

In spite of all claims to the contrary, in old Mexico the time of "Jacques Bonhomme" has not yet arrived. When their day does dawn, a man of far different type than Don Venustiano Carranza or any of the idealistic "Richmonds" who have taken the field in the last five years, will lead the peon masses from the darkness into light.

Every country has its types, studies in human nature these "world's canaille," ever offering to the student of psychology a most fertile field for investigation.

France furnishes us the Savoyards, Germany the Suabians, Mexico the peons.

The traveler, gliding through Mexico by well-traveled trails, fails to come into intimate contact with that real peon class who form so major a part of the population. To study them to the best advantage, one must travel by diligencia, into the remote interior, where the onward march of progress has not yet intruded to do away with the pastoral simplicity of these adult children of the southland.

In spite of an ever-present scarcity of "real money," the peons manage to derive considerable pleasure out of life under the most monotonous conditions.

The peon language is a dialect rich in patois. It is entirely different from the musical Castilian spoken by the cultured classes.

Like the old world peasants, the peons have a wealth of tradition behind them. Their folklore is as rich in imagery as the old world Yule tales.

In the dusk of evening, it is no uncommon thing for them to gather in little groups, and in the softest of musical patois tell over and over again the beautiful legend of "Our Lady of Guadalupe," or some equally weird tale handed down to them from their forbears. Nor is it an uncommon sight to see a withered old peon granddad grouping about him a little brown band of scantily clad tots, to tell them stories of brave Hidalgo, poor Iturbide, rugged Victoria Guadalupe, brave Benito Juarez and other idols of the common people. All the history that the masses possess has been acquired in this primitive fashion.

Peon music has the weird strain of the wilderness. It is a music of the plain people. Like all such people it has a superabundance of simple sentiment. It is replete with pathos, simplicity, love and fiery passion.

One may seek far yet fail to find more touching melody than the songs of the peon swains. Into their singing they put their whole heart and soul. You know it comes from the heart. As it rings through the arroyos and mountain canyons, there is about the peon music a wild, barbaric strain which holds the listener spellbound. Their love songs have a martial strain which is passion personified.

The average peon home of the interior is a jacal hollowed out of the hillsides and arroyos. Miserable, hovel like little shacks they are, about as large as your bathroom, with scarcely room enough to admit of a tall man standing upright. If the peon happens to be working, he thatches his jacal in the building with straw. And sometimes he manages to carpet the earth floor with coyote skins. In time of leisure, which is most often, the straw and the skins are exchanged for a few drinks.

The sole source of ventilation in a peon home is the narrow aperture which answers for a door. Within one of these cramped, eight foot apartments, may generally be found the head of the house, four or five children, the wife, her mother and maybe a few sisters. In addition to this interesting family there are usually three or four dogs, a pig, a rooster, the inevitable hens and sometimes a long-eared burro.

When everyone is wrapped in slumber, some uncharitably disposed dog lets out a long, resounding howl which is immediately taken up by all the other dogs in the neighborhood. In this pandemonium the pigs, the rooster and even the burro join. But the peon sleeps placidly on. They are used to this concatenation of sounds.

The staple menu of a peon family is tortillas and coffee. The tortillas are made from maize ground on a "metate," a curved stone shaped like an inclined plane. Sometimes the diet is varied with meat and red pepper dished up in the familiar "chili con carne."

In their daily life this happy-go-lucky people greatly resemble the Savoyards. Unless held down by an incubus of debt, as is often the case, they are of a roving, peripatetic disposition. In the mining districts in particular is this the case. Here the daily average wage scale for the man laborer is from thirty-two cents to two dollars. If a boom occurs nearby, the head of the peon household cries "Vamonos." The family exodus is on.

Moving for the peons presents no arduous task. Their average household goods consist of a few tattered serapes, a coffee pot, a metate, a frying pan, tin cups and the animal menage.

In the south of Mexico the peons are generally attached to one of the large haciendas, where wages are good, conditions comfortable.

As manual laborers the peon men are tolerable, provided they are kept constantly under surveillance. Probably no other class of people are so lazy. The fault is bred of generations of laziness, and a dolce far niente climate.

"Peon Paradise" consists of a shady spot where one can roll innumerable cigarettes and puff one's soul away into dreamland.

Even from such an ideal state the peon can be aroused if some soul philanthropically inclined appears at the door of a cantina and agrees to "pay for the drinks."

A more generally illiterate people it would be hard to find. Their mental estate is but a grade higher than that of the savage. Their education is of brawn not of brain.

On one point custom has trained them well. They possess a splendid capacity for remembering innumerable national and religious holidays, such as Cinco de Mayo, September 16th, etc.

Among most peons moderation is an unknown quantity. On the holiday which happens regularly once or twice a week, they glut themselves with native liquors at three cents the glass, until they have attained a nirvana of happy stupefaction. Some celebration theirs, believe me.

In dress simplicity is the peon rule. The women wear the cheapest of cheap manta gowns, falling loosely about their persons like a "Mother Hubbard." The men are quite content to wear whatever turns up, provided only they may have a nice sombrero with a little more silver upon it than one's neighbor. The sombrero with its heavy bullion is in Peonland the visible badge of prosperity, a sort of Order of the Golden Fleece, and an ever evident sign of eminent respectability and uncompromising virtue.

It matters not that one's overalls are sadly worn at the seat, so worn indeed as to necessitate the wearing of one's shirt-tail without in due deference to decency's demands,—the gaudy eagle and cactus worked in bullion upon one's headgear, gives the lie to any palpable accusation of poverty insinuated by a rent in one's overalls' rear.

The full-blooded Indians of peonland are studies in the nude.

It is no infrequent thing in some of the interior towns to see a family of these strutting through the streets clad quite in the altogether.

Black-eyed peon children play about half-naked in the sun. Most of them wear only a tight-fitting little undershirt or smock.

These children even as ours have their characteristic games. To them such crudities are quite as interesting as the more decorous juvenile amusements of effete civilization. For example:

Some enterprising youngster possesses himself of an old pair of horns and personates a bull. The other children with sticks and rags adopt the respective roles of espada, and picadors. An imaginary bullring is arranged. Soon a genuine combat is in progress, from the opening procession around the ring to the final slaying of the bull. And all the while the play is enlivened by shrill cries in childish treble:

"Bravo—bravissimo,—El Toro!"

Sometimes the play ends up in a free-for-all fight. There are alas, resultant black eyes and bloody noses.

Among the peons of the interior there is an astounding lack of morals. In many communities a priest is seen but once or twice a year. His charges for tying the matrimonial knot are generally too high for the improvident peon. In consequence common law association has taken the place of church ceremony. The necessarily infrequent coming of the priest has a distinct influence upon the funeral obsequies. There is upon such occasions, little of the solemnity which the presence of a clergyman insures.

A dead peon is placed in the cheapest of wood boxes, unembellished and unmarked, to be borne away to his "ultima casa," some six feet of desert soil, where he is stowed away with as little ceremony as his pet dog.

When a peon child dies there is a difference.

A band of peon musicians, violin, mandolin and guitar players, are procured. These precede the funeral procession playing such pieces as practice has made near-perfect, with an utter disregard of the solemnity of the occasion for which they have been hired.

The dead child is laid out in red, blue or green, or such other combination of gaudy colors as the odds and ends of the peon household afford. Were it not for the low Wailing "Ay de mi—ay de mi"—you could hardly realize that you were witnessing a funeral. About the peon cemetery is something inexpressibly pathetic.

Over a desert, sun-baked waste, you may see scattered at intervals, a few stone-covered mounds, each surmounted by a crude wooden cross, with the name of the deceased. There is always a pitiful contrast between these poor, neglected little interior graveyards, and the well-kept, imposing cemeteries of the rich in Mexico.

There is no middle class in old Mexico. The population has a strict line of demarcation between the very rich, and the poor peons.

To find the superlative degree of uncleanliness, one should pass a little time in an interior village. The people fairly wallow in dirt, indeed seem to like it. Such a thing as a bath is an unheard-of luxury. The streets are full of offal, and were it not for the sopilotes, or carrion birds of prey, the mortality would be frightful. Even in the larger cities, the unhygienic condition of the native quarters is a frequent menace to health. In times of epidemic of smallpox, typhoid or typhus, peon women flock recklessly into a sickroom accompanied by their babies and young children exhibiting an utter disregard to all danger. They have a superstition that these infections are necessary. When opportunity presents, they take every chance to contract disease and so the sooner have it over with. Generally they succeed, as an inspection of the local graveyard will demonstrate.

The Mexican masses have not a little knowledge of the healing merits of herbs. In the interior, if no doctor is at hand, they themselves confidently undertake the treatment of their sick. Their greatest reliance is placed on purgatives.

Perhaps the peons who have the hardest lot are those employed in the mines. They must drill down in deep shafts where the atmosphere is almost suffocating, the ventilation wretched. Some of them haul on their heads huge sacks of ore which would prostrate an average man. Some of these sacks weigh 150 to 200 pounds.

It is a novel sight to enter a Mexican mine and peer down into a very inferno of darkness where can be seen the twinkling glow of many candles. From far below comes a labored, stertorious groaning like unto the wail of a lost soul. It is the slow, measured chorus of peon miners keeping time to the steady tintinabulation of their drills.

At the entrance to every mine is a shrine to one of the saints. It is pretty because of its simplicity. Usually there is a little wooden virgin decked out in white manta and surrounded by tawdry tinsel decorations. Behind this figure is a plain, wooden crucifix. It is quite impossible to prevail upon a peon to descend a shaft in which there is not a shrine.

Passing from shaft to shaft one sees dusky, sweating miners quite naked save for their overalls, hard at their task. They are splendid specimens of physical manhood, their huge, corded muscles responding to every movement of arms and limbs.

In appearance, the peon somewhat resembles the American Indian. Dusky in complexion, with long, smooth, black hair, high cheekbones and eyes of piercing black, they are easily distinguished from the lighter, more clean-cut Mexicans of Castilian descent.

In the larger towns on the railroads the peon exercises many functions. Huckster, small merchant, dispenser of pulque, professional guide, and beggar make him a Jack of all trades.

Since 1910 he has added a new vocation to his varied many,—professional revolutionist. It depends on circumstances whether his voice be raised for Senor Villa, General Obregon, First Chief Carranza, or some independent Jefe who has issued a pronunciamiento against all of these martial aspirants for power. The peon follows the bellwether. If the Jefe Politico of his town happens to be a Carranzista, the little peon pawn will acclaim the bespectacled gentleman from Cuatro Cienegas, Coahuila. Just as readily will he enthuse over Villa should an unlucky turn of the wheel place the northern General's star in the ascendant. To tell the truth our poor peon hardly understands at any time just who or what he is shouting and mayhap fighting for. When a crowd comes along with old-fashioned flintlocks, if they find him in the notion, a new recruit is gained. The peon seizes his machete or stiletto, and marches along docilely enough. And when it is all over, if he has been lucky enough to escape unshot, he bobs up again serenely in his native village, a "sure 'nough" hero.

As a beggar the peon has few superiors. There is not an ailment to which humanity is subject, which he cannot simulate to perfection.

At train time, a railroad station in Mexico resembles an outdoor hospital. Here one may find a variety of interesting if not genuine clinical studies. The traveler is beset by a whining crowd appealing with a doleful,

"Un centavo, senor,—Un poquito centavo, no mas. For the love of Christ just a penny, kind sir."

The peon's ideal recreation is "El Baile" (the dance).

Whenever a band of straggling musicians invade a peon village, they may be reasonably assured of employment, so long as a dollar remains in town. If it chances to be a feast day, the baile is on more elaborate lines. Crudely scrawled invitations are sent out to the peon elite by "the committee."

The house chosen for a baile is generally the largest in town. Some extra candles are borrowed from the neighbors. The musicians are ensconced on some soap boxes piled one upon another to form a stage.

By nine thirty the ball room is ready for the guests. Those not belonging to the "society of Peonland" peep in at the open door or crowd the windows. Everybody smokes with an air of stolid indifference to the oppressive atmosphere.

A copious supply of the strong native liquors, tequilla and mescal, is ever the concomitant of a peon dance.

Senoras and senoritas are seated. The men line themselves along the walls. All are smoking.

I once asked an old Kentucky mining man who had accompanied me to one of these functions, as to the particular etiquette of the baile.

"Wal, when you git thar," he drawled, puffing at his pipe, "jes' don't you wait for no interduction. Hike up to any of them senoritas, say "vamonos," grab her around the waist, then dance. That's the way I does, and it goes, too."

I found he was right. There is little or no etiquette at a peon baile. During the intermissions the "ladies" occupy every available seat, while the "gentlemen" dash off to the adjoining room to sample such liquid refreshments as may be available.

Perhaps at long intervals during the evening some thoughtful senor will bring his senorita a piece of dulce, a cake and a glass of red wine. He never omits taking copious refreshment unto himself after each and every dance.

One custom seems to be firmly established at these functions.

You are expected to retain the same partner all through the evening.

If you have been unlucky enough to draw a dusky belle weighing 250 or 300 pounds, as did the writer on one ever-to-be-remembered evening, when it was hot and stuffy, I think you'll vow never again to be lured into being guest at a baile.

In the subdued glow from many candles, the peon senoritas present a very winsome appearance. Neatly dressed in white, with their exquisite black tresses tastily arranged, their large, luminous black eyes aglow with pleasurable excitement, there are naturally in their number no wall flowers.

The orchestra starts up at the appointed hour. Every one cries "Vamonos."

There is the universal grab for a partner.

The couples are off.

The room is a swish of noise and a glow of color, as the petite senoritas, mine was an exception—and dusky caballeros sway slowly along through the mazes of la danza.

The movements of a Mexican dance are aggravatingly slow and sinuous. The tension on the limbs of one uninitiated is almost painful.

Sometimes while a waltz is in progress, the various couples at a given signal form in a circle. Then the two leading couples pirouette up and down, until a clapping of hands signal them to break away and afford another couple opportunity to preen themselves in the public eye.

Another pair follow and so on ad infinite, until all have played their little part. Then they begin all over again.

Now the hour grows late. After each dance the drunkenly philanthropic "committee" appear carrying a little brown jug and glasses. Every one present libates. It is insulting (according to the ethics of Peonland) to refuse.

The room has now taken on the appearance of a London fog, thanks to the inevitable cigarettes.

More and more frequent is doled out the tequilla, the mescal, the red wine. When the supply at hand gives out, the committee shamelessly take up a collection.

The little brown jug disappears in the darkness of the night to come again presently like the phoenix from the flame, "a live little jug" once more.

By two o'clock in the morning, one or more of the orchestra has succumbed to intoxication. The rest of the band manfully struggle along, until one by one, the live little jug puts them down and out for the count.

This involuntary retirement of the last musician marks the closing of El Baffle.

Such are the peon proletariat of old Mexico, a type of the world's canaille.

Poor, twentieth century serfs these peons, helpless, ambitionless, yet not soulless.

They are happy because they have never known different environment nor lot in life. Give them land for their very own, and they would quickly hunt the shady spots, there to roll innumerable cigarettes while patiently awaiting upon their particular patron Saint, "Our Gracious Lady of Guadalupe," to work the miracle and grow their crops.