Story of Mexico - Charles Morris

Condition and Modes of Life of the People

Mexico was originally a realm of Indian civilization, and in some respects it may claim to be the same today. While nominally a white man's land, a "Latin Republic," more than a third of its people are pure Indians still, and probably more than half of them of mixed blood, the pure white being less than a fifth, possibly not more than a tenth, of. the whole population. And while the civilization in its general aspects is one of Spanish introduction, sufficient traces of the old conditions persist to warrant what is above said. It is no easy matter to overcome the habits and customs of a race of people by the instilling of new ideas into their mental machinery, especially in a land in which education has hitherto been almost a thing unknown.

As regards the Indians, while generally ignorant and heedless of anything beyond their everyday life of labor and simple enjoyment, many of them have a good share of natural ability, and any of the race who possess capacity and enterprise have as full opportunity to advance as their fellow citizens of Spanish descent. It is not uncommon for Indians of pure blood to attain distinction in the professions and in political life. It is an interesting fact, in this connection, that Juarez and Huerta belong to the Indian race and Diaz to the Mestizos, or half-breeds, and the same may be said of others of much prominence. In so far as civil rights and opportunity are concerned the Mexican Indian stands on the same level as the whites. Citizens of pure Spanish descent pride themselves on this fact and speak of the "Indio" with some feeling of contempt, but they go no farther than this and the Constitution of Mexico conserves the equal rights of all its people.

The six millions or more in the country of Indian blood belong to about fifty of the former tribes, and are found in all parts of the land, retaining much of the old customs brought down from prehistoric times. While many of them show little sign of change from the savages of the far past, cases of marked ability among them are of some frequency, and this under favorable conditions has developed into fine powers of intellectual ability and of statesmanship.

A water vender.


The Mestizos are not confined to those of Indian and Spanish parentage. Men of many other European nations made their way to Mexico during the centuries following the conquest, and the diversities of race in Mexico are greater than in any other Latin-American nation. Thus the racial assimilation has been considerable, and the Mestizo of today is the result of a wide commingling of Indian and white blood. The class of peons, the laboring people of the country, are drawn from the Indians and Mestizos alike, especially from the former, and upon them the development of the industries depends. Poor, lacking in opportunity, and in many cases in a state of serfhood, their opportunity for education and development has been very small. It is the semi-feudal system prevailing upon the great estates and in the mines of Mexico, and the lack of effort in the government to advance the conditions of the people, that keep the illiterate and oppressed peon in his present condition of servitude as a worker on the broad lands which once were the property of his ancestors.

As for the mode of life of the peon, it is of the most primitive type. The worker on the great haciendas  or estates has little time for enjoyment. His day's toil in the field—a long day for a short wage—is followed by a night spent in his miserable adobe dwelling, in the one room in which the whole family is forced to herd. His wants fortunately are few and it needs little to make him happy. His food is chiefly vegetable, meat being a luxury which he rarely tastes. The main article of food is the tortilla, an unsweetened pancake of corn meal, patted out in the hands and baked on an earthenware dish. Next to the tortillas  are the frijoles. These form a more palatable article of food, made of a small variety of beans, which are boiled in an earthen pot and then fried in lard or other obtainable fat. They gain a rich brown color and form an appetizing dish, which is not unwelcome on the tables of the upper class, despite the tendency to regard it with a certain contempt as an Indian national dish. Potatoes, of a small, poor variety, are added to the somewhat sparse peon dietary, and the pungent chili, a variety of pepper pod, is used to give a spicy flavor to the bill of fare.

For beverage, coffee is much esteemed, and pulque, the intoxicating drink made from the maguey, is an universal favorite. Like the wealthier Mexicans, the peon is very fond of tobacco, and enjoys his cigarette with the highest zest. This he makes himself by rolling a portion of strong tobacco in a piece of corn-husk, with a dexterity acquired by long practice. By means of these few creature comforts the poverty-stricken peon manages to bring a share of enjoyment into his toilsome career.

As for attire, it usually consists of rags and tatters, barely sufficient to cover the naked skin. In such sorry garments the peon may be seen in the cities, carrying heavy burdens through the streets, climbing to the scaffolds of buildings with loads of bricks, or as a wandering salesman offering fruit, charcoal and other commodities for sale. In the country he is the universal farm laborer, and in the mines he is kept busy carrying out heavy loads of ore.

As a farmer on his own account, the peon is a failure. There is no energy and no intelligence in his work. The wooden hoe of his ancestors suffices him, and work is the one thing for which he least cares. His wants are few and easily supplied. A couple of stones to grind the corn for making tortillas, a tin can for boiling water, some native jars, and a few rags of cloth to sleep on are all the furniture he needs. He gets little wages, but his labor is worth little. In the tropical regions, where there is no winter to provide for, it is difficult to get him to work at all. There he can build his own mud hut, take and cultivate a little tract of unoccupied soil, get fish from the streams and game from the woods, and pass life in almost utter sloth.

Tortilla baker's shop


Even under the discipline of the large estates he is a hard proposition to deal with. It needs close watching to make him work in any but his old, slow way. Holidays are numerous, for no one can get him to work on the fiestas  or saints' days, and they come frequently in the Mexican calendar. Sunday, of course, is a day of rest, and his inveterate appetite for pulque  usually gets him into such a state on that day that he needs Monday to get over its effects. As for his religion, it is not to be estimated by his close attention to keeping the church holidays. In fact, much of the idolatry of his ancestors clings to him still, and in spite of all the priests can say or do, the old Indian gods are worshipped at intervals, and many superstitious practices brought down from olden days continue to be observed.

Vices and virtues are strangely mingled in his makeup. Of the former, gambling is one of the worst, and cock-fighting his favorite recreation, on which he is ever ready to wager his scanty wages. Fighting-cocks are everywhere to be seen, and the mode of using them is very cruel. Steel blades or spurs, as sharp as a razor, are tied to the claws of the cocks, and the birds, if not killed at a stroke, emerge from the combat torn and covered with blood. The bull-fight, horse-racing, dancing and the inordinate consumption of pulque  form the remainder of his enjoyments. Pulque, a feebly intoxicating drink, is very cheap. A glass of it can be had for a half cent, a large glass for a cent, and pulque  shops are to be seen everywhere in the low quarters of the town. Mexicans of the middle and higher classes drink little of this beverage, but the Indian population consume enormous quantities of it and drunkenness is common among them.

Of the good qualities of the Indian may be named his spirit of generosity. If any of his neighbors are short of food his scanty larder is freely open to their use, and they in turn are equally ready to aid him in time of need. Cruel to animals, he is exceedingly fond of children, and his politeness is equal to that of the most courteous Spanish cavalier. His battered sombrero is doffed with unaffected polish of manner to those he meets, and it is amusing to see two of these ragged laborers exchanging choice Spanish compliments in their occasional meetings and greetings.

Perhaps from the fact that he gets little from which to save, perhaps from a natural lack of prevision, the peon rarely rises above his condition, and is very apt to fall into one of virtual, bondage, owing to the law concerning debtors in Mexico. He is not forced to labor. But when he does he usually soon ceases to be a free agent. Anyone in debt to his employer is obliged by law to continue in his service until his debt is paid. If he runs away he is liable to be caught and sent back. This is one phase of the situation. The other is that the worker in the fields and mines is rarely out of debt. His wages are small and payment is largely received in goods which he is obliged to buy at the store belonging to his employer, or to some one who has purchased the right to conduct such a store.

These transactions, with the ignorant Indians as customers, are apt to be dealings in which high prices are associated with short weights. Supplies to some extent are granted in advance and the customer quickly becomes in debt to the store. He cannot legally quit his employment until the debt is discharged, and his other wants in the line of necessity or enjoyment are so urgent that the debt is apt to become a fixed quantity and tends to keep him in a state of permanent serfdom or peonage—a word closely fitting his special case. With his love for cock-fighting and other sports, his addiction to gambling, his fondness for pulque, and his general "happy go lucky" state of mind, it is always easy for him to fall into debt; next to impossible to get out of it.

Yet, though the working class is generally in a state of poverty, the workers are usually contented. Their wants are few and simple and are easily supplied. If they lack furniture or household goods of any sort it does not affect their state of content. If a bedstead is lacking, the earthen floor suffices. There the peon sleeps with his family, rolled up in their ponchos or blankets, and heedless of dampness or ventilation. The preparation of food is a very simple process, one needing few utensils. The fireplace, consisting of a few stones upon which charcoal or firewood is kindled, is often outside the house. If inside, a chimney rarely exists, a hole in the roof serving for the escape of smoke. Over the fire is hung the earthen pot in which viands are boiled, and upon it is placed the dish upon which tortillas are baked. As for the cleanliness of these operations, it is safest to ask no questions. Knives, forks, spoons, plates, and all the paraphernalia of civilized meals, are readily dispensed with, the art of the household being reduced by the peon to its lowest terms. Fortunately for his comfort, he does not miss these utensils, as he has never used them. He does not even make use of a match to light his cigarette. Matches cost money, and he has other uses for his spare cash. So he retains the custom of his ancestors, striking steel upon flint and deftly throwing the spark upon his morsel of tinder.

The peon is not destitute of religion, of the Roman Catholic variety, to which his ancestors were converted, and the duties and ceremonies of which have become a part of his life. The outward show of this system of faith strongly appeals to him, and his great veneration for the priests and adoration of saints and their images have become part of his nature. Shrines and crosses are visible everywhere, the latter often marking the spot where some murder or other deed of violence has been perpetrated.

The peon's idea of religion is mingled with many superstitions and traces of the idol worship of his ancestors. The devil, and hobgoblins of various types, often visit him, or at least dwell in his fancy, and the cross is thought potent to hinder the malevolence of these legendary creatures.

Religion with the Indians takes other forms and is accompanied by various rites. A cross is often set up in a fruitful field as a token of thankfulness, wisps of grain and other vegetable decorations being added to it. The songs of the laborers in the field have a religious significance. Thus when a workman, who has been bending over the grain with his short-handled sickle, lifts himself for a moment's rest, he raises his hap and shouts with stentorian voice, "Ave Maria Santissima." Back from neighboring fields comes an echo of his cry, and it may make the round of a dozen fields before the workers bend again to their task.

"At the end of the day's work," says one writer, "when the last red gleam has faded from the mountains, the field hands gather to sing the evening song of praise. A deep bass begins the chant:

"'Dios te salve Maria.'

A shrill childish voice joins in:

"'Dios te salve Maria.'

Then from the long line of men and women rises the chorus:

"'Dios te salve Maria

Leena eres de gracia.'

"The Indian voices vary in pitch from a shriek to a roar. When the whole company joins in, each singing or yelling:

"'Benditi to eres

Entre Codas las maieses,'

One might imagine it to be the fierce war song of the Aztec legions defending their royal city on the lakes. But it is only the 'Ave Maria' sung to the gentle mother."

The hacienda, or great plantation, system has operated to check progress in Mexico. On some of these vast estates several thousand peon laborers are employed, in addition to their families. Yet the land is very imperfectly cultivated and much of it lies waste. It would be of great benefit to the productive power of the country if these estates were broken up among smaller holders and the ground fully cultivated. It is well to say here that this evil has been one of the chief causes of the recent rebellions, there being a vigorous demand that the land should come back to the people. General Villa has recently made a decided move in this direction in confiscating the vast Terrazas estate in Chihuahua, 5,000,000 acres in extent, on which 10,000 men have been employed. His declared purpose is to divide it up between widows and orphans, and restore their property to persons from whom it has been wrongfully taken.

These great estates often possess villages of peons, all of whom are employed on the land. They are so large, indeed, that it would be a day's ride to cross some of them from side to side. The mansion of the proprietor is often kept up like a baronial castle of old, and in past years, before inns became common, any traveler was sure of a warm welcome and hospitable reception, much as was the case on the plantations of old Virginia in colonial times. These houses are usually well furnished, but are medieval in their lack of many household conveniences usual in far more modest houses in our own country. The bathroom is one of these requisites to high civilization that is often lacking, and the cooking is usually of a kind that would not appeal to a cultivated palate. As for the agricultural methods on these estates, they continue primitive, the agricultural implements of the north being usually lacking. And as regards intensive farming, the idea has not yet made its way into the Mexican mind.

The peons of Mexico have the reputation of being arrant thieves, and it would certainly not be wise to leave small valuables unguarded within their reach. But this habit of theft goes little beyond the level of petty pilfering. They do not engage in burglary or concoct crimes of a serious nature for purposes of robbery. There has long been an abundance of brigandage in the mountain regions of Mexico, but President Diaz, with his rurales, or rural police, largely put an end to this, and there are now few districts in which a traveler's life and belongings are not safe.

In the cities and towns of Mexico the peon class is engaged in a great variety of minor duties, such as those of laboring work of various kinds, truck selling and other needful avocations. They dress in a loose suit of white linen, though this whiteness does not long persist. It consists of coat and trousers, the latter being often rolled up to the knees. Stockings are never worn, though sandals occasionally protect the feet. A great, conical, broad-brimmed straw hat protects the head, the brim perhaps as much as two feet wide. This kind of headgear is peculiar to Mexico, where it is worn throughout the land.

A red woolen blanket, the poncho  or serape, is invariably in use, carried over the left shoulder during the day, wrapped closely round the body in the cool air of morning and evening. In some cases it has a slit cut in its middle, the head being thrust through this and the blanket thus hung from the shoulders. At night it serves as a bed-cover, it being in fact an indispensable article of use by day and night.

The women of this class wear a dress of modest proportions, and a blue reboso  or shawl, which takes the place with them of the red serape  of the men. This is generally worn over the head, taking the place of bonnet or hat. No effort is made to ape the rich in style of dress. The reboso  has other uses than as a shawl, being sometimes used by a woman when traveling to fasten her baby to her waist. It may serve also for the gathering of bits of firewood along the road, as the man similarly uses his serape to carry potatoes, corn, or other articles from the market.

The Mexican Indians are often very expert in pottery making, using primitive methods inherited from their ancestors before the potter's wheel was known to them. They make very symmetrical pots, of large size, with no appliance but a small wooden paddle or beater. These pots are first sun-dried and then baked. They are mainly used in carrying water from the springs. The makers can be seen carrying them in great loads bound up in crates, which they take to the villages for sale.

The Indians of Mexico are descended from a large number of tribes, and differ considerably in physical and mental characteristics. Some retain much of their original savageness, but the mass of them have accepted the arts of civilization. These have usually dark or brownish complexions and very dark hair and eyes. They are slight in stature, but sturdy and muscular and capable of severe exertion. One of the most advanced tribes is that of the Mayas of Yucatan, this having a well developed civilization and considerable literature in days preceding the Spanish occupation. Unfortunately their manuscripts were destroyed by the Spaniards. Their language is still widely used in Yucatan. These people differ from the other Indians in having complexions of a brick-red tint and in being shorter and stouter, with very full chest development. They differ also in disposition, being always ready to laugh, a characteristic not possessed by the Indians in general, most of whom are sullen and morose in aspect, even in their hours of play or relaxation.

As regards the Mexican people of pure white descent, these comprise only a small percentage of the whole, the majority of the population being the Mestizos, a class of mixed white and Indian race. Many of these are on the level of the peons, or pure Indians, though others of them are in type closely allied to the pure whites and belong to the class of the property holders of the country. The upper class Mexican does not differ much in habit and appearance from similar persons in other countries. He is usually well educated, dresses in the fashionable attire of other lands, and lives a similar life of ease and observance of the rules of society.

A Mexican gentleman prides himself on being polite and punctilious in behavior, giving much attention to matters of ceremony, and seeking always to treat others with courtesy. This quality, indeed, pervades the whole population, from the rich gentleman to the poor laborer, and their politeness of demeanor does not appear to be a mere mask of courtliness, but seems to express a native kindliness of disposition. As for courtesy, the most ragged peon will take off his hat with a native grace and accost others with words of gracious greeting as if he had been taught courtliness in palace halls instead of in dilapidated hovels.

Life, however, in Mexican cities is apt to appear very dull to those accustomed to the gaiety of American and European cities. Social entertainments are of rare occurrence, the chief amusements of the higher society being confined to driving and family dinner parties, which while very punctilious are often very dull occasions. Mexicans, no doubt, have much of the enthusiasm of the Latin peoples in general. This is shown by their animated gestures in talking and the free use of compliments which are mere matters of form. They will gush freely over something to which they have taken a sudden fancy, and in a short time become indifferent to the person or thing thus honored.

One thing that appeals strongly to the Mexican is music. A good piano is almost always found in the houses of the well-to-do, and proficients in its use are common among the women. Every town also has a band-stand in its plaza, where the regimental or other bands play every night. It has long been the custom to promenade nightly in the inner circle of the plaza while the band plays, the ladies walking in one direction, the men in the other, and greeting their friends as they pass. This habit gives a welcome opportunity for flirtations between young men and maidens, which otherwise are sadly wanting.

One cause of the difference in social customs between Mexicans and the people of the United States lies in the seclusion of young women of the higher classes, girls not being allowed to go about except under the care of duenas, and women until recently rarely going out except in a closed carriage. The growing practice of motoring is putting an end to the latter type of seclusion.

The grilled windows and balconies of Mexican houses, borrowed from those of Spain, is a result of this state of affairs, propriety requiring young ladies, except when with their duenas, to confine themselves to these outlooks into the streets. Girls, indeed, have none of the freedom of familiar intercourse with young men so common in our northern cities. When it comes to a case of courtship, it must be pursued through the medium of the barred windows or the balcony. A young man who has taken a fancy to a fair face seen on street or plaza finds a serious difficulty in following up his amour. For days, perhaps for weeks, he may be seen walking under the window of the adored one's house, watching and hoping.

This silent attention is quickly discovered by the girl, and if she likes his attentions she in due time finds means to let him know that he has won her favor. It may be by a sly glance through the window, a smile, a furtive wave of the hand. This leads to his watching for her on the plaza or following her to mass. The love-letter stage is next to follow, and if the parents do not disapprove of the sighing swain the young lady may soon be allowed to talk with him through the window grille or from the balcony. Such a courtship may go on for an indefinite period, a year or more perhaps, ending finally in marriage, though not always, since some rival may bear off the valued prize.

The Mexican women are not notable for beauty. They are of olive tint of skin, but have expressive eyes and black hair in abundance. Their complexion is bad, probably from their usual close confinement to the house, and they try to atone for this by a liberal use of powder on the face, with rouge to redden the lips. With so restricted an outlook upon life, love and marriage are apt to be the culminating points in their existence. Indeed, the Mexican men and women alike are highly amorous in disposition, and the love passages are the most alluring events in their lives. Next to love, religion plays with them an important part, and between courtship and the varied requirements of religious service and ceremony much of their maiden life is passed. Aside from these, the Mexican young woman has few distractions in her career.

As for the young man in Mexico, the fondness for sport so strong in the Anglo-Saxon rarely exists in him. Tennis, football and polo are played to some extent by those who deem it the proper thing to follow the American and British example in this direction, but such strenuous exercise makes small appeal to one with the Mexican's indolent love of ease. His favorite pastime is horsemanship. In this exercise Mexico leads the world, or at least has no superiors elsewhere. The use of the horse in Mexico is a signal of social standing, and no one of the self-respecting class lets himself be seen on foot beyond the city limits. While the poor laborer trudges on foot along the dusty roads, the. gaily caparisoned horseman dashes proudly by, with the sentiment of one belonging to a nobler planet. The vaquero, the Mexican cowboy, is a horseman of rarely equaled skill, his animal being trained to respond to the lightest touch on the rein, and his swift paso, or running pace, being in comfort far in advance of the English or American trot.

The Mexican riding dress, the charro  costume, is peculiar and gorgeous. It consists of a short coat and tightly fitting trousers of soft deerskin, rich brown in hue, and decorated upon its edges and lapels, also on the cuffs and around the buttonholes, with gold and silver lacework. Ornamental gold lace also runs down the stripes of the trousers. The whole attire is crowned by a Mexican hat of broad brim and high, tapering crown. This is made of felt, with a soft silky surface, and is also profusely ornamented with gold and silver lace. For riding on rough country roads a kind of loose trousers is worn, similarly ornamented. The effect of the whole outfit is dazzling, though the huge hat over the close-fitting raiment gives a somewhat top-heavy appearance to the equestrian gallant.

A wayside Mexican Inn.


On the feet are worn spurs of great size and weight, the wheel part being of several inches diameter. These, weighing several pounds each, are of steel, often inlaid with gold and silver. Their points are blunt, not sharp as in other countries, so that they do not lacerate the horse. This animal is equipped with trappings fitting in richness those of the rider, the saddle being a finely tanned leather of a high color, and profusely decorated. It is very heavy, but it affords a highly comfortable seat, much more so than the lighter saddle of the north. "The horse carries the weight," says the Mexican. The bit is heavy, but not necessarily cruel, as the horses are trained to respond with great readiness to the rider's touch.

An invariable part of the rider's equipment is the riata, or lasso, in the use of which the rural Mexican, especially the vaquero, is usually remarkably skilful. It forms one of the weapons of the rurales, or mounted country police, and the soldiers who fought against the French of Maximilian's army often used it with deadly effect in their scouting or foraging encounters.

While the Mexican is little given to sports that call for active muscular exercise, there is one form of sport of which he is inordinately fond. This is the bull-fight, imported from Spain, and naturalized in its American colonies. This takes place on Sunday afternoons—a time of relaxation in Roman Catholic countries after the religious services of the morning. All classes attend it, the peons equally with the cavaliers, and all welcome it with equal enthusiasm and delight. Even the young maiden, so restrained and demure ordinarily, here enters ardently into the game and applauds its gory outcome as warmly as the men.