Story of Mexico - Charles Morris

Education, Religion and Civilization

Education in Mexico is a subject that reads well on paper. How it exists in fact scarcely agrees with the statistics concerning it. It is, in the words of Hamlet, more honored in the breach than the observance." One writer tells us that under the educational system established by President Diaz in 1876 there are now over 800,000 pupils in Mexican public schools, which have extended until there is not a town, however small, without its establishment for free education. In addition are more than 100,000 students in private schools, religious institutions and others of similar character. There is a law making education compulsory, but, unfortunately, this law is inadequately enforced, and the education of the lower classes is very far from encouraging. Taking the population as a whole, less than thirteen per cent of it can read and write. This ignorance appertains in chief part to the Indians and peons, who constitute the bulk of the people, and whose conditions of life are usually such as to deprive them of opportunity for schooling. The fact is that, in spite of glowing statements to the effect that there is not a hamlet in Mexico of a hundred or more inhabitants without its public school, the cause of education among the bulk of the people is today at a very low ebb. It is doubtful if it stands at a higher level, so far as the poorer classes are concerned, than it was in the days of the empire of the Aztecs.

The Indians are not lacking in mental power. As a rule, they are bright in intellect and quick to learn. It is to long centuries of oppression and enslavement that they owe their present intellectual status. What they need is not brain, but opportunity. Those who have had equal chance of education have brought themselves to the level of educated whites. There are numerous examples of this among the artists, writers, and members of the learned classes in general. Politically they have in various cases risen to the highest position in the state. Witness the Indian presidents Juarez and Huerta; also Diaz, who is half Indian.

It is of interest to find that a system of compulsory education has been introduced in the army, and has even made its way into the prisons. The soldiers are very largely recruited from the Indian population and on entering the ranks are almost entirely illiterate. Instruction is given them in the primary branches of reading, writing and arithmetic, as also in history, science, drawing and singing. An inmate of the prisons, if he shows earnestness as a student, may in the end earn his freedom as a result of his progress in education. President Diaz recognized the value of education to a community when he said, "I have started a free school for boys and girls in every community in the Republic. We regard education as the foundation of our prosperity and the basis of our very existence. We have learned from Japan, what indeed we knew before, but did not realize quite clearly, that education is the one thing needful to a people."

Diaz doubtless meant what he said. Probably he believed it. But he had a large illiterate population to deal with, in great part living under conditions which stood in the way of any progress in schooling, and his good intentions have been very inadequately realized. This is especially the case with women, who, as a rule, are destitute of education; and it applies in a measure to the women of the higher classes. The, average Mexican girl has very little that can be called education. She may learn to read and write, but the scope of her: knowledge goes little farther. Only in the case of the daughters of the rich, who are sent to schools in the United States or Europe, is a more advanced education gained. But a change is coming upon the women of Mexico as it has come upon those of more advanced countries. Their old seclusion and lack of initiative is passing away, and the women of the middle class may now be seen in stores and offices or engaged in business, while they are beginning to move freely about the streets without chaperones. The suffragette has not yet invaded that country, but her coming is only a matter of time. Real manhood suffrage needs first to be won.

For those in a position to obtain the higher education there are various institutions of learning and preparatory schools free to students, in which the requirements for admission to the higher colleges and professional schools may be gained. In Mexico City there is a preparatory college or high school devoted to this purpose. For those ready for the higher branches are the Medical College, the College of Jurisprudence, devoted to law and sociology, the School of Engineering, the Academy of Fine Arts, the School of Mines, School of Agriculture, and School of Commerce, Conservatories of Music and other learned institutions. There are also Schools of Arts and Trades for the instruction of boys and girls, and Normal Colleges for men and women. These institutions are under public support and control and offer abundant opportunity for the advancement of those in a position to avail themselves of them. In the country at large there are over seventy public libraries, chief among which is the National Library in the capital, an institution containing about 300,000 volumes.

In addition to these openings for education there are a number of promising learned societies in the capital. Oldest among these is the Geographical Society, founded in 1833. Others are the Geological Society, the Society of Natural History, Academies of Medicine, Jurisprudence, Physical and Natural Science, Spanish Language, and Social Science, with several others. Museums and galleries include the Academy of San Carlos, a picture gallery with fine specimens of native and foreign art, and the National Museum, rich in objects Illustrative of history and conditions in prehistoric Mexico. Chief among its treasures is the famous Calendar Stone, a relic of high archaeological value. It holds also the Aztec Sacrificial Stone. In the garden surrounding it, and upon the stone pillars of the enclosure, are busts of Mexicans and Indians of historic fame.

The Calendar Stone is the most famous example of ancient Mexican carving, its face being profusely covered with carved designs, the significance of which remains much of a mystery, though they are supposed to have had to do with the Aztec or Toltec ideas of the flight of time. This stone forms a great circle, twelve feet in diameter and weighing 53,790 pounds. Heavy as it is, the Aztecs hauled it many miles over broken country to their capital city, where it was placed in the walls of the great temple. Many efforts have been made to decipher the significance of the carvings on this marvel of prehistoric art, but with no very satisfactory result. Mr. W. W. Blake, of Mexico City, finds in it tokens of four mythologic ages, the Age of Air, Age of Water, Age of Fire, and Age of Earth, these occupying the second large circle. What it actually means, however, will probably never be known.

This stone, with the Stone of Sacrifice, was buried by the Spanish conquerors in the Plaza, and not discovered there until 1791. It was on the latter stone that the many thousands of victims of the Aztec superstitions were sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli, the terrible God of War. This stone is circular, like the former, and is also elaborately carved, the rim containing figures showing the priests dragging victims by the hair to the place of sacrifice.

Theatre Juarez at Guantajuato


The museum has also an image of the ferocious war-god, a huge block of carved stone, with a hideous face and a fringe of snakes' heads hanging down upon the breast. The feet are in the form of a slab in which it is thought the bleeding hearts of the victims were laid as an offering to the terrible deity. There are many other idols, a notable one being that of Chac-Mol, supposed to be the God of Fire, and remarkable for its head-dress, which closely resembles that of ancient Egyptian statues. The museum contains much more of interest, both ancient and modern, and is a place of frequent resort, particularly by Indian laborers, who are probably drawn there from interest and pride in the achievements of their ancestors.

Of the public buildings in Mexico, the greatest and most spectacular are the cathedrals, of which that in the capital city is a remarkable and famous example of religious art. Most of the other large cities have churches of much grandeur in design and elaboration, indicative of the fact that religion has long had a strong hold upon the people of this country. Such was the case with the ancient Mexicans, who erected temples which are found widely throughout the country, some of which must have needed enormous labor in their construction. Idols are found in many places, of a character indicating in large measure a savage and debased conception of the deific nature.

Such was not the case with the leading Toltec deity, the mystic Quetzalcoatl, the "God of the Air," also known as "the feathered serpent." This was a beneficent deity representing a white man of noble aspect, with long beard and flowing garments. The tradition was that he had come from afar and taught the people a sane and mild religion, virtue and austerity being inculcated, and human and animal sacrifices forbidden. This strange personage is stated to have dwelt with them for twenty years, when he disappeared in the direction of the rising sun, promising to return. When Cortes and his followers appeared, the idea that he was the vanished Quetzalcoatl had much to do with the favorable reception given the Spaniards.

As for the Aztecs, with whom the invaders had to deal, their religious ideas were throughout cruel and barbarous and we cannot be surprised at the ardor with which the priests from Spain sought to replace their frightful form of worship with that of the gentle and beneficent Christ. Every effort was made to inculcate the doctrines of Christianity and with much effect, the priests not attempting the impossible task of overthrowing at once a national system of faith, but shrewdly blending the ritual of the two systems, in some cases making Christian saints of the heathen deities. In this way success was rapidly gained, and though the Indians of Mexico today keep up some of the old heathen practices, their belief in the doctrines of the Christian faith is firmly established. The priests sought in vain to stop certain pagan practices, but as these have little significance in the real mental life of the people they are looked upon as of minor importance.

The influence of the priests over the great mass of the Mexican people is very great, especially with women, men there, as elsewhere, being inclined to indifference in church matters. In past times their influence was made very great from a power which they no longer possess, the Church having grown enormously strong from its great wealth and its powerful political influence. The Inquisition, which was introduced in 1571 and was not abolished until 1812, was a powerful weapon in the hands of the Church to prevent the growth of heretical opinions or of any of ,the Protestant faiths and to hold believers under strict discipline, and for centuries the Roman Catholic clergy were leaders in power in the state.

They became, indeed, so dominant in secular as well as religious affairs and stood so decidedly in the way of progress that a natural revulsion took place. A century ago the Church of Mexico possessed enormous wealth, variously estimated at from $200,000,000 to $500,000,000. Gifts and bequests were made by all classes of the people, the best part of the farm lands had fallen into the hands of the clergy, and the Church was all powerful in political matters. Its power was exercised against the steps of development set in motion by some of the leading statesmen, and its persistent opposition began to be looked upon as an abuse against which no political progress could be made.

The sentiment of revolt brought its first results in 1833, an active antagonism having arisen between the political leaders and the clergy. The result was a series of legislative acts of a radical character, enactments being passed to curb the power of the Church. It was declared that tithes could not be collected by aid of the civil law, nor the fulfilment of monastic vows be enforced, and the Church was prohibited from interfering with public education.

This action led to the development of two political parties, the Liberal and the Conservative, dissensions between which were responsible for armed outbreaks. The form of government now existing in Mexico is that established by the Constitution of 1857, which in various respects copies that of the United States. In 1859, under the presidency of Benito Juarez, the political power of the Church was finally overthrown, reform laws being passed which completely disestablished the Church. In these radical enactments Church and State were made absolutely independent of each other, the functions and powers left to the ecclesiastic establishment being rigidly defined and limited to ecclesiastical interests. In this code of laws the property of the Church was confiscated and taken over by the State, the clergy were vigorously accused of being responsible for the sanguinary wars which devastated the country, and charged with a shameful abuse of their power and influence. In short, a complete disestablishment of the Church was made, religious freedom was proclaimed, and religious orders and institutions were abolished. Marriage, also, which had hitherto been a strictly religious ceremony, was now declared a civil contract. The priests were even forbidden to walk in the streets in clerical dress and all religious processions declared illegal. That such laws could be passed in a Roman Catholic country against the authority of the Church indicates that this authority must have been very greatly abused, since those who enacted the new laws did not cease to be adherents of the religious faith thus restricted.

As a result of the declaration of religious freedom in Mexico a number of the Protestant sects have entered that land, and there are in the city of Mexico places of worship for Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and others. In the census of 1900, while there were stated to be 13,500,000 Catholics, there were about 52,000 Protestants, with a number of Mormons, Buddhists and persons of no declared religious faith. Thus the declaration of freedom in faith and worship has evidently been sincerely carried out.

The changes made by the government in respect to religious authority in no sense have shaken the hold which the Roman Catholic faith has upon the people of the country. They were aimed solely at the political power and undue wealth of the Church, not at its authority in things spiritual. There are probably today more places of religious worship in Mexico, differences of population being considered, than in any other Roman Catholic country in the world, and it is very evident that the control of the Church over men's religious thoughts and moral characters is not weakened by the abolition of the political control of the clergy. As for the latter, efforts have been made to regain for the Church some of its old political autocracy, but in vain, the advanced Liberal feeling in the country being bitterly opposed to any such dominance of the clergy. In localities even the ringing of the church bells is prohibited, while the law against religious processions generally holds good. In 1906 a venturesome priest sought to defy this and led such a procession through the streets. As a result he was promptly arrested and taken to prison in his full priestly vestments. Some of his congregation later released him, but he did not try the procession plan again.

As regards the essentials of modern civilization, Mexico is making progress, but it is still far from the high attainments of various other countries. One of the main essentials, one necessary to any rapid advance in civilization, that of a liberal education, is still in a very primitive condition. It has been shown that there are opportunities for a good education in the capital city for those able to take advantage of them. But these are the few, and the public school system of the country does not seem to have reached any large proportion of the people, if we may judge by the widely prevailing ignorance.

Some of the laws also indicate anything but high civilization. One of these is the enactment enabling debtors to be held subject to the will of creditors, one which, as we have seen, has led to glaring abuses. There is another law alike barbarous in its application, that which permits the police or military to shoot down a fleeing prisoner. This has been freely applied to get rid of political opponents. One instance is that of the recent shooting of Gustave Madero on the transparent fiction that he was seeking to escape. A similar excuse has been offered to palliate the murder of President Madero.

Here is a story in point. An agitator against the Diaz rule was arrested. The case was one in which there could be no serious charge brought against him, and it seemed adviable to dispose of him quietly. The method of the Law of Flight was employed. On his way to prison under guard the train slowed down between two stations, and the officers in charge of the culprit suggested to him that he might escape.

"Not I," he cried; "I have heard of that trick long ago. Here I stay."

The officer and his aids, in the end, seized the prisoner and flung him from the car, so that he rolled down the bank to where opportunely stood a lieutenant of the rurales  and a squad of men.

"I was warned you would try to escape," said the lieutenant.

"But they flung me off the car," said the poor culprit. "That excuse will not serve. You have three minutes for your prayers."

While he was saying them he was shot in the back.

"We have such disagreeable work to do," said the lieutenant afterwards.

We cannot vouch fully for this incident, but have quoted it from what appears to be good authority.

Imprisonment for political reasons, and especially the haling to prison of editors who have ventured to comment, even mildly, upon something which the administration wished to keep quiet, are far from being evidence of advanced civilization in Mexico. Certainly the method of dealing with trade unionists who are daring enough to strike, of which we have given some examples, is far from those pursued in enlightened countries.

In fact, Mexico, for a century past, has been a land in a state of anarchy, not a seat of enlightenment. Like the Latin-American states in general, armed outbreak, rebellion, shooting of prisoners, anarchy in every form have been the rule in that country for a century past, with very few periods of internal peace. And while the leading South American republics, Argentina and Chile in particular, have left that epoch in the rear and settled down to quiet constitutional government, Mexico for the past few years has been in a state of turmoil and bloodshed of a most barbarous and disheartening type. It is true that, under the rule of President Diaz, peace had a long reign. But this was not the peace of law and civilization, but the quiet enforced by an autocrat under the guise of a president, with an army at his beck and call and a stern hand on the least whisper of dissent.

Cigarette factory in Mexico City.


There has been much enterprise in Mexico of late years, but it is the enterprise of foreigners, aided by foreign capital, and engaged in developing the vast natural riches which the Mexicans have shown little ability or purpose to handle. This includes the great mining enterprises, the railroad building, the installation of trolley lines and electric lights in cities, the exploitation of oil deposits and various other lines of enterprise.

Manufactures are developing to some extent in Mexico, but under foreign initiative. The machinery comes from America and Europe and the methods are taught by foreigners. Commerce is largely conducted under the same conditions. Indeed, farming on large estates and the raising of cattle on broad ranches are the most active evidences of Mexican enterprise that appear. As for the latter, the Mexican is a born cowboy. His prowess on horseback cannot be surpassed. But in farming enterprises he is distinctly backward, using obsolete implements and failing to get a tithe of the product the land is capable of producing. On the whole it may be said that Mexico, while on the road to modern civilization, has not yet arrived.