A Mexican Diary -- Part I
By Ernest L. White
November 10, 1881 - December 15, 1956
Hampton, New Hampshire
Up in my attic, pushed far back under the eaves and covered with cob-webs and dust, is an old trunk, and if you were curious enough to pull it out into the light and untie its binding of coarse rope and lift the creaking lid, you would see what to you might seem like a queer collection even for a New England attic.
A Mexican serape, or manta (blanket), a stained pair of leather pants, still showing their elaborate decorations, an Indian dress, a tall, crowned, wide-brimmed hat with a few little bells still clinging to it, a machete, a dirk, a little tin lamp, some tin tags with half obliterated Mexican names on them, a piece of snake skin or two, a carved coconut black as jet, an armadillo shell, a big revolver or pistola, and cartridge-belt, and a well-worn pair of leather sandals. But why numerate all these things? As I look over your shoulder I can see many more things, things that you cannot see. A muddy river winding between high mountains, a poled walled shack with a thatched roof and dirt floor, set in a tiny clearing surrounded by rank tropical jungle. Mules and burros, naked children and hairless dogs, razor backed hogs, and a motley flock of fowl intermingling in the tiny yard and clearing. All this I can see and more, much more.
Now lift out that old horse-hair bridle and rope, and those silver-mounted spurs with the tarnished mountings, and you will find a book, a note-book and letters, yes, a diary, all yellow, stained and torn -- and if you could decipher the writing now faded and blurred, perhaps you too could see the things I see, hear the strange noises, smell the strange smells, and odors that the contents of this old trunk brings to me as I idly scan the pages and notes of this diary or journal written over fifty years ago by a young gringo on a Mexican coffee and rubber plantation.
Fifty years, you say, is a long time. To the young it is. But to those who have passed man's allotted time of three score years and ten it seems but as yesterday.
Let me quote to you some of the entries in this old diary or journal as it lies before me, and write of the memories and pictures these old entries bring back to me.
Mexico City, 1902
Got up early and after a good breakfast, started out to find an interpreter. We need one all right. Many of the stores in the English quarter have an English-speaking clerk and one gets along after a fashion if he is good at the sign language, but an interpreter is a mighty comfort. We have the address of one Gonazalo Ledesma, recommended by Mr. Ellis; but as we were not sure we could get him we inserted an ad in the Mexican Herald. It's funny how you can find your way around even if you can't speak the language. We walked up to a policeman and showed him the address of the party we wanted, written in Spanish, of course. He jabbered to us for about five minutes and then pointed. We ignored the talk but paid strict attention to his motions. Little by little we gained on our objective until the last person we asked pointed to a court-yard close to us. We entered, and several small children stopped playing and ran toward the doorways while others stood still and stared at us. One, bolder than the rest, approached us and spoke in a friendly voice. We thought she said "good morning"; and not to be outdone by such a small miss, Bob tried to repeat the words she had used. It was a tongue twister and Bob did not make much of a success of it evidently, for she looked at him in amazement for a second and then fled laughing to the house. We looked around trying to think of some way to inquire for the man we wanted, ashamed to think such little tots could speak Spanish and we could not. I saw a woman coming toward us and a happy thought struck me. I wrote the address of Sr. Gonazalo Ledesma on a card and underneath, a request that he call at Porter's Hotel. I passed it to the woman and after much pointing at the name on the card and at the house made her understand what we wanted. We departed feeling that we had done well, never thinking that perhaps the woman could not read. Even the interpreters can not always read or write Spanish or English, but are merely on speaking acquaintance with the languages, so to speak. But to prove that our judgment was good (or that luck was with us) Ledesma showed up this evening.
I shall call this day interpreter day. We have had a regular deluge of applicants for the position. Old men and horse men, native Mexicans, Americans, Englishmen and Germans. We never dreamed there would be so many answers to our ad. The work only pays $40.00 a month, but all seemed eager to get it; that is, until we told them where we were going, then some of them, mostly the Mexicans, shrugged their shoulders, muttered something about the hot country and the fever, and lost interest. Bob has about decided to engage Ledesma, I guess, but rather likes to interview the others just the same. It makes one stop and ponder a bit, to see so many Americans and Englishmen stranded here, willing to do most any honest work, if they can only earn money enough to take them back home.
After dinner I strolled into a beautiful park and watched the people passing. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, (and for all I know, thief) were represented. Beautiful carriages rolled by in which were men and gaily dressed women, an endless procession of them, each, it seemed, trying to outdo the other in haughtiness. Occasionally a Don in full Mexican dress astride a beautiful horse, with saddle and bridle covered with silver and gold, all sparkling in the sunshine, rode by. Little groups of men of the poorer class stood motionless here and there, wrapped to their eyes in their bright-colored blankets, with great felt or straw hats on which were hung little bells or silver cords. Ledesma tells me the Mexican thinks more of his hat than any other part of his clothes, The poor peons (day laborers) generally go barefoot or at best with only sandals on their feet, go weaving in and out amongst the crowds, with gigantic loads on their backs. How they can stagger along with such heavy burdens, is beyond me. I saw four of these men going up the street with a piano balanced on their backs. How they held it there and dodged the traffic I don't know or understand.
We must rely on Doctor Harcourt for this information. He is to meet us at El Hule, the railroad-station nearest to the plantation, and we can purchase our supplies at Tuxtepec, where the company does its trading. But we bought numerous personal things and a lot of ammunition and medical supplies here and I certainly enjoyed it all.
I bought for myself a most gaudy Mexican outfit; fawn-colored leather pants trimmed with white braid and leather buttons and with a most beautiful flare at the bottom, and all the other fixings that go with a Mexican suit.
We visited the pawn-shop run by the government, a large, three-story affair full of unredeemed articles of all descriptions. We spent a long time here most interestingly. There were all kinds of household wares.
We were after a real Indian handwoven blanket but failed to find it and had to be content with a machine-made one. After purchasing our outfits we did a little sightseeing and Ledesma told us of some of the customs of the country many different dialects spoken in Mexico, he says, so I guess I'd better wait until I get on the plantation before I begin learning Spanish! I am a mighty poor scholar in this line, but Bob is plugging away at it and does quite well.
Tonight at 9:45 we start for the plantation. We go to Cordoba and change there for the Vera Cruz and Pacific R. R. to El Hule, our nearest station. This line is not complete yet and they tell us to reconcile ourselves to some discomforts. We have been having a pretty easy, comfortable time so far, plenty to eat and drink and nice quarters, but after leaving Cordoba, I expect things will be different. The climate here is nearly perfect now, but according to all accounts where we are going it is going to be hot and in a few months the rainy season will come on, bringing lots of disagreeable things in its wake. I suppose lots of the stories we are told are exaggerated. It's natural to stuff a "tenderfoot". I am on edge to get started once more.
9:00 P.M. Here we are, on board the train. Ledesma is bidding his family and friends goodbye on the platform. There are fifteen of them altogether and there is much weeping and embracing. The men folks embrace him as much as the women. It's funny to see two grown men fondly hugging one another and tenderly patting each other on the back. Ledesma enters red-eyed and weeping and a long wail goes up from his dear ones. We have started. Tomorrow when the sun rises we will be in Cordoba and then will begin real adventure perhaps.
We were up at break of day. It's the last time I'll sleep in a pull-man for a long while. We rolled into Cordoba at 5:30, gathered up our baggage and stepped into a world even stranger than the one we had just left. Even at this early hour the station was crowded and the food venders were everywhere. We struck out for the Vera Cruz and Pacific Station. Mexicans and Indians were coming from all directions and heading for the station, as we were. Mothers with nursing babies, fathers with a procession of children of all ages, scantily clad and barefooted and quite a sprinkling of Indians who seemed to keep apart from the general throng. It's the first time I have seen much of the Indians of Mexico. They have a darker skin than the Mexicans and dress a little different. Where the Mexican man wears a cotton shirt, and drawers with a gathering string at the waist and a large hat, the Indian as a rule scorns the hat and is content to let his long hair answer that purpose, and often his only clothing is a pair of drawers rolled well above his knees. The Indian women wear a large, roomy garment, without sleeves, falling straight from the shoulders, without a waistline. These garments are handmade, dyed and covered with designs and pictures of animals woven in with no small skill. They carry their belongings in enormous handkerchiefs made of the same material as the women's dress but not quite so elaborate.
Mexican women's clothing consists of a skirt, sleeveless waist and shawl. Nearly all had a bundle of food and a gourd or two of something to drink. We were mystified as to where all this crowd could be going, until Ledesma told us that it was some saint's day and they were on their way to Santa Cruz to offer their little bundles of sacred wood to the Virgin. Arriving at the station, which looked like a large barn made of rough boards, we managed, after a lot of football tactics, to procure tickets. We saw a rurale, (mounted policeman) putting up a poster. Ledesma told us it was a reward for the capture, dead or alive, of the murderers of a conductor on the train yesterday. He was stabbed full of holes by two men, when he tried to collect their tickets. Hope it will not be repeated while we are on the train. All the railroad officials and help were heavily armed, as were scores of others and so we rather awkwardly buckled on our revolvers outside our clothes like the rest.
These rurales have been recruited in some instances from former brigands and are very efficient. They look more Indian than Mexican. Few evil-doers escape them when once they get on their trail, so we are told, and their prisoners are seldom brought in alive. President Diaz organized this efficient band years ago when he was first elected President (or perhaps elected himself) to put down the outlaws that infested the country.
We pushed and crowded our way into a seat and patiently waited for the train to start. It was getting hot.
9:00 A. M. We have been on our way an hour and the scenery is very interesting. Lots of bananas growing by the track; little, thatch-roofed shacks; herds of cattle in the clearings; great patches of dark, dense tropical vegetation; flocks of parrots here and there. The ground is spotted with butterflies and over all a most suffocating heat. Our train does not run smoothly. We are going very slowly, with numerous stops. it is a mixed train but the freight cars are covered with passengers, as is the engine. Many stops are made to load firewood for the engine, and at every atop passengers pile on and off. The doorways have long ceased to be used, the windows being more direct exits and time savers. One car, loaded with ties, keeps getting off the rails and is pried and lifted back time and again with much good-natured help from the passengers. The atmosphere is stifling and the odor in the car rank. Women sit in the aisles, nursing their crying babies. Small children have taken off their clothes and are going around naked. Most every one is eating and drinking, mostly drinking. We have nothing to eat or drink and my mouth feels as if full of cotton-batting, and how my head aches.
At one time a woman perched herself on the back of the seat between Bob and me and calmly nursed her infant. I suppose I am not "gallant" when I say her feet that rested for support and balance between us were not exactly dainty or over clean and the perfume she used was not agreeable, being as you might say, just natural.
Occasionally we come to a station, which is only a boxcar set on a siding, but lots of times the train stops and takes on passengers where there is not a sign of a settlement. How are we going to know when we get to El Hule, I wonder? There is no train crew, that I have seen so far, except for one fellow who came around a short time ago and demanded our tickets. He was dressed like an ordinary mozo, but no doubt was the conductor. He was heavily armed, with revolver on each hip and a long knife strapped under his left arm. I suppose this arsenal is to discourage any one from duplicating yesterday's performance, and I wonder how much these revolvers, seen everywhere, are really needed.
Late in the afternoon most of the passengers got off and started for the shrine at Santa Cruz. What a relief to be able to stand up and stretch our legs and get a decent breath. Shortly after, the train passed over what we identified as the Papaloapan River and as we knew our station was the next stop, we gathered up our belongings.