Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 21

Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer



Let us return in this letter from the Past to the Present.

The 28th of August was the festival of the Virgin of Remedios, and, accompanied by some friends, I went to an Indian village of that name about nine miles from the city, upon the first rise of the western mountains from the plain of the valley. In passing through the suburb of St. Cosmé, (where many of the pleasantest residences in Mexico are situated, surrounded by tasteful gardens and fountains supplied by the adjacent aqueduct,) the house of M. Mairet, the Swiss Consul, was pointed out to us.

This gentleman was a person of fortune, and lived at St. Cosmé in a tasteful little bachelor establishment, where, according to the custom of this bankless country, he usually kept his money. Most of the dwellings in this quarter are strongly built, and the windows are generally protected by iron bars, so that it would be difficult for robbers to effect an entrance, especially as the occupants usually keep a couple of strong and fierce dogs in the patio and on the azotéa.

One day, however, a coach drove to the front gate about noon, and a man, dressed in the habit of a priest with broad shovel-hat, descended from it accompanied by two others, and stated to the servant who admitted them, that they were exceedingly anxious to procure from Mr. Mairet a skin of parchment, in which article, I believe, he chiefly dealt. As soon as they were admitted within the gate, they locked it, seized the servant, tied him to a pillar, and gagged him. They then proceeded to the house, where they found Mairet alone. They attacked him with knives, cut and wounded him severely, and forced him to disclose the place where be concealed his money. Having got possession of it, and rifled the house of everything valuable, they fled. Poor Mairet died of his wounds; and the robbers (but one of who was discovered, tried and executed,) escaped with ten thousand dollars.

This is one instance only of the crimes that are even yet often committed throughout the Republic.

In the year 1824, during the high times of old-fashioned bigotry in Mexico, a murder of the most appalling character occurred.

An American named Hayden resided there, and followed the trade of a shoemaker. He was a Protestant, but carefully observed all proper and decorous respect for the Catholic ceremonies and institutions of the country. One day, the Host was passing his house to the dwelling of some dying person, with all the usual pomp and parade of ringing bells and chanting boys; and, as the shops are generally open to the street, Hayden quietly arose from his work-bench, and coming forward, knelt on the sill of his door. He had scarcely prostrated himself, when a person (who is believed to have been an officer,) accosted him, demanding in a rude tone "why he did not advance into the street and kneel?" Hayden replied, that he thought it proper for him to kneel where he was. Scarcely had he uttered this when the soldier laid his hand on the hilt of his sword as if to draw. Hayden perceived this, and stepped toward his counter to seize a boot-tree for defence; but before he could reach it, the soldier had plunged his sword through the poor man's back, directly into the heart, and he fell dead on the spot.

An American, who was in the shop at the time, rushed to arrest the murderer and give the alarm, but the villain had fled—the crowd closed round him, no one pursued, and no one took means to recognize him!

Nor was this all. Difficulty was first experienced in obtaining permission from the authorities to bury our unfortunate countryman; next, no coachman would take the body in his carriage, and the Consul was obliged to receive it in his private coach; next, the funeral procession was pursued by a crowd, which, gathering in formidable numbers as the train moved along the streets of Plateros and San Francisco, pelted it with stones and other missiles, until Mr. Black (who is now our Consul in Mexico,) was obliged to halt the procession at the Accordada, and ask a guard of soldiers from the commanding officer as an escort to the grave at Chapultepec. The guard was given, ordered to load with ball-cartridges, and as they departed the officer exclaimed—"Blessed is the land where there are no friars!"

Notwithstanding the presence of the guard, the Consul was struck on the breast by a stone while reading the solemn service at the grave.

Crowds had followed the funeral from the city, even to the distant graveyard; and when they returned, it was rumored among the léperos that the "American had been buried with a quantity of clothing, bottles of wine, and money to pay the expenses of his journey." This superstitious tale had the due effect; and although a man had been hired to watch the grave, yet soon after the interment it was broken open, and the body was found stripped of its clothes and flung naked on the ground. A reward of $2000 was offered by the foreigners, but no traces of the murderer or of the human hyenas were ever discovered.


I was particularly tempted to witness the celebration of this festival, because it was strictly an Indian one, in which many of the old superstitions of the tribes were mingled with the Catholic rites.

The morning was beautiful, and, although there had been much rain the preceding night, the roads were dry and hard, and the whole face of nature looked sweet and clean. The road swarmed with people. The majority of these was of course composed of females, scarcely one of whom (from thirteen upward,) was without a baby strapped to her back; and all jogged along in that little trot which is peculiar to the movement of the Indians.

click on this image to enlarge it.

indian women and infants.

Besides these, there were files of arrieros; crowds of Indians, with charcoal in huge panniers on their backs; others with turkies; asses laden with hay—the hay covering the whole of the little animal so completely, that at a short distance he looked like a self-moving stack. Then, again, there was a better class of the natives, who had contrived to hire a couple of planks covered with a mat-awning, swung upon wheels, in the shafts of which they drove a lean and half-starved mule,—while among the crowd dashed our postillion, with his antediluvian vehicle. We were; in fact, the only foreigners on the road, except a band of valiant French hair-dressers, who, taking advantage of the holiday, had sallied forth with brightly shining guns and bloodless bags, to do execution on an army of snipes that lay behind its intrenchments of marsh and grass.

The feast, I have said, is purely Indian in its celebration at this shrine. You will remember when the Spaniards were expelled from the city—on that dreadful evening, which has since passed into history by the name of the "noche triste," or "sad night—that they retreated through the village of Tacuba, then an Indian town of some importance, and encamped on the adjacent heights. Some of the forces strayed still farther westward, and, quitting the shores of the lake, slept on the first rise of the mountains. There they passed a panic-struck night, and in the morning, a small doll, which had dropped from the knapsack of a Spanish soldier, (the bruised relic, doubtless, of some pet baby he had left at home,) was found on a maguey, or aloe. Lo! it was proclaimed, by the finder, to be a miraculous image of the Holy Virgin—a token of approaching success and safety—and the doll was thenceforward sanctified! When the Spanish power became firmly fixed in Mexico, a church was built on the spot of the miraculous visit, and the shrine was endowed with the votive offerings of the wealthy and superstitious.

Having appeared to the soldiers just at the critical moment, she was called the Virgin of "Remedios," or Remedies—and from that day to this, she has been regarded as the special patroness of the ill, the unhappy, the sorrowful, and unlucky. If the "rainy season" does not come soon enough for the hopes of the Indian farmer, so that he can raise his corn, and frijoles, she is prayed to. If it lasts too long, she is besought. If the small-pox, cholera, or fevers rage, she is the pious medicine; and ever with success, because her image is generally brought to the infected district, from her healthy mountain country-seat, when the malady is abating. It is said, however, that there was a mistake about her in the case of the last small-pox that prevailed in the Capital. She was produced too soon! The convalescent came to return thanks; those who had it in its incipient state, to be relieved; and the healthful, to be spared entirely—the result was, a frightful spreading of the infection among the multitudes who prostrated themselves before the image.

The church has, of course, made a fine revenue out of this miraculous power of the Virgin; and I have been told that she was frequently rented out to the different parishes, at the rate of five or seven thousand dollars per diem, according to the emergency of the matter, and the faculty of the inhabitants to pay. Disease being the most selfish of all demands upon a man's purse, he will more readily rid himself of its attacks by a fee and a prayer, than by a doctor and a nauseous dose. A piece of painted wood and an opportune ejaculation, are much more palatable than the nostrum and long face of even the kindest physician.

After passing through the village of Tacuba, (now only remarkable for a few Indian remains, among which are part of a Mexican pyramid, in the rear of a fine church erected by Cortéz, and a noble cypress, doubtless of the days of Montezuma,) we ascended the hill among the increasing crowd of people on foot, in carts, on mules and horses. The church is surrounded by a few miserable huts of adobe, which scarcely merit the name of a village; and as we approached the edifice we were forced to leave our carriage, on account of the dense crowd of léperos and Indians. I am confident, that not less than seven thousand were then upon the spot.

There was but a narrow path to the church-gate, and on each aide of it were stalls, tables, and mats of the humbler classes, covered with fruits, dried meats, and pulque—the latter of which, from the glibness of the tongue and the incessant hum of voices around, must have been pretty freely circulated. Gamblers, too, were not wanting: there was one fellow with his dice, and a dozen with monté—balls rolling; cards shuffling; venders crying their merchandise; Indians chattering in the Mexican and Ottomy dialects; the yell of a thousand squalling babies—and the bells tolling! All combined to make a perfect Babel of noise, yet I am in considerable doubt whether my ears suffered more than my olfactories.

I shouldered my way through the crowd, and entered the large courtyard in front of the church, which has once been a tasteful edifice, surrounded by a corridor, with a roof supported by stout columns, inclosing a beautiful garden. All is now in ruins, and the pillars of half the corridor lie in heaps in the corners, filled with filth and rubbish, with gigantic aloes growing in their crannies.

From the steeple of the church to the top of the gateway, five ropes were stretched, and a large flower made of silk, in the shape of a pomegranate, was ascending and descending on each of them, drawn up and let down by men stationed on the azotéa of the edifice. Among these flowers was an image of Juan Diego, the virtuous Indian to whom the Virgin presented the miraculous picture, which is now in the Sanctuary of Guadalupe. Juan, I imagine, was a sort of invited guest from one Virgin to the other, and seemed to enjoy himself vastly as he was jerked up and down on the rope by the Indians, who varied their task by an occasional pull at the bells.

When we entered the church mass had not yet begun, and the edifice was comparatively empty. Indeed, I did not find it (except once during the day) very crowded with Indians, who seemed better satisfied with their goat-meat and pulque in the fresh air out of doors.

The altar and the rail around it were, as usual, made of the precious metals, and aloft was placed an image of the Virgin, in a rich tabernacle. Candles were lighted around it, and some persons were chanting a service accompanied by the organ, while the Indians, in their rags, spread themselves in kneeling groups over the floor. We passed into the sacristy where we met two Augustine monks, who were engaged in baptizing or blessing a dirty Indian baby. The mother—in her torn tilma and petticoat reaching to her knees—knelt before the padre holding the child, who amused itself by playing with his reverence's robe while the requisite prayer was recited. The father—in his leather breeches and torn blanket—meanwhile leaned against the wall, twirling his tattered hat, with open mouth, and eyes in a stupid stare of pious wonderment. As soon as the monk had concluded the service, he stepped forward, handed him a couple of cents, and both parents, with a sort of adoring kiss bestowed on the friar's hand, departed. Our party comprised the only whites in that crowd of thousands.

As soon as the padrecitos had got through their ceremonies over two or three more babies, and received their copper fees, Mr. Black mentioned to them our desire to see the figure of the Virgin. A sacristan was immediately sent to conduct us to the room back of the altar, where, mounting to the tabernacle, and peeping cautiously around the shrine, so as not to be seen by the congregation in the body of the church, we caught a glimpse of the figure. It is a beautiful waxen-faced doll, about a foot high, in a stiff satin dress, sticking out very much at the bottom as if with hoops, and the whole figure rests on an aloe of solid silver. I observed some pearls on the dress which had a very waxen look, together with some diamonds, that seemed quite as brilliant as if they had been manufactured in Paris by the dozen. When I descended, I expressed my surprise to the half-breed attending us, who (with a very significant smile, and that indescribable motion of the long forefinger slowly from right to left, peculiar to the Mexicans, and which is as much as to say, "You know nothing about it,") explained the mystery. The real image was not there! Diamonds, doll, pearls, petticoats, emeralds, and all the other finery had been taken to the Cathedral; and he intimated, that in these revolutionary times so much wealth was more secure within hail of the palace sentinels, than amid the lonely wastes of this mountain church. Besides which, he hinted that the present figure was handsomer, newer, and, on the whole, good enough for the Indians; who adored it with quite as much fervor, and quite as successfully as the famed original.

We sallied forth from the chapel as the mass commenced. Gradually the church began to fill with the half-naked Indian crowd. Deputations of natives from the different villages next arrived, bearing their offerings of flowers and wax candles to the Virgin, headed by a band of Indian musicians with their tom-tom drum and flageolets, making a low monotonous music. The offerings were taken to the altar, under banners made of flowers; and after a wild dance of the Indians to their music before the image, they were deposited in the sacristy. A constant succession of these oblations poured in until near two o'clock; when the morning services being finished, the image was taken from the tabernacle and placed under a canopy, while a priest bore the consecrated wafer, and the procession began its march. All heads were at once uncovered, and I went to the upper story of the church to have a better view of the ceremony. At the door of the church stood a ragged Indian, with a large firework on his head, made in the shape of a horse, surrounded with squibs and rockets; behind him were five men and a woman from one of the villages, neatly dressed, their heads being covered with red silk or cotton handkerchiefs. The men bore thin staves in their hands, and small coops, made of cane, were strapped on their backs. The woman held a covered basket before her, and one of the men thrummed a guitar, giving forth the same monotonous tune of the flageolets and drum. As soon as the procession reached the portal, the whole crowd knelt, and a number of small rockets and cannons were fired by the Indians. The huge flowers—which I have before described as ascending and descending on ropes from the church tower to the gate—were pulled open by a secret spring, and a shower of rose leaves fell from them over the passing priests and images. Juan Diego's knees were bent by some equally secret machinery, and he continued on his slack-rope pilgrimage through the air. The flageolet and the drum were once more put into requisition, and the Indian with the horse-firework, accompanied by six others, began retreating in a trotting dance as the holy image approached— whirling and hopping to the barbarous music, ever careful to keep their faces to the Virgin. Suddenly, an Indian stole behind the one who bore aloft the firework, and touched its match. At this moment the bells began to chime,—and thus, amid their clang, the detonation of the squibs, cannons and rockets, and the loud cracking of the exploding horse, the procession sallied from the court-yard to the village, to make a tour of the plaza among the gamblers, pulque shops, and fruit- sellers; all of whom suspended their operations for the moment, and knelt to the sacred figure.

After the return of the Virgin to the church, there was another grand explosion of fireworks on a wheel, and more cannons were discharged. The multitude then gathered together in groups, and made their frugal meal of fruits, dulce, tortillas, and the never-failing frijoles and chilé. By four o'clock, the majority of the Indians had trotted off once more to their villages, some of which were at a distance of not less than twenty or thirty miles.

The whole of the ceremony of this day, seemed to me nothing more than an Indian “corn-dance;" and it is, no doubt, among the simple- minded Indians, a festival of thankfulness to God for the crops with which the bountiful seasons have blessed them; in other words, a substitute for the sacrifices which they once made of fruits, flowers, and birds, to their goddess Centeotl.

The fault is in the permission of these idolatrous rites, before the mock image of another image; although it may perhaps be urged, that as the Catholic is the "blending of the rituals of many nations," there is no harm in these innocent Indians being allowed to mix up the relics of the worship of their fathers, so long as the whole service is offered in honor of the ever living God.

During the morning, I climbed to the top of the church tower, through a swarm of Indians, who were hived in a set of mud-floored rooms around the inner court, and the upper portion of the sacred edifice, which they were allowed to occupy as a sort of public caravanserai during the period of their pilgrimage. Such masses of dirt, filth, and personal impurity, it is difficult even to imagine; and I am happy to say, that with the exception of the festival at Guadalupe, it was the only exhibition of the sort that I saw of the Indians while in Mexico.

But I was repaid for my disgust on reaching the top of the church tower. The view was magnificent, as is, indeed, almost, every prospect from the heights in this valley. The church stands alone, on the bleak unsheltered side of a mountain. Behind it the steeps rise rapidly, with deep glens descending from them, watered by many streams, and spanned, in wild and solitary grandeur, by a lofty aqueduct of fifty arches. But to the east lay the lovely valley—its plain—its silvery lakes—and turreted city nestling on its borders; while, far in the distance, more than fifty miles away, rose the gray volcanoes, capped with their eternal snows and clouds.

I cannot conclude an account of this Indian scene, without offering my testimony in favor of the temper and temperance of the natives. In all the scenes of that day, spent among so many thousand Indians, I saw but three or four at all intoxicated. There was neither fighting, nor quarrelling; but all seem to have met together for the purpose of an annual frolic, and all carried it out in that pleasant spirit. The most tipsy man in the crowd was the Corregidor—an old, lazy, leather-breeched savage, who trotted among the multitude all day long, lecturing the Indians on sobriety and good behavior. It was his misfortune, however, that the duties of his station carried him more frequently to the pulque shops than elsewhere, nor was he allowed to quit them without a parting glass, to which he was pressed by the numerous friends with whom all great men are afflicted. I left him hiccuping a lesson, and winking his eyes very slowly at an old Indian; who, having been his predecessor in office, had fallen into disgrace from the potency of pulque. It was the fatal misfortune of all the Corregidors!

I told you, in the previous part of these letters, that the true Virgin had been removed to the Cathedral in Mexico; and that she stands in that temple on her shrine of silver, enjoying the title to three petticoats embroidered with pearls, diamonds and emeralds.

If she possesses the power to cure the maladies of others, she has not, alas! the skill to heal her own. She is in a most dilapidated condition!

Her whole height is not more than a foot, but you cannot number the scratches, knocks, and bruises, that her poor little frame has suffered! Her color is gone—both her eyes, I believe, are out—her nose is knocked off, and there is rather a large hole in one corner of her mouth. The padres declare, that all who attempt to repair her charms sicken and die. Indeed, in the midst of all her finery and ornaments, she reminds one of some shrew of a spinster, who, after wasting her stock of charms on a thoughtless world, makes up for them on every public occasion, by a display of lace and diamonds, hiding, if possible, each wrinkle by a gem.