Six Months In Mexico/Chapter 5

Six Months In Mexico  (1889)  by Nellie Bly

either; the half-clad Indian has as much room on the Fifth Avenue of Mexico as the millionaire's wife—not but what that land, as this, bows to wealth.

Policemen occupy the center of the street at every termination of a block, reminding one, as they look down the streets, of so many posts. They wear white caps with numbers on, blue suits, and nickel buttons. A mace now takes the place of the sword of former days. At night they don an overcoat and hood, which makes them look just like the pictures of veiled knights. Red lanterns are left in the street where the policemen stood during the daytime, while they retire to some doorway where, it is said, they sleep as soundly as their brethren in the States.

Every hour they blow a whistle like those used by by those on the next posts. Thus they know all is well. In small towns they call out the time of night, ending up with tiempo serono (all serene), from which the Mexican youth, with some mischievous Yankeeism, have named them Seronos.



In Mexico, as in all other countries, the average tourist rushes to the cathedrals and places of historic note, wholly unmindful of the most intensely interesting feature the country contains—the people.

Street scenes in the City of Mexico form a brilliant and entertaining panorama, for which no charge is made. Even photographers slight this wonderful picture. If you ask for Mexican scenes they show you cathedrals, saints, cities and mountains, but never the wonderful things that are right under their eyes daily. Likewise, journalists describe this cathedral, tell you the age of that one, paint you the beauties of another, but the people, the living, moving masses that go so far toward making the population of Mexico, are passed by with scarce a mention.

It is not a clean, inviting crowd, with blue eyes and sunny hair I would take you among, but a short, heavy-set people with almost black skins, topped off with the blackest eyes and masses of raven hair. Their lives are as dark as their skins and hair, and are invaded by no hope that through effort their lives may amount to some-thing.

Nine women out of ten in Mexico have babies. When at a very tender age, so young as five days, the babies are completely hidden in the folds of the rebozo and strung to the mother’s back, in close proximity to the
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mammoth baskets of vegetables on her head and suspended on either side of the human freight. When the babies get older their heads and feet appear, and soon they give their place to another or share their quarters, as it is no unusual sight to see a woman carry three babies at one time in her rebozo. They are always good. Their little coal black eyes gaze out on what is to be their world, in solemn wonder. No baby smiles or babyish tears are ever seen on their faces. At the earliest date they are old, and appear to view life just as it is to them in all its blackness.

They know no home, they have no school, and before they are able to talk they are taught to carry bundles on their heads or backs, or pack a younger member of the family while the mother carries merchandise, by which she gains a living. Their living is scarcely worth such a title. They merely exist. Thousands of them are born and raised on the streets. They have no home and were never in a bed. Going along the streets of the city late at night, you will find dark groups huddled in the shadows, which, on investigation, will turn out to be whole families gone to bed. They never lie down, but sit with their heads on their knees, and so pass the night.

When they get hungry they seek the warm side of the street and there, hunkering down, devour what they scraped up during the day, consisting of refused meats and offal boiled over a handful of charcoal. A fresh tortilla is the sweetest of sweetbreads. The men appear very kind and are frequently to be seen with the little ones tied up in their serape.

Groups of these at dinner would furnish rare studies for Rodgers. Several men and women will be walking
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along, when suddenly they will sit down in some sunny spot on the street. The women will bring fish or a lot of stuff out of a basket or poke, which is to constitute their coming meal. Meanwhile the men, who also sit flat on the street, will be looking on and accepting their portion like well-bred, dogs.

This type of life, be it understood, is the lowest in Mexico, and connects in no way with the upper classes. The Mexicans are misrepresented, most wrongfully so. They are not lazy, but just the opposite. From early dawn until late at night they can be seen filling their different occupations. The women sell papers and lottery tickets.

"See here, child," said a gray-haired lottery woman in Spanish. "Buy a ticket. A sure chance to get $10,000 for twenty-five cents." Being told that we had no faith in lotteries, she replied: "Buy one; the Blessed Virgin will bring you the money."

The laundry women, who, by the way, wash clothes whiter and iron them smoother even than the Chinese, carry the clothes home unwrapped. That is, they carry their hands high above their head, from which stream white skirts, laces, etc., furnishing a most novel and interesting sight.

"The saddest thing I ever saw," said Mr. Theo. Gestefield "among all the sad things in Mexico, was an incident that happened when I first arrived here. Noticing a policeman talking to a boy around whom a crowd of dusky citizens had gathered, I, true to journalistic instinct went up to investigate. The boy, I found, belonged to one of the many families who do odd jobs in day time for a little food, and sleep at night in some dark corner. Strung to the boy's back was a dying baby. Its little eyes were half closed in death. The crowd watched, in breathless fascination, its last slow gasps. The boy had no home to go to, he knew not where to find his parents at that hour of the day, and there he stood, while the babe died in its cradle, his serape. In my newspaper career I have witnessed many sad scenes, but I never saw anything so heartrending as the death of that little innocent."

Tortillas is not only one of the great Mexican dishes but one of the women's chief industries. In almost any street there can be seen women on their knees mashing corn between smooth stones, making it into a batter, and finally shaping it into round, flat cakes. They spit on their hands to keep the dough from sticking, and bake in a pan of hot grease, kept boiling by a few lumps of charcoal. Rich and poor buy and eat them, apparently unmindful of the way they are made. But it is a bread that Americans must be educated to. Many surprise the Mexicans by refusing even a taste after they see the bakers.

There are some really beautiful girls among this low class of people. Hair three quarters the length of the women, and of wonderful thickness, is common. It is often worn loose, but more frequently in two long plaits. Wigmakers find no employment here. The men wear long, heavy bangs.

There is but one thing that poor and rich indulge in with equal delight and pleasure—that is cigarette smoking. Those tottering with age down to the creeping babe are continually smoking. No spot in Mexico is sacred from them; in churches, on the railway cars, on the streets, in the theaters—everywhere are to be seen men and women—of the elite—smoking.

The Mexicans make unsurpassed servants. Their thievery, which is a historic complaint, must be confined to those in the suburbs, for those in houses could not be more honest. There cleanliness is something overwhelming, when one recalls the tales that have been told the filth of the "greasers." Early in the mornings the walks in the plaza, and pavements are swept as clean as anything can be, and that with brooms not as good as those children play with in the States. Put an American domestic and a Mexican servant together, even with the difference in the working implements, and the American will "get left" every time. But this cleanliness may be confined somewhat to such work as sweeping and scrubbing; it does not certainly exist in the preparation of food. Pulque, which is sucked from the mother plant into a man's mouth and thence ejected into a water-jar, is brought to town in pig-skins.
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The skins are filled, and then tied onto burros, or sometimes—not frequently—carried in wagons, the skin rolling from side to side. Never less than four filled skins are ever loaded onto a burro; oftener eight and ten. The burros are never harnessed, but go along in trains which often number fifty. Mexican politeness extends even among the lowest classes. In all their dealings they are as polite as a dancing master. The moment one is addressed off comes his poor, old, ragged hat, and bare-headed he stands until you leave him. They are not only polite to other people, but among themselves. One poor, ragged woman was trying to sell a broken knife and rusty lock at a pawnbroker's stand. "Will you buy?" she asked, plaintively. "No, senora, gracias" (I thank you), was the polite reply. The police are not to be excelled. When necessary to clear a hall of an immense crowd, not a rough word is spoken. It is not: "Get out of this, now;" "Get out of here," and rough and tumble, push and rush, as it is in the States among the civilized people. With raised cap and low voice the officer gently says in Spanish: "Gentlemen, it is not my will, but it is time to close the door. Ladies, allow me the honor to accompany you toward the door." In a very few moments the hall is empty, without noise, without trouble, just with a few polite words, among people who cannot read, who wear knives in their boots—if they have any and carry immense revolvers strung to their belts; people who have been trained to enjoy the sight of blood, to be bloodthirsty. What a marked contrast to the educated, cultured inhabitants of the States.

Beneath all this ignorance there is a heart, as sympathetic, in its way, as that of any educated man. It is no unusual sight to see a man walk along with a coffin on his head, from which is visible the remains of some child. In an instant all the men in the gutters, on the walks, or in the doorways, have their hats off, and remain bareheaded until the sad procession is far away. The pallbearer, if such he may be called, dodges in and out among the carriages, burros and wagons, which fill the street. The drivers lift their hats, but the silent bearer—generally the father—moves along unmindful of all. Funeral cars meet with the same respect.

In passing along where a new building was being erected, attention was attracted to the body of a laborer who had fallen from the building. A white cloth covered all of the body except his sandled feet. The Virgin rest his soul;" "Virgin Mother grant him grace," were the prayers of his kind as the policeman commanded his body to be carried away. These little scenes prove they are not brutes, that they are a little better than some intelligent people would have you believe.

The meat express does not, by any means, serve to make the meat more palatable. Generally an old mule or horse that has reached its second childhood serves for the express. A long, iron rod, from which hooks project, is fastened on the back of the beast by means of straps. The meat is hung on these hooks, where it is exposed to the mud and dirt of the streets as well as the hair of the animal. Men with two large baskets, one in front, one behind, filled with the refuse of meat, follow near by. If they wear trousers they have them rolled up high so the blood from the dripping meat will not soil them, but run down their bare legs and be absorbed in the sand. It is asserted that the poor do not allow this mixture in the basket to go to waste, but are as glad to get it as we are to get sirloin steak.

Men with cages of fowls, baskets of eggs and bushels of roots and charcoal, come from the mountain in droves of from twenty-five to fifty, carrying packs which average three hundred pounds.

One form of politeness here is, that when complimenting or observing anything that belongs to a native, they will reply: "It is yours." That it means nothing but politeness some are slow to learn. "My house is yours; you have but to command me," said the hotel-keeper on the day of our arrival; but he made no move to vacate.

A "greeny" from the States who was working for the Mexican Central tested some beer that was on its way to the city. "That is good beer," he remarked to the express man. "Si, senor! It is yours," was the reply. Mr. Green was elated, and trudged off home with the keg, much to the consternation and distress of the poor express man, who was compelled to pay out of his own purse for his politeness.

"You have very handsome coffins," was remarked to a man who, probably judging from our looks since we had struck Mexican diet, thought he had found a customer, and had insisted on showing every coffin in the house, even to the handles, plates, and linings. "Si, senorita, they are yours." Thinking they would be an unwelcome elephant on our hands we replied with thanks, and made our exit as quickly as possible. A young Spanish gentleman who, doubtless, was employed by the express company, said, after a few moments' conversation, "The express company and myself are yours, senorita." We confess to the stupidity of not accepting the bonanza, with him included.

A peep into doorways shows the people at all manner of occupations. Men always use the machines. Women and men put chairs together and weave bottoms in them.
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They also make shoes, the finest and most artistic shoe in the world, and the cobblers can make a good shoe out of one that is so badly worn as to be useless to our grandmothers as a rod of correction. The water-carrier, aguador, is one of the most common objects on the street. They suspend water-jars from their heads, one in front, one back. Around their bodies are leather aprons to protect them from the water, which they get at big fountains and basins distributed throughout the city.

As a people they do not seem malicious, quarrelsome, unkind or evil-disposed. Drunkenness does not seem to be frequent, and the men, in their uncouth way, are more thoughtful of the women than many who belong to a higher class. The women, like other women, sometimes cry, doubtless for very good cause, and then the men stop to console them, patting them on the head, smoothing back their hair, gently wrapping them tighter in their rebozo. Late one night, when the weather was so cold, a young fellow sat on the curbstone and kept his arm around a pretty young girl. He had taken off his ragged serape and folded it around her shoulders, and as the tears ran down her face and she complained of the cold, he tried to comfort her, and that without a complaint of his own condition, being clad only in muslin trowsers and waist, which hung in shreds from his body.

Thus we leave the largest part of the population of Mexico. Their condition is most touching. Homeless, poor, uncared for, untaught, they live and they die. They are worse off by thousands of times than were the slaves of the United States. Their lives are hopeless, and they know it. That they are capable of learning is proven by their work, and by their intelligence in other matters. They have a desire to gain book knowledge, or at least so says a servant who was taken from the streets,