Travels in Mexico and life among the Mexicans/Chapter 17

 
 

XVII.

 

THE MARKETS AND FLOATING GARDENS.

 

FROM the art gallery it is not a long stride to the markets, for they are only around the corner of the Palace, and though one may not find there pictures by old masters, he may obtain plenty of material for new sketches. The companion of Cortes, to whom I have before referred, has a description of the market-place of the capital as it appeared to that chieftain in the year 1519. It affords interesting matter for comparison with the condition of the same place at the present day. "We were astonished at the crowds of people and the regularity which prevailed, as well as at the vast quantities of merchandise which those who attended us were assiduous in pointing out. Each kind had its particular place, which was distinguished by a sign. The articles consisted of gold, silver, jewels, feathers, mantles, chocolate, skins dressed and undressed, sandals, and great numbers of male and female slaves, some of whom were fastened by the neck, in collars, to long poles. The meat market was stocked with fowls, game, and dogs. Vegetables, fruits, articles of food ready dressed, salt, bread, honey, and sweet pastry made in various ways, were also sold here. Other places in the square were appointed to the sale of earthen ware, wooden household furniture such as tables and benches, firewood, paper, sweet canes filled with tobacco mixed with liquidambar, copper axes and working tools, and wooden vessels highly painted. Numbers of women sold fish and little loaves made of a certain mud which they find in the lakes, and which resembles cheese. The makers of stone blades were busily employed shaping them out of the rough material, and the merchants who dealt in gold had the metal in grains as it came from the mines, in transparent quills, and the gold was valued at so many mantles or so many xiquipils of cocoa according to the size of the quills. The entire square was enclosed in piazzas, under which great quantities of grain were stored, and where were also shops for various kinds of goods."

Behind the Palace, south of the long pile of buildings occupied by the President of Mexico and his troops, is now the principal market of the city. It is enclosed by high stone walls, and there are entrances through four gates leading from as many streets.

TLM D336 Scene in the market.jpg

SCENE IN THE MARKET.

As in the time of Bernal Diaz, the outer portion of this enclosed square is occupied by shops and projecting piazzas, beneath which are exposed for sale the different products and manufactures of Mexico; and the central portion is occupied by natives, squatted beneath the shade of squares of matting stretched over frameworks, and each square supported by a single pole, like a rude umbrella. Slaves, and gold, and precious jewels, and feather-work, are no longer sold in the market; for the articles vended here are confined within the range of those desired for the table and for household use. But what a variety! It reminds one of what he has noticed in coming up to this high table-land of Mexico from the coast, namely, that this country can boast TLM D337 His own handiwork.jpgHIS OWN HANDIWORK. of almost every climate, every variety of scenery, and the products of every zone, from arctic to torrid.

Several zinc roofs, supported upon stone pillars, give shelter to crowded stalls and cover every kind of merchandise, from a squash-seed to a wooden spoon. The entire enclosure is densely packed with human beings, especially in the morning, when the purchases are mostly made. The men and women that do business here bring their entire families with them, and for the day live here as at home. The markets are divided into the various portions devoted to fruit, vegetables, and articles for household use. Upon mats spread on the stone pavement each vender spreads his or her stock in trade, regardless of the space necessary to the customer in threading his way through this miscellaneous assemblage. In going through this market one Sunday morning, I jotted down the different varieties of fruits and vegetables, as I saw them, on the margin of a newspaper: and here is the list, transcribed as it ran there. First, after passing the dealers in fried meats, who are constantly dishing out scraps of pork and shreds of beef sizzling in fat to dirty leperos in sombreros and sarapes, stationed at the gate, you encounter the fruit stalls and vegetable stands. There are limes, fragrant as any grown in West Indian gardens, but without their plumpness and flavor; they perfume the air in the immediate vicinity, notwithstanding the sewage odors and the flaunting of vile garments that smell to heaven; close by are pears,—here are two zones brought close together,—but these pears are not equal to those of northern climates; cherries peculiar to the country, shaddocks, mangos, bananas, plantains, oranges,—all from the tierras calientes, or hot lands, whence also come the coco-nuts and pine-apples that lie in heaps on the pavement; these last are very dear, approaching prices asked in New York, owing to the great expense of transportation over two hundred miles of railroad; babies—not from the tierras calientes—who keep decidedly cool and comfortable, whether lying kicking on their mother's mats or peering from the rebosos in which they are confined to their mothers' backs; melons, peaches, wooden bowls, buckets, mats, babies; poultry, fish, babies; lettuce, babies, crockery, tomatoes, peppers, babies, beans, radishes, potatoes, babies without a rag on them; onions, leeks, cabbages, corn, babies with nothing on them but rags; peas, carrots, beets, squashes, artichokes, babies lean and emaciated; birds, children, pumpkin-seeds, babies fat as a post-office contract; Indians, with great coops of chickens on their backs, leading babies by the hand; donkeys, with great panniers of vegetables or charcoal, with babies as crowning curiosities; crockery venders with huge crates of earthen jars and pots. In fact, there are here the products of every zone and clime, and all the productions of mother earth.

It is with pleasure that one turns from this heterogeneous assemblage of the natural and artificial products of Mexico,—from the place whence his landlady draws the crude material for the nourishment of his inner man,—to a little iron-roofed structure in the Plaza. There are many plazas in Mexico, but only one Plaza Mayor, overlooked by the great cathedral, and containing the Zocalo, or promenade of the upper classes. On the western side of the square is the flower market, surrounded by an atmosphere of delightful fragrance.

The love of flowers is a redeeming trait in the character of the Aztec of to-day. It has survived the oppressions of three hundred years, and the exactions of two centuries of Spanish taskmasters. The priests, in their anxiety for converts, allowed the Indians to retain many of their old forms of worship, the least objectionable one of which was the expression of their adoration through the medium of flowers. Barbaric dances, glitter, and display are necessarily a part of their worship, not all of which were derived from their ancient religion. It is said that, long after the overthrow of their gods, the Indians would visit by stealth their prostrate war-god, the terrible Huitzilopochtli, and surround him with garlands of flowers. Enter any church, cathedral, or chapel, and you will find flowers in profusion placed before the images of the Virgin. Not only this, but offerings of the first-fruits of their fields; small clumps of golden wheat and barley, maize and clover. I might add, quoting Prescott, that among the Aztecs "the public taxes were often paid in agricultural produce,"—which fact establishes a precedent for the custom prevailing in our own country, of paying one's subscription to a country paper in vegetables instead of cash.

But to return to the flower market. Inside it is full of men and women arranging flowers, great heaps of which cover the floor. Their innate taste for such work is exhibited in their delicacy of arrangement and delightful combinations of color, though the profusion of flowers induces them sometimes to consider quantity rather than quality. The cheapness of these beauties is wonderful: button-hole bouquets of violets or pansies, three cents, or even less; one boy had bunches which he was offering for two cents,—"Tlaco, señor, tlaco!" From curiosity, desiring to ascertain how many flowers composed one of the huge bouquets offered for sale, I bought one. The man asked four reales (fifty cents); I gave him two, and gave a boy three cents to carry it to my room. In the privacy of that apartment I dissected that bouquet, as an anatomist would take to pieces the human frame, to find out what composed it. There were thirty red roses, fifty white ones, twenty-eight violets, thirty heliotropes, twenty white rosebuds and thirty pink ones, the whole forming a solid pyramid of flowers, capped by three red roses, one metre twenty centimetres in circumference and twenty centimetres high. There were one hundred and ninety-one flowers, besides the trimming of leaves at the base and an ornamented holder of fancifully cut paper. I leave to my readers to calculate what this would cost in New York, at the time I bought it, on the 8th day of May; but for those hundred and ninety-one flowers I paid only the sum of twenty-five cents!

Flowers bloom here all the year round, one crop following and intermingling with the other; but, as in the North, May and June are the months for roses. From the high plains of Tlascala to the border of the sea may be traced the blossoming of the beautiful that pervades all nature, whether the country be traversed in January or June, in August or December.

One wonders, as he sees the vast floral display, whence all these flowers are obtained, and it is only by seeking the outskirts of the city and the canal of Chalco that he will be gratified. Taking the horse-cars at the Plaza for the paseo of La Viga, one reaches a bridge spanning a canal, one of the few water-ways that yet exist in this city. The famous "floating gardens" are always just beyond the eye, floating a little farther on; if one is at the Viga bridge, they are down the canal at Santa Anita; at the latter place, they are at Xochimilco; and there one will hear of them as at Lake Chalco. But there are "floating gardens" near the canal, only they do not float, never did float, and never will float. One arrives at La Viga, and is at once pounced upon by a set of gondoliers almost as ravenous as Hell Gate pilots. They surround one and call his attention to their gondolas, said gondolas being what people of the North would call mud-scows. Into one of these picturesque arks some of the boatmen succeed in dragging the explorer, and, after waiting half an hour till they have secured a load, and the benches are alive with Indians and fleas, they push off from the bank, worming their way amongst a hundred other mud-scows, and the voyager finds himself afloat upon the waters of the "raging canal." Then he gives himself up to the enjoyment of the hour, revelling in pictures of the "Venice of the "Western world,"[1]—fancying the Mexicans in their disguise of dirt,—dirt, the war-paint of the

TLM D341 Canal of La Viga.jpg

CANAL OF LA VIGA.

true Venetian,—as they swiftly pass in their light canoes (shaped like a bread-trough),—fancying, I say, that they are the noble Aztecs,—as, take them for what their remote maternal ancestors may have been, they certainly are. Thus the gondola glides gently over the waves, the passenger indulges in day-dreams of Venice, and that sort of thing, until all at once he finds that the canoe has ceased gliding, and he looks out and sees his degenerate gondoliers engaged in a struggle to the death with a mud-bank, and stirring up with their setting-poles—for the true gondolier in the American Venice does not paddle, but poles—such an accumulation of unutterable odors, that his very hair stands on end with surprise. Then the gondola is pushed away from the mud-bank and glides some more; and all the while other boats are passing and repassing, and making it lively and wholesome on that canal.

To a man with strong nerves, if he can survive an hour without drawing a full breath, this boating on the canal is a protracted delight. Aside from the picturesque crowd on the banks, there are boats crowded with Indians indulging in native dances and playing native airs on guitars and rude instruments. A party of them will charter a flat-boat and convert it into a miniature ball-room, while the lookers on along the banks, and even the boatmen, will dance to the music as they run along the boat with their setting-poles.

Down near the end of the paseo is a bust of Guatemotzin, the unhappy Emperor of the Aztecs for a brief period,—long enough, however, to witness the destruction of his nation. Repenting that their ancestors should have caused him the trouble they did, that they should have murdered millions of his subjects, that they should have burned his feet to a crisp for nothing, that Cortés should have finally hanged him in the wilds of Yucatan, the descendants of the conquerors have made all amends in their power by putting Guatemotzin on a perpetual bust. He looks out over the eastern plains, toward the rising sun, whence came the Spanish demons that made a hell of his paradise.

Still the gondola glides over the green waters of the canal, between green banks lined with trees, beneath a rude and arched bridge of stone, over more water and amongst swarms of boats, to Santa Anita. Here one disembarks, and passing through a miserable mud village takes another canoe, and is poled among the "floating gardens." And what are they? Why, they are beds of earth, of greater or less extent, and of varying height, with ditches cut through them; they are gay with flowers, fringed with trees, and as neatly kept as the best kitchen garden in New York. It is true that the gardener floats among them in his canoe while he gathers his vegetables and loads his boat with them, and then carries them to market. But the gardens. are solid; they may shake a bit if one jumps on them, because they are boggy, even as a cranberry bed is, or a section of meadow land. But

TLM D343 From the floating gardens.jpg

FROM THE FLOATING GARDENS.

they are gay with flowers, and here it is that many of those exposed in the market are raised.

So many have denied the existence of the ancient chinampas, or veritable floating gardens, that I would extend our trip yet farther down the canal, and into the two great fresh-water lakes, Xochimilco—the flowering field—and Chalco, where we shall in very truth encounter them. I have described the chinampas that, though perhaps once vagrant, are now fixed in position and doing duty as kitchen gardens. To one who has read the history of the Aztec irruption into the Mexican valley, of their wanderings on the lake borders for years, the shifts they were put to to obtain even the vilest food, as they were driven away from solid and fertile soil by other tribes, it does not seem improbable that their necessities should have driven them to avail themselves of the floating islands of bulrush and reeds set adrift by the storms of the rainy season.

The canal leading from Mexico into the lakes was formerly the great route for all the native trade from Cuernavaca and the south by the way of Chalco, and in the towns of Xochimilco and Mexicalcingo we find now Aztecs of purest blood, speaking their own unadulterated language. The lakes are filled with marsh, and are not open, but traversed by countless water-ways called acalotes, or canals. The floating gardens are cut from this vast mat of vegetation, called the cinta, which is composed of a multitude of water plants, as the tula, or bulrush, liliums, water ranunculuses, polygonums, etc.,—over twenty species in number,—and which is said to have no attachment to the bottom of the lake. A body of the cinta, in shape a parallelogram, is cut out by the Indians, and the mud dredged up from the lake bottom poured over it until a deep deposit is formed of the richest soil in the world. This is constantly renewed, as the garden sinks deeper and deeper, until finally perhaps it finds a resting-place, and becomes immovable. But when freshly made it undoubtedly floats, and may even be dragged from its original position, in order that the Indian gardener may have free access to all sides of it in his canoe. In time of storms, the navigation of these lakes is rendered dangerous by detached masses of the cinta, called bandoleros, which sometimes float into the canals, cutting off all communication, and imprisoning the boatmen within walls that cannot be scaled or penetrated.

Between the ridges that separate Chalco and Xochimilco from the salt Tezcoco (see Frontispiece) is pointed out to-day that hill celebrated in Aztec history. La Estrella, or the Hill of the Star. It was to this point that the Aztecs, at the memorable period known as the termination of their cycle, wended their way in long processions, headed by the priests, and built on its summit the new fire. Here the wretched victim of their superstition was slain, and hence was carried the flame that was to rekindle their extinguished fires, and carry light and joy throughout the kingdoms of Anahuac.

TLM D345 Hill of La Estrella.jpg

HILL OF LA ESTRELLA.

In the centre of the largest lake, Chalco, lies a small, though interesting island, connected by a causeway with the mainland. This is Tlahuac, visited by Cortes and his soldiers on their way to Mexico in 1519, and described by the historian of the expedition. Beneath the water of the lake, it is affirmed by recent travellers, lie the buildings of the ancient city. Opposite this island is Xico, likewise an ancient Indian town, and at the base of an extinct volcano, the crater of which is planted with corn. At the extremity of Lake Chalco lies a most attractive town surrounded by a perfect halo of history. Chalco, the former residence of powerful native kings, is built upon a plain, and saw its best days many years ago, if we may judge by the ruinous state of the houses, with battered mud walls and going to decay. A fine old church, containing interesting paintings and statuary, is sharing the general ruin. There is no hotel in the village, and the market-place is almost always desolate. This town once stood on the borders of the great lake of Chalco, the body of fresh water that poured a volume into Lake Tezcoco, through the lake and canal of Xochimilco. But now the lake is miles away, and only reached by canals cut through the sea of marshes. The inhabitants of the place have commerce with Mexico by canoes, and carry there fruits and flowers, though it is a day's journey distant. Fields of pulque, gardens, and trees surround Chalco on three sides, and in front is the marsh.

Long before the arrival of the Spaniards was Chalco celebrated in Mexican history. Her cacique, or lord, was once an independent ruler, like those of Tezcoco and Mexico, but in the early part of the fifteenth century he arrogantly slew two royal princes of Tezcoco, and brought down upon himself and his people the vengeance of the three kings, of Mexico, Tezcoco, and Tlacopan. He richly merited, it seems, the punishment they dealt out to him, as he not only refused his royal victims burial, but caused their bodies to be cured and dried and placed in the principal room of his palace as torch-bearers. The united kings sacked the city, killed the cacique, and the people were added to the subjects of the Mexican crown. Some years later they provoked another invasion, when their city was destroyed and the inhabitants driven to the hills, where they lived for many years in caves;—and perhaps these cave dwellers of the same sierras may be their descendants. From the summits of the hills about us flashed the fires built by Montezuma to warn them of the war of extermination that he was about to wage upon them. But it was not many years later that these Chalchese had their revenge, when they assisted at the destruction of the stronghold of their hated enemies; for they were among the first of the Indians to ally themselves with the conquistadores after Cortés had established himself in Tezcoco and sat down to the investment of the capital city.

The best fishing on the lakes is near the town of Ayotla (reached over the Morelos Railroad), where the poor people subsist almost entirely upon the products of the water and marshes. It is an inherited taste, this depraved one of the present Aztecs,—a relic of those times when they wandered as vagrants on the lake margins, when they ate frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, the pith of the bulrush, and a thousand things unheard of among us. There is no more peculiar product of the Mexican lakes than that marsh fly called axayacatl (Ahuatlea Mexicana), which deposits its eggs in incredible quantities upon flags and rushes, and which are eagerly sought out and made into cakes which are sold in the markets. Says that festive monk, Thomas Gage, who visited Mexico in 1625, "The Indians gathered much of this and kept it in Heaps, and made thereof Cakes, like unto Brickbats, . . . . and they did eat this Meal with as good a Stomach as we eat Cheese; yea, and they hold opinion that this Scum or fatness of the water is the cause that such great number of Fowl cometh to the Lake, which in the winter season is infinite."

These cakes "like unto brickbats" are sold in the markets to this day, and the black heaps of the ahauhtli, or "water-wheat," may be frequently seen dotting the mud flats about the lakes, Tezcoco especially. The insects themselves (which are about the size of a house-fly) are pounded into a paste,—as they are collected in myriads,—boiled in corn husks, and thus sold. The eggs, resembling fine fish roe, are compressed into a paste, mixed with eggs of fowls, and form a staple article of food particularly called for during Lent.

The Indians of the Mexican lakes have a systematic method, by which they plant bundles of reeds a few feet apart, with their tops sticking out of the water. The insects deposit their eggs upon these reeds in such quantities that they not only cover them, but depend in clusters. When completely covered, these bundles are removed from the water, shaken over a sheet, and replaced for a fresh deposit. Paxi are the larvæ of the axayacatl, yellowish-white worms, which are also eaten, being prepared for the table in various ways. Axayacatl, by the way, signifies "water-face," and is the symbol and name of the sixth king of Mexico, who entered upon his reign about the year 1464, and continued in power thirteen years.

There is one more denizen of these waters which we should not pass by without a reference. Though there are no fish in the great salt lake, TLM D348 Axolotl.jpgAXOLOTL. Tezcoco, a compensation for their absence is obtained by the presence there of a most remarkable reptile, the axolotl (Siredon lichenoides). It is a water lizard, a batrachian of the "amblystoma type of salamanders," resembling a fish in shape, but with four legs with webbed feet, and a long, compressed tail. The gills form three feather-like processes on either side the neck, and the tongue is broad and cartilaginous. In color it is of a mixed black and white, and is about ten inches in length.

This most hideous protean is eaten by the Indians of Mexico, as its flesh is white and resembles that of an eel, and is quite savory and wholesome. Its Aztec name, axolotl, is pronounced áh-ho-lotl, and is to-day called ajolote.[2]

It is by a devious path that we have reached the next subject of which I would write; but as it was one of the favorite beverages of the most ancient Aztecs, and valued by them even above the toothsome axolotl, I am constrained in this connection to describe the Mexican national drink, pulque, and the maguey of the great plateaux.

From the earliest times, the inhabitants of earth have prepared stimulating and refreshing drinks from various plants, seeds, and fruits. This beverage, pulque, has been so long in use on the Mexican table-land that its origin is involved in the obscurity of fable. It cannot be told when it was first drank, nor whence it derived its present appellation. The Aztecs gave it the name of neutli and octli, while the plant itself, the maguey, was called metl. One interpreter of the Mexican hieroglyphics asserts that the god Izquitecatl first extracted the life-giving juice of the maguey, while the Toltec annals, as usually interpreted, ascribe its discovery to a prince of the royal blood of that line. A pretty fable is related of its discovery in connection with their somewhat mythical chronicles. A noble Toltec, named Papantzin, found out the method of extracting the juice from the maguey, and sent some of it to his sovereign, Tecpancaltzin, as a present, by his daughter, the beautiful XochitI, the flower of Tollan. Enamored alike of the drink and the maiden, the king, wishing to monopolize both, retained the lovely XochitI a willing prisoner, and in after years placed their illegitimate son upon the throne. This was the beginning of the troubles of the Toltecs, who had then enjoyed peace for many years, in about the year 1000; it led to their eventual dispersion and extinction, brought about by the hand of woman, and through the means of drink. Through all his disasters, however, the Indian clung to his pulque, each generation adding to the acres of maguey planted by its ancestors, and at the present time its consumption has reached enormous proportions.

The maguey, from which the pulque is produced, though native to Mexico, is found growing in our own country, yet not in any great abundance. But on the great Mexican uplands—those high plains that stretch from mountain to mountain at an elevation of more than seven thousand feet above the sea—is the dwelling-place of the maguey. You see it first in abundance when about one hundred miles from the valley of Mexico, on the plains of Apam. When the Spaniards first came here, in 1519, the native Mexicans had the maguey, of which they made almost as many uses as the South-Sea Islander does of the coco-palm, namely, a hundred. It is said that there are thirty-three species of this plant growing on these broad plains.[3] The best plants yield liquor for six months after being tapped. From the leaves, root, and juice are obtained a greater variety of products than one would think it possible for one plant to yield. First, paper is made from the pulp of the leaves, and twine and thread from their fibres. The rare and valuable Mexican manuscripts were composed TLM D350 The Maguey.jpgTHE MAGUEY. of paper made from the maguey, which resembled more the papyrus than anything else.

Another use of this plant is in furnishing needles. The leaves are tipped with sharp thorns, and by breaking off the thorn and stripping the fibres attached to it away from the pulp, and then rolling and twisting them together, the native has a serviceable needle ready threaded. The poor people thatch their houses with the leaves, placing one over the other, like shingles; the hollowed leaf also serves as a gutter, or trough, by which the water falling from the eaves is conducted away. The fibrous parts of the maguey supply the country with pita, or strong thread, which is made up into ropes, and is in universal use. It is not so pliable as hemp, and is more likely to be affected by the weather, but is strong and durable.

The Greek word agave signifies "noble," and the plant well merits the name, both for its majesty and beauty, and for its manifold aids to man. Nothing on these plains is so imposing in appearance as the maguey.

Its leaves are sometimes ten feet in length, a foot in breadth, and eight inches thick. From the centre of these great leaves, after collecting its strength for a number of years, it sends up a giant flower-stalk, twenty or thirty feet high, upon which is clustered a mass of greenish yellow flowers, sometimes more than three thousand in number. After this supreme effort, the exhausted plant dies; it has performed the service to nature for which it was created. From the fact that the aloes in the North takes a great many years to gather strength for sending up this great central shaft, has arisen the story that it blossoms but once in a hundred years, and it has derived the name of the Century Plant.

"In the maguey estates," says an observant writer, "the plants are arranged in lines, with an interval of three yards between them. If the soil be good, they require no attention on the part of the proprietor until the period of flowering arrives, at which time the plant commences to be productive. This period is very uncertain; ten years, however, may be taken as the average, for in a plantation of one thousand aloes it is calculated that one hundred are in flowering every year.

"The Indians know, by infallible signs, almost the very hour at which the stem, or central shoot, destined to produce the flower, is about to appear, and they anticipate it by making an incision and extracting the whole heart, or central portion of the stem, as a surgeon would take an arm out of the socket, leaving nothing but the thick outside rind, thus forming a natural basin or well about two feet in depth and one and a half in diameter. Into this the sap, which nature intended for the support of the gigantic central shoot, continually oozes in such quantities that it is found necessary to remove it twice, and even three times, during the day. In order to facilitate this operation, the leaves on one side are cut off, so as to admit a free approach. An Indian then inserts a long gourd (called acojoté), the thinner end of which is terminated by a horn, while at the opposite extremity a square hole is left, to which he applies his lips, and extracts the sap by suction. This sap, before it ferments, is called aguamiel (honey-water), and merits the appellation, as it is extremely sweet, and does not possess that disagreeable smell which is afterwards so offensive. A small portion of this aguamiel is transferred from the plant to a building prepared for the purpose, where it is allowed to ferment for ten or fifteen days, when it becomes what is termed madre pulque (the mother of pulque), which is distributed in very small quantities amongst the different skins or troughs intended for the reception of the aguamiel. Upon this it acts as a sort of leaven, fermentation is excited instantly, and in twenty-four hours it becomes pulque, in the very best state for drinking. The quantity drawn off each day is replaced by a fresh supply of aguamiel, so that the process may continue during the whole year without interruption, and is limited only by the extent of the plantation. A good maguey yields from eight to fifteen cuartillos, or pints, of aguamiel in a day, the value of which may be taken at about one real, and this supply of sap continues during two, and often three months. The plant, when about to flower, is worth ten dollars to the farmer; although, in the transfer of an estate, the magueys de corte, or plants ready to cut, are seldom valued, one with another, at more than five dollars. But in this estimate an allowance is made for the failure of some, which is unavoidable, as the operation of cutting the heart of the plant, if performed either too soon or too late, is equally unsuccessful, and destroys the plant.

"The cultivation of the maguey, where a market is at hand, has many advantages, as it is a plant which, though it succeeds best in a good soil, is not easily affected either by heat or cold, and requires little or no water. It is propagated, too, with great facility, for, although the mother plant withers away as soon as the sap is exhausted, it is replaced by a multitude of suckers from the old root. There is but one drawback on its culture, and that is the period that must elapse before a new plantation can be rendered productive, and the uncertainty with regard to the time of flowering, which varies from eight to eighteen years; but the maguey grounds, when once

TLM D353 Extracting aguamiel.jpg

EXTRACTING AGUAMIEL.

established, are of great value, many producing a revenue of $10,000 to $12,000 per annum."

A long, train departs every day from the stations on the plains of Apam, loaded exclusively with pulque, from the carriage of which the railroad derives a revenue of above $1,000 a day. From the hacienda the pulque is carried to the cities in barrels and sheep-skins, and there retailed. The shops are gaudily painted and decorated with flowers, but they can no more hide the nature of their contents than a gin palace or lager-beer saloon. Their vile odor betrays their presence, and about their doors, day and night, may be seen ragged and filthy men and boys, and even women, who drink this beverage until it produces intoxication. Not content with thus perverting the sweet juice, they distil from the mild pulque a strong rum, called mescal, which quickly causes inebriety, and is responsible for much of the crime of Mexico.

Pulque tastes something like stale buttermilk, and has an odor at times like that of putrid meat. It is wholesome, and many people drink it for the sake of their health, but the great majority imbibe it solely for the sake of the pulque. The natives ascribe to pulque, says Mr. Ward, as many good qualities as whiskey is said to possess in Scotland. "They call it stomachic, a great promoter of digestion and sleep, and an excellent remedy in many diseases. It requires a knowledge of all these good qualities, however, to reconcile the stranger to that smell of sour milk or slightly tainted meat by which the young pulque-drinker is usually disgusted; but if this can be surmounted, the liquor will be found both refreshing and wholesome, for its intoxicating qualities are very slight; and, as it is always drunk in a state of fermentation, it possesses, even in the hottest weather, an agreeable coolness. It is found, too, where water is not to be obtained, and even the most fastidious, when travelling under a vertical sun, are then forced to admit its merits."

It is only to be met with in perfection near the places where it is made; for as it is conveyed to the great towns in hog-skins or sheep-skins, the disagreeable odor increases, and the freshness of the liquor is lost.

Aguamiel is a limpid liquor, golden in color, sometimes whitish and mucilaginous, according to the species of the maguey, with a bitter-sweet flavor and of an herbaceous odor, which is produced in an excavation made in the root-stalk of the maguey at the point where the floral peduncle begins to unfold; it froths when shaken, gives an abundant precipitate with sub-acetate of lead, and when filtered the resultant liquor is colorless. An analysis of aguamiel by the celebrated Boussingault gave glucose, sugar, and water as the principal ingredients. Like the vine, the maguey yields the best liquor, independent of the climate, in volcanic or siliceous soil.

Pulque is the product of the fermentation of aguamiel, is an alcoholic, mucilaginous liquid, holding in suspension white corpuscles, which give it its color, and has an odor sui generis, a taste peculiarly its own, more or less sugary, depending upon its strength, and contains about six per cent of alcohol.

An exhaustive scientific description of the product of the maguey is given by Señor José C. Segura, in the Revista Cientifica Mexicana (Tom. I. Num. 6), to which authority I am indebted for the foregoing facts.

The Mexican's opinion of the national beverage is expressed in the following lines:—

"Sabe que es pulque,—
Licor divino.?
Lo beben los angeles
En vez de vino."

Know ye not pulque,—
That liquor divine?
Angels in heaven
Prefer it to wine.

To return to the city and the markets. They are scattered all over the city, preferring to crouch under the shadow of a church or cathedral, and are not confined to the sale of fruits and flowers, but contain everything else known to man. Prominent, on the road to the canal, is the meat market. One knows its vicinage by the troops of dogs that haunt it, and by the greasy and bloody men that stand around its doors. Through the streets he will see passing horses and mules, with peaked frameworks over their backs hung with hooks, upon which are quarters of beef; sometimes these are covered with a cloth, sometimes not. The sight causes a shudder to run through the frame of a stranger, whether the ugly hooks are bare or adorned with their ghastly burdens. Worse than this, brutes of men in leather jackets bear huge hampers of refuse and entrails, with blood dripping from them, and skulls with horns attached and glaring eyeballs protruding from livid sockets.

One morning, in a walk in the suburbs, I discovered a milk factory, where there was no possible chance for adulteration. In a square containing a fountain was a small herd of cows; about each cow was a crowd of serving-women; and a man presided at the source of supply. A line was fastened to the cow's hind legs, binding her tail to them also, and then passed over her back to her horns, while triced up to her shoulders was a lusty calf. It was a beautiful arrangement; the cow could not kick nor wag her tail, and the calf could not frisk about, nor put his foot in the milk-pail,—for two reasons: first, because he was tied; second, because there was not any pail. The man milked with one hand into a pint cup he held in the other, and which, as fast as it was filled, he emptied into the cups and pitchers of the waiting servants. And they were a clamorous crowd, importuning him to fill their vessels and let them be gone. "Don Felipe, for the love of God give me a medio's worth of milk." "For the sake of the Virgin, a tlaco's worth," etc.

Here, thought I, there is no chance for cheating; here is honesty and pure milk, without water and without chalk, and my heart warmed towards Don Felipe and the promiscuous crowd of maid-servants, squatted around him and his cow in the dirt. These people, thought I, are born of dirty, but honest parents. But my landlady told me that the servants conspire with the man with the cow, and put water in the pitcher, and then divide with the honest expresser of the lacteal fluid, who, by milking fast and furious, creates a froth in the pitcher, not so much desired by her as milk. But did ever landlady and maid-servant exist together without a feud? I choose to believe that there dwells somewhere on this wide earth an honest milkman, and have implicit faith in Don Felipe and his cow.

  1. Prescott did not originate this phrase; we find it in Clavigero (18th century), and in others: "The situation of this city is much like that of Venice."—Th. Gage, 1626.
  2. In the "Smithsonian Report" for 1877 is a paper on the "Change of the Mexican Axolotl to an Amblystoma,"—a valuable contribution.
  3. The celebrated Mexican naturalist, Señor Ignacio Blazquez, Professor of Natural History in the State College, Puebla, enumerates (Revista Cientifica Mexicana, Tom. I. Num. I., December, 1879) more than the above number. All these varieties have native Indian names in Aztec, and many in Otomi. Although most of them are used merely for hedge plants and surrounding enclosures, yet the majority of them will produce pulque, and the various beverages obtained from the maguey. Twenty-two are enumerated which yield aguamiel, or honey-water, and of this number six produce the finest liquor, or pulque fino.