& Tornado Alley
Thunder in Their Veins: A Memoir of Mexico
by Leone B. Moats (The Century Co., New York, 1933).
Leone Moats was an American who accompanied her American husband to Mexico about the year 1906 and lived there for many years. She thus witnessed the conditions of the last years of the Porfiriato, the regime of Porfirio Díaz and the events of the Mexican Revolution and thereafter. Her perception was not always correct but it is interesting to observe her reaction to events and note what she believed to be happening. Her husband was a businessman who dealt primarily in lumber in Mexico. Her perspective is that of a wealthy foreigner who was well-treated and respected by the Díaz regime.
THOSE were great days. Mexico City was at its zenith. Everywhere you turned you felt the wealth and grandeur of the place.
There were no billboards, no filth, no death-trap camiones ramshackle motor-buses-careening along. Mexico was not gas mad; the great middle class and most of the aristocracy had still to attain to the insanity for the machine. The city had much more atmosphere than it has to-day. It could have been perfectly lovely if they had only continued to build the typical Spanish colonial house with a patio, instead of permitting Jose Ives Limantour to impose upon it the horrible bourgeois French house that was later to be the pattern of taste.
That great white elephant, the National Theater, which was built after Limantour's ideas, may have been one of the most legitimate reasons for the revolution against the Diaz government. This horror would have been better suited to some nouveau riche oil town in Texas. Among its other grandiose adornments was the largest glass drop-curtain that Tiffany's ever made for a theater.
The city was well-kempt. Each house was compelled to keep its sidewalk and half the road in front of it clean and sprinkled twice a day. You did not have to tell the servants that this was part of their duty. They knew it. I remember seeing a young woman of the Mexican aristocracy reprimanded by a policeman for having thoughtlessly thrown an empty box from her carriage.
The streets of that day were alive with beautiful carriages drawn by high-stepping horses, with coachman and footman in livery on the box. Occasionally you would see expensive imported automobiles, in 'perfect taste, but most of the women still preferred the elegant victoria and rode with daintily poised parasols in the charming manner of the time. At twelve and at seven each day a double file formed a solid procession up and down the Plateros, the Avenida San Francisco, and the Avenida Juarez. One established point of review for this whirling social parade was the jockey Club, then housed in the beautiful Spanish-colonial house called the Casa de los Azulejos, or the House of Tiles. Its large doorway was filled with chairs occupied by lounging members, watching the world go by.
A gallant lot they were, those gentlemen of the old club. We had a tremendous j joke on one of them who happened to be shortsighted. On alternate Saturdays, first he, then his wife, were accustomed to go for luncheon at the house of Don Telesforo Garcia, a delightful Spaniard. One Saturday, when it was his wife's turn, in he came. We were all in the drawing-room having our sherry, when he was announced. The family chorused, "This is Lola's day! " He made his greetings, and added in a low tone, to the eldest daughter! "Do let me stay. All the way from the club I have followed the most lovely woman! She must be lunching here. She just preceded me up the stairs." At that moment Lola came into the room. He stifled an exclamation and, recovering himself at once, crossed the room and raising her hand to his lips, murmured gallantly, "Dear Lola, I find I have been completely misled by your beautiful new Paris costume and hat."
On Sunday afternoons they have the biggest bullfights-and dedicate them, often, to the honor of the Virgin. The first I attended seemed to me the most exciting spectacle I had ever seen in my life. The entrada was magnificent, a medieval pageant. The alguacil -the man to whom the key of the bull pens is thrown-was dressed in a thirteenth-century costume of black velvet heavily embroidered in j et. He rode at the head of the procession on a magnificent black stallion that never once had all four feet on the ground. He saluted the judge. The judge tossed down to him the heavy wrought-iron key to the bull pens. Behind him marched the bull-fighters of the day. They were dressed in the Goya bull-fighter costumes-very costly, bright colored satin suits heavily embroidered with gold thread and sequins. Four mules, harnessed abreast with gay trappings, brought up the rear. Their office was to drag from the arena the dead and vanquished bull.
At that time Montes was the favorite fighter of both the shady and sunny side of the ring. He had felled his first bull in a most spectacular manner. He was just bowing to his great audience, when the bull got suddenly to its feet, catching him from the rear and goring him mortally. It took years to get me to another bullfight.
CRUEL, sordid-and magnificent-those words link so much that, to me, signifies Mexico. Nothing seems commonplace; the ugliest and most brutal reality never seems vulgar. Here in the street is an old woman delousing her young. She crouches. Her paws go through the thick black hair of the young girl with exactly the gestures of a monkey. The sight does not fill me with repulsion as it might elsewhere. In Mexico, it all seems natural, charming, even romantic.
Everything here seems so much more dramatic than elsewhere-more like a stage setting. For example, the churches: inside, I admit they are usually a disappointment, vulgar and barren; but outside they decorate the scene. Some are remarkably beautiful. San Agustin Acolman, near Mexico City, is the finest example of the plateresque on the North American continent; Puebla, the City of Angels, has over one hundred beautiful churches. Cholula, near Puebla, is said to have a church for every day in the year, and there is not one downright ugly one. The settings of Mexican churches are almost always dramatic. One will be driving along a lonely road with not a but in sight, then suddenly across the fields you see a lovely Spanish colonial church nestling in among green trees at the side of a mountain.
The different Catholic orders have always built their monasteries, or their more magnificent temples of worship, in lucrative districts where parishioners could be counted upon for liberal support. The church in itself was the best thing the Indian inherited from the Spaniard, but all too often the padre betrayed his trust for unholy gold. There are devout and saintly priests, but many others have been turned from the "straight and narrow" by the great natural wealth of Mexico, plus the persuasion that Indians, at heart eternally pagan, stand more in need of physical than of spiritual care. The clergy have always been the go-between for capital and labor. From capital they have derived great benefits; and capital in turn has controlled labor through their holy offices, because the people trusted them.
IT is strange how safe one felt during these old days in Mexico, not only in the capital, but throughout the country as a whole. A woman could walk the streets at night in any part of Mexico City and be entirely unmolested. At each corner stood ever-present, vigilant policemen with their lanterns and whistles. Every fifteen minutes their exchange of signals resounded throughout the city. They were a high type of Indian, those policemen--courteous, but rigid in matters of duty. Those lanterns were supposed to stay lighted at their sides throughout the night. To keep the force alert, any one who could steal one of these lanterns was paid, without question, one peso and fifty centavos for it, at the nearest police station.
One night two young men-about-town who were a little the worse for drink decided to take a coach and' see how many of these lanterns they could collect. At each corner one would go to the back of the coach with a ball of twine. He would wait until the other had engaged the policeman in earnest conversation, then stealthily fasten the end of the twine to the lantern. As they drove on to the next corner they would then let out the twine gently so as not to disturb the lantern. Then suddenly, zing! the lantern scampered away. After thus hooking six lanterns the young .idiots tied the cord to the coach, got down and paid off the coachman. The coach then drove off with the lanterns bobbing gaily behind it, the young men following at a distance. They say it was sight rewarding all their effort -those little shortlegged policemen trying to make out what it was all about, cursing, gesticulating, and running after the coach. The legs of the law fairly twinkled with fury and astonishment. But a little later, when the young bloods wended their way back to square things, these little Indian policemen were ready to laugh.
The good old coches-how one misses them! In those days there were three classes, distinguished by their colored flags. The yellow ones were too dilapidated to be on the streets excepting at night, and they were drawn by wrecks of horses that one could sometimes identify the following Sunday in the bull ring.
A prominent American-born three-hundred-pound railway official, illuminated as usual, hired one of these coaches early one morning, and started home. As soon as the pace reached a fast trot, bang, out went the bottom of the coach. The huge man grabbed frantically at either side to save himself from falling under the carriage, and was thus rushed along at a great rate, running down the street. The coach went about four blocks before the coachman heard his angry roarings. He claims that he roared and ran himself so sober that his wife hardly knew him when he reached home.
DON PORFIRIO DIAZ did everything in the grand manner and with a great deal of pomp and splendor. He felt that this was due his country and the other great nations that had recognized his country as a power. This concept was reflected in the life and manners of the people who surrounded him. One never had the feeling of middle-classness that one gets in so many other republican countries. Another reason for that is that the Porfirian civilization, like that of the old South, was agricultural.
In 1910, when Don Porfirio celebrated the Centennial of the country's independence, the balls, garden parties, and dinners could not be 'surpassed for splendor and perfect appointments in any capital of the world. Under the Diaz regime Mexico City had become one of the most brilliant capitals on earth. The women were famous for chic, their natural and acquired elegance, and their beautiful clothes.
The last ball of the Centennial, given by the President, was worthy of any country's ruler. On the night of this ball, which was given in the National Palace, the entire patio was roofed, floored, and made over into a bower of roses, concealing countless lights. Ten thousand people danced in the patio to an orchestra of one hundred and forty-eight pieces. The scene and music were so lovely that it all bore an air of enchantment, you simply floated, dancing, through the crowd.
Count Hadik, the Austrian Minister, escorted me to Madame Diaz's drawing-room which had been improvised by silk cords drawn between the great pillars of the patio. Leaving the drawing-room we paused to look at the great, gay crowd, beautifully dressed, bejeweled, decorated. Count Hadik said to me: "Leone, you are young. Youth is inclined to take things for granted, but pause now and look thoughtfully about you. You will perhaps never see anything finer than this in the world. Here to-night are important men of all the great countries of Europe and the Americas who have been sent as special envoys to pay respect to this splendid statesman and his country. Great nations do not pay these honors unless the man and his country are worthy of them. The jewels and gowns of these women could not be lovelier. Only in St. Petersburg could this ball be surpassed, and then only by the furs that the women might wrap about them."
I often think back to that night. It celebrated so gorgeously the beginning of the end.
Of Don Porfirio I shall say more later. He was a kingly figure; and when Mexico turned on him, and shipped him off to Europe, Kaiser Wilhelm did well to invite the exile to a great review of the German Army, and in the presence of crowned heads and the highest dignitaries of Europe, to seat this Mexican ex-president at his right.
Diaz did great things well and small things gracefully. When Senor Alcorta, who had decorated the palace for the ball, went up that night to pay his respects to Don Porfirio and Dona Carmelita, they both expressed their appreciation delightfully. "Carmelita and I," said Diaz, "wish personally to prove our gratitude. We have put our box at your disposal for 'Madame Butterfly' next Sunday night. Do invite any of your friends whom you may wish to enjoy it with you."
A small thing! I am not so sure. Eighty years old, with affairs of state going badly, Diaz still had time and strength to remember this gesture of acknowledgment to one who had served untiringly in advancing beauty and dignity in Mexico.
The United States' special envoy to the Centennial was the late Curtis Guild of Boston, a most cultured and charming man. There was also a delegation from the United States, some fourteen men and women, with Mr. James W. Gerard (later Ambassador to Germany), at its head. He was accompanied by his very charming wife. Except for the Gerards and two or three others, these men and women had come without any sort of preparation in the way of proper clothes for these occasions, which were most formal. Most of the women had come with thin dresses, in many cases washable ones, and some had brought no evening clothes at all. They did not know what to expect in Mexico. Mr. Guild's private secretary, a most capable young woman, had to take them in hand. It was the representatives of the newer America, not of the Amerind, who had to be coached and outfitted for the sake of appearances on that occasion.
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