The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Nearly all the women in the boats are young; many of them adolescent girls. One of these wears a gay pink reboso, and thick gold hoops quiver in her ear lobes. She sits in the midst of a great bouquet of violets, pansies, sweet peas, and delicate pale roses. Her slender oar barely touches the water. She darts forward in response to our nod, her shallop runs along the barge, her brown hand, gleaming and wet, grips the rim. Under the parted sleekness of her carbon colored hair, her round innocent eyes speculate. We are openly pleased with her. She charges us twice the usual sum. We pay it, and receive an armload of flowers, done into tight little bouquets, bound with henequen fibre, arranged in long loops whereby one may trail them in the water to keep them fresh.

  The sun is blazing with noonday fervor. The canals are alive with barges and the darting shallops, swift as swallows. A ponderous boat, overflowing with cabbages and celery and onions, drifts out and floats downstream guided casually by an old man whose white cotton garments are rolled up at shoulders and knees, his hat shading him as completely as an umbrella. He drags his pole through the water with a tremendous gesture, then rests leaning upon it, staring out across the chinampas, past the valley to the mountains. His face is massive, hugely wrinkled, not happy nor unhappy. He lives as a tree lives, rightly a part of the earth.

  A tall girl washes clothes in a hollow of bushes matted into a shadowed cave. She rolls the garments on a slanted stone, and scoops up fresh water with a Oaxaca bowl splashed with blue and green and orange. Her blouse, almost sleeveless, is embroidered in an Aztec pattern. Her full crimson skirts are looped over bare ankles. Her braids, tied together in front, dip in the water when she leans forward. There is a trance like quality in her motions, an unconsciousness in her sharpened profile, as if she had never awakened from the prenatal dream.

  “She should live for a century,” says Michael, who is tormented with neuroses. “Fancy her inner repose!”

  Another girl, her shallop brimming with lettuce and celery massed in fragile shades of cream color and pale green, rows swiftly down a side canal. She sits perfectly straight, her wide hat almost obscures her face, all save the pointed chin and calm, full lipped mouth.

  Her oar sends faint ripples out to lap the banks and stir the broadleafed lilies. We read, cut along the curving side of weathered wood, “No me olvide, Lupita!” (Do not forget me, Lupita.) One imagines the giver, whittling and carving before his hut, making a pretty boat for Lupe to carry her vegetables in. He offers his work and his thought, but humanly cannot forbear his one request—“Do not forget me, Lupita!”

  This sentimental discovery sets us on the watch for other like mottoes. At once we read this, carved in a cumbersome craft draped with willow branches—“I was once a beautiful tree in the mountains of Cordoba, but a strong axeman cut me down, and now I live to serve his friends.” A strange, ironical cry out of captivity. It is the Indian who speaks. He tells a tragic story in a few words, without complaint. “Remember lovely Elena, with the sweet mouth and the green eyes,” entreats another, passing to the laughter of young voices and the muted whine of mandolin strings. A line of boats keeps the eye busy searching for inscriptions. . . . “For remembrance of dear little Pancho,” says one. “For the daughter of Pepe Gonzalez,” reads another. A boat about four feet long, very old, unpainted, is christened “La Fortuna de Juan Ortega.” Juan himself stands in this battered shell, plying up and down the canals with a few heads of lettuce, and cabbage, seeking that fortune, but without haste or greed. Juan is small and shabby, his shirt is faded, his hat is a ruin. He smiles at us, and offers lettuce, slightly wilted. He accepts our coin with a fine air of indifference, makes a grand bow, and is away. Juan could go to town and be a servant in a rich house, but depend upon it, he will not. It is the fashion among town people to go to the country for Indian servants. Many of them are docile and hardworking. But the Xochimilco Indians do not make good servants. They are apt to return on the second day to their chinampas, and finding them again is hard work.

  We face a fleet of barges coming in from the side canals. They are majestic and leisurely, grouped with charming effect, their arches as individual as human faces. One is slightly pointed and woven of yellow maize, studded with chrysanthemums and pale green stalks of corn. Another is made of purple tinted henequen with small bouquets of jasmines set at intervals. Yet another is lovely with cornflowers and cedar. Each man has decorated his boat in the manner that pleases him and one cannot choose which is the most beautiful.

  Under the awnings small parties of young Mexican people, attended by their chaperones, eat fruit and throw flowers to each other; in every second barge, it seems, there is a gifted youth with a guitar or mandolin, and they all strum in the careless manner of the true amateur of music. There are many types of Mexican youth and age—young school teachers and clerks, stenographers and shop keepers, with a scattering of the more wealthy folk; there is every type of girl from the modern young person in the flannel walking skirt, to the more reactionary type who wears a fluffy dress with a pretty scarf over her shoulders. It is the Mexico of industry and work and sober family virtues, the respectable, comfortably well off people whom we see here for the most part; all of them happy, bent on a day of leisure and recreation in their incomparable playground.

  We are about to pass under a low stone bridge, built before the days of Cortes in Mexico, and the fleet of boats approaching meet us here in a narrow passageway where it will be a problem for two boats to pass each other. One barge has swung in under the bridge already, and we are also in the shadow of the arch. It has the look of an imminent collision. One expects mutual recrimination, a crash of boatsides, much talk.

  Nothing of the sort, each boatman makes way. Each steers carefully, running his own boat almost into the bank in his effort to make room for the other. “Have a care, comrade!” says one, when he is crowded a little too closely. “Pardon me!” says the other, and somehow in the midst of the work he finds a hand with which to doff his shaggy hat, and to make a bow. The other bows in turn, good days are exchanged, the occupants of the boat smile at us as we glide through, and the flying garden of flowers fills the air between boats once more. The waiting barges form in a line and pass under the arch in a quiet procession, the awnings casting wavering shadows deep in the clear water.

  From the shadowed recesses of the pavilions along the bank the native orchestras play gay tunes. Guitar, mandolin, violin, flute make scattered harmony. A medley of airs comes mingled to us on the water. “La Adelita,” “La Pajarera,” “La Sandunga,” “La Norteña,”—all of us hum the music we prefer, with curious tonal results. The young people are dancing in the pavilions. Children play in the swings and rope trapezes. Parties sit at long tables in the shade, having luncheon festively. It all has the look of a huge special fiesta, though it is merely the usual Sunday holiday.

  Toward the end of the main canal small boys run up and down the bank, or stand holding patient small horses, saddled disproportionately in leather contrivances very elaborate and heavy. The ponies are for hire by the hour, and the boys shout the attractions of their mounts. One of them leans fondly on the neck of his steed, and says, “Muy bonito, muy fuerte caballito,” (Very pretty, very strong little horse!) stroking the ragged mane, while the small creature sleeps obliviously.

  “Your pony looks cynical even in his sleep,” we told the boy. “As though he doubted your motives.”

  “What does he expect?” asks the boy. “To be loved for himself alone? It does not happen in the world.”

  We decide not to ride the pony. “He will have his supper anyhow,” says Mary. “He will lose nothing by it.”

  “What about me?” the owner wants to know.

  “We cannot pity you—you are a philosopher!” Michael tells him.

  We stop in the shade of a wide willow tree near the bank. Our boatboy seats himself crosslegged in the prow. He has the composure of a young idol, his eyes slanted and meditative. His scarlet cotton sash is knotted twice and hangs
with a definite air of smartness. His feet are bound with thonged sandals of leather. We admire him immensely as he sits, eating peanuts in a remote, lordly way, placing the shells in the upcurving brim of his hat.

  A flower girl passing in a slender boat throws him a bunch of purple and yellow pansies. He smiles, makes a grandiose acknowledging gesture the full length of his arm and places the flowers in his hat brim also.

  He stretches on the mat, his face to the softening afternoon sky, arms under his head. The hat is by his side. He whistles “Adelita” gently, and smiles to himself. It is a pity to disturb him, but we must be going.


  July 1921

  Uneasiness grows here daily. We are having sudden deportations of foreign agitators, street riots and parades of workers carrying red flags. Plots thicken, thin, disintegrate in the space of thirty-six hours. A general was executed today for counter-revolutionary activities. There is fevered discussion in the newspapers as to the best means of stamping out Bolshevism, which is the inclusive term for all forms of radical work. Battles occur almost daily between Catholics and Socialists in many parts of the Republic: Morelia, Yucatán, Campeche, Jalisco. In brief, a clamor of petty dissension almost drowns the complicated debate between Mexico and the United States.

  It is fascinating to watch, but singularly difficult to record because events overlap, and the news of today may be stale before it reaches the border. It is impossible to write fully of the situation unless one belongs to that choice company of folk who can learn all about peoples and countries in a couple of weeks. We have had a constant procession of these strange people: they come dashing in, gather endless notes and dash out again and three weeks later their expert, definitive opinions are published. Marvelous! I have been here for seven months, and for quite six of these I have not been sure of what the excitement is all about. Indeed, I am not yet able to say whether my accumulated impression of Mexico is justly proportioned; or that if I write with profound conviction of what is going on I shall not be making a profoundly comical mistake. The true story of a people is not to be had exclusively from official documents, or from guarded talks with diplomats. Nor is it to be gathered entirely from the people themselves. The life of a great nation is too widely scattered and complex and vast; too many opposing forces are at work, each with its own intensity of self-seeking.

  Has any other country besides Mexico so many types of enemy within the gates? Here they are both foreign and native, hostile to each other by tradition, but mingling their ambitions in a common cause. The Mexican capitalist joins forces with the American against his revolutionary fellow-countryman. The Catholic Church enlists the help of Protestant strangers in the subjugation of the Indian, clamoring for his land. Reactionary Mexicans work faithfully with reactionary foreigners to achieve their ends by devious means. The Spanish, a scourge of Mexico, have plans of their own and are no better loved than they ever were. The British, Americans and French seek political and financial power, oil and mines; a splendid horde of invaders, they are distrustful of each other, but unable to disentangle their interests. Then there are the native bourgeoisie, much resembling the bourgeoisie elsewhere, who are opposed to all idea of revolution. “We want peace, and more business,” they chant uniformly, but how these blessings are to be obtained they do not know. “More business, and no Bolshevism!” is their cry, and they are ready to support any man or group of men who can give them what they want. The professional politicians of Mexico likewise bear a strong family likeness to gentlemen engaged in this line of business in other parts of the world. Some of them have their prejudices; it may be against the Americans, or against the Church, or against the radicals, or against the other local political party, but whatever their prejudices may be they are pathetically unanimous in their belief that big business will save the country.

  The extreme radical group includes a number of idealists, somewhat tragic figures these, for their cause is so hopeless. They are nationalists of a fanatical type, recalling the early Sinn Feiners. They are furious and emotional and reasonless and determined. They want, God pity them, a free Mexico at once. Any conservative newspaper editor will tell you what a hindrance they are to the “best minds” who are now trying to make the going easy for big business. If a reasonable government is to get any work done, such misguided enthusiasts can not be disposed of too quickly. A few cooler revolutionists have been working toward civilized alleviations of present distresses pending the coming of the perfect State. Such harmless institutions as free schools for the workers, including a course in social science, have been set going. Clinics, dispensaries, birth control information for the appallingly fertile Mexican woman, playgrounds for children—it sounds almost like the routine program of any East Side social-service worker. But here in Mexico such things have become dangerous, bolshevistic. Among the revolutionists, the Communists have been a wildly disturbing element. This cult was composed mostly of discontented foreigners, lacking even the rudiments of the Russian theory, with not a working revolutionist among them. The Mexicans, when they are not good party-revolutionists, are simple syndicalists of an extreme type. By party-revolutionists I mean the followers of some leader who is not an adherent of any particular revolutionary formula, but who is bent on putting down whatever government happens to be in power and establishing his own, based on a purely nationalistic ideal of reform.

  The present government of Mexico is made up of certain intensely radical people, combined with a cast-iron reactionary group which was added during the early days of the administration. In the Cabinet at the extreme left wing is Calles, the most radical public official in Mexico today, modified by de la Huerta at his elbow. At the extreme right wing is Alberto Pani, Minister of Foreign Relations, and Capmany, Minister of Labor. The other members are political gradations of these four minds. The pull-and-haul is intense and never ceases. Such a coalition government for Mexico is a great idea, and the theory is not unfamiliar to American minds: that all classes have the right to equal representation in the government. But it will not work. Quite naturally, all that any group of politicians wants is their own way in everything. They will fight to the last ditch to get it; coalition be hanged!

  The revolution has not yet entered into the souls of the Mexican people. There can be no doubt of that. What is going on here is not the resistless upheaval of a great mass leavened by teaching and thinking and suffering. The Russian writers made the Russian Revolution, I verily believe, through a period of seventy-five years’ preoccupation with the wrongs of the peasant, and the cruelties of life under the heel of the Tsar. Here in Mexico there is no conscience crying through the literature of the country. A small group of intellectuals still writes about romance and the stars, and roses and the shadowy eyes of ladies, touching no sorrow of the human heart other than the pain of unrequited love.

  But then, the Indians cannot read. What good would a literature of revolt do them? Yet they are the very life of the country, this inert and slow-breathing mass, these lost people who move in the oblivion of sleepwalkers under their incredible burdens; these silent and reproachful figures in rags, bowed face to face with the earth; it is these who bind together all the accumulated and hostile elements of Mexican life. Leagued against the Indian are four centuries of servitude, the incoming foreigner who will take the last hectare of his land, and his own church that stands with the foreigners.

  It is generally understood in Mexico that one of the conditions of recognition by the United States is that all radicals holding office in the Cabinet and in the lesser departments of government must go. That is what must be done if Mexico desires peace with the United States. This means, certainly, the dismissal of everyone who is doing constructive work in lines that ought to be far removed from the field of politics, such as education and welfare work among the Indians.

  Everybody here theorizes endlessly. Each individual member of the smallest subdivision of the great triumvirate, Land, Oil, and the Church, has his
own pet theory, fitting his prophecy to his desire. Everybody is in the confidence of somebody else who knows everything long before it happens. In this way one hears of revolutions to be started tomorrow or the next day or the day after that; but though the surface shifts and changes, one can readily deduce for oneself that one static combination remains, Land, Oil, and the Church. In principle these three are one. They do not take part in these petty national dissensions. Their battleground is the world. If the oil companies are to get oil, they need land. If the Church is to have wealth, it needs land. The partition of land in Mexico, therefore, menaces not only the haciendados (individual landholders), but foreign investors and the very foundations of the Church. Already, under the land-reform laws of Juárez, the Church cannot hold land; it evades this decree, however, by holding property in guardianship, but even this title will be destroyed by repartition.

  The recent encounters between Catholics and Socialists in different parts of Mexico have been followed by a spectacular activity on the part of the Catholic clergy. They are pulling their old familiar wires, and all the bedraggled puppets are dancing with a great clatter. The clever ones indulge in skillful moves in the political game, and there are street brawls for the hot-heads. For the peons there is always the moldy, infallible device; a Virgin—this time of Guadalupe—has been seen to move, to shine miraculously in a darkened room! A poor woman in Puebla was favored by Almighty God with the sight of this miracle, just at the moment of the Church’s greatest political uncertainty; and now this miraculous image is to be brought here to Mexico City. The priests are insisting on a severe investigation to be carried on by themselves, and the statue is to be placed in an oratorio, where it will be living proof to the faithful that the great patroness of Mexico has set her face against reform.

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