The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  The peons are further assured by the priests that to accept the land given to them by the reform laws is to be guilty of simple stealing, and everyone taking such land will be excluded from holy communion—a very effective threat. The agents who come to survey the land for the purposes of partition are attacked by the very peons they have come to benefit. Priests who warn their congregations against the new land-laws have been arrested and imprisoned, and now and then a stick of dynamite has been hurled at a bishop’s palace by a radical hot-head. But these things do not touch the mighty power of the Church, solidly entrenched as it is in its growing strength, and playing the intricate game of international politics with gusto and skill.

  So far, I have not talked with a single member of the American colony here who does not eagerly watch for the show to begin. They want American troops in here, and want them quickly—they are apprehensive that the soldiers will not arrive soon enough, and that they will be left to the mercy of the Mexicans for several weeks, maybe. It is strange talk one hears. It is indulged in freely over café tables and on street-corners, at teas and at dances.

  Meanwhile international finance goes on its own appointed way. The plans that were drawn up more than a year ago by certain individuals who manage these things in the United States, are going forward nicely, and are being hampered no more than normally by upstarts who have plans of their own. Inevitably certain things will have to be done when the time comes, with only a few necessary deviations due to the workings of the “imponderables.” The whole program has been carefully worked out by Oil, Land, and the Church, the powers that hold this country securely in their grip.


  Spring 1922

  Let me first repeat to you a story about Carranza told to me by a young Spaniard, Mexican born, who had identified his fortunes with that regime which ended with the sorry flight and death of its chief executive in the month of May, 1920.

  A civilized creature was this Spaniard, suffering with a complication of spiritual disgusts. He maintained a nicely ironic tone of amusement in relating his adventure, wherein he had followed the high promptings of a fealty that led him into a situation gravely dubious, false, and pitiable. Because of this, he permitted himself an anodyne gesture of arrogance.

  “Be as Anglo-Saxon, as American, as you like, madame, but try also to understand a little.”

  “I do not know whether this is understanding,” I told him, “but whatever you may tell me, I promise you I shall not be amazed.”

  “That is good. I ask you to regard it as a macabre episode outside of all possible calculation of human events. I desire that you may be pleasantly amused at the picture I shall make for you. Here is a wide desert, harsh with cactus, the mountains glittering under the sun-rays like heaps of hewn brass. Hot! O Dios! our early summer! Many trains of coaches crowding upon one another in their gaudy and ridiculous colors, a little resembling the building-blocks for children, miles of them, you understand, attached to busy engines madly engaged in the ludicrous business of dragging a Government, equipped and encumbered, into exile.

  “As Carranza goes, driven out by one of his own generals, he takes the matériel of government with him, and means to reestablish it in Vera Cruz. There are gold bars and coins, guns and ammunition, soldiers and women and horses, furnishings and silver from the castle, postage-stamps, champagne, jewels, a confusion of things seized in frantic emergency.

  “His cabinet, his personal friends, were with him. I had the honor, having been recalled suddenly from Washington, to share this calamity with my chief. We numbered in all sixteen thousand people in those trains, officials, soldiers, friends—and enemies. How could a president fail to have enemies among sixteen thousand persons?

  “Lupe Sánchez, general in the Federal Army, was waiting for us with his men along the way. Later there would be little Candido Aguilar, son-in-law of the chief. We were not without hope.

  “If for a moment, madame, we thought escape possible, put it down, please, to that persistent naïveté of faith in the incredible which is in the heart of every Mexican. La Suerte will not fail forever! And still la Suerte betrays us, and still we are faithful to her. It is our happiest fidelity.

  “Some one performed the simple feat of disconnecting the air-brakes of the first train. While we waited many hours on account of this, we smiled, for we had wondered what the first treachery would be, and it was this—trivial and potent, anonymous and certain. When we moved on slowly, revolutionary troops were stationed, waiting for us. We ran through a gantlet of bullets. We listened to the noise of firing, and drank champagne. The chief was silent, composed. We had nearly ten thousand effective soldiers. If he doubted them, no one knows to this day.

  “The attacking forces were defeated, though our soldiers were disconcerted by rifle-shells refusing to explode. It was not surprising to discover that nearly half the shells were filled with sand and pepper. Who did it? It was convenient to blame it on the Japanese munition-makers.

  “On the third day we met Lupe Sánchez, who had changed his mind, and had diverted his troops to the defense of the revolution. We had a battle with him all day, and in the morning he was joined by the troops of deserted little Candido, left armyless in some village to the south. Trevino came also with a fresh army. They attacked together.

  “That was all. Now we were certain of failure, and we did what we could toward the destruction of the train we must leave with the enemy. We dynamited and set fire to the coaches, and all of us gathered what gold we could for flight into the United States and Europe. My brother and I had each a satchel of gold, thirty thousand pesos, maybe; not much. Only for the moment, you see.

  “All of us who had arms joined the soldiers for a while. Two little revolvers and a belt of shells do not go far. We were beaten, and the chief gave orders for each man to go for himself. He released them all from their loyalty to him. He knew how to value it, you see.

  “I found a small horse, very lean, standing with his saddle on, a dead man hanging by one heel to the stirrup, head down. I rode with a group of soldiers. They were trying to desert to the enemy. I said to the leader:

  “‘Why do you desert the chief? I shall kill you!’

  “‘If you are not a fool, you will come with us,’ he replied very amiably. ‘This is a lost day.’ I let him go. Well, it was his own affair. A man’s honor is his own, no?

  “The soldiers spread flat over the earth behind cactus and hillock, firing at one another, no man knowing whether the other was friend or enemy. Carranza was riding away on horseback, followed by several hundred of his men. I gave my brother place behind me in the saddle, and we set out after the party. Our bags of gold were too heavy for the little horse; so we buried them under a boulder (I could never find that place again!) and later we joined the old man.

  “I remember him in this way, riding always ahead of us, without a word, his white beard blowing over his shoulder. I loathe all causes, madame, and all politics, but the man inspired admiration. At dark we stopped before a hut to buy tortillas, and mind what I say, the old man had not a centavo. One of us loaned him the few pennies needed. We made a dark camp that night, and all the next day we rode between hill and cactus.

  “Men were falling away from the party. One or two at a time, they saluted and left him, or turned back with no sign at all, or pleaded fatigue and promised to overtake us. But not one came back.

  “In the early evening we entered a friendly hacienda and there slept. At midnight I heard a continuous tramp of horses passing the outer wall under my window. I stood listening. I felt some one breathing beside me in the dark. One of the other men stood listening also.

  “‘They are bandits hunting for the Old Man,’ he whispered, ‘on their way into the mountains.’

  “‘We should wake the chief and tell him,’ I said.

  “‘Let him sleep,’ said the man. ‘What is the good of disturbing him now?’

  “In the morning my brother
and I decided to go no farther. The chief was a dead man; well, we would not be implicated in his death. So we saluted, and turned back also on our one little pony.”

  His eyes fixed themselves steadily upon me, a bitter regard of inquiry.

  “Madame, it was a desperate little jest, played out. There are, no doubt, causes worth dying for, but that was not one of them.”

  “Who killed him?”

  “It could have been any one of that group who went on with him. It could have been the bandits I heard passing in the night. Maybe an enemy who made this his special mission, or a friend who found himself in a situation he did not care for. He might, you see, go back to the new people in power and say: ‘See, here I am, your servant. I have just escaped from the bandits of Carranza.’ A poor chance, but an only one. Maybe the newest chief would believe him, maybe not. A President of Mexico can trust no one.”

  That final corroding phrase is the point of a cynical truth: a hundred years of revolutions have taught the President of Mexico that he can trust no one except his enemies. They may be depended upon to hate him infallibly; they will be faithful in contriving for his downfall.

  In Mexican revolution the cause and the leader are interchangeable symbols. A man has his adherents, who follow him in the hope of arriving, through him, one step nearer to the thing they want, whatever that may be. Obregón is the leader, and his followers are the proletariat. The proletariat being for him, naturally the other classes and subdivisions of classes are opposed to him, acting on the curious theory that what is good for the laborer must logically be very bad for everybody else. Obregón’s proletarian recalls that what was good for everybody else was very terrible for him, and he has set about evening up scores with more enthusiasm than justice, probably. Obregón has difficult work on hand. Himself a man of hardy good sense, an intellectually detached point of view, and civilized instincts, he must deal with the most conflicting welter of enmities and demands, surely, that ever harassed a holder of the executive office.

  His Indians, his revolutionist mestizos, are filled with grievances and wrongs, suffering cruel exigencies; they turn the tragic, threatening eyes of their faith toward him, and wait for him to fulfill his promises to them. Those promises mean realities, immediate benefits, if they have any meaning at all: land, work, freedom. He must deal with these honestly and without delay.

  As an Indian, exceedingly insular in his political views, he must deal in the subtleties of international finance and diplomacy with foreign politicians and capitalists who think in terms of continents and billions, and who are leagued powerfully with his chief enemies of his own country, the landholders, the church. These in turn may be divided again into delicate classifications: the aristocracy, the wealthy upper-class mestizo, the middle-class shopkeeping folk, and the great body of Indians who cling to their religion. For the sake of sufficient identification, they may call themselves reactionary or conservative or liberal. It does not signify. They have also a label for this present governing group. They call them bandits. It means nothing, and has a disreputable sound.

  The chief complaint among the anti-Obregón factions is that the new Government is acting on the theory that the lands of Mexico belong to the Indian, and that it is to the interest of the country to care first for this prodigious majority of its population. This is true, and it is revolutionary enough, indeed. But all the men now concerned in the Government are frankly nationalists. Only three of them have ever had a glimpse of Europe or this country. They studied in text-books the forms of government in other countries. But when the time came, they went about their business with their eyes fixed on their native earth. Only afterward their international point of view, such as it is, was formed, when they had come into power.

  For the first time they found themselves dealing not with the fervent episodes of battles fought out with personal minuteness of detail, where a general lay in ambush and fought beside his men, but with the gigantic and implacable facts: Mexico, a backward and menaced nation, dangerously rich in resource and weak in defenses, was in actual relation with a world of hostile, critical governments, all more powerful than Mexico herself, all more than a match for her in organized pillage, more nicely adjusted in a cynical freemasonry of finance, diplomacy, and war, the three Graces of civilization.

  In selecting his cabinet Obregón announced his belief that de la Huerta, radical philosopher, would work harmoniously with Alberto Pani, friend of the American Senator Fall. That Calles, Sonora revolutionist, would somehow make his terms with Capmany, millionaire reactionary. That Vasconselos, radical minister of education, and Villarreal, revolutionary minister of agriculture, could both be counted on not to be too extreme in moments of crisis. As an act of faith, this was magnificent. Faith in what? Watching Obregón’s methods of disposing of his enemies each according to his degree, I believe his faith is in himself.

  With this cabinet he set about the gigantic task of bringing order to a country in which order has been the least regarded of all laws. He had against him four tremendous opposing forces, the reactionaries against the radicals, the foreign against the native, an inextricably tangled mass of conflicting claims, any one of which he cannot afford to ignore. With a treasury virtually empty, he shouldered a national debt which, though not hopelessly large, is still enough to be a weapon in the hands of his opponents. And when he set about dividing the land, as he had promised, and collecting funds from the oil products to add to the national treasury, he cited Article Twenty-seven of the Mexican Constitution as amended by Carranza in 1917, and announced that it should now be made effective.

  That has caused all, or nearly all, of his trouble. It delayed recognition from the United States. It has been the peg upon which to hang many promising little counter-revolutionary schemes. It may yet prove fatal to his Government.

  Briefly, Article Twenty-seven gives to the Mexican Government full title to all the lands of Mexico, both surface and subsoil. It empowers the Department of Agriculture to break up unwieldy landholdings, and to divide the acreage among the Indians. It provides for a tax on all subsoil products, and thereby diverts to the national treasury and to the common life the fruit of the nation’s labor and products.

  This was the ideal which Obregón as President of Mexico designed to carry out. It had the noble simplicity of a hermit’s vision of beauty, and it was about as sympathetically related to practical politics.

  The oil interests were unanimous in opposing this article. Oil should be Mexico’s greatest asset, but the Guggenheims and Dohenys have made of it a liability almost insupportable to the country. It is the fashion now to blame all the present difficulties between Mexico and the United States on the Obregón regime; but it was Carranza who redrafted the Mexican Constitution, aside from a detail or two, to its present form. It was his administration that set the tax of ten percent on the selling price of oil, with a fifteen-percent royalty payable in produce on all oil obtained. The land partition had been one of his political plans. He did not carry it out, it is true. It is one of the reasons why he is not now President of Mexico. But Obregón inherited all his problems, dead ripe.

  El Aguila petroleum, a British company, and the Guffey interests made their peace, and announced their intention of complying with the national regulation of oil export. The Doheny interests, most implacable of all Mexico’s interior enemies, together with other companies, have side-stepped the payment in this way: they admit that the tax is nominal; they will pay taxes cheerfully on the price paid them for oil by the boat companies, which they allege is about forty cents a barrel. The boat companies claim they buy the oil outright, and, once loaded into the tanks, Mexico has no further claim of interest. The price they sell for in foreign markets is their own affair.

  This would be quite simple if the oil-producing companies and the oil-transportation companies were separate interests. But the case being what it is, the Government says pipelines shall have meters, the oil shall be measured as it flows into the tank-boats
, and the amount shall be taxed at the selling price of oil, which fluctuates with the market. And there the matter sticks.

  The Doheny interests are the source of eternal unrest. They want Obregón out, and nothing less will please them. A man of the old guard, say Esteban Cantu, is the choice of the Doheny faction. A good man, Cantu. Enormously wealthy, mixed upper-class blood, interested in oil. “Emperor of Lower California” they used to call him. When Obregón became president, Cantu was required to disband his standing army, was given to understand his vast estates would be repartitioned when the time came for it. Now, sporadically, he makes counterrevolution, designed to keep the oil and land question prominently before the eyes of the American public, or, I should say, the American politician.

  That much for the subsoil controversy. The surface lands are needed for agricultural purposes. The country must be fed on its own fruits. The drain of import is too heavy. The farming lands are held almost exclusively by Spaniards who have held the grants for centuries, by oil companies, and by the church. These three are in effect one. If the Government continues to carry out its drastic plan, it means that the old haciendas will be destroyed, church lands confiscated, and every foot of earth will be subject to government control. The entire question of recognition hangs on this one sword’s point.

  In the meantime, so far as the oil people are concerned, they cheerfully admit it is cheaper to keep a few minor revolutions going than to pay taxes. So Pablo Gonzales and Esteban Cantu and all that restless body of Mexicans with political ambitions and no love of country can be sure of a measure of support and aid in their operations.

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