The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  You see what Obregón has in the way of organized opposition. Even in the Chamber of Deputies he has a minority. In his own cabinet he can with difficulty strike a balance in his favor at moments of crisis. Yet he has held the Government together for two years, and appears to be growing steadily in strength. The currency exchange is at par; gold is the circulating medium; business is good; banks are steady. What is the source of his power?

  He has, as I have said, the organized proletariat, the labor-unions. They are for him exactly as long as he is for them. He encounters no obscurities of motive there. His influence has wavered precariously at moments when he was threatened from foreign sources. His followers watch him, and criticize him savagely when he decides on compromise as preferable to extermination.

  The unorganized proletariat follows, as a rule, the organized. There are his federal troops, a loose body of men not given to loyalties. As soldiers they follow the leader. They followed him at a time when they were theoretically loyal to Carranza. He has them—maybe.

  There are the Yaqui Indians, a fierce and evil tribe who fight like demons lately unchained from hell. Obregón is the only man who has ever succeeded in taming them to regular warfare. His humanizing mediums were land and food and decent treatment. He has them—maybe.

  The socialist bandits of Morelia are his. They are the most promising of all the radical groups, a fantastic mixture of doctors and lawyers and poets and teachers who took to the high roads against Carranza, soldiers who detached themselves from the army without leave and engaged in a personal pursuit of glory, plain road-pillagers converted to the revolutionary ideal. They were the remnants of Zapata’s horde, those fanatic highwaymen who used to make speeches to their victims after this manner, poking them in the ribs with revolvers to emphasize the moral points of their discourse:

  “In giving up your gold to us you are honored in contributing to the cause of freedom. These funds shall be used to further the revolution, to bring to our downtrodden brothers justice and peace and liberty. Be happy, brother, that we do not blow out your capitalistic brains.”

  These men are now engaged in running the state of Morelia on an outright socialist program. The state is at peace except for May-day battles between Catholics and Socialists and an occasional riot on feast days.

  Yucatán, also a revolutionary state, is loyal to Obregón. It is a nation by itself, removed by language, by tradition, and custom from the rest of the country. The last of the Mayas are there, a spectacular, insular people, up to the eyes in social and economic grievances, who make their state a battle-ground. Felipe Carillo, a Maya, was elected governor by sixty thousand majority, and if he lives to take the chair, we shall see revolutionary theory practised freely in Yucatán.

  From high to low, this is the strength of Obregón. He works quietly, slowly, holding his ground as he gains it with a tenacity that cannot be stampeded into action even with his mob of revolutionists growling at his heels, demanding that he ignore the claims of foreign capital and politics.

  He gives personal interviews to all manner of strange persons who track him down indefatigably: reporters and magazine-writers from the United States; delegations from chambers of commerce; representatives of every type of promotion scheme under heaven, all designed to benefit Mexico; walking delegates from the labor-unions; unofficial diplomats and businessmen who wish to establish some sort of trades relation with Mexico.

  Take this sort of thing to illustrate: Mexico has a body of lawmakers known as the Chamber of Deputies, which functions somewhat in the manner of our House of Congress. On one occasion the conservative faction went openly to war with Carillo, then deputy from Yucatán. The disturbances became a riot. For three days the lawmakers went on a debauch of dissension. A committee of deputies appealed to the president to put an end to the disgraceful episode. Acting through the governor of the district, Obregón ordered that the riot be quelled after the ordinary procedure against disturbances of the peace. Whereupon the city fire department went down to the white-pillared Chamber of Deputies, turned on high-pressure hose through the open windows, and the disorderly deputies were drenched to the bone. The disturbances stopped.

  It would be absurd, comic, if death were not in it. The role of dictator is strangely associated with a civilized perception of government. Wherever generals playing the counterrevolutionary game are captured, there they are executed, usually within twelve hours. Pablo Gonzales has escaped so far, but only one of his numerous small forays recently resulted in the execution of five men, two of them being generals in the president’s army.

  If the revolutionists were all Mexicans, it would be, possibly, a local business. But Mexico has been hospitable to political refugees from all parts of the world. They have come making mischief each after his own taste, arrogantly bringing their diverse doctrines to a land already overborne with doctrines. A sudden flurry of antiradical sentiment resulted in a few of the more obviously annoying of the aliens being set gently over the borders of their native lands, in accordance with Article Thirty-three of the Mexican Constitution, which provides that a too impossible guest may be thrown out.

  The foreign radicals, bereft of the security of government toleration, declared the Mexican Government was betraying its highest revolutionary ideals by way of currying favor with the United States. They accused the cabinet of taking orders from the American chargés d’affaires. Maybe so. Oddly enough, it did happen that most of the deportees were received hospitably by the American jails on their return from exile. But one might believe also that the long-suffering Mexican Government had grown humanly sick of gnat-stings, and had rid itself of a few minor curses in order to concentrate on greater ones.

  Every foreign opportunist with a point to make can find the support of other opportunists in Mexico. The result is a hotbed of petty plotting, cross purposes between natives and foreigners, from the diplomats down to the unwashed grumbler who sits in the Alameda and complains about the sorrows of the proletariat. In all this the men in present power are struggling toward practicable economic and political relations with the world.

  Psychologically, we are as alien to them as we are to the French, and in much the same way; for the Mexican upper class social and business customs are to-day more French than Spanish.

  The hope of the Labor party is to establish an interdependent union with the South American states, leading naturally to clear avenues of trade and communication with Europe. It is the logical sequence of events, and would be a tremendous source of strength to Mexico. But if the union is established, it will be an achievement of finesse which Mexico may take pride in; for the idea is rankest treason to our high financial rights in that country.

  Luis Morones, present chief of munitions for the Government, is the leader of this Labor party. He is wholly Indian, a leader by temperament, executive, and powerful. His pride is in his factories and plants, where the working conditions are ideal, and the wage is the highest paid in the republic.

  In the educational work Vasconcelos, minister of education and president of the National University, has begun an intensive program of school founding among the Indians, with special attention to industrial and agricultural schools, his intention being not to oppress the Indian with an education he cannot use, but to fit him for his natural work, which is on the land.

  Vasconcelos is, despite what we would call radical tendencies, a believer in applied Christianity. He might be called a Tolstoyan, except that he is Mexican, and the doctrine of nonresistance does not engage his faith. He claims in his calm way that the true purpose of higher education is to lift the souls of men above this calamitous civilization. We cannot outwear it until we have fixed the aspirations of our souls on something better. He publishes a magazine of religion, philosophy, and literature in Mexico City, giving translations from the works of Tolstoy, Rolland, Anatole France, and Shaw.

  Other men, in no wise connected with politics, are each in his own individual manner deeply concerned with the rebu
ilding of his country. Widely separated as they are in caste and political sympathies, they are strangely of one mind with the others in their will to be of service to their shattered nation. There is Manuel Gamio, archaeologist and writer, wholly Spanish, but born in Mexico, whose research work and restoration of the Teotihuacán pyramids is sponsored and financed by the present Government. Mr. Gamio is studying race sources in Mexico with the sole aim of discovering the genuine needs of the Indian, and the most natural method of supplying them.

  Jorge Enciso, also Spanish, is an authority on early Aztec art and design, and is making a comparative study of motives used by the early and widely separated tribes. Adolfo Best-Maugard, a painter, has spent eight years in creating a new manner of design, using as a foundation the Aztec motives. He has done valuable work in reviving among the Indian schoolchildren the native instinct for drawing and designing. His belief is that a renascence of the older Aztec arts and handicrafts among these people will aid immeasurably in their redemption.

  Redemption—it is a hopeful, responsible word one hears often among these men. Strangely assorted are the true patriots of Mexico, and few as numbers go. But what country has many faithful sons? These men are divided as only social castes can divide persons from one another in a Latin-minded country, and yet they share convictions which, separately arrived at, are almost indivisible in effect.

  They all are convinced, quite simply, that twelve millions of their fifteen millions of peoples cannot live in poverty, illiteracy, a most complete spiritual and mental darkness, without constituting a disgraceful menace to the state. They have a civilized conviction that the laborer is worthy of his hire, a practical perception of the waste entailed in millions of acres of untilled lands while the working people go hungry. And with this belief goes an esthetic appreciation of the necessity of beauty in the national life, the cultivation of racial forms of art, and the creation of substantial and lasting unity in national politics.

  As a nation, we love phrases. How do you like this one? “Land and liberty for all, forever!” If we needed a fine ringing phrase to fight a war on, could we possibly improve on that one? The tragic, the incredible thing about this phrase is that the men who made it, meant it. Just this: land, liberty, for all, forever!

  They fought a long, dreary, expensive revolution on it. As soon as they had it fought, they began to translate the phrase into action. Their situation today is as I have described it to you.

  In a Mexican Patio

  SMALL sounds and smells filter up from the patio, and float vaguely through the grey net of my morning sleep. A delicate slapping together of hands, rhythmic and energetic, would be young Maria making tortillas. The splash of running water, plentiful as rain, would be Manuel washing the square brown paving stones of the driveway. The smell of roasting coffee and of carbon smoke means that Lupe the cook is fanning the charcoal blaze in the red-tiled brasero in the first balcony. The gentle conciliating whimper of a very young voice, with occasional commands in a very old rattling voice mean that Consuelo is having her hair brushed by her grandmother, Josefina the portress.

  The latticed iron outer gates and the tall inner gate of carved wood are not yet opened. The enclosed garden is mottled with cold early shadows. The stagnant shallow fountain, where the tangled shrubberies weave green mats to the water’s edge, has not a ripple. Lilies grow here, spreading pale leaves under a trellis weighted by an arrogant bougainvillea vine, whose fronds rise to my balcony, thrusting their purple through hospitable windows.

  They give warmth to the frosty white room with the high ceilings and glass candelabras. The sunshine strikes across the bare floor thinly. In the afternoon it will be there again from the other side, thawing and yellowing the chill spaces. Now I stand in the strip of light while I dress, shivering.

  I cross the inner balcony to breakfast. The red and delft blue tilings are slippery and damp from recent washings. This balcony extends around three sides of the patio, with blue plaster pots set in wrought iron containers fastened at intervals along the top of the railing. The pots nourish a miscellany of struggling vegetation, flowering in pink and scarlet. A roof bordered with a ribbon of iron cut and painted in a lace pattern protects one side of the house. Here the walls are nicely tinted in squares of rose and yellow and blue, with thin edgings of mustard colour. On the opposite side the surface is rainwashed, sunfaded, streaked in pallid pink and grey.

  Near the door of the dining room, grave faced Heraclia hangs the bird cages of decorated wicker on the outer wall, where the gold coloured birds may bathe and spread their feathers in the vehement sunrays. Her long blue reboso falls back straightly almost to her feet as she stretches up her neck. The black bands of her hair bind her forehead and cheeks in a sleek curve. Her eyes are fixed with curious intensity on her simple task. A kitten sleeps on the threshold, where I step over him carefully.

  A thin little boy, very brown, is already setting a plate for me at one corner of the long table. His head is thrust through a slit in his short green and yellow serape. His hair stands up all around, like the bristles of a horse brush. He has bread crumbs on his chin.

  I sit and regard the light through window glass stained in orange and red and rose: greenish orange and purplish rose, done in relentless symmetry of pattern. I sniff the bitter fragrance of poppies sprawling in a blue bowl at my elbow. A mirror framed in a confusion of carved oak roses and bulbous Cupids over-sophisticated of eye and posture, reflects in its ravelled silver three dying annunciation lilies, shrivelled pale ochre at the edges.

  I think calmly of death as I butter a roll and examine the lilies. Then I turn my eyes toward the pine tree with four planes of branches rising above the wall, drowned in prodigious blue distances, and feel immortal. It always pleases me to feel immortal at this hour of the day, while I drink my coffee. The muchacho brings the coffee in a pottery cup, capacious as a bowl. He holds it with extraordinary care, gripping the saucer with both hands. But he splashes it anyhow, on the cloth, on my plate, on my sleeve, and on his own thumb. He gives a strangled yelp of surprise and puts his thumb in his mouth. Thank heaven, that means the coffee is hot for once.

  An Indian girl wearing huge brass hoops in her ears trots through the dining room carrying an immense tray of food on her head. Her hair is braided in a thick round coil on her crown, making a flat surface for carrying burdens. Her raised arms are curved as softly as the handles of a native jar. She disappears into the corridor leading to Doña Rosa’s apartment.

  Doña Rosa is the hostess, as the courteous phrase has it, of this guest house. She is large and leisurely and placid. She lives in rooms adjoining the kitchen, whence her two children, a son and a daughter, both as fat and wholesome looking as apple dumplings, emerge and disappear again at intervals. Doña Rosa herself rarely comes out. She sits inside and rings a bell which sounds in the rear hall. At the first jingle, a cook, a maid, and several of their children rush to answer it. In a moment they all rush back to the kitchen, where after some confusion and excited talk, they clatter again through the dining room, carrying a cup of chocolate and a plate of rice and a pitcher of hot water for Doña Rosa.

  On rare occasions I have seen her, at the noon hour, returning from market. The cleanly brown skin of her face is unmarred by powder. Her smooth black hair is fastened with three flat jet pins. Her eyes are clear brown, her teeth strong and white. She is tall, and her ample black skirts sweep the floor, swinging handsomely over her opulent hips. A black reboso of heavy crinkled silk, fringed thickly and at great length, falls about her shoulders. She moves with extraordinary decision, turning her head slowly on her muscular neck, observing everything serenely. She is the widow of a general who was killed in a casual battle at the frayed end of some revolution, when her children were babies.

  Now she wears mourning, and goes to church, and to market.

  I take occasion to speak with Doña Rosa concerning the young coyote tethered to the water pipe on my roof. He is a pilgrim on his way to anoth
er fate; Heraclia’s brother will take him to the country in a few days, and there, I hope, he will become the pet of an indulgent household. But in the meantime he grieves, and although I grieve with him, still I cannot devote all my time to it. Is it possible to have him removed to a far corner of the patio for the rest of his stay? He has an enormous voice for so young a creature.

  With this question carefully assembled in Spanish from a phrase book, I enter the darkened room of Doña Rosa. Against the precision of the maroon coloured wall paper design hang pictures of obscure saints, their upturned eyes glazed with highly specialized agonies. A shrine lamp is blood colour before a pallid Virgin gazing into the mysteries of a paper-flower bouquet.

  Doña Rosa sits in a vast bed overflowing with puffy quilts riotous with strange blossoms. Her daughter sits at one elbow, her son at another. The three of them wear dressing gowns of the same material. The tray is on her flattened knees. They are drinking hot milk flavoured with coffee, munching great sugared buns.

  Daughter feeds a grey kitten. Son feeds a yellow kitten, and with difficulty persuades him not to drink from the family milk pitcher. A pair of slightly fevered, ill-humoured eyes and a moist, black lacquered nose burrowing under Doña Rosa’s arm, belong to Pipo the naked Chihuahua dog. We have met only once before, but I remember him well. He was then painted a watermelon pink, and wore a blue ribbon on his tail. He was eating beans from an orange and red Oaxaca bowl, and it occurred to me then that I had never sufficiently understood the phrase “local colour.” Pipo was It. Now, he struggles out a bit from his smother of blankets, and I see that his crepe de chine surface is tinted emerald green. No wonder his eyes are fevered.

  Doña Rosa offers me a cup of coffee. Daughter gives me a roll. I sit on the billowing bedside, and we straighten out the coyote question with the utmost amiability, in snatches of three languages.

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