The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Introduction to

  The Itching Parrot (El Periquillo Sarniento),

  by José Joachín Fernández de Lizardi (The Mexican Thinker),

  translated from the Spanish by Katherine Anne Porter.

  Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1942.

  THE author of The Itching Parrot was born November 15, 1776, in Mexico City, baptized the same day, in the parish church of Santa Cruz y Soledad, and christened José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi.

  His parents were Creoles (Mexican-born Spaniards), vaguely of the upper middle class, claiming relationship with several great families. They were poor, she the daughter of a bookseller in Puebla, he a rather unsuccessful physician, a profession but lately separated from the trade of barber. They made an attempt to give their son the education proper to his birth, hoping to prepare him for the practice of law.

  The child, who seems to have been precocious, willful, and somewhat unteachable, spent his childhood and early youth in an immensely Catholic, reactionary, socially timid, tight-minded atmosphere of genteel poverty and desperately contriving middle-class ambitions. Though his parents’ heads were among the aristocracy, their feet threatened daily to slip into the dark wallow of the lower classes, and their son witnessed and recorded their gloomy struggle to gain enough wealth to make the worldly show that would prove their claim to good breeding. There was no other way of doing it. In Spain, as in Europe, scholarship might be made to serve as a second choice, but in Mexico there was no place for scholarship. The higher churchly honors were reserved for the rich and nobly born; as for the army, it offered for a young Mexican only the most ignoble end: a father could wield as the last resort of authority the threat to send his son to be a soldier.

  The outlook was pretty thin for such as our hero. But he was to prove extraordinarily a child of his time, and his subsequent career was not the result of any personal or family plan, but was quite literally created by a movement of history, a true world movement, in which he was caught up and spun about and flung down again. His life story cannot be separated in any particular from the history of the Mexican Revolutionary period. He was born at the peak of the Age of Reason, in the year that the thirteen states of North America declared themselves independent of England. When he was a year old, the United States government decreed religious freedom. In Mexico the Inquisition was still in power, and the Spanish clergy in that country had fallen into a state of corruption perhaps beyond anything known before or since. The viceregal court was composed entirely of Spanish nobles who lived in perpetual luxurious exile; the Indian people were their natural serfs, the mixed Indian and Spanish were slowly forming a new intractable, unpredictable race, and all were ruled extravagantly and unscrupulously by a long succession of viceroys so similar and so unremarkable it is not worth while to recall their names.

  The French Revolution occurred when Lizardi was about fourteen years old. At twenty, he was a student in the University of Mexico, College of San Ildefonso. It is not likely that any newfangledness in social or political theory had yet managed to creep in there. There was very little thinking of any kind going on in Mexico at that time, but there were small, scattered, rapidly increasing groups of restless, inquiring minds, and whoever thought at all followed eagerly the path of new doctrines that ran straight from France. The air was full of mottoes, phrases, namewords for abstractions: Democracy, the Ideal Republic, the Rights of Man, Human Perfectibility, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Progress, Justice, and Humanity; and the new beliefs were based firmly on the premise that the first duty of man was to exercise freedom of conscience and his faculty of reason.

  In Mexico as in many other parts of the world, it was dangerous to mention these ideas openly. All over the country there sprang up secret political societies, disguised as clubs for literary discussion; these throve for a good many years before discussion became planning, and planning led to action and so to revolution.

  In 1798, his twenty-second year, Lizardi left the university without taking his bachelor’s degree, perhaps because of poverty, for his father died about this time, and there seems to have been nothing much by way of inheritance. Or maybe he was such a wild and careless student as he describes in El Periquillo. It is also possible that he was beginning to pick up an education from forbidden sources, such as Diderot, d’Alembert, Voltaire, Rousseau. At any rate, he never ceased to deplore the time he had spent at acquiring ornamental learning, a thing as useless to him, he said, as a gilded coach he could not afford to keep up. The fact seems to be, his failure was a hard blow to his pride and his hopes, and he never ceased either to bewail his ignorance. “To spout Latin is for a Spaniard the surest way to show off his learning,” he commented bitterly, and himself spouted Latin all his life by way of example. In later days he professed to regret that his parents had not apprenticed him in an honest trade. However, there was no help for it, he must live by his wits or not at all.

  After he left the university without the indispensable academic laurel that would have admitted him to the society of the respectably learned, he disappeared, probably penniless, for seven long years. These years of the locust afterwards were filled in suitably with legends of his personal exploits as a revolutionary. He was supposed to have known Morelos, and to have been in active service with the early insurgents. He says nothing of this in his own account of his life, written a great while afterwards: it is probable that he was a public scrivener in Acapulco. In 1805 he returned to Mexico City and married Doña Dolores Orendain, who brought him a small dowry. As late as 1811 he appears to have been a Justice of the Peace in Taxco, when Morelos took that town from the Viceroy’s troops, and was said to have delivered secretly a store of royalist arms and ammunition to Morelos. For this act he was supposed to have been arrested, taken to Mexico, tried and freed, on the plea that he had acted not of his own will but under threat of death from Morelos’ insurgents.

  The particularly unlikely part of this story is that the royalist officers would never have taken the trouble to escort Lizardi, an obscure young traitor to the Spanish throne, all the way from Taxco to Mexico City for trial. It is still a long road, and was then a terrible journey of several days. They would have shot him then and there, without further ceremony. A more unlikely candidate than Lizardi for gun-toting was never born. He shared with all other humanist reformers from Erasmus onward a hatred of war, above all, civil war, and his words on this subject read like paraphrases from Erasmus’ own writings, as indeed many of them were. Lizardi’s services to his country were of quite another kind, and his recompense was meager to the last degree.

  Just when those agile wits of his, which he meant to live by, first revealed themselves to him as intransigent and not for sale, it is difficult to discover. As late as 1811 he wrote a poem in praise of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who had protected the capital city and defeated by miracle the insurgent army led by Hidalgo. He wrote another entirely loyal and conventional poem to celebrate the accession of Philip VII to the Spanish throne. He belonged with the Liberal faction, that is, he opposed alike the excesses of the extreme insurgents and the depravities of the viceroys, he began by believing himself to be a citizen of the world, wrote against narrow patriotism, and refused to put himself at the service of any lesser cause than that of absolute morality, in every department of state and church. His literary career began so obscurely that it is difficult to trace its beginnings, but by 1811 he was writing and publishing, on various presses in Mexico City, a copious series of pamphlets, poems, fables, dialogues, all in the nature of moral lectures with rather abstract political overtones, designed to teach broadly social sanity, political purity, and Christian ethics. These were sold in the streets, along with a swarm of broadside, loose-leaf literature by every kind of pamphleteer from the most incendiary Mexican nationalist to the most draggle-tailed anonymous purveyors of slander and pornography.

  A series of rapid events occurred which brought Lizardi out into the open, decided the course
of his beliefs and therefore of his acts, and started him once for all on his uncomfortable career as perpetual dissenter. In 1810 the Council of Cádiz decreed the freedom of the press, for Spain and her colonials. The Viceroy of Mexico, Xavier Vanegas, believed, with his overworked board of censors, that the Mexican press had already taken entirely too much freedom for itself. He suppressed the decree, by the simple means of refraining from publishing it.

  By July, 1811, the insurgent army under Hidalgo had been defeated, and late in that month the heads of Hidalgo and his fellow heroes, Aldama, Jimínez, and Allende, were hanging as public examples in iron cages at Guanajuato. The Empire was re-established, with Vanegas still Viceroy, and during that year and into the next, the censorship of the press became extremely severe. Every printer in Mexico was required to show a copy of every title he published, and among the items that showed up regularly were quite hundreds of flimsy little folders with such names as “The Truthful Parrot,” in which a loquacious bird uttered the most subversive remarks in the popular argot of the lower classes, mixed freely with snatches of rhyme, puns in Mexican slang, and extremely daring double meanings. There were such titles as “The Dead Make No Complaints”; “The Cat’s Testimony,” a fable imitating La Fontaine; “It Is All Right to Cut the Hair But Don’t Take the Hide Too,” which in Spanish contains a sly play on words impossible to translate; “There Are Many Shepherds Who Shall Dance in Bethlehem,” another punning title, meaning that many priests shall go to Belén (Bethlehem), the great prison which exists still in Mexico City; “Make Things So Clear That Even the Blind May See Them”; “Even Though Robed in Silk, a Monkey Is Still a Monkey”; “All Wool Is Hair,” which has a most salty double meaning; “The Nun’s Bolero,” concerning scandals in convents; “The Dog in a Strange Neighborhood”; “The Devil’s Penitents”—these were only a few of the provocations Lizardi showered upon the censors, the royalist party, the church, venal politicians of all parties, social and political abuses of every kind. The censors could hardly find a line that did not contain willful but oblique offense, yet nothing concrete enough to pin the author down on a criminal charge, so the Council of Safety contented itself with harrying him about somewhat, suppressing his pamphlets from time to time, forbidding various presses to publish for him, and threatening him occasionally with worse things.

  But it is plain that Lizardi had discovered that he was, in particular, a Mexican, and a patriotic one, though still in general a citizen of the world. It would seem that those truly heroic heads of Father Hidalgo and the others in Guanajuato had brought him down from the airy heights of abstract morality to a solid and immediate field of battle. For, in June, 1812, three months before the new constitution took effect, Viceroy Vanegas, who seems to have been a rather weak, shortsighted man, alarmed by the continued rebelliousness of a people he had believed he had conquered, took a fateful step. He issued an edict condemning to death all churchmen of regular or secular state who might take part in the revolution. This clause dealt with those many priests who rose to take the place of Father Hidalgo. All officers from the rank of sublieutenant upwards were condemned to death. There were all over the country an immense number of captainless men who went independently into battle. These were to be decimated on the spot wherever captured. This last clause might seem to have covered the business; but the Viceroy added a final generous provision for wholesale slaughter. After such decimation, those who by chance had escaped death were, if convenient, to be sent to the Viceroy for suitable punishment. If this was not convenient, it was left to the discretion of each commandant to do with them as he saw fit.

  So far, the edict was in its nature a fairly routine measure in times of emergency. But there was a further clause condemning to death all authors of incendiary gazettes, pamphlets or other printed matter. This was sensational, considering that unpublished decree granting freedom of the press. The liberal wing of the Constitutionalist (or royalist) party, together with all the forces that aimed for a peaceable settlement and some sort of compromise with the revolutionists, protested against this edict and advised the Viceroy seriously against such drastic means. The Viceroy did not cancel the edict, but as a sop to public opinion, he did publish the Cádiz decree on October 5, 1812, and the Mexican press, theoretically at least, was free.

  Lizardi was ready to take advantage of this freedom. He leaped into print just four days later with the first number of his first periodical, which had for title his own pen name, The Mexican Thinker. For two numbers he praised the glories of a free press and the wonders of liberty, but in the third he broke out in high style against the whole Spanish nation, its pride, its despotism; against the corruptions of the viceregal court, the infamies of officials in every station. Seeing that no revenge overtook him, he dared further in a later number: “There is no civilized nation which has a worse government than ours, and the worst in America, nor any other vassal country that has suffered more harshly in its arbitrary enslavement.” He turned upon the Spanish governors the very words they had used against Hidalgo. “Cursed monsters,” he wrote, and printed, and sold in the streets to be read by all, “you despots and the old evil government are responsible for the present insurrection, not as you say the Cura Hidalgo. It is you together who have stripped our fields, burned our villages, sacrificed our children and made a shambles of this continent.”

  It is worth noticing here that among his fellow pamphleteers, Lizardi was famous for his moderate language and his courtesy in debate.

  No consequences followed this wrathful page. Lizardi went on safely enough until the ninth number, published on December 2, 1812. He devoted this number to an appeal to the Viceroy Vanegas to revoke at least that clause of the edict against revolutionaries which called for the trial of insurgent priests before a military court. He also wrote a personal letter to the Viceroy, timed the publication date to coincide with the Viceroy’s Saint’s Day, and appeared at court with a specially printed copy. With his own hands he delivered this little bombshell into the very hands of Vanegas, and received the viceregal thanks.

  It is hardly probable that Vanegas troubled to examine the papers given him, but the Council of Safety, alarmed, informed him of its contents. The following day the Viceroy and his council suspended the freedom of the press, “for reason of the unsettled conditions of the country.” They sent for Lizardi’s printer, manager of the Jáurigui press, who admitted that Lizardi had written the offending article.

  On the fifth of December they ordered Lizardi to appear before the Court. He disappeared into ineffectual hiding in the house of a friend, Gabriel Gil, where, at three o’clock in the morning, December 7, he was seized and taken to prison. He wrote the story ten years later at great length, and he was still as indignant as he was the day it occurred, but he was proud, also, of the number of men who came to help with the arrest. There were more than seventy of the “dirty birds.”

  It must be remembered that, under the edict, Lizardi was in danger of death. It would appear his jailers set out methodically to terrorize him, and they succeeded. It does not appear that his judges had any intention of sentencing him to death, but the whole proceedings had the air of making a stern example of troublesome scribblers. They put him in the death cell, where he passed a hideous night, expecting a priest to come to administer the last rites, expecting to be tortured, mistaking the rattle of the jailor’s keys for chains. In the morning they took him before a judge he knew, and suspected of having headed the plot to imprison him, where he had to listen patiently to a great deal of foul insult and injury.

  Lizardi, in the speeches of his celebrated hero, El Periquillo, declared repeatedly that he feared physical violence more than anything else. The Periquillo is merry and shameless about it, for cowardice is possibly the most disgraceful trait known to man in Mexico, but his author did not find it amusing in himself. Later in his defense to the Viceroy he admitted quite simply that he had refused to obey the first summons to appear because he feared violence and not beca
use he had a sense of guilt. His fears were reasonable. Worse had happened to other men for less cause, or at any rate for no more.

  Still, when he gathered that harsh language was probably going to be the worst of it, and he was not going to be tortured and hanged, or at any rate, not that day, he recovered his spirits somewhat and took a rather bantering tone with his infuriated questioners. He was a tall, slender man of a naturally elegant manner, of the longheaded, well-featured Hidalgo kind; his portrait shows a mouth sensitive almost to weakness, and a fine alert picaresque eye. His judges, being also Spanish, and prone to judge a man’s importance by his dress—a reflection of his financial state, which was in turn proof of his caste—were inclined to doubt he was so dangerous as they had thought, since Lizardi at that moment was “emaciated, pallid, of shabby appearance,” with his “black cloak smeared and crumpled from using it as a bed” in his cell; ten years after he remembered with regret that he had no time to clean it properly before having to show himself. Lizardi told them that indeed they were right, not he but two ladies, one respectable, the other plebeian, had written the articles. They insisted humorlessly that he explain himself. He sobered down and confessed himself as the author. “The respectable lady was the constitution of Cádiz, which allowed him to write on political questions; the plebeian was his own ignorance which had misled him into believing the Viceroy would not be angered by a request to revoke an edict distasteful to the people.”

  Their ferocity rose at this, they demanded an account of his whole life, and pursued him with questions meant to trap him until, seeing the affair still threatened to be serious, he grew frightened again and implicated his friend Gabriel Gil as well as Carlos María Bustamante, an active insurgent, and writer, who had “warned him his life was in danger and advised him to leave the city.”

  Probably because of these interesting bits of evidence and not, as Lizardi boasted years afterwards, on account of his own astuteness, for he certainly does not seem to have shown any, the sentence of solitary confinement was lifted, he was remanded to the common jail among a number of his comrade insurgent prisoners and Gil was arrested.

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