The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  It was high time Mexico had a simple working president with his feet firmly set in his native soil. After the scintillating procession of remote and inaccessible rulers, there came up from the land a farmer, Alvaro Obregon, prosperous and well acquainted with his country in its working dress; a man of straight literal mind, with a detached legal passion for setting disorder to rights. He became a soldier when the need for an honest fighting man became all too plain. He kept himself clear of the intricacies of professional diplomacy and politics through several years as general when Carranza was Chief of the Army. Later he became minister of War with this same Carranza as president, and somehow stood straight in this post too, not once fooled or circumvented by the devious methods of the President and his group of flattering shadows.

  And now it is December 1st, 1920, and here is General Obregon about to become President of Mexico, after spectacular events, and a series of stupendous tragic blunders on the part of the fleeing Carranza. At twelve o’clock at night provisional President de la Huerta is to give over his office to General Alvaro Obregon. Preparations are all very festive, for everybody shares in a fiesta in Mexico. The city is strange with the voices of foreign people—we hear the shrill American voice, the tinkling Mexican voice, the gurgling Indian vocables, a scattering volley of French, truncated British speech, Spanish spoken in twenty different accents, for the South Americans are here in force. Here are the city Mexicans, rancheros grandiose in buckskin charros and great embroidered sombreros, Indians with sandaled feet and softly woven blankets luminous with color. They are all fearfully alive, fearfully bent on getting somewhere—the narrow sidewalks will not do, everybody takes to the street center, and disputes rancorously for place with the outraged drivers of cars.

  Plainly, Obregon becoming President has a definite interest for all parts of the world, each part nursing its particular interest, its personal hope. Mexico is a mine unexploited, and all the riches to be had here shout from the gray earth, speaking all tongues, heard and understood of all men. Here are soils fit to grow anything human beings can use. Here are silver and gold, coal and oil—the air is redolent with the sound of these unctuous words. Men mouth them lovingly, and stare at vague and varied horizons.

  Beauty is here too—color of mountain and sky and green things rooted in earth. Beauty of copper colored human things not yet wholly corrupted by civilization. Those things are well enough in their way, but business first. And our immediate business is getting this new President inaugurated, and finding out what he means to do with all the power vested in him.

  Hours before the time of taking the oath the Camara is filled. The boxes of the ambassadors blaze with gold lace and glinting ceremonious swords and the jewels around the necks of the women. Next door are the governors’ boxes, not quite so impressive, but gay with the gowns of the governors’ ladies. Below, the diputados come in, leisurely, one at a time, each man uniformed in black dress suit, gleaming white shirt front, imperturbable dignity of demeanor. On the right hand side the aristocrats seat themselves. You notice a great many long Bourbon faces, with hair rolled back from thin brows. They are men with several centuries of power back of them, and they love the accepted order of things. What they think of this occasion no one knows. For Alvaro Obregon’s face is not in the least Bourbon. He is Mexican, and a soldier, and a farmer, and a business man. On the left wing one notes a curious assortment of folk, evidently there by right, and vastly interested in the proceedings. One of them is Soto y Gama, thorn in the side of the old government, a man of wide education and culture, who rode his native mountains for seven years with a copy of Karl Marx, and another of the Bible in his pocket. Near him sits a wiry little nervous man, with an intrepid face, eyes tilted a bit at the corners. He is trim in his magpie uniform. His fingers drum the arm of his chair. He shifts about impatiently and crosses his legs repeatedly. He is Luis Leon, educated for an agricultural engineer, who could not work with the Carranza government for his conscience’s sake, and therefore became a bull fighter—one of the best in Mexico. When Obregon came in, Leon came in also, and was elected diputado. So we see him sitting there, his plain black and white a long step from the silver embroidered splendor of his torero’s cloak. And a longer step still, from the time he fought nine black bulls in a pen in Vera Cruz for the benefit of Zapatista revolutionists who mistook him for a spy. He did not have a torero cloak that day. He killed bulls, one at a time until there were no more bulls to be killed, and the revolutionists were convinced of his vocation as he had declared it to them. They let him go, in order, as you see, that he might sit tonight with his wing collar chafing his chin, waiting for Obregon to come in and be made president. There is Felipe Carrillo, poet, friend of poets, champion of the Indians in Yucatan, who is also here on grave business.

  There are others, on both sides of the house, who are worth watching. There is not an interest in all Mexico unrepresented by these seated men. They arrive in small groups, with the look of folk who have dined in peace and are now prepared carefully to consider the business of state. The diplomatic boxes and the governors’ boxes are now rivaled by the society boxes, where ladies fling off great cloaks and sit bare shouldered in the chill spaces of the Camara. We in the Camara are growing a trifle nervous. Two minutes until midnight. One minute. Half Minute. “My God,” murmurs a man sitting next, “Something must have happened!” They are so accustomed to things happening at inaugurations in Mexico, they doubt if even so civilized and dignified a procedure as this can pass without exciting and untoward events.

  A blare of trumpets sounds in the streets. Nearer. A great muffled shout, a sustained mellow roar soaks through the walls of the Camara. Another and milder roar inside, as the people rise to their feet. The clock hands point straight to twelve. The main portal swings back ponderously, and two men in plain dress suits, one wearing a white and green and scarlet ribbon across his chest, enter. The man wearing the ribbon has only one arm. The other has been left by the wayside between the farm and the President’s chair.

  The top gallery folk shout “Viva Obregon! Viva de la Huerta!” while the others applaud. President de la Huerta walks a step ahead of General Obregon. Presently, in not more than three minutes, they go again, and this time President Obregon walks a step ahead of citizen de la Huerta. But before this Mr. de la Huerta steps forward and embraces the new President. It has every evidence of heartiness and good will. And the incident is remarkable for being only the second of its kind recorded here. The old and the new have not been distinguished for amiable relations to one another.

  Once again Mexico has a duly installed constitutional government. Splendor, pomp, militarism, democracy, and internationalism have combined in one grand pageant to do honor to the new regime. It has begun with a thick surface layer of good will and gayety, a hopeful way for a new government to begin. The jubilation and applause was an indication of harmony at the moment at least—a sincere, deep down desire for a better and more livable Mexico; an obliterating psychological moment when personal desires, ambitions and private interests sink into the common weal and an unbreathed hope that this nation will take its rightful place in the commonwealth of the world.

  Being part and parcel of this grand spectacle, yet removed in sort of an impersonal observant way, one is compelled to pause and wonder. What will history say of this new man? What symbolism will designate the new order upon the destiny of the nation—this conglomerate and but little understood people?

  An unenviable position certainly is that of President Obregon. There are those who do envy, but surely from the point of personal ambition and aggrandizement and not from high minded service to country or as the solvent of the innumerable problems that hang over and wind about the presidential chair. He stands at the head of a nation that for a long time has been at utter discord with itself and its neighbors. Unharmonizing causes date back to the Spanish conquest and beyond. Republican form of government has never been successfully engrafted upon the Aztec and other primeval
roots. There has been a steady oscillation between despotism and revolution. Constitutions have come and gone between volleys of musketry.

  It has been well remarked that there never was a country for which God did more or man did less. Its very richness is its danger. Personal ambition and private self interest of those who constitute themselves the chosen few is rampant in Mexico today. It only exceeds the same virulent species of other nations in its tendency to subvert the ballot and the constitution by the rifle and the cannon, and by the richness of the prize sought. Neither does the exploitation by the arrogant few confine itself to Mexican citizenry. They are here from every point of the globe and the conflict for riches and prestige rage between race, color, and creed of every known angle and combination. There are plots for prestige, there are plots for political preference, there are plots for graft, great business interests are at stake, international problems of growing importance, an interweaving of selfish, private and governmental problems without end. Not hopeless to be true, unless the whole world is hopeless, for it may be truly said that for every problem of Mexico the rest of the world has a bigger one. Yet like the naughty boy in school, all eyes are on this turbulent one. For these great problems Destiny has handed the text book to President Obregon.

  “Mexican Sovereignty must be kept inviolable.” This is his answer to the first question on the first page. To this, every right thinking man of every nationality agrees. Only those who believe their own personal interest could be better served otherwise, can raise any objections to this and then only in whispered words in secret places. However the president has intimated by his public utterances that he does not consider sovereignty and provincialism as synonymous, that narrowness does not build a nation and that national rights as well as those of humans must work two ways, to the mutual best and equal division of interests and benefits—a sort of a national golden rule. If this policy is maintained as well as spoken, it will make the rest of the problems easy and many of them will disappear as corollary to the major premise.

  Carrying for some years the title of General is the policy of the new man to be militaristic? Is the iron hand of Porfirio Diaz again to rule? The enormous mass of Mexican people, like all other nations, detest the tyranny of an army. The president’s answer was given long ago. “I would rather teach the Mexican people the use of the tooth brush than to handle a rifle. I would rather see them in school than on battle fields. I prefer any day a good electrician, machinist, carpenter, or farmer to a soldier.” A modern statement of “And their swords to plowshares beating, nations shall learn war no more.” Yet this must not be taken for a high sounding platitude. President Obregon has his critics and severe ones but he is not accused of being unpractical and a dreamer of dreams for dreams’ sake. He has method and is a disciplinarian—nerve if you please—as has been shown on many occasions. He hates and distrusts professional diplomacy and politics. He is a man of action primarily. He has a curious suddenness in action very disconcerting to the professional politician, accustomed to weaving situations deftly and slowly.

  Granting he is right on the two great problems of sovereignty and citizenry the rest is comparatively easy. With a nation granting complete recognition of all rights legitimately acquired, it will soon be right with the other nations at issue whether to the North or more remote. With order, cleanliness, industry and labor established, Mexico with its riches would bound to the front. The capital of the world would come to its aid and capital is the one and only material need of this retarded, stunted and potential giant. With its great natural resources under development, debts would soon be paid, confidence restored, economic conditions adjusted, and bankruptcy turned to credit balances at the ports of the world. Being a farmer from the farm the land question should find easy solution at the president’s hands.

  To be right with his neighbors an individual must be right within himself. So it is with Nations. Possessed of brilliant mind, seasoned along the hard road of experience within his own land and broadened by travel without, President Obregon indicates by his words and actions that he has grasped the great principle of right dealing. At his first cabinet meeting he impressed most emphatically upon his collaborators the necessity of absolute morality in government. The English language employs the hard fibered word integrity, yet morality is broader and expresses the profundity of feeling of the new man for the desire to make the “Inner Chamber” of Mexico fit for the inspection of the world. Mr. Obregon knows, and the world will know, that he has enemies—many of them—strong and capable of deep hate, stopping at no thing to accomplish his downfall. Some will tell you he has done this or that discreditable thing in the past; others will say he will never stand to the end of his constitutional term. Yet strange to say none accuse him of stultifying official position to personal gain or placing personal ambition above his country’s good. Close observation would lead one to the conclusion that he is the choice of a great majority of his people and that he is the strongest available man to fulfill their need and longing for peace. They want room for expansion of their business, freedom and opportunity to manage their own affairs in their own country, and in their own way. These rights they claim with a calmness of men standing on their own solid earth. The great majority, peace loving by nature, want that prosperity that comes from stable conditions and they see in their new president a man who sincerely and with only the personal interest of real service, desires that they have these rightful inheritances and their God given dominion. Others, only luke warm, wish him well for they too want peace and the other things that go with it. His antagonists, when asked to name a better man, either admit it can not be done or by a national shrug of the shoulders refuse to nominate. Some go so far as to claim that with Mr. Obregon the last card has been played. If he can not bring about and maintain order in this troubled land, Mexico does not have a son capable of the task. This however, is only heard where zealous partisanship is strong or personal interest is involved. However two supremely important and terse questions arise and will not down wherever and whenever the possibility of failure from any source of Mr. Obregon’s administration is discussed. These are the questions. Who? What?

  Yet perhaps the new president’s greatest distinction is in his knowledge that of his own self he can do nothing. He has frankly told his people this and given them the admonition that only by their co-operation could Mexico take its rightful place. He can guide, direct and counsel; give the most useful service, stamp out evil practices, and put down incipient revolutions, yet if the public conscience is not attuned, General Alvaro Obregon must bow before defeat unavoidable though undeserved.

  So in its last analysis the new order which is beginning with every evidence of permanence and stability rests with all the people of Mexico, from president to peon, each responsible according to his own degree and station in the scheme of destiny.

  No better words can be found than those used by Waddy Thompson, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Mexico, in a book written in 1846, which were as follows: “God grant them success, both on their own account as well as for the great cause in which they have so long struggled, and under circumstances so discouraging.”


  December 12, 1920

  I followed the crowd of tired burdened pilgrims, bowed under their loads of potteries and food and babies and baskets, their clothes dusty and their faces a little streaked with long-borne fatigue. Indians all over Mexico had gathered at the feet of Mary Guadalupe for this greatest fiesta of the year, which celebrates the initiation of Mexico into the mystic company of the Church, with a saint and a miracle all her own, not transplanted from Spain. Juan Diego’s long-ago vision of Mary on the bare hillside made her Queen of Mexico where before she had been Empress.

  Members of all tribes were there in their distinctive costumes. Women wearing skirts of one piece of cloth wrapped around their sturdy bodies and women wearing gaily embroidered blouses with very short puffed sleeves. Women we
aring their gathered skirts of green and red, with blue rebosos wrapped tightly around their shoulders. And men in great hats with peaked crowns, wide flat hats with almost no crown. Blankets, and serapes, and thonged sandals. And a strange-appearing group whose men all wore a large square of fiber cloth as a cloak, brought under one arm and knotted on the opposite shoulder exactly in the style depicted in the old drawings of Montezuma.

  A clutter of babies and dolls and jars and strange-looking people lined the sidewalks, intermingled with booths, red curtained and hung with paper streamers, where sweets and food and drinks were sold and where we found their astonishing crafts—manlike potteries and jars and wooden pails bound with hard wrought clasps of iron, and gentle lacework immaculately white and unbelievably cheap of price.

  I picked my way through the crowd looking for the dancers, that curious survival of the ancient Dionysian rites, which in turn were brought over from an unknown time. The dance and blood sacrifice were inextricably tangled in the worship of men, and the sight of men dancing in a religious ecstasy links one’s imagination, for the moment, with all the lives that have been.

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