Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Home-Life in Mexico

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Home-Life in Mexico

By Mary Hallock Foote (1847–1938)

[Born in Milton-on-the-Hudson, N. Y., 1847. Died in Hingham, Mass., 1938. A Provincial Capital of Mexico.—The Century Magazine. 1882.]

MORELIA, from the point of view of the Casa G——, is a very different experience from the same place viewed from the Hotel Michoacan. Instead of the bedside tray of coffee and rusks served by the waiter with the impenetrable head of hair, who never knocked at the door, one awakened to the luxury of a bath, a daintily served cup of chocolate or a bumper of hot milk, fresh eggs, fresh fruit, in the flower-scented dining-room, at whatever hour one chose to ask for it. The air of early morning was indescribably pure and cool—cool enough to suggest an open fire to an English or American constitution—but the sunny side of the corridor was a very good substitute. The flowers were freshly watered and fragrant. All the galleries in Mexico surrounding the inner courts are lined with flowers. It is one of the prettiest features of their domestic architecture. The vines festooned along the arches stirred a little in the breeze which lifted and let fall the heavy leaves of the banana tree near the dining-room door. Clear shadows slanted across the pale-tinted stone façade of the cloistered gallery. There was a hammock of Panama grass, swinging empty, or cradling the little daughter of the house, always attended by a fluffy white poodle, whom she addressed as “Enrique! mi Alma!” (my Soul!).

A man-servant, of the shade of complexion called moréno—chocolate with a little milk in it—and eyes of chocolate unmixed, in a white linen blouse, with a red sash girding the waist, shuffled listlessly about the gallery at this hour, watering the plants or sweeping the red-tiled pavement with a broom made of palm splints. There was a parrot, like a great jewel, on his perch in the sun. The gray turtle-doves are regarded by the Mexican servants as harbingers of evil to the house where their soft guttural note is heard, but the Casa G—— rejected this superstition of the country, and gave shelter to the doves. The noises of the house were very pleasant; loud, harsh voices or footsteps were unheard; no bell ever rang. If the young mistress had need of a servant, she stepped into the corridor and clapped her hands. The signal was answered by Leonarda, or Rita, or Michaela, or the disconsolate Ascension, who did everything with a fine gloomy air, even to the carrying about on his shoulders of the little José, the child of Leonarda, the Camarista. Their mediæval associations reconciled one to the only loud noises of the house—the deep, echoing bay of the two gaunt young bloodhounds chained to the wall of the court below, and the stamping of the horses’ feet on the pavement of their stalls under the arches. The rear court was called the corral. It was here the steeds—two saddle-horses, and a pair of very large and solemn white mules, who drew the family carriage to the paséo every afternoon—were watered, at the stone tank built against the high wall and overshadowed by a bamboo thicket—all smooth brown stems, leaning in graceful curves, supporting or letting fall a shimmer of pale-green leaves over the brown water. Ysabel, the coachman, with his sarape over his shoulder, sitting on the edge of the tank while the white mules drank, suited well this corner of the court, rich in color and shadow. A little community of fowls inhabit a part of the corral, and the care of them was one of my host’s pastimes. There was not a plebeian among them; almost all were creoles of purest foreign blood; a few of foreign birth also, as the gallant English game-cock, the prince consort to a small clipper-built Spanish hen of flawless extraction. The most beautiful and valiant of the game-cocks were translated to the corridor above the corral—a kind of Walhalla, where, from the solitude of a hero’s seat, they looked down on the domestic cares and small, bustling lives of their kindred below. The days began with much life and cheerfulness—the dogs baying in the court, excited by the coming and going of their master’s footsteps; loud discussions among the hens in the corral; the cocks calling to each other in the corridor; the porters washing down the pavement of the courts. There was practising in the sala, or recitations, audible through the open doors of the school-room presided over by the German governess; my hostess in the “dispensary,” giving out the household stores for the day to the women-servants, or inspecting the attractive basket Ysabel brings from the market—as picturesque as a fruit-and-game “piece” with its miscellaneously heaped contents, including fruits from the Tierra Caliente, brought on donkeys up the slopes of the Sierra Madre, strange herbs and vegetables, and always a mass of flowers for the table. The first ceremonious meal at which the family assembled was the midday breakfast, almuerzo. There was a succession of courses, chiefly meats, in surprising quantity and variety in a climate where a very little animal food is sufficient, ending with dulces and coffee. After the soup, rice, cooked in the Mexican fashion, was invariably served and eaten with bananas. The game and poultry had the advantage of the most perfect cooking over a charcoal fire. A spit is used in roasting, and every Mexican kitchen is well provided with a multitude of pottery vessels, even to pottery griddles, light and clean, which seemed, to me far preferable to our heavy, unappetizing metal ones.

From time to time a national dish appeared, rather to humor the guests’ fancy for their novelty than for a preference for them on the part of the family. One called turco, I was told, is of Moorish origin. It is composed of chicken, cooked slowly in a paste made of the flour of a very small and delicate dried pea, and served with a sauce of complex flavor. Raisins and olives are an incidental feature of it, and the whole dish tastes of the Arabian Nights. The famous sweetmeat of Michoacan, guaravate, made from the fruit of the guayaba, but less cloying than guava jelly, was generally a part of the dessert. There were meringues called suspiros de la monja (nuns’ sighs), and a very rich custard, “golden cup,” made by vigorous beating of eggs, sugar, and flour of almonds, which was said to be a fleshly temptation to the padres, and sometimes, alas! offered as such, by naughty little lambs of their flock who wished to be let off easy at confession. We made the acquaintance of several strange tropical fruits: the chirimoya, a delicate custard, with black seeds enclosed in a rough green rind; the granadita, which is eaten like an egg out of its beautifully colored shell. The contents is slippery, seedy, sweet, with a faint aromatic sub-flavor. The almuerzo corresponds to our dinner in social significance. One is not asked to dine in Mexico, but literally to “take soup at this, your house” (su casa de Vd), and you are told, with other complimentary phrases, that your host is your servant. The siesta follows the almuerzo. It was not the custom with the active ladies of the house, but my shaded bed-chamber opening on the corridor was very inviting, and the softness of the air, May following February, undermined the best resolutions in regard to letter-writing, sketching, and the study of Spanish. The light brass bedstead was exquisitely furnished with the finest of linen and the painful hand-embroidery of the country, taught originally by the nuns, and considered a necessary part of a Mexican lady’s education. The long, narrow pillows were covered with “ticking” of crimson Chinese crêpe, which glowed through the sheer linen-lawn cases and the interstices of the embroidery and “drawn work” with which they were lavishly trimmed. The bed had a canopy of brass bars, but it was uncurtained; in Mexico as few draperies as possible are used, because of the constant warfare housekeepers wage against fleas, moths, and insects of all kinds.

Opposite the bed, with its dainty feminine fittings, hung a complete fencing outfit, arranged on a green baize-covered shield against the wall. It included both the light French foil and the heavy German-student sword. The door-way was flanked on one side by a tall case of weapons, containing some beautiful Toledo swords, an old blunderbuss with its bell-shaped barrel, all the modern rifles, elegant wicked-looking duelling pistols; and among the mementos of warlike passages in my host’s varied life was a box containing seven bullets that had at different times been taken from his body. The book-case on the other side of the door was filled with well-selected books in German, French, and Spanish—the remains of his fine library, the most of which, while being moved in boxes during one of the political crises of the country, went to make part of a barricade. The ladies in Mexico who “dress” always dress for the paséo—the public promenade where the youth and romance of the old city enact the subtle dramas of a society where mediæval barriers still exist. It is by no means permitted that young men and women should meet freely before marriage; they may look at each other on the paséo, or from convenient balconies.

You observe a youth sitting for hours motionless on a stone bench in the plaza, or leaning in a door-way, his eyes fixed on an upper window or balcony of the opposite houses. The object of his gaze is probably not visible, unless the affair has prospered and happiness already “blooms like a lusty flower in June’s caress”; but, however coy the hidden eyes may be, they are doubtless cognizant of the patient figure of their adorer in the street below. This is Mexican courtship. The eyes of mamma and papa are also carefully cognizant, and this is Mexican marriage.

At five o’clock the carriage rolls out of the court, with Ysabel on the box in his best sarape, a gray, braided jacket, and a wide-brimmed gray felt hat, ornamented with silver cord and braid. Rubio, the ancient portéro, shuts the carriage-door, and Roberto at the gate rises and takes off his great hat.

Señor G——, who, after twenty years of the Mexican climate, keeps his northern habits of exercise, generally walks to the alameda, and meets the carriage at the entrance, where the vista of black-ash trees, the rows of stone benches, and the broad paved walk begin. As the white mules pace sedately down the roughly paved streets, the ladies keep a hand ready to make the customary signal of greeting from the carriage-windows to their friends at the windows and balconies of the street. It is an indescribably fascinating gesture—so swift and subtle, almost like a fleeting expression across the face. It is made by a quick flutter of the second finger, the hand being raised, palm inward, to a level with the eyes. How much its charm is enhanced by the beauty of those dark southern eyes it half conceals, it would take a very stolid observer to decide. It seemed to me excessively intimate; in Morelia I believe it is kept for one’s friends only, but in the capital it is the usual greeting at a distance between acquaintances. I have seen nothing prettier in their social customs, except the way the ladies meet and lean their cheeks together, and pat each other softly on the back of the shoulder. The paséo bounds the alameda on either side, and joining beyond it, goes rambling through the wooded park of San Pedro, which gives it its name. If you are driving, it is very pretty to look in across the high-backed stone benches at the little parade of wives and daughters under the ash trees. All classes are there: the bare-footed Indian girls in rebozos, their long black hair smoothly braided or flowing loose over their shoulders, sit beside the ladies of the chief families in crisp silks and muslins. The classes are so distinct that there is no need to insist on the distinctions in public. The young girls walk two or three abreast, the light falling on their uncovered heads and shining, undulating braids. The women are sometimes dull-looking, and by no means always beautiful, but they have a quality which is exciting to the imagination. It may be presumed that it is not for the enjoyment of sylvan beauty alone that the young Morelianos who display their horsemanship on the paséo get themselves up magnificently in braided jackets and trousers, tight as long hose, and buttoned from hip to ankle with silver, and set off their dark glances with a halo of silver-braided hat-brim. One regrets to see that many of the most fashionable young gentlemen have abandoned the national dress, wear “chimney-pot” hats, and ride tall English horses, while French bonnets and elaborately trimmed walking-dresses are replacing the trailing skirt and the graceful feminine shawl. Powder is used without reserve or the slightest consideration for that subtle harmony which nature preserves between hair, eyes, and complexion. The effect is that of being surrounded by feminine masks, with beautiful human eyes looking out from them with an intensity of expression very startling in its contrast to the blank, soulless surface of faintly rouged white which the face presents.

At the end of the alameda, where the paséo turns into the lovely wild park of San Pedro, illumined with the low sunset light, and gorgeously dim as a painted window, stands one of the most perfect bits of church architecture we saw in Mexico—the Convent of San Diego. A screen of tall cypresses weave their long shadows across the green close before its low, arched entrance. A few lean wearily upon their comrades, but their general air is of guarded and somber dignity—a grave company of dark-robed priests silently pointing upward to the tall white bell-tower, and the Holy Family in pale blue stucco, raised in rich relief below the light arches of the bell-tower. It is so high up, this mass of figures in pale blue, that one cannot be quite sure of its significance beyond its nobly decorative character. Deep, narrow, barred windows make spots of shadow on the clear pale spaces of the front elevation, which is long and low rather than lofty. San Diego has been secularized, and is now rented in apartments to families; but one can only imagine sober, ecclesiastic figures in black and white walking under the cypresses or entering the low, deep portal. The colors of sunset begin to glow through the trees as we enter the woods by the paséo. We pass a circular fountain with a paved walk surrounding it, and stone benches facing the walk, enclosing the fountain in a greater circle. This ancient rendezvous is called the Glorieta. It keeps a pathetic suggestion of a social life in the city’s past much more crowded and gay than anything San Pedro now exhibits. The roomy, colloquial benches are empty, and grass is growing in the chinks of the pavement. One may often see a group of Indian women filling their water-jars at the fountain, or following the winding foot-paths through the wood, with a cántara supported on one shoulder by a bare uplifted arm.

Wild roses are in blossom among the untrimmed and neglected hedges; the trees are leafing out; the wood-dove’s coo, coo, coo comes from one cannot see where; it pervades the wood, like the low sunset light. The paséo is enlivened only by a few private carriages rolling along at lonely intervals. There is a separate road for riders. We saw very few ladies riding; in fact, I remember but two, and both of them sat their horses very ineffectually, in a helpless sidelong fashion. Often we left the carriage, and walked with a wistful pleasure through those old trodden footpaths that lead away into the dim days before the Conquest, when San Pedro was the site of a populous Indian village, with a history of its own reaching back and losing itself in other dim days of traditional conquest before the advent of the Spaniards. The aqueduct crosses the paséo diagonally from the city; at the edge of the wood it bends and swings off across the green valley toward the hills that feed the city fountains. When the bells of the city strike the hour of oracion, we reënter the carriage and drive slowly homeward. By this time the alameda is nearly deserted, the brief southern twilight has suddenly faded, and the lamps are beginning to shine in the streets. The Indian women who sit in a row along the sidewalk opposite the entrance to the alameda, with bunches of lettuce, dressed with poppies, for sale, have rolled up their strips of matting and camped farther up the street, near the plaza. Their little fires, shining at intervals along the street, supplement the scattering lamps. They are cooking supper over a few coals of charcoal in a copper brazier; or they have kindled a lightwood torch to ward off the chill of night and advertise their heaps of dulces; or are boiling a kind of sweatmeat, made of molasses, in a shallow pottery dish; or, over the brazier of charcoal, are making and frying tortillas—the kind that are spread with meat and chile and rolled together like an omelet. All the bells of all the churches, from the great cathedral with its dome and triple towers to the little church with a single tower and a single cypress tree beside it, rising together as if equally a part of the architect’s design, are sounding at this hour. The bells of the cathedral strike the hours and quarter-hours of the day and night, and all the churches unite at the services of morning and evening. The cavalry regiment stationed in the town contributes its mysterious bugle-calls and drum-taps.

There are lonely cries of street-venders, the dull bumping of wooden cart-wheels drawn by oxen, and, at the hour of the paséo, a roll of carriage-wheels and a stirring clatter of hoofs along the streets; but all these sounds throb upon a stillness as deep and restful as the shadow of the cypress on the yellow gable of the little church. By the time we arrive at home the court is dimly lighted by the moon, and Rubio has placed a lamp in the sconce at the head of the staircase. He opens the carriage-door, and shuffles slowly up the stairs behind us with the wraps. He always reminded me of that “ancient beadsman” in the “Eve of St. Agnes.”…

Supper is served at eight o’clock—a heavy meal with courses of meat, but not so elaborate as the breakfast. There is very little evening afterward. We sat in the large, dimly lighted sala, or leaned over the balcony railings, and listened to the music which burst forth in an irrelevant way from the band of the regiment, like their unaccountable bugle-calls and drum-taps.