A Mexican Diary -- Part III
By Ernest L. White
November 10, 1881 - December 15, 1956
Hampton, New Hampshire
Today we visited some of our coffee and rubber orchards, all nearly smothered with a rank growth of weeds. They need immediate attention if they are to be saved. There are numerous patches of bananas, both the yellow and red variety, some great big ones, as long and larger around than my forearm. These are not good to eat raw, being coarse and having a soapy taste, but are good baked like potatoes in the embers of a fire. We also saw some pineapples and other tropical fruit not yet ripe. The coffee is grown under the shade of large trees and on the side of the mountains, and the rubber on the lowlands, bordering the river. There is a little drove of cattle and black razorback pigs as thin and fleet as greyhounds. We have quite a few horses, mules and burros turned out in an enclosure of about ten acres fenced in with barbed wire, which also takes in the buildings where Harcourt is living. I must not forget to mention our flock of fowls of all colors and no particular breed, hanging around the buildings and roosting nights on a high platform. As there are plenty of openings between the poles of the shacks the hens can enter at will and do not hesitate to make use of the privilege, sometimes leaving an egg or two behind in return for our hospitality. We have a little milk, too, but procuring it is some job. First, a cow must be selected who has a small calf. Cow and calf are pursued and roped from horseback, dragged by main force to a post or tree, where the cow's head is securely lashed and her hind logs tied together. The calf is allowed to nurse a moment, then is dragged away by a mozo and held, while another tries to squeeze a little milk into a dipper, before the now frantic cow throws herself or manages to break her lashings. It is a very exciting and noisy experience and but a small amount of milk is obtained at a time. Mrs. Cow, after being released, sometimes charges her would-be milkers and then starts on the run for a more peaceful haven, followed by her bawling calf. Doctor Harcourt has a semi-tame cow who will freshen soon, and although her legs have to be tied while being milked she is more easily caught and gives a good quantity of milk. The thermometer rose to 120 in our house today. I have never experienced such heat before, not even when storing away hay in the barn up home and that was a hot enough job, goodness knows.
We explored around some more today, and visited our neighbor to the north, a Mr. Gafford, who speaks English. With a few servants, he is holding down this plantation until it can be sold or otherwise disposed of, the owners having failed. We had a little horse and mule racing and some target practice with our revolvers. Wain easily beat us with his great clumsy .44 caliber horse pistol which he holds with both hands when firing. He said his folks were people of standing in England. He went to Africa when quite young, but only stayed there a short time. On returning to England he was deeply hurt by his father and his friends who laughed at him and derided him for his lack of ability to stick. He shortly left home again, vowing he would show them what he could do. He worked and drifted about for a spell in Southern Mexico, but after a dispute with his friend, concerning the woman he is now living with, they parted, Wain working his way from place to place until he landed here. He has always taken the woman with him and never deserted her as so many do in this country, especially the foreigners. They have three children. He had been drinking today, otherwise he would not have been so talkative. He showed us a picture of a girl in England, still waiting for him and letters from both her and his father begging him to come back, and twice his father has sent him the money to return, but I guess he never will. How can he now?
Harcourt broke me in on the books and accounts today. Some job I call it. One set of books in English and one in Spanish, numerous reports to make out and send north each month, each man with a personal account at the store to be kept, rations to be dealt out, etc. Every man is allowed 2 lbs. corn and 1 lb. beans a day, together with an occasional handful of little small red peppers and a little measure of lard, or rather, as the intense heat has reduced it to liquid form, grease would express it more appropriately. Every ten men have a woman cook and she draws no rations, but takes a small portion from each man's ration for herself. She is obliged to arise at first cock-crow, boil the whole corn, grind it between two stones, called the metate, roll the pasty meal thin and bake or dry in large round cakes before an open fire. The beans are boiled and seasoned with grease and red peppers.
The form of accounts with the laborers is simple but legal. Every man has what is called a cartel, a little slip of paper on which is marked his name, the number of days he works and the amount of credit he has been allowed at the store. A short mark like this (.) is 3 cents, a little longer one ( ) is 6 cents and a longer one still ( ) 12 cents.
A half circle ( ) is half a dollar and a whole one (o) a dollar. He keeps it, generally, in a hollow reed, hung about his neck. I, of course, have a duplicate. No one is allowed to buy a drink or a package of cigarettes without having the amount of his purchase marked on his cartella. Their pay ranges from 9 cents for boys to 36 cents a day for the bosses, with rations. Ordinary laborers get 18 cents a day, women $4.00 a month.
We have been busy today fixing the goods in the two stores, and going about ten miles from here, on the trail to 0jitlan, for our supply of whisky. This is made from sugar-cane. The big vats of fermenting cane were covered with at least six inches of maggots, a most repulsive looking mess, giving off a peculiar, sour odor. The cane was ground and pulped into a sticky mass, exactly as the raw clay was treated in Uncle Jim's brickyard in Maine when I was a kid, only here the long sweeps are kept moving around and around by oxen. After being fermented and distilled the finished product appears to be like the alcohol we have up home, but with a sweet, sickish taste. We carried back four five-gallon tins of it, the tins having formerly contained kerosene. We diluted it with as much water as we dared, in anticipation of the arrival of our help. Wain spent the evening telling us snake stories, the big supply of fire-water having brought back memories. Another hot day. Received a telegram from Mr. Ellis who is coming down here with a party on May 19. This telegram came to 0jitlan and was delivered to Bob by an Indian runner who came over a mountain trail seldom used by any one except Indians on foot. Our mail is supposed to come over once a week the same way, but for two weeks now, Harcourt says he has received none. I hope we have better luck next week as I am anxious to hear from home.
Ledesma and I, with Pancho, our house boy, for guide started early this morning for 0jitlan to purchase more supplies, mostly medical. It was a long way but very enjoyable. Pancho showed us the ruins of a temple, dating back no man knows how far. Not much remains but a heap of stones covered with moss and vines with here and there tall trees growing through it. I found one arch, as if over a doorway, but it was a spooky place out there alone in the jungle and neither Ledesma or Pancho would go near it. The far-famed and prehistoric ruins of Mitla are comparatively near here. Who knows but what the same people that lived there, once lived here? I mean to visit this place again, with companions willing to explore it. We had dinner with the storekeeper at 0jitlan. Strange dishes we had, flavored to the limit with garlic and peppers. We started home as the stars began to glow here and there, and had to ford the river in the dark many times, and rode and walked over some of the steepest trails I ever saw. It was nearly morning of this day before we arrived back.
At noon today our first consignment of laborers showed up, forty of them. Most were barefooted, none had anything but the few clothes they had on and a dirty ragged blanket, and perhaps a few cigarettes or a big red handkerchief carried on the turned-up brim of their hats. A good many were mere boys of sixteen or so. They were all tired and footsore and hungry, so we had a busy time dealing out rations and getting them settled. We have overlooked one thing, the little straw mats to spread on the ground for the men to sleep on. We dealt out empty coffee sacks for them to use for the present.
Wain lined up the men today and put them to work cleaning out the coffee trees. All of the work is done with machetes, hacking down the great weeds and brush and letting them lie on the ground to rot. The men worked in a line about six feet apart; behind this line of workers stand three or four free laborers who act as petty bosses while Wain, on a horse or mule acts as boss and slowly rides back and forth, supervising all work. They work from early morning to sunset except for a short siesta in the middle of the day and a few minutes for lunch, which consists of a few tortillas covered with red peppers. Bob knows absolutely nothing about doctoring the sick and I know less, but as I have a brother who is a doctor, Bob seems to think that I am better fitted to administer to the ailing mozos than he is, though how he has figured it all out is a mystery. Wain lined up the men today and put them to work cleaning out the coffee trees. All of the work is done with machetes, hacking down the great weeds and brush and letting them lie on the ground to rot. The men worked in a line about six feet apart; behind this line of workers stand three or four free laborers who act as petty bosses while Wain, on a horse or mule acts as boss and slowly rides back and forth, supervising all work. They work from early morning to sunset except for a short siesta in the middle of the day and a few minutes for lunch, which consists of a few tortillas covered with red peppers. Bob knows absolutely nothing about doctoring the sick and I know less, but as I have a brother who is a doctor, Bob seems to think that I am better fitted to administer to the ailing mozos than he is, though how he has figured it all out is too deep for me. Anyway, I am the doctor and I had my first patient this evening, a man with a big ugly sore on his shin, which I washed and dressed the best I knew how.
The store did a big business tonight, Wain acting as storekeeper while I dealt out rations and tried to get the hang of things. The women cooks were hard to understand and without Wain's help I would have fared badly.
Was up at 4:00 this morning. Doctor Harcourt left today. He had some Indians build him a raft with a crude shelter over it, to take him and his family to Taxtepec, by the way of the Usila and Papaloapan rivers. It is next to impossible to hire an Indian to work on a plantation, but they are great hunters, and can build and navigate their rafts over the roughest waters and rapids, and are also excellent fishermen. The river is very swift in places, but it is the quickest and best method of travel if one follows the current. I was a little homesick as I watched the Indian skilfully guide the raft into the rushing waters and shoot from view.
There is a cattle ranch somewhere on the trail to Usila and two of the Mexican cowboys visited us today trying to sell us saddle-horses. They had a pretty little milk-white mare which they seemed very anxious to sell, and induced me to try her. I noticed Wain seemed greatly amused as I started to mount, but I thought I could show them how to ride a horse. I don't know now just how it happened, but quicker than a flash I found myself sitting on the ground with the reins in my hand, and every one had a great laugh. Once I stayed in the saddle almost a minute, but that was the best I could do. I found out afterwards that this visit was made just to have a little fun with the gringos, and I am sure that they were not disappointed. However, we did a little business with them at that. Ordered a quarter of beef to be delivered every week, as we intended to give the men one ration of meat a week and one of rice. In this climate meat will not keep and must be eaten as soon as killed.
My first patient was around for treatment again today, and brought with him two more, suffering with stomach trouble. It has been extremely hot today. Wain has taken the store off my hands for a while, for which I am very thankful. I wonder if I will ever learn this lingo? I seem to amuse the women a great deal. At first they were surly, and jabbered angrily at my mistakes, but now they think it's funny, or I am, and we are getting along quite well together. I like our house boy, Pancho, very much, but Ledesma and I don't hit it off very well somehow.
I moved into the hut today, vacated by Doctor Harcourt, and have Faneho for a house boy, his wife for wash-woman and a very old woman for cook. Pancho is one of the very few who has a hut to himself and a wife. He leads a real family life, much as we do up home, but most of the others just live and sleep together in one big hut, the gelerra. Seldom is the marriage ceremony performed, the expense being more than a poor mozo can stand. Wain's quarters are on the other side of the river, where he lives with his native wife and three children. Bob is with me or Wain, as occasion or convenience requires, but is away a good deal, buying supplies, etc. He was robbed of $150.00 while sleeping in a native hut on the trail to Tuxtepec a short time ago. I have a very good cook, who honestly tries to please. I never tire of watching the people cook over an open fire, with their limited cooking utensils. They never heard of a stove, the nearest thing to it being in our cook-house, a rough pole table covered with mud, on which the open fire is built.
I keep the money, all in silver, in an old trunk and have a rough board desk to write on. As a rule there are no window openings in any of the huts but I have a little hole cut in the wall over my desk, and in the place of glass, (that article being unknown here) I have strands of barbed wire put close together. Today six or eight men said they were too sick to work and Wain sent them to me to doctor. We thought they were shamming and I could find nothing the matter with them after much questioning. Finally I started to take their temperature, Wain telling them that the little piece of glass would tell if they were sick or not. I only had to try it on one man, for, finding his temperature normal, I told him the glass said he was well, and they all walked shamefacedly away, and Wain put them to work. I am told they play sick a lot to escape work. My patient with the sore shin complains that my medicine is no good, so taking gain's advice I used a native treatment, that is turpentine. It bit in good shape on the raw skin, but he hopped around shouting "good medicine" in Spanish and seemed well pleased. There are quite a few with these great sores, mostly on the shin bone and some on the elbow, but they refuse to be treated. Skin diseases are prevalent here.
I caught a glimpse of a monkey today. Wish I could catch one for a pet. The jungle is full of wild cats and most every night some kind of an animal lets out some awful screeches up on the mountains. Wain says it is a mountain lion. We are continually losing poultry, and the other night we heard a big racket, snarling and yelping of dogs, and in the morning one of them was missing. 'runny things these dogs, hardly a hair on them, great big heads and so thin you can see every rib and even the joints in their tails. Whatever took that dog was cheated if he intended to get a meal.