Home and Shop Companion 0144
Home and Shop Companion 0144

Rural Ramblings – Spring 1984
Ralph C. Miller

Ten thousand feet above sea level in the bright November sky, ‘Malinche’ got his first look at Tenochtitlan, the valley of Anahuac and Lake Texcoco. At his back, his small force of scarcely 500 Spaniards, 600 Tlascalan Indians and 20 horses seemed a pitiful few to attack, subdue and capture the great city with its quarter of a million inhabitants (not to mention all the surrounding tribes and eventually nearly half of North America).

History records that Malinche (bright hair) – we know him as Hernando Cortez – did just that. True, it was at bloody cost on both sides, and perhaps bitter feelings have not entirely passed even after 465 years. It is only in the last 50 years that the Indian peoples have attained any measure of equality.

One thing is certain. Cortez, and those who came after him, forged a people and a country out of what had been a hodge-podge of bitterly warring tribes. If that hadn’t been true, the Spaniards wouldn’t have gained their original foothold. Mexico did become a country eventually – a big country and a vibrant, growing people.

In 1847-48 we went to war with them and by winning (so we thought), established the Rio Grande River as the southern border of Texas, were ceded California and New Mexico and an added strip for what is now Arizona. A hundred thirty odd years later, it is not so easy to determine who won. All we might have done is to delay the tide a little. The earlier tribal migrations were all from North to South. Illegally or otherwise, the flow has mightily reversed and the Mexican and/or Mexican-American is fast becoming predominant in just those areas covered in the the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. A growing people certainly – both sides of the border.

Mexico, and the Mexican people, can no longer be taken lightly (they never should have been). It is true that they are struggling with their economy, as is nearly every other nation on the face of the globe. They’re still a relatively poor country, but they have come farther in the past 50 years than many others.

I have traveled in Mexico numerous times over the years, but always in the northern half of the country. I had previously been no farther down than Guadalajara. In early December, my Beautiful Bride and I celebrated the past 38 years with a trip to Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Taxco and Acapulco.

Like Malinche, we dropped down over the mountains and found a large and bustling city. There were differences of course; we dropped out of the skies by plane, and though it was a similar time of year, we could hardly term it bright. Mexico City has to be the worst example – make that ‘victim’ – of progress that I have encountered. It is growing too fast and with size comes all the ills of Pandora’s Box: overcrowding, crime, a full measure of grinding poverty at the lowest level, and a traffic congestion beyond belief.

The worst and most readily apparent results of that last is plain old smog. In spite of Mexico City’s elevation – between 7-8 thousand feet – it is still a valley ringed by high mountains and the pollution layer never really has a chance to disappear. During the worst of peak times, it becomes a genuine health hazard. In fact, all the cities we encountered on our trip suffered from air pollution to a considerable degree with the possible exception of Taxco.

Now, no one should think I am complaining about our trip. I loved Mexico as I always do. It’s just that we always mourn to find any serpents in Eden. For two or three days, I don’t even mind the noise and bustle of a large city – especially when they are new to me. A lot of beauty and the excitement of the foreign flavor. Of course Mexico is hardly foreign to anyone who has lived in southern California or the Southwest. It’s just colorful and authentic.

Did I say a large city? If Mexico City isn’t the world’s largest, it is only a matter of time. I don’t think anyone is exactly certain which is the biggest today, since several of them are growing so fast that population figures are only an educated guess. Mexico City was about three and a half million in the 1970 census. 14 years later, it has grown to something like five times that. If your calculator isn’t handy, that’s between 17 and 18 million; just about the size of the population of New York State in an area the size of Los Angeles. Add between two and three automobiles, and it becomes readily apparent why it is congested and polluted.

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I don’t suppose we can hold Cortez responsible for all the problems, but Tenochtitlan may have been more livable. A stone city built on a low rise of ground in the middle of an enormous man-made lake, with canals and causeways connecting it to the fertile valley. For that time, the city was virtually impregnable, and it is difficult to understand why they first permitted Cortez to enter. They seem to have listened too well to certain soothsayers, but lived, or died, regretting it.

To accomplish the overthrow of the ‘stubborn’ Aztecs (for some reason they seemed averse to accepting annihilation), Cortez adapted or invented a tactic widely used today. If the natives would persist in hiding in houses – very well, Cortez and his own Indian allies would level the city house by house and building by building. By the time that task was so chillingly well completed, the lake was filled in, hand leveled and tamped by the newly created slave population, and the new city and nation grew from the rubble.

Proof of that incredible feat shows up from time to time in the old city. Buildings have sunk as much as six feet, requiring either the raising of the floor or steps to go down to the door from street level. Even the huge National Cathedral in the Zocolo, the great public square, has settled about a foot and a half. And just across the corner of the Plaza are the excavated remains of what was then Montezuma’s castle. I’m sure there is a lesson there somewhere.

Now it is a surety that 17 million people won’t fit into 2 million cars, so you may well wonder how they get around. There are surface buses, always jammed – and a type of public conveyance not now popular in this country, but often found elsewhere. Publicos (literally public cars) are unscheduled seven or nine passenger vans that transport people over a fairly set route or series of routes, depending on the time of day and the demand. Like the regular taxis, they are privately owned, but publicly controlled; that is fares, etc.

Then there is the metro! Throughout the central city (the Zona Rosa), it is subway – the balance is either at surface level or elevated. Cars, trains of cars actually, run often and are always full. They’re in the process of continuous expansion, even paralleling existing lines to haul more people. That part of the transportation system is both nationalized and subsidized. They have some strange idea that the public has a right to available, low cost transportation – so much so that the fare to any part of the city is one peso – less than 3/4 of one cent at today’s exchange rate.!?

Today the valley floor is almost entirely developed, but the fertile fields that ringed Tenochtitlan and Lake Texcoco have moved on up the mountain sides. We traveled south out of the city by tour bus and were surrounded by small farms as soon as the buildings passed. Remember, by the time we left the city, we were already at about 8000 feet and still climbing. No matter. Mexico City lies on about the 20th parallel of north latitude, well below the Tropic of Cancer at 22 1/2 degrees. This combined with barely sufficient rainfall and snow melt produces a good harvest. Yes, I said snow – on 18,000 foot Popocatepetl and a few other peaks nearby.

There were some diversified small farms, dairies, a few beef cattle and goats and some other crops, but all the way up to the pass the predominant thing was wheat. Every schoolboy knows that the Aztecs invented corn, which was the basic staple of their diet, but their descendants have indeed switched to wheat, at least in that area. It didn’t look like Kansas or Eastern Washington wheat, but it definitely was that grain, and a fair harvest if I am any judge. You already know how much I mourn the traditions that have passed on; it did my heart good to see that harvest. All of it, every single field had been recently cut and was standing in shocks!

A combine dealer would starve to death in Mexico. Oh, they do use some tractors down there and trucks, but all too many of those fields wouldn’t and couldn’t have been worked by combines or tractors – too steep and narrow. I say narrow because as we got higher, the wheat was planted right up into the trees – all around under the tall pines were fields with shocks of wheat.

“One Straw” Fukuoka and Wendell Berry would certainly approve of the many small farm practises of Mexico. I saw many, many areas where they farmed land so steep I know I would have had trouble just climbing up, but they always left as much of the native vegetation as possible. In spite of all the near desperate use I saw of all available land, there was NO evidence of erosion. Those wheat shocks up in the pines above the 10,000 foot pass left me mute. I would have bet it couldn’t be done.

I never did find out how they threshed it, by what means that is, but the guide confirmed that it all went off at about the same time and was the welcome occasion for a harvest fiesta. I couldn’t blame them for celebrating. A fine crop for any elevation – strong, long straw and large full heads of grain. Certainly not stunted as I would have thought.

Cuernavaca, capitol of the state of Morelos, is an old colonial city and was long a favorite for American Movie Stars and certain of the International Rich. Didn’t Barbara (Woolworth) Hutton have a home there? I couldn’t really see the big attraction, but perhaps they just liked the old fashioned, small town flavor. It still has that in spite of its growth; 350,000 people I think they claim. Perhaps if I weren’t mentally comparing the town with Taxco, Acapulco or even Mexico City, it would impress me more.

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South of the city down the valley are small farms again (some even a little larger than that). They grow some truck crops, some fruit and some sugar cane. Again however, the principal crop is grain. This time it is rice. All we saw of that crop were the fields, cut over and being readied for a new crop. With many items, the weather and the soil permit them to make two or three crops a year; the land doesn’t really look the worse for that. Maybe the Agribusiness disease just hasn’t set in. It may be my prejudices, but I seem to believe that any field where the farmer walks, instead of rides, looks healthier for it. I don’t doubt that per acre yields may not reach some of the records set in this country, but they have been farming some of those fields over 400 years, and they look better than some of ours that haven’t had much more than a hundred years of use.

I don’t mean to imply that anywhere near all of the land we covered is lush and plentiful. I’m speaking largely of the best of it, where valley soil and sufficient water occurred in happy combination. Lots of the country is arid, rocky and barely grows any vegetation to speak of. Most of that does seem to support some cattle, goats, horses and the ubiquitous burro. So much of the terrain is on the vertical rather than the horizontal, that butros and goats are a natural.

Even in those areas, much of it is planted – cane field, corn field – it was difficult to see how humans could even work in fields that steep. Our guide (a genuine wit) insisted that the seeds were planted with a shotgun. I know he was kidding, but I didn’t have any more logical explanation. I’m satisfied that many of those fields had never been plowed; a possible, but extremely difficult hoeing, unless the farmer swung down on a rope. If you once got the crop cut, I suppose gravity would bunch it at the bottom of the slope – at least it seemed to me.

Speaking of arid country – having passed out of the state of Morelos into Guerrero – we soon came to the turn-off for Taxco. That section isn’t really desert, but it runs a close second. Still even here, the land is grazed and there are some grasses and forage crops. Some of it is only pastured, but they did raise enough hay and forage to bring on the problem of where to store it. There are few fences, no barns that I saw and since there weren’t enough flat roofs to stack it on, a lot of it was stored up in trees! Obviously it is forked up there into the branches high enough that your own or the neighbor’s cattle can’t reach it until it is really needed. There’s seldom any rain down there in the winter season when it is in storage, so that’s not a problem. I guess you need a small ladder and your fork when feeding and nothing else – Old Mother Necessity and her child Inventiveness again.

Taxco itself doesn’t qualify as rural, but I do have to mention it here. It’s one of the few places I can think of that lived up to, even exceeded, all I had heard of it. I don’t suppose a country boy can do it justice, so perhaps I’ll leave the superlatives to the travel folders. I can give you a few of my most vivid personal memories, however.

We stayed at a hotel (motel?) on a hill across the canyon from the main town. From that vantage point, Taxco is a picture postcard plastered on the side of a 45 degree mountain. About halfway up, fronting a postage stamp-sized Plaza, is the Cathedral, Central Point, Main street, anchor and possibly the only flat spot in the whole city. Flat spot here is a relative term of course. The streets are tiny, too narrow and crooked for buses, so everyone must rely on taxis. 90 percent of all the taxis are Volkswagens – ‘bugs’ – and there seem to be thousands of them, all on the road constantly. Fortunately the two miles from the Loma Linda Hotel to the Zocolo was only 70 pesos, about 45 cents. The extremely reasonable price and the number of taxis continuously in use is undoubtedly a corollary. Gasoline in Mexico is about 75 cents a gallon and ‘bugs’ are notorious misers.

Now everybody knows that Mexico is a sleepy country – that’s the stereotype – siestas, the land of mañana. Well, they’re not referring to Taxco. Noon to 2:00 pm I can’t answer for, but nobody overslept any other time, not while we were there anyway. Between the cathedral bells and the accompaniment of a couple of dozen sky rockets, every hour on the hour up till 11:00 pm and beginning again at 6:00 in the morning, they rocked the mountain and the valley below. Oversleep? Nobody needed a wake-up call.

For the rest of Taxco, colorful, fascinating, picturesque, wonderful people – and then of course Silver. I don’t know how many silver shops there are in the city. Personally, we weren’t in more than 25 or 30. One thing I know, there are enough to go around. If you have pesos to spend, this is the place!

Getting to and from Taxco is not the least adventurous part of the trip either. The early Spaniards made trails up for mules and burros. You still use the same ones, paved over and only slightly widened. It isn’t true that their buses are hinged in the middle, although you may find yourself wishing they were. Especially when you’re looking down over a whole series of switchbacks and realize that several miles farther you’re going to be right down below, 1000 to 1500 feet lower on the mountain. The guide said that he and the driver never worried over those stretches; they’d been over them so often they could drive them with their eyes closed – so that’s the way they always did it. We fervently prayed he was joking!

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Back down on the comparatively flat section of the main highway at Iguala, we again encountered more prosperous looking small farms and fruit groves. Bananas, citrus, mangos, papayas, olives, along with cattle, corn and then truck crops. In December that consisted mainly of acres and acres of tomatoes still green, but expected to be ready for earliest Spring. They raise a lot of stuff for home consumption, but they do export much of what is grown. (In point of fact, these local growers in Florida claim they export too much.)

We thought that area must be fairly representative of the best in Mexico, but Manuel Hernandez, our guide, disabused us of the idea. We had seen nothing, he informed us, until we had a look at the area over on the Gulf around Vera Cruz. The finest produce, the widest varieties, the cream of Mexican agriculture was to be found around Mexico’s finest city. It was no surprise when he admitted that he was a native of Vera Cruz. The immediate question occurred to someone as to why he then no longer lived there. His reply was equally obvious. “I’m a tour guide – the tourists come to Mexico City, Taxco and Acapulco.”

Manuel also informed us that only the finest people, the handsomest men and most beautiful ladies lived in Taxco. Ugly babies, he contended, were thrown in the river. Of course we jeered at that, as he meant us to. “It’s true,” he said, “how do you think I learned to swim?” (To call Manuel plain would have been flattery, but he was a charismatic personality.)

There are other products, produce one should say, that seemed peculiar to the tropics and to Mexico. Coconuts abound, as they have in all tropical areas of my experience. There is a half mile stretch along the highway at the edge of Acapulco where I saw more coconuts piled up than all the other times I have encountered them combined. Fresh coconut, coconut milk, coconut fiber, copra and coconut oil for soaps and cosmetics, dried and/ or shredded coconut – the coconut palm produces a versatile fruit and it must be a valuable part of the agricultural economy.

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For sheer exotic diversity of usefulness, I think I have to nominate a certain type of Maguey. We know the thorny succulent mostly in the form of the huge Century plant. The one I speak of is a variety which grows near Mexico City. I can’t give you the patter or list all the features the way our friend Manuel did, but in part the plant (sometimes called false sisal) is sometimes used to make a fermented juice called ‘pulque.’ That’s a low alcohol, fresh drink about in the category of beer, but it doesn’t keep but a day or two. Now it can be distilled to make the fiery liquor mescal as well. That juice comes from an outer pithy layer and the next one down produces a tough, durable, papyrus-like paper. Cutting certain of the thorns in a certain way creates pen points which bleed their own rust brown ink for writing on the paper. The use of those two parts as paper and ink is supposed to go back several hundred years. For all I know, the other uses do, too.

Another section/layer of the plant can be stripped of a great number of fibers which are used to weave ropes, hammocks and baskets, just like true sisal. The finest and most supple of the fibers are woven into a cloth like Tapia. Then, to pursue old customs further, it is possible to cut off a spine, leaving one or more of the fibers attached, and sew the cloth with a natural needle and thread. And, oh yes, the plant also produces an edible fruit. Truly a cottage industry from what is or was a wild plant.

Mexico, in certain aspects, clings to long standing tradition. A great many intelligent, educated, thinking people prefer it that way. However, as might be expected, those traditions are often on a collision course with progress. The two principal industries fueling their economy are petroleum (nationalized) and tourism. They’ve set up a lot of safeguards to protect tourists, recognizing the necessity of keeping them coming. As can be imagined, the petroleum industry is dragging Mexico into the mainstream at a rapid pace. Tourism has also meant changes at all levels. Even before the greatest influx, American business was making its presence felt.

As Manuel said, “Sears & Roebuck brought us Santa Claus, Woolworth’s introduced us to Halloween!” Our first morning we had breakfast at a block from our hotel in a Denny’s coffee shop. There are several in Mexico I understand. (I know I was being insular, but I wanted pancakes and sausages rather than huevos rancheros). That was the other section of Manuel’s diatribe – “…and Colonel Sanders gave us Kentucky Fried Iguana.”

He was being slightly facetious, but all along the southern section of our trip, we were seeing little barbeques and eating places advertising “Pichon, Conejo y Iguana.” Pigeons, Rabbits and Lizards may not be your favorite, but I’m sure if you were raised that way, they’d seem more tempting than McDonalds or Burger King.

I’ll hurry past Acapulco as fast as I can. Everyone knows it is a playground for the idle rich. It may well be that too; we were shown enough castles and palaces with names like John Wayne and Frank Sinatra bandied about, along with many less notorious millionaires. It certainly has its posh hotels and playgrounds, but it is also a major city; again with all the advantages and ills of such places the world over. Only a small portion of the hundreds of thousands who live there ever come in contact with the tourists or the fancy hotels. They, of course, are not idle; not from choice anyway. They’re too busy scratching for a living and consequently few of them are rich.

The drawbacks to Mexico are mostly epitomized by the cities. They grow because runaway inflation ensures that few can make a living outside them. The exploding population only fuels inflation – the same problems found in so many countries, only seemingly multiplied in Mexico. Emigration over the northern border is a slight safety valve, but sooner or later will trigger its own explosion.

For years – centuries – most of the land was owned or controlled by a small ruling class, by the church, or both. That has been turned around in the past 50 years so that anyone could get and farm small acreages. If they can afford to get started under galloping inflation. We think we know something about that, but in the 50’s and 60’s when I went to Mexico, the peso was steady at 12 1/2 cents, 8 to the dollar. Admittedly our dollar isn’t worth what it was back then, but meantime Mexican currency has gone sky-high. When we got there in early December, the official rate of exchange was 156 plus pesos to the US dollar. Ten days later it was 159 plus and by January 1st it was over 160. No one knows when it will end and no one dares save anything unless they can get it changed into dollars. There are laws against that, so people are caught in the middle.

There are no pat answers – we can’t say it’s their problem, because we are closely tied to Mexico geographically, demographically and through commerce and trade. We import more oil from Mexico now than from anyone else. I only hope some of the better minds than mine can come up with solutions and/or help. And I pray we can do enough to prevent it happening here. – If it does? – Well, getting as close to self-sufficiency as possible will provide one solution. At least one can have corn tortillas, rice, beans and an occasional side of Kentucky Fried Iguana – or the American equivalent thereof. Adios amigos.

Home and Shop Companion 0144

Home and Shop Companion 0144