A Celebration of Women Writers

"Four Months in Old Mexico." by Mrs. Caroline Westcott Romney.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 579-585.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 579] 



(All rights reserved.)

The exigencies of life in the development of a new country by a comparatively poor people have been such as to necessitate frequent changes of abode among the citizens of the United States. The young men, as a rule, have been obliged to leave their Eastern homes on coming of age, or before, to carve out their own individual fortunes farther and farther West, with each succeeding generation. The result is that, as a people, we have imbibed a love for change and adventurous undertaking far beyond anything known among European nations. Like the Greeks of old we are constantly seeking "some new thing." Let anything be but novel, and we immediately lose our heads until we are able to see it or experience it.

Where everything is so exceedingly new as in our own country, especially here in the West, it is getting to be a difficult matter to find anything newer, a really fresh experience. In fact, paradoxical as it may sound, "the old" alone can now be "the novel" to us. A magnificent store of unmined wealth in this direction lies at our very doors, almost unexplored by Americans, in the neighboring republic of Mexico, where everything is as unique and different from what we are accustomed to in our own land as though it were on a different planet.

It is a land of extremes, of deserts and paradises, of rugged mountains and of beautiful tropical valleys. The tablelands of the interior, averaging several thousand feet in altitude above the level of the sea, produce the grains and fruits of the temperate zones, while the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, teems with the most luscious fruits and other precious products of the tropics.

When it comes to scenic attractions, some portions of Mexico surpass the world. Not only is nature so prodigal in her gifts, so beautiful and inviting, but the people and their manners and customs offer a most interesting field of observation.

I have made two visits to Mexico, which occupied upward of four months of time, during which I visited in detail no less than twenty-seven different cities and towns. I will say right here, that of all the twenty-seven places visited, there was not one whose streets were not paved, not one (with one exception) which was not supplied with water-works, generally consisting of stone aqueducts built hundreds of years ago, conducting the water from sources in the neighboring mountains, not one that did not have its public baths, not one whose streets were not paved and lighted, some with electricity, some with gas and some with oil lamps; not one that did not have its native [Page 580]  band; not one that did not have from one to four plazas or public squares, ornamented with trees, flowers and fountains; and many of them also paseos of greater or less length, corresponding with our boulevards, consisting of double drives, bridle-paths and walks, separated by narrow patches of ground planted like a park with trees, grass and flowers, and frequently ornamented with fountains.

In the city of Pueblo the old paseo has no less than nine passage-ways for carriages, horsemen and pedestrians, alternating, with the little parks between.

The shortness of the paseo in general has given rise to the fashion of riding and driving slowly, or on a walk, backward and forward many times in order to see and be seen, as in Hyde Park, London. The Grand Paseo in the City of Mexico, however, is an exception to this rule, owing to its greater length. A more brilliant or picturesque scene could scarcely be imagined than it presents at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, especially on Sundays and holidays, with its glittering array of fine carriages freighted with beauty and fashion, and gaily caparisoned horses whose riders are frequently arrayed in the national garb with embroidered jackets and trousers, or at least leggings decorated with silver or gilt braid and buttons, or rows of small silver bells, and broad sombreros heavy with gold or silver cord.

Mexico, for the most part, it will be remembered, consists of a great mountain plateau ranging from about 4,000 to 8,000 or 9,000 feet above the level of the sea.

The climate, except in the Tierra Caliente, is charming, and even the Hot Land affords great variety of climate, owing to local causes. That portion bordering on the Gulf of Mexico is generally heavily timbered, humid and unhealthful, whereas that part on the Pacific Ocean and the coast of the Gulf of California has a dry and healthful climate, yellow fever, the pest of the eastern coast, and kindred diseases being practically unknown. Owing to the trend of the mountain ranges, and the direction of the prevailing winds in summer, the climate is not nearly so hot there as on the eastern coast.

The temperature on the table-land varies according to the altitude, from the semi-tropic to the temperate, but in the main is most delightful, neither too hot nor too cold; in neither respect being subject to the extremes of our western states and territories. The greater altitude, the frequent showers and the narrowing of the continent, which permits of effects from the ocean breezes on both coasts reaching far into the interior, render the climate on the central plateau much more moderate than in the adjoining portions of the United States, and on the whole one of the most delightful on earth.

The rainy season is really the most charming portion of the year, a season resembling, somewhat, our April weather. As irrigation is necessary during all other portions of the year, and that can be applied only to limited sections on account of an insufficient water supply for the whole country, it will readily be seen that Mexico is never so attractive as during the rainy season. The dust is effectually laid, rendering travel more pleasant. Most travelers go to Mexico in March–a disagreeable month everywhere in the world, and one of the hottest in Mexico.

My greatest surprise in Mexico was in the people themselves. We are too apt to condemn what is strange or unaccustomed, and I must confess to having had more or less prejudice against the Mexican people, derived, probably, from casual contact on the borders with so-called "Greasers." They are not idle and lazy per se, as they are generally represented to be, but only idle and lazy as compared with Americans. Cradled in the lap of a luxurious and generous nature, they rake life pretty much as they find it, while we Americans are an epitome of the age of steam, doing the work of centuries in a decade, but lacking all the sweet repose of calm content which characterizes our brethren across the border. Who shall say which life is the more divine; or is the charm of the one a mere matter of contrast, a grateful change from what we know and are weary of? They are industrious and faithful when they do work, but their activity is one of ebb and flow. They don't work when it isn't necessary. They love holidays and sitting in the sun. They act on the principle that they have all [Page 581]  eternity before them, and there is no use in being in such a tremendous hurry. The world was not made in a day. Why crowd the centuries? The result is they do not wear themselves out, as we do, who call ourselves Americans–a title which belongs equally to them, however–but in many instances live to an age unknown on this side of the line. Centenarians are not at all uncommon, and many exceed that age by ten, twenty and even forty years. It may be a case, however, of "a century of Europe" being worth "a cycle of Cathay."

If one member of a Mexican family of the lower class is earning money the rest can idle and be sure of their share of it. Sometimes it is one and sometimes another who does the wage earning. Even a stranger, if in need, is taken in and cared for in the same fashion, and if ill, treated with a kindness and consideration that knows no bounds.

The hospitality of the better classes is well known. The visitor is told that the house is his own–in fact, everything is his. If he admires anything he is immediately presented with it; not that he is really expected to accept it. It is all equivalent to our fashion, I suppose, of telling people to make themselves at home, only given with more gusto. The men kiss each other when they meet upon special occasions, and the women embrace and kiss on the cheek.

Through an English lady who had lived in Mexico for twenty-seven years, and knew all of the first families, and to whom I had a letter of introduction, I met a number of Mexico's aristocracy, whom I found very agreeable, very refined, and possessed of the finest manners. We Americans are inclined to look down upon the Mexicans as inferior to ourselves. They return the compliment by looking down upon us. They admire our smartness, our inventive genius, and business enterprise and push; but regard us as uncultured barbarians when it comes to literary attainments and the amenities of life, in which respect they consider themselves vastly our superiors. In manners we may well give them the palm.

The women of the better classes are refined, and many of them accomplished in many ways, especially in music and the languages, although not thoroughly educated like American women of the same classes. My English lady friend, just referred to, pronounces them the sweetest women she ever knew, the best wives and mothers, and says she prefers them to her own countrywomen. That is probably an exaggerated view, arising from the fact that she has been so long absent from her own people. The mothers and daughters are closely attached and always together; whereas the sons break away early from maternal restraints, and are made much of and taken about by the fathers, who take great pride in dressing them finely and showing them off.

The Indians and lower classes of Mexicans I found everywhere to be as amiable and kind, gentle and courteous, as their betters in social standing. They are good to their own. No family permits any of its poor relations, or poorer relations (for all are poor) to suffer. All such have a welcome, not to the family hearth or the family chimney corner, but to shelter under the family roof tree, no matter how contracted it may be, and a share of the tortillas and frijolis, no matter how limited the store.

It is a great mistake to think that the Mexicans are not cultured. Many of the wealthy classes have been educated abroad, and their higher schools and colleges are of a superior order, and education is held in the greatest possible esteem.

The City of Mexico has not only its literary colleges, but colleges of law, medicine, technology, commercial colleges, a conservatory of music, etc., and among others I saw one, with a sign over the door, reading "Collegio de Polemica"–College of Polemics. It also has art schools (one for women as well as men, for co-education is not yet introduced in Mexico, not even in the public primary schools), which have been in existence for about the same length of time.

The public schools, however, are the hope of the country, which are free in all the grades, including the highest, and the curriculum of studies pursued would astonish the opponents of "the fads" in our Chicago public schools, who think Mexico so much [Page 582]  behind the times. The writer was much astonished in visiting a secondary school for girls at Aguas Calientes, with pupils ranging from eight to fourteen years of age, to find taught, in addition to the ordinary branches of a common-school education, English and French, drawing (with a room full of models), music (both vocal and instrumental, with instruments for practice), fine needlework and embroidery, and decorative penmanship, each with a special teacher, and telegraphy and photography (with full apparatus), the schoolhouse being a new one, but one-story in height, and built around an open court. Where in the United States could such a curriculum be found in a free public school?

The Mexicans are natural artists in all lines, and when I say Mexicans I mean the mixed race of Indian and Spanish blood; for they are the people of Mexico, the ruling class, the statesmen, the scholars, the artists, the everything that is good and promising and progressive in Mexico. A native-born Spaniard can not even hold office in Mexico under the constitution, so great is the hatred of that nation born and bred in the people whom they oppressed for so many centuries. This feature is mutual. Those of pure Spanish blood look down upon and despise the Mestizos, and the Mesitzo can not find words to express his contempt and hatred of the Spanish. Altimiranti, a noted statesman, who died a few years since and who was a full-blooded Indian, said that if he knew that he had a drop of Spanish blood in his veins he would open them and let it out.

Juarez, the greatest President Mexico ever had, was a full-blooded Indian. Diaz, the present progressive President, has a large admixture of Indian blood, and is a very handsome man of his type. The same is true of all of Mexico's great men.

The Indians of Mexico are not of the same race as our red Indians of the United States, however, it must be remembered, but of a higher and more civilized type, as a a rule, although there are many Indian races in Mexico who differ greatly in point of development and in racial peculiarities. Cortez recognized nine distinct races. Some are of a very low type; some of a very high type.

In the state of Oaxaca, to the southeast of the state of Mexico, the native population is of a very high order. The capital of the state of Oaxaca is also called "Oaxaca," and presents the anomaly of a city of forty thousand inhabitants, without even a carriage road giving access to it.

This isolated city has its own university and has produced more great men than any other in Mexico. Juarez came from Oaxaca, and was a graduate of its university. The same is true of Diaz, the present President, and of Senor Matteo Romero, the accomplished Mexican Minister at Washington for so many years past, the latter two being Meztizos or Mexicans, and the former, as before stated having been an Indian.

Another great center of letters and art, second only to the City of Mexico, if indeed it does not lead it in this respect, is the City of Guadalajara, the capital of the state of Jalisco, on the Pacific slope, off to the northwest of Mexico.

The Mexicans are also a nation of musicians. No town or village of any size is without its string band, many of the instruments being of native manufacture. Even the pure-blooded Indians are almost universally musicians and make their own instruments.

The Indian women are also expert in many kinds of fancy-work; embroidering with feathers, ante-dating Cortez; and the fine drawn-thread needlework of Mexico, which is so much admired, is wrought by them, some of it being so delicate, that it can only be done at midday with the work held between the eyes and the sun. This is not an accomplishment learned from the Spanish, as I understand it, but is a native acquirement of the Indian women themselves.

I went to Mexico entirely unattended. I was the first American lady, or lady of any other nation, so far as I could learn, who ever went through the country in that way, stopping over at the various cities and visiting them, as I would in any other country. The camareros (chambermaids) are all men, and contrary to the generally received opinion that they are all thieves, I never had a pin's worth taken from me during my four months sojourn in Mexico. [Page 583] 

Respectable Mexican ladies do not go on the street unaccompanied by some other female, as a rule, even though escorted by a husband or brother, as people may not know that he is a husband or brother. A duenna accompanies her, or a female servant trots along in the rear. This rule is adhered to very strictly in the provincial towns, but is beginning to be ignored, to some extent, in the City of Mexico; some especially strong-minded Mexican ladies asserting their independence of suspicion, by adopting the American custom in this respect.

Upon my first visit to a city, I generally hired a mozo (male servant) who would consider two reals (twenty-five cents) a day, ample compensation, and twice that amount, princely remuneration for his services, to go about with me for a day or two, to show me the way, and carry my packages, as the Mexican cities are like most of those of Europe, not regularly laid out; the City of Mexico itself, however, being an exception to the rule, although even there, the names of the streets, even when continuous, change every two or three blocks, as they do everywhere in Mexico, which increases the difficulty of finding one's way about.

The religion of the great mass of the people of Mexico, is the Roman Catholic. It is pre-eminently a country of churches. No village, however small, is without one, or perhaps two or three, and even the open country frequently shows an isolated church crowning some distant hill. Time was when the church virtually ruled the state; owned about a third of the property in the whole country, and at least a quarter of the City of Mexico itself; was the banker of the people; in fact, was so powerful that it dictated terms to the government.

Under such circumstances any institution would become corrupt, and the church was no exception. In 1859, Juarez, then President, issued a pronunciamento confiscating the church property, all except churches in actual use, and a house for the priests. This may strike you as a singular provision, but where there were so many churches (one hundred and twenty-seven in the City of Mexico alone, and forty in the little city of Queretaro-containing no more than forty thousand inhabitants), there were many not in use for public services. All convents and monasteries were suppressed, their property confiscated, and the members of the orders compelled to disband or leave the country. The Jesuits were banished altogether.

This confiscation of the church property to the people, however, has not turned out well, as a rule. If the fine old convent buildings could have been appropriated by the state, and transformed into hospitals, schools and eleemosynary institutions generally, it would have resulted in saving, to worthy uses, a vast aggregation of valuable, and in many cases, magnificent buildings, which are fast falling into decay.

The common people in Mexico are generally Catholics, but the ruling class–at least the men–are generally free-thinkers. Their wives and children, however, are, as a rule, Roman Catholics. Men in Mexico, as elsewhere, seem to like to have their wives and children (at least, female children) religious, whatever they may be themselves.

The Protestant movement has made considerable headway in some portions of Mexico. It had its origin in the State and City of Oaxaca, for it commenced in Mexico, as everywhere else, from within, and among pure-blooded Indians, an evangelical society having been formed, with its president and secretary, and regular meetings held for a long time before any Protestant missionary set foot in Mexico; but its converts are confined almost exclusively to the so-called lower classes, the Episcopal Church alone having made any progress with the aristocratic and cultured classes, and that only in the City of Mexico, where it owns the fine old church of the Franciscans, a native minister officiating, and counts a number of ex-Catholic priests among its converts.

The Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists have also made respectable headway in the City of Mexico, as well as in some of the provincial towns.

The abandoned convents make fine ruins, although it fills one with sadness to see such valuable property–the result of so much effort on the part of man–going [Page 584]  to waste. One beautiful old convent that I visited in Queretaro, that of San Augustin, had all of the arches of the upper and lower corridors, surrounding the patio, of elaborately carved stone. Washwomen were pursuing their avocation about the central fountain, and donkeys wandered in and out of the abandoned ground-floor rooms; but they are not all thus deserted. There is occasionally a convent which is still put to valuable uses. Some have been converted into hotels, like the Hotel del Jardin, in the City of Mexico, which is the old refectory of the Franciscan Convent, and built around the beautiful old convent garden which gives it its name.

The Hotel Zacatecano, at Zacatecas, is another converted convent. To the American the building itself is a most delightful surprise. It was a portion of the church property confiscated under Juarez in 1859, and is a most beautiful specimen of Moorish architecture. It is about three centuries old, having been begun in 1576 and completed in 1596.

One realizes the ancientness of these border cities of Mexico, with their convents and churches, when one stops to reflect that Christian church bells were ringing in Chihuahua and Zacatecas nearly fifty years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock; and not only in Old Mexico, but on what is now our own side of the Rio Grande, at Yslete, Tex., as well as at Santa Fe, N. M., not much later, and long before the Pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving.

But to return to my convent, it is built around an open court or patio, entered from the street by means of an arched and paved carriage-way, and surrounded on both the lower and upper stories by arched corridors, open on the inner side, around which all of the rooms are ranged, opening upon it by means of great, heavy, wooden double doors, both the jambs and lintels of which are of solid stone, with caps supported by carved stone brackets. The arches of the corridors are the most beautiful part of the structure.

The pillars supporting the arches, and the arches themselves, are of carved stone, Hispano-Morisco and Aztec symbols appearing conjointly in the decorations; pilasters, representing the rising flame of the Aztec sacred fires, being cut in relief upon the face of the pillars, with mystic Arabic designs above. Even in the City of Mexico itself no such beautiful court as this exists.

Both court and corridors are paved with tile, as are all of the rooms in the house as well. Trees, shrubs and flowering plants of many kinds are arranged about the patio, set in earthenware vases, tubs and casks, and an octagonal jardiniere, with its shelves similarly filled, rises in a pyramid in the middle, crowned with a statue representing, one would imagine, the Mexican Minerva, her head adorned with a chaplet of cactus leaves, and a sword in her hand.

The roof of the building is flat, with great domes rising on two sides and smaller ones at the four corners. The walls are fully four feet through, and the rooms have lofty ceilings and are much larger than in most first-class American hotels. So it seems the monks were not cramped for room when within the confines of their cells.

Heavy shutters, made of some wood which, like that of the doors, is seemingly as hard as iron, close the double windows. When these shutters are closed and barred, and the key (nearly a foot long), turned in the rusty lock, which one is sure no burglars tools can pick, on account of the weight of the key if for no other reason, one feels as secure against intrusion from the evilly disposed as though in a veritable fortress. In fact these ancient convents and churches served a double purpose in the old days, being places of refuge for the people–actually fortresses of defense–as well as religious retreats, and their strength was often put to the test, even up to a very recent period.

At Guadelupe, a suburb of Zacatecas, five miles distant, an old convent is converted into a hospicio para ninos–an asylum for boys–where two hundred orphans are learning all sorts of trades, etc., besides receiving a regular schooling in text books.

Don Jose M. Mirandi, a very courtly and handsome gentleman, and a man of great wealth, and who, as I understand, acts in this capacity through philanthropy [Page 585]  alone, is director of the hospicio, and took the utmost pains to have me see the workings of the institution in detail.

The pupils of musical talents have been formed into an orchestra and supplied with brass instruments. They meet at four o'clock every afternoon in a large hall, under the tuition of Don Bernabe Santoyo of Zacatecas, director de musica del Hospicio. I was so fortunate as to be present at this hour, and to my mingled surprise and delight, doubtless by prearrangement of Director Miranda, the band struck up "The Star Spangled Banner" as I made my appearance, in honor of La Americana, only one of the numerous instances I witnessed while in Mexico of the graceful gallantry of these charming people. The boys of this school also receive a military training, being divided into companies, uniformed and supplied with arms.

In the rear of all the buildings are extensive huertas (gardens), where vegetables and fruits are raised. It is said that this orphanage owns a barra, or twenty-fourth share in the great San Rafael mine, from which it derives a very large annual income, sufficient to pay all of the expenses of the institution.

In front of the church and orphanage is a beautiful public garden filled with rare trees and flowers, and with a fountain in the center.

The church is one of the handsomest in Mexico, it, together with the Colegio Apostolico adjoining (the convent already referred to), having been founded in 1707, but its splendors pale before those of the Capella de Guadelupe, or Chapel of Guadelupe, adjoining, which is modern, having been only recently completed at a cost, it is said, of a quarter of a million, and is the most beautiful church of its size in Mexico, if not in the world.

It was built by a rich lady of Zacatecas, since deceased, Señora Dominga Miranda, sister of Señor Miranda, director of the hospicio just described, who spared no expense in either the building or its decorations, the best artists of the City of Mexico being employed for the latter. It is built in the form of a Greek cross, with a dome in the center. The walls are adorned with the most beautiful pictures of sacred scenes, painted directly upon them, and the metal work of the chancel rail and gates, as well as of the entrance doors, is of the most elaborate description, brass and bronze being the materials employed, while the floor is inlaid in mosaics of the richest woods.

Speaking of charitable institutions I must not forget the Maternity Hospital at Pueblo. The Maternity hospital is very extensive and perfect in every detail, embodying all modern improvements in the way of sanitation and hygiene. It is built around a very large court, on which all the rooms open by way of the corridors. It cost $200,000, and, strange to say, was endowed and built by an old bachelor, who has since gone to his reward.

[Page 579] 

Mrs. Caroline Westcott Romney was born at Clyde, Wayne County, N. Y. Her parents were Hon. J. N. Westcott and Sophronia Willard Westcott. She was educated in the public schools of Ohio, and at home by her father, who was a very fine scholar. She studied Latin and Greek under his tuition, and has traveled in Europe, Old Mexico and nearly all over the United States. She married Mr. John Romney in 1876, and was left a widow the same year. As a journalist she is a voluminous writer. She has invented and exhibited at the Columbian Exposition filters, conservers of heat and cold, and other inventions of value and importance to economic and comfortable housekeeping. In religious faith she is an Episcopalian Her postoffice address is Chicago, Ill.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Hitckcock.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom