Life in Mexico, by Frances Calderon de la Barca

Letter the Fourteenth

Palm Sunday — Holy Thursday — Variety of Costumes — San Francisco — Santo Domingo — Santa Teresa — Nuns — Stone Bust — The Academy — Religious Procession — Pilgrimage to the Churches — Santa Clara — Nun’s Voice — Orange-trees and Rose-bushes — The Cathedral Illuminated — Our Saviour in Chains — Good Friday — The great Square towards Evening — Dresses of Men, Women, and Children — Approach of the Host — Judas — Great Procession — Miserere — The Square by Moonlight — A Lonely Walk — Sábado de Gloria — Ball in Contemplation — Weekly Soirées — Embroidered Muslins — A Tertulia at Home.

On the morning of Palm Sunday, I went to the Cathedral, accompanied by Mademoiselle de ——— daughter of the ——— Minister. We found it no easy matter to make our way through the crowd; but at last, by dint of patience and perseverance, and changing our place very often, we contrived to arrive very near the great altar; and there we had just taken up our position, when a disinterested man gave us a friendly hint, that as the whole procession, with their branches, must inevitably squeeze past the spot where we were, we should probably be crushed or suffocated; consequently we followed him to a more convenient station, also close to the altar and defended by the railing, where we found ourselves tolerably well off. Two ladies, to whom he made the same proposition, and who rejected it, we afterwards observed in a sad condition, their mantillas nearly torn off and the palm-branches sweeping across their eyes. In a short time, the whole cathedral presented the appearance of a forest of palm-trees, (à la Birnam wood) moved by a gentle wind; and under each tree a half-naked Indian, his rags clinging together with wonderful pertinacity; long, matted, dirty black hair both in men and women, bronze faces with mild unspeaking eyes, or all with one expression of eagerness to see the approach of the priests. Many of them had probably travelled a long way, and the palms were from tierra caliente, dried and plaited into all manner of ingenious ways. Each palm was about seven feet high, so as far to overshadow the head of the Indian who carried it; and whenever they are blessed, they are carried home to adorn the walls of their huts. The priests arrived, at length, in great pomp; and also carrying palm-branches. For four mortal hours, we remained kneeling or sitting on the floor, and thankful we were when it was all over, and we could make our way once more into the fresh air. From this day, during the whole week, all business is suspended, and but one train of thought occupies all classes, from the highest to the lowest. The peasants flock from every quarter, shops are shut, churches are opened; and the Divine Tragedy enacted in Syria eighteen hundred years ago, is now celebrated in land then undiscovered, and by the descendants of nations sunk in Paganism for centuries after that period. But amongst the lower classes, the worship is emphatically the worship of Her who Herself predicted, “From henceforth all nations shall call me blessed.” Before her shrines, and at all hours, thousands are kneeling. With faces expressive of the most intense love and devotion, and with words of the most passionate adoration, they address the mild image of the Mother of God. To the Son their feelings seem composed of respectful pity, of humble but more distant adoration; while to the Virgin they appear to give all their confidence, and to look up to her as to a kind and bountiful Queen, who, dressed in her magnificent robes and jewelled diadem, yet mourning in all the agony of her divine sorrows, has condescended to admit the poorest beggar to participate in her woe, whilst in her turn she shares in the afflictions of the lowly, feels for their privations, and grants them her all-powerful intercession.

On Holy Thursday nothing can be more picturesque than the whole appearance of Mexico. No carriages are permitted and the ladies, being on foot, take the opportunity of displaying all the riches of their toilet. On this day velvets and satins are your only wear. Diamonds and pearls walk the streets. The mantillas are white or black blonde; the shoes white or coloured satin. The petticoats are still rather short, but it would be hard to hide such small feet, and such still smaller shoes. “Il faut souffrir pour être belle,” but à quoi bon être belle? if no one sees it. As for me, I ventured upon a lilac silk of Palmyre’s, and a black mantilla.

The whole city was filled with picturesque figures. After the higher Señoras were to be remarked the common women, chiefly in clear white, very stiffly starched muslins, some very richly embroidered, and the petticoat trimmed with lace, white satin shoes, and the dresses extremely short, which in them looks very well. A reboso is thrown over all. Amongst these were many handsome faces, but in a still lower and more Indian class, with their gay-coloured petticoats, the faces were sometimes beautiful, and the figures more upright and graceful; also they invariably walk well whilst many of the higher classes, from tight shoes and want of custom, seem to feel pain in putting their feet to the ground.

But none could vie with the handsome Poblana peasants in their holiday dresses, some so rich and magnificent, that, remembering the warning of our Ministerial friends, I am inclined to believe them more showy than respectable. The pure Indians, with whom the churches and the whole city is crowded, are as ugly as can be imagined; a gentle, dirty, and much-enduring race. Still, with their babies at their backs, going along at their usual gentle trot, they add much to the general effect of the coup-d’oeil.

We walked to San Francisco about ten o’clock, and the body of the church being crowded, went upstairs to a private gallery with a gilded grating, belonging to the Countess de Santiago, and here we had the advantage of seats, besides a fine view of the whole. This church is very splendid, and the walls were hung with canvas paintings representing different passages of our Saviour’s life; his entry into Jerusalem, the woman of Samaria at the well, etc., which, with the palm-trees had a cool and oriental effect.

Before the altar, which was dazzling with jewels, was a representation of the Lord’s Supper, not in painting, but in sculptured figures as large as life, habited in the Jewish dresses. The bishops and priests were in a blaze of gold and jewels. They were assisted during the ceremony by the young Count of Santiago. The music was extremely good, and the whole effect impressive. We visited several churches in the course of the day, and continued walking until four o’clock, when we went to dine with our friends the A——s. After dinner one of their coachmen, a handsome Mexican, in a superb dress, all embroidered in gold, was called upstairs to dance the Jarabe to us with a country girl. The dance is monotonous, but they acquitted themselves to perfection.

We then continued our pilgrimage through the city, though, as the sun had not yet set, we reserved our chief admiration until the churches should be illuminated. One, however, we entered at sunset, which is worthy of remark — Santo Domingo. It looked like a little Paradise, or a story in the Arabian Nights. All the steps up the altar were covered with pots of beautiful flowers; orange-trees, loaded with fruit and blossom, and rose-bushes in full bloom, glasses of coloured water, and all kinds of fruit. Cages full of birds, singing delightfully, hung from the wall, and really fine paintings filled up the intervals. A gay carpet covered the floor, and in front of the altar, instead of the usual representation of the Saviour crucified, a little infant Jesús, beautifully done in wax, was lying amidst flowers with little angels surrounding him. Add to this, the music of Romeo and Juliet, and you may imagine that it was more like a scene in an opera, than anything in a church. But certainly, as the rays of the setting sun streamed in with a rosy light through the stained windows, throwing a glow over the whole; birds, and flowers, and fruit, paintings and angels, it was the prettiest and most fantastic scene I ever beheld, like something expressly got up for the benefit of children.

We did not kneel before each altar for more than three minutes, otherwise we should never have had time even to enter the innumerable churches which we visited in the course of the night. We next went to Santa Teresa la Nueva, a handsome church, belonging to a convent of strict nuns, which was now brilliantly illuminated; and here, as in all the churches, we made our way through the crowd with extreme difficulty. The number of léperos was astonishing, greatly exceeding that of well-dressed people. Before each altar was a figure, dreadful in the extreme, of the Saviour, as large as life, dressed in purple robe and crown of thorns, seated on the steps of the altar, the blood trickling from his wounds; each person, before leaving the church, devoutly kneeling to kiss his hands and feet. The nuns, amongst whom is a sister of Señor A—— sung behind the grating of the gallery above, but were not visible.

One of the churches we visited, that of Santa Teresa, called the Antigua, stands upon the site formerly occupied by the palace of the father of the unfortunate Montezuma. It was here that the Spaniards were quartered when they took Montezuma prisoner, and here Cortes found and appropriated the treasures of that family. In 1830 a bust of stone was found in the yard of the convent, which the workmen were digging up. Don Lucas Alaman, then Minister of Exterior Relations, offered a compensation to the nuns for the curious piece of antiquity which they gladly gave up to the government, on whose account he acted. It is said to be the idol goddess of the Indians, Centeotl, the goddess of medicine and medicinal herbs, also known by the name of Temaz calteci, or the “Grandmother of the Baths.” A full account is given of her in one of the numbers of the “Mosaico Megicano,” as also of a square stone found in the same place, beautifully carved, and covered with hieroglyphical characters.

In the evening, towards the hour when the great procession was expected, we went to the balconies of the Academia, which command a fine view of the streets by which it was to pass. Till it arrived we amused ourselves by looking over the beaux restes of former days, the collections of painting and sculpture, the fine plaster-casts that still remain, and the great volumes of fine engravings. It was dark when the procession made its appearance, which rendered the effect less gaudy and more striking. The Virgin, the Saints, the Holy Trinity, the Saviour in different passages of his life, imprisonment and crucifixion, were carried past in succession, represented by figures magnificently dressed, placed on lofty scaffoldings of immense weight, supported by different bodies of men. One is carried by the coachmen, another by the aguadores (water-carriers), a third by the cargadores (porters), a Herculean race.

First arrived the favourite protectress of all classes, the Virgin of Dolores, surmounted by a velvet canopy, seated on a glittering throne, attired in her sable robes, her brow surmounted by glittering rays, and contracted with an expression of agony; of all representations of the Virgin, the only one which is always lovely, however rudely carved, with that invariably beautiful face of terrible anguish. Then followed the Saviour bearing the cross; the Saviour crucified, the Virgin supporting the head of her dying son; the Trinity (the Holy Spirit represented by a dove); all the apostles, from St. Peter with the keys to Judas with the money-bag; and a long train of saints, all brilliantly illuminated and attended by an amazing crowd of priests, monks, and laymen. However childish and superstitious all this may seem, I doubt whether it be not as well thus to impress certain religious truths on the minds of a people too ignorant to understand them by any other process. By the time the last saint and angel had vanished, the hour was advanced, and we had still to visit the illuminated churches. Being recommended to divest ourselves of our ornaments before wandering forth amongst the crowd, a matter of some moment to the Señora A—— who wore all her diamonds, we left our earrings, brooches, etc., in charge of the person who keeps the Academia, and recommenced our pilgrimage.

Innumerable were the churches we visited that evening; the Cathedral, La Ensenanza, Jesús María, Santa Clara, Santa Brigida, San Hipólito, La Encarnación, the five churches of San Francisco, etc., etc., a list without an end, kneeling for a short space of time before each blazing altar, for the more churches one visits, the more meritorious is the devotion. The cathedral was the first we entered, and its magnificence struck us with amazement. Its gold and silver and jewels, its innumerable ornaments and holy vessels, the rich dresses of the priests, all seemed burning in almost intolerable brightness. The high altar was the most magnificent; the second, with its pure white marble pillars, the most imposing.

The crowd was immense, but we made our way slowly through it to the foot of each altar, where the people were devoutly kissing the Saviour’s hand or the hem of his garment; or beating their breasts before the mild image of Our Lady of Grief. Each church had vied with the other in putting forth all its splendour of jewellery, of lights, of dresses, and of music.

In the church of Santa Clara, attached to the convent of the same name, small but elegant, with its pillars of white marble and gold, one voice of angelic sweetness was singing behind the grating alone, and in the midst of a most deathlike stillness. It sounded like the notes of a nightingale in a cage. I could have listened for hours, but our time was limited, and we set off anew. Fortunately the evening was delightful, and the moon shining brightly. We visited about twenty churches in succession. In all the organ was pealing, the blaze of light overpowering, the magnificence of jewels and crimson velvet and silver and gold dazzling, the crowd suffocating, the incense blinding.

The prettiest effect in every church was caused by the orange-trees and rose-bushes, which covered the steps of the altars, up to where the magnificence of the altar itself blazed out; and the most picturesque effect was produced by the different orders of monks in their gowns and hoods, either lying on their faces or standing ranged with torches like figures carved in stone.

In the passage leading to most of the churches was a table, at which several ladies of the highest rank sat collecting alms for the poor. The fair queteuses had not been very successful, and that chiefly amongst the lower classes. The fatigue was terrible, walking for so many hours on that bad pavement with thin satin shoes, so that at length our feet seemed to move mechanically, and we dropped on our knees before each altar like machines touched by a spring, and rose again with no small effort. Of all the churches we entered that night, the cathedral was the most magnificent, but the most beautiful and tasteful was San Francisco. The crowd there was so dense, that we were almost carried off our feet, and were obliged, in defiance of all rule, to take the arms of our caballeros. Still it was worth the trouble of making our way through it to see such a superbly illuminated altar. It was now eleven o’clock, and the crowd were breaking up as the churches are shut before midnight. In one corner of the middle aisle, near the door, was the representation of a prison from which issued a stream of soft music, and at the window was a figure of Christ in chains, his eyes bandaged, and a Jew on each side; the chains hanging from his hands, and clanking as if with the motion of his arms. The rush here was immense. Numbers of people were kneeling before the window of the prison, and kissing the chains and beating their breasts with every appearance of contrition and devotion. This was the night before the Crucifixion, and the last scene of the Holy Thursday.

We reached home hardly able to stand. I never felt more dazzled, bewildered, and sleepy; but I was wakened by finding a packet of letters from home, which brought back my thoughts, or rather carried them away to very different lands.

On Good Friday, a day of sorrow and humiliation, the scene in the morning is very different. The great sacrifice is complete — the Immortal has died a mortal death. The ladies all issue forth in mourning, and the churches look sad and wan after their last night’s brilliancy. The heat was intense. We went to San Francisco, again to the Tribuna of the Countess de Santiago, to see the Adoration and Procession of the Cross, which was very fine.

But the most beautiful and original scene was presented towards sunset in the great square, and it is doubtful whether any other city in the world could present a coup-d’oeil of equal brilliancy. Having been offered the entree to some apartments in the palace, we took our seats on the balconies, which commanded a view of the whole. The Plaza itself, even on ordinary days, is a noble square, and but for its one fault, a row of shops called the Parian, which breaks its uniformity, would be nearly unrivalled. Every object is interesting. The eye wanders from the cathedral to the house of Cortes (the Monte Pio), and from thence to a range of fine buildings with lofty arcades to the west. From our elevated situation, we could see all the different streets that branch out from the square, covered with gay crowds pouring in that direction to see another great procession, which was expected to pass in front of the palace. Booths filled with refreshments, and covered with green branches and garlands of flowers, were to be seen in all directions, surrounded by a crowd who were quenching their thirst with orgeat, chia,6 lemonade, or pulque. The whole square, from the cathedral to the Portales, and from the Monte Pio to the palace, was covered with thousands and tens of thousands of figures, all in their gayest dresses, and as the sun poured his rays down upon their gaudy colours, they looked like armies of living tulips. Here was to be seen a group of ladies, some with black gowns and mantillas; others, now that their church-going duty was over, equipped in velvet or satin, with their hair dressed, — and beautiful hair they have; some leading their children by the hand, dressed . . . alas! how they were dressed! Long velvet gowns trimmed with blonde, diamond earrings, high French caps befurbelowed with lace and flowers, or turbans with plumes of feathers. Now and then the head of a little thing that could hardly waddle alone, might have belonged to an English dowager-duchess in her opera-box. Some had extraordinary bonnets, also with flowers and feathers, and as they toddled along, top heavy, one would have thought they were little old women, till a glimpse was caught of their lovely little brown faces and black eyes. Now and then a little girl, simply dressed with a short frock, and long black hair plaited down and uncovered, would trip along, a very model of grace amongst the small caricatures. The children here are generally beautiful, their features only too perfect and regular for the face “to fulfil the promise of its spring.” They have little colour, with swimming black or hazel eyes, and long lashes resting on the clear pale cheek, and a perfect mass of fine dark hair of the straight Spanish or Indian kind plaited down behind.

6 A drink made of the seed of the plant of that name.]

As a contrast to the Señoras, with their over-dressed beauties, were the poor Indian women, trotting across the square, their black hair plaited with dirty red ribbon, a piece of woollen cloth wrapped about them, and a little mahogany baby hanging behind, its face upturned to the sky, and its head going jerking along, somehow without its neck being dislocated. The most resigned expression on earth is that of an Indian baby. All the groups we had seen promenading the streets the day before were here collected by hundreds; the women of the shopkeeper class, or it may be lower, in their smart white embroidered gowns, with their white satin shoes, and neat feet and ankles, and rebosos or bright shawls thrown over their heads; the peasants and countrywomen, with their short petticoats of two colours, generally scarlet and yellow (for they are most anti-quakerish in their attire), thin satin shoes and lace-trimmed chemises, or bronze-coloured damsels, all crowned with flowers, strolling along with their admirers, and tingling their light guitars. And above all, here and there a flashing Poblana, with a dress of real value and much taste, and often with a face and figure of extraordinary beauty, especially the figure; large and yet élancée, with a bold coquettish eye, and a beautiful little brown foot, shown off by the white satin shoe; the petticoat of her dress frequently fringed and embroidered in real massive gold, and a reboso either shot with gold, or a bright-coloured China crape shawl, coquettishly thrown over her head. We saw several whose dresses could not have cost less than five hundred dollars.

Add to this motley crowd, men dressed à la Mexicaine, with their large ornamented hats and serapes, or embroidered jackets, sauntering along, smoking their cigars, léperos in rags, Indians in blankets, officers in uniform, priests in their shovel hats, monks of every order; Frenchmen exercising their wit upon the passers-by; Englishmen looking cold and philosophical; Germans gazing through their spectacles, mild and mystical; Spaniards seeming pretty much at home, and abstaining from remarks; and it may be conceived that the scene at least presented variety. Sometimes the tinkling of the bell announced the approach of Nuestro Amo. Instantly the whole crowd are on their knees, crossing themselves devoutly. Two men who were fighting below the window suddenly dropped down side by side. Disputes were hushed, flirtations arrested, and to the busy hum of voices succeeded a profound silence. Only the rolling of the coach-wheels and the sound of the little bell were heard.

No sooner had it passed than the talkers and the criers recommenced with fresh vigour. The venders of hot chestnuts and cooling beverages plied their trade more briskly than ever. A military band struck up an air from Semiramis: and the noise of the innumerable matracas (rattles), some of wood and some of silver, with which every one is armed during the last days of the holy week, broke forth again as if by magic, while again commenced the sale of the Judases, fireworks in the form of that arch-traitor, which are sold on the evening of Good Friday, and let off on Saturday morning. Hundreds of these hideous figures were held above the crowd, by men who carried them tied together on long poles. An ugly misshapen monster they represent the betrayer to have been. When he sold his master for thirty pieces of silver, did he dream that in the lapse of ages his effigies should be held up to the execration of a Mexican mob, of an unknown people in undiscovered countries beyond the seas? — A secret bargain, perhaps made whisperingly in a darkened chamber with the fierce Jewish rulers; but now shouted forth in the ears of the descendants of Montezuma and Cortes!

But the sound of a distant hymn rose on the air, and shortly after there appeared, advancing towards the square, a long and pompous retinue of mitred priests, with banners and crucifixes and gorgeous imagery, conducting a procession in which figures representing scenes concerning the death of our Saviour, were carried by on platforms, as they were the preceding evening. There was the Virgin in mourning at the foot of the cross — the Virgin in glory — and more saints and more angels — St. Michael and the dragon, etc., etc., a glittering and innumerable train. Not a sound was heard as the figures were carried slowly onwards in their splendid robes, lighted by thousands of tapers, which mingled their unnatural glare with the fading light of day.

As the Miserere was to be performed in the cathedral late in the evening, we went there, though with small hopes of making our way through the tremendous crowd. Having at length been admitted through a private entrance, per favour, we made our way into the body of the church; but the crowd was so intolerable, that we thought of abandoning our position, when we were seen and recognised by some of the priests, and conducted to a railed-off enclosure near the shrine of the Virgin, with the luxury of a Turkey carpet. Here, separated from the crowd, we sat down in peace on the ground. The gentlemen were accommodated with high-backed chairs, beside some ecclesiastics; for men may sit on chairs or benches in church, but women must kneel or sit on the ground. Why? “Quien sabe?” (Who knows?) is all the satisfaction I have ever obtained on that point.

A Lonely Walk

The music began with a crash that wakened me out of an agreeable slumber into which I had gradually fallen; and such discordance of instruments and voices, such confusion worse confounded, such inharmonious harmony, never before deafened mortal ears. The very spheres seemed out of tune, and rolling and crashing over each other. I could have cried Miserere! with the loudest; and in the midst of all the undrilled band was a music-master, with violin-stick uplifted, rushing desperately from one to the other, in vain endeavouring to keep time, and frightened at the clamour he himself had been instrumental in raising, like Phaeton intrusted with his unmanageable coursers. The noise was so great as to be really alarming; and the heat was severe in proportion. The calm face of the Virgin seemed to look reproachfully down. We were thankful when, at the conclusion of this stormy appeal for mercy, we were able to make our way into the fresh air and soft moonlight, through the confusion and squeezing at the doors, where it was rumoured that a soldier had killed a baby with his bayonet. A bad place for poor little babies — decidedly.

Outside, in the square, it was cool and agreeable. A military band was playing airs from Norma, and the womankind were sitting on the stones of the railing, or wandering about and finishing their day’s work by a quiet flirtation au clair de la lune.

It was now eleven o’clock, and the pulquerias were thrown open for the refreshment of the faithful, and though hitherto much order had prevailed, it was not likely to endure much longer; notwithstanding which, we had the imprudence to walk unattended to our own house, at San Fernando. In the centre of the city there seemed no danger. People were still walking, and a few still drinking at the lighted booths; but when arrived at the lower part of the Alameda, all was still, and as we walked outside, under the long shadows of the trees, I expected every moment to be attacked, and wished we were anywhere, even on the silvery top of Popocatepetl! We passed several crowded pulquerias, where some were drinking and others drunk. Arrived at the arches, we saw from time to time a suspicious blanketed figure half hid by the shadow of the wall. A few doors from our own domicile was a pulque-shop filled with léperos, of whom some were standing at the door, shrouded in their blankets. It seemed to me we should never pass them, but we walked fast, and reached our door in safety. Here we thundered in vain. The porter was asleep, and for nearly ten minutes we heard voices within, male and female, ineffectually endeavouring to persuade the heavy-headed Cerberus to relinquish his keys. It would have been a choice moment for our friends, had any of them wished to accost us; but either they had not observed us, or perhaps they thought that C——n walking so late must have been armed; or perhaps, more charitable construction, they had profited by the solemnities of the day.

We got in at last, and I felt thankful enough for shelter and safety, and as wearied of the day’s performances as you may be in reading a description of them.

Next morning, Sábado de Gloria, I could not persuade myself to go as far as the Plaza, to see the Iscariots explode. At a distance we listened to the hissing and crackling of the fireworks, the ringing of all the bells, and the thundering of artillery; and knew by the hum of busy voices, and the rolling of carriages, that the Holy Week was numbered with the past. . . .

We hear that it is in contemplation amongst the English here, headed by their Minister, to give a ball in the Mineria, to celebrate the Marriage of Queen Victoria, which will be turning these splendid halls to some account.

I have some intention of giving a series of weekly soirées, but am assured that they will not succeed, because hitherto such parties have failed. As a reason, is given the extravagant notions of the ladies in point of dress, and it is said that nothing but a ball where they can wear jewels, and a toilet therewith consistent, will please them; that a lady of high rank who had been in Madrid, having proposed simple tertulias and white muslin dresses, half the men in Mexico were ruined that year by the embroidered French and India muslins bought by their wives during this reign of simplicity; the idea of a plain white muslin, a dress worn by any lepera, never having struck them as possible. Nevertheless we can but make the attempt.

We propose going next week to Tulansingo, where our friends the ——— have a country place, from thence we proceed to visit the mines of Real del Monte.

23rd. — On Monday we gave a Tertulia, which, notwithstanding all predictions, went off remarkably well, and consisted of nearly all the pleasantest people in Mexico. We had music, dancing, and cards, and at three in the morning the German cotillon was still in full vigour. Every one was disposed to be amused, and, moreover, the young ladies were dressed very simply; most of them in plain white muslins. There was but a small sprinkling of diamonds, and that chiefly among the elderly part of the community. Still it is said that the novelty alone induced them to come, and that weekly soirées will not succeed. We shall try. Besides which, the Lady of the ——— Minister proposes being At Home on Wednesday evenings; the Lady of the ——— Minister takes another evening; I, a third, and we shall see what can be effected.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01