Langston Hughes, "In a Mexican City" (1921)
TOLUCA sits in the highest plateau of Mexico at the foot of the old and long extinct volcano "Xinantecatl", which is said to be named after one of the ancient Indian kings. All around us there are mountains and our valley is broad and fertile. Here the climate is cool and often cold, but the poor folks never have shoes to wear nor do the rich use stoves in their houses. In summer it is the rainy season and every day brings long showers and misty clouds that hide the mountains. In winter the sky is clear and the sun shines warm at mid-day, but in the shade it is always cool.
The house where I live faces a little plaza or park and from my window I can see many interesting things. Every morning a bare-footed old woman in a wide straw hat and long skirts drives a little flock of white sheep down the street, and sometimes she has a tiny baby lamb in her arms. They go to the country to graze all day and in the evening they come back again. Often I see a funeral procession passing through the plaza on the way to the Panteon and as they do not have hearses here, the men carry the casket on their shoulders while the mourners walk behind them. On Sundays the park is full of black-shawled women and men wrapped in serapes or blankets who come in the early morning to say mass in the quaint old church in front with its pretty tower and its most unmusical bells.
There are many churches here and all of them are very old. Some were built before the Independence, when Mexico was still under Spanish rule, and have beautiful domes and tall, graceful towers. Practically every one is Catholic and they keep many feast days. On the day of the Innocent Saints there is a custom that reminds one of our April Fool. On this date things should never be loaned and if you forget, the article is sure to be sent back by the joking friend who borrowed it, accompanied by a tiny box full of tiny toys and a note calling you a "poor little innocent saint". On the second of November, which is a day in honor of the dead, they sell many little cardboard coffins and paper dolls dressed as mourners, and if a person meets you in the street and says "I'm dying", you must give him a gift unless you have said "I'm dying" first; then, of course, he has to treat you to the present. On a certain day in January the people take their animals to be blessed and in the church-yard one sees everything from oxen to rabbits. Each is wearing a bit of gay colored ribbon and they wait patiently for the priest to come.
The houses here from the outside all look very much alike and are but a succession of arched doors and windows with small balconies facing the sidewalk. They often have lovely court-yards and verandas but these are hidden from the passers-by behind high walls, and the fronts of the houses never tell anything about the beauty that may be within them. When one enters a house the door usually leads directly into the court-yard or sometimes into the long open corridor from which every room has its entrance. In the patio or court-yard there are flowers the year round and if it is a large one, there may be a garden or trees. On the railing of the long veranda, too, there are many pots of red and pink geraniums and fragrant heliotrope. Inside the house there will probably be little furniture. Only a few of the well-to-do people have a great deal, so most of the homes use chairs as their principal space fillers. In a friend's parlor I counted twenty-seven one day and the only other articles of furniture were two small tables. Most of the parlors of the middle-class folk show the same emptiness but perhaps it is a good idea, for on holidays there is plenty of room to dance without moving anything out.
The kitchens here are very different from American ones, for they do not use stoves or gas ranges. The fuel is charcoal and the stoves are made of stone or brick, built into the wall like a long seat, except that they have three square grates on top for the fire and three square holes in front for removing the ashes. Some are prettily built and covered with gaily colored tiles. To make the fire several splinters of pine are lighted in the grate and then the black pieces of charcoal piled on top. Then one must fan and fan at the square holes in front until the charcoal on top begins to blaze, and in a little while you have a nice glowing fire ready to cook with.
The shops here in the portals, which is Toluca's "uptown", are much like the American stores, but in the little expendios in the side streets one can buy a penny's worth of wood or a tablespoonful of lard or a lamp full of oil. The poor here do not have much money. These little shops paint themselves all sorts of colors and have the funniest names. One I know is called "The Wedding Bouquet". Others are "The Light Of America", "The Big Fight", "The Fox", and so on, and one tinner's shop is even called "Heart of Jesus". The last store on the edge of town, where the road leads off to San Juan, has the very appropriate name of "Farewell". One who did not know Spanish could acquire a whole vocabulary just by reading the store names which are painted in large colored letters across the front and are often accompanied by pictures or decorations to illustrate their meanings. For instance, the meat market called "The Bull of Atenco" has the animal's picture on one side of the door and a bull-fighter's on the other, painted over a background of bright blue.
Friday is market-day in Toluca and the square outside the market-house is one sea of wide Mexican hats, as buyer and trader jostle and bargain. The surrounding streets are lined with Indians from the country who squat behind their little piles of vegetables, or fruit, or herbs, which they have to sell and which they spread out on the ground before them. One old woman will have neat little piles of green peppers for a cent a pile. Another will have beans and another wild herbs for seasoning soup or making medicine. The fruit sellers, of course, always have a most gorgeous and luscious display. Under a canopy created from four sticks and some sort of covering to make a spot of shade, are piled all sorts of strange, delicious fruits. There one finds creamy alligator pears and queer-tasting mangoes; red pomegranates and black zapotes; small, round melons and fat little bananas and the delicately flavored granada, which feels like a paper ball and has a soft seedy pulp inside. Then there are oranges that come up to us from the hot country, along with limes and juicy lemons that are not sour like the ones we know up North.
Here people never buy without bargaining. If the price asked for a thing is two cents, they are sure to get it for one. These price arguments are always good-natured and the merchant, knowing that he will have to come down, usually asks more than he should in the first place. Everyone going to market must carry his own baskets and sacks and even the paper for his meat, as everything is sold without wrapping.
A market-day crowd is composed of all sorts of people. A rich senorita with her black scarf draped gracefully about her shoulders is doing the family buying, while the servants carrying baskets follow behind. Indian women with sacks of vegetables on their backs; others with turkeys or chickens in their arms; little ragged brown boys seeking a chance to earn a few cents by carrying a customer's basket; and beggars, numberless beggars, blind, lame and sick beggars, all asking patiently for pennies or half-rotted fruits; these are the folks one sees on market-day pushing and elbowing their way through the crowd which is so thick that nobody can hurry.
On one side of the plaza are the sellers of hats and the large yellow mats that the Indians spread down on the floor at night for sleeping purposes. The Mexican straw hats have wide round brims and high peaked crowns and, though cheap, most of them are prettily shaped. The Indian, upon buying a new hat, will not take the trouble to remove his old one, but puts the new one on top and marches off home with his double decked head gear. Sometimes a hat merchant, desiring to change his location, will put one hat on his head, and as each peaked crown fits snugly over the other, he then piles his whole stock on top of himself and goes walking down the street like a Chinese pagoda out for a stroll.
Here everything that people do not carry on their backs they carry on their heads. The ice-cream man crying nieve, balances his freezer, and the baker-boys carry a shallow basket as big around as a wagon wheel. This basket has a crown in the center and when filled with bread it fits over the head like a very wide Mexican hat, while its wearer underneath is as insignificant as the stem of a mushroom. Sometimes we see fruit sellers, too, with great colorful mounds of fruit piled upon their wooden trays and balanced gracefully on their black-haired heads. When a thing is too heavy or too unwieldy to put on the head, then it is carried on the back, and the Indians bear immense burdens in this way. Men, women and even small children are often seen with great loads of wood or charcoal, or sacks of grain, on their backs, and the only carriage that the little Indian baby ever knows is its mother's back, where it rides contented all day long, tied in her rebosa or shawl.
Published in The Brownies' Book, April 1921