Christ in Cuernavaca
by HOWARD FAST
(reprinted in Esquire, December, 1959 as "The Man Who Looked Like Jesus" with marked sections deleted, and added)
ON a cool, clear summer morning, as my wife and I were walking down Dwight D. Morrow Street in Cuernavaca, down from the hilltop toward the old Market, we saw a man riding on a little donkey or burro, as they call them there and he looked like Jesus Christ. You might observe remark that no one knows just what Christ looked like, but there is a face that has formed with time and taken shape in ten thousand paintings and sculptures, and this was the face of that man.
He was Indian. He wore an old poncho and a flat-brimmed hat, and his long hair hung down under the hat on either side of his long and sensitive face. His face was filled with sorrow, as so many faces in Mexico are, and his dark, beautiful eyes reflected a burden as large as a heavy wooden cross. His saddle was a homemade, hand-carved and crude wooden affair, and the two small milk cans slung on either side of the pommel and the thong sandals on his feet showed that he was a peasant who had come into the city to sell the milk of his few goats. He rode slowly, and his thoughts as well as his sight must have been turned inward, for he seemed to see nothing at all but his own cares and memories.
We stared at him directly and impolitely, for we could not help but stare at him, and after he had passed by, we looked at each other in wonder; for it is not a very usual experience for anyone to see the living image of Christ riding on a donkey.
We talked about it as we did our shopping, and then we took our basket of food to the plaza, the village square, so that we might sit and drink a cup of the wonderful Mexican coffee and enjoy the morning sunlight before we walked home.
When we reached the plaza, we saw sitting alone at a little table in front of the café, the man whom we always thought of as the exile, and because he was witty and charming and gentle, we were delighted to join him and have our coffee with him.
Of course, there are many exiles of one sort and another in Cuernavaca, and there have been for years and years, the Spanish Republican exiles and before that the German exiles, and before that exiles from all over Latin America; for if one has to be an exile, where is there a town as beautiful, as gentle and mellow as Cuernavaca? But only in the past half decade have exiles from the United States of America appeared in Cuernavaca, exiles and refugees, political prisoners lately released and still sick with the loneliness and horror of jail, writers blacklisted and hounded wherever they were, actors who would act no more because once they had signed a petition, artists wanted by this Congressional Committee or that one, and other people who were sick with fear and horror at what was happening to the land in which they were born. At one time, not so long ago, there was a considerable colony of those exiles from the States, but that colony had dwindled, as one by one the refugees either moved to the urban satisfactions of Mexico City or gave way to homesickness and the pressures of poverty, and returned to face whatever awaited them in their own land.
Symbolically, only the exile remained that summer when we were there. For the moment, he was the last of the Americans in Cuernavaca. He was filled with sadness and grief because he had burned so many bridges between himself and his home, and because the path was so tangled and impossible now, but he covered his grief and depression with wry humor and ironic commentary on himself. He knew that he evoked pity, but he resented such a role, and he greeted us impishly and caustically.
After we had ordered coffee, my wife told him, "We saw Christ riding on a donkey to the market place."
I explained, sipping my coffee and looking out at the green and white sun-drenched square, the old Palace of Cortez, and the bowl of incredible mountains all around us.
"I am not surprised," he said. "In Mexico, anything can happen. Consider, four hundred years ago, this country was nailed to a cross by the Christian Spaniards. The national anthem became the song of the whip. Why does it surprise you to meet Christ on Dwight W. Morrow Street? This is a most likely place for him."
"You're not impressed?"
"Fewer and fewer things impress me. Being an exile breeds an inevitable cynicism. Anyway, I find this a curious reaction on the part of two people who consider themselves materialists."
"What we saw was quite material," my wife said. "It was an Indian man on a donkey."
"That is what was there, no doubt," the exile pointed out. "What you saw, as you have been telling me, is Christ."
We talked a while longer, the exile gently prodding us and making us feel increasingly credulous, and finally, with a little less than an apology, we were ready to admit that it was a trick of our imagination; and over the next several days the matter faded from our minds. Then, one day, we met Dr. Arno Serente on the street, and I happened to mention to him that I was troubled with a large and painful boil, and he suggested that I drop by at his office and allow him to lance it. I didn't think the boil was that important, but Dr. Serente loved to talk about things in America and in other places of the world, and he was also a very interesting and colorful talker, so I agreed to stop by that afternoon.
He too had been an exile once, but for so long, so very long that he appeared to have forgotten, and he was a part of Cuernavaca, his longing to return to his own beloved Spain put away, compartmentalized, away deep down inside of him; and his life full of his little black bag, his rushing to and fro, and poor Mexican patients who could never afford the money to pay him, and rich American alcoholics whom he overcharged and made his living from.
He had been a captain in the Spanish Republican Army and finally had been driven across the Pyrenees with thousands more and his wife too, and the end of his long Odyssey was Mexico, with the clothes on his back and not a penny or a franc or a centavo in his pockets. But that was fifteen long years ago, and even long ago were the days when he had practiced in little Indian villages where you go in on muleback because there are no roads, no dirt roads or wagon tracks even; and now he was successful, as such things go, with a pleasant house and an office and a nurse, eating three meals a day and with the feel of good money in his pockets. Spain lingered on the way a dream does, but, also like a dream, it blurred over the edges as the butcher Franco practiced and became more proficient in his butchery, butchered the heart and soul and hope of Spain, until, bit by bit, Serente faced and accepted resignation and the permanence of his existence here. "I will return someday," remained locked away in a precious part of his soul, but that day had no place on the calendar.
His office was in a little brick and plaster building past the market, and you went into a brown, dirty, ancient hallway and up a flight of stairs to a landing where a long bench and two chairs represented his waiting room and where a pile of ragged magazines in English or Spanish gave you temporary companionship with your misery. There I went at about three o'clock in the afternoon, and sitting sadly and patiently in the waiting room was the man of the donkey, the Indian who looked like Jesus Christ.
This time I was able to take a long full look at him, without any of the magic of morning sunlight to confuse me, and I discovered that my wife and I had been right in our first reaction, that this man looked like Jesus Christ, in the flesh, in old work-worn Indian clothes.
When one is for any time in Mexico, one comes to accept the sorrow in a Mexican face, even as the face itself accepts the sorrow; but some hold that no faces on earth are so beautiful as the dark, lined Indian faces of that unhappy land, and therefore the sorrow is never a commonplace. It is an intrusion, a deformity, for here are a people made for the sunlight of happiness and always there is the mystery of how sorrow can be etched so deeply. Thus it was etched here, and I had to know something of it, and in my very bad Spanish I asked the man whether he was waiting for the doctor.
"No, for my daughter," he said, quietly. Then he went on to explain that she was in there with her mother, and that she was very sick. He had the incredible forbearance of most plain Mexicans and when you spoke his language, even so badly, he unlocked some of his heart. He had a rich, pleasant voice, a tender voice, and even before he told me that his little girl was everything in the world to him, it was obvious that he was a man concerned for children. He explained that his daughter was twelve years old, and that it was both their fortune and misfortune to have no other children. Their misfortune because a man with no son looks forward to a tired old age, especially a small farmer like himself, with only a hut and a little plot of land and a few goats, all of which gives sparingly and through the most sedulous care; yet it was also their fortune to have a child like this one and to be able to lavish all their love upon her, for as he pointed out to me a child who gets a full measure of love grows like a single plant in a rich, loamy river valley, waxing both strong and beautiful.
Not all of this did I understand, missing a word here and there; but I understood all when the mother and child came out of Serente's consulting room, for the child was beautiful enough to take my breath away, and the mother still retained a similar beauty from her youth and happiness. Though they were frightened with the consultation and with doctors' offices in general, and though the mother's eyes were full of the moist focus of grief, it did not lessen their beauty, but rather increased and accentuated it. They sat down to wait while Serente called in the man as the father and head of the family. I could not talk to them. I only sat and looked at them sometimes, and then the father came out, and managed, before he left with his terror, to fulfill the requirements of courtesy with:
"A good afternoon, señor, and good-by."
Then they left and within a few minutes Serente called me into his consulting room.
The boil was soon done with. "That man who was outside," I said. "Have you ever thought, Arno, who he looks like?"
"He looks like any other Indian, I suppose."
I told him about the morning on Dwight W. Morrow Street and what our reaction had been.
"It is wonderful to be a writer, because then you see nothing just as it really is, and I suppose that is necessary."
"No more necessary to a writer than it is to a physician to see things as they really are."
"Then it was the burro."
"The trouble with so many people and a lot of writers too is that they stop seeing anything."
"Perhaps it is your business to see as much as you can and our peace of mind to see as little. And that's as it may be. My wife wants to know whether you can join us at dinner tomorrow, where we are having a young and honest and very brave labor leader from Mexico City, and he also wants to meet you."
"Why do you Mexicans always use brave the way it is not meant to be used at all?" I asked rather peevishly.
"In the first place, and regretfully, I am not a Mexican but a Spaniard, and in the second place, the word is quite correctly used in our language. It is only when I translate it into English that it becomes incongruous, and that is either because you have no word of your own to match it properly or because the whole concept of bravery is distasteful to the North American."
"I don't want to engage in a discussion of semantics. We will be happy to come for dinner because you have a charming wife, a beautiful garden, and good food."
"The difference between you and most North Americans," he smiled, "is that you are consciously insulting, and they quite unconsciously achieve the same effect. At seven o'clock then."
I promised to come, and then as I turned to leave, I asked him about the little girl who was the patient before me, expressing the hope that she was not very sick and would soon be well.
"I'm afraid she's very sick," Serente said.
"Oh? But surely she can be cured?"
''I'm afraid not," he differed calmly.
"You mean she has a fatal illness? My God, man, how can you stand there and talk about it that way?"
"How else shall I talk about it? I am a doctor, and my concern is with sick people, not now and then, but twelve and fifteen hours a day. And many of them die. Here in Mexico more seem to die than in other places."
"Do you mean that she's going to die?"
"I'm afraid so."
"No no, that's impossible. It's not possible that a child as young and beautiful as that should be condemned to death."
"My dear North American friend," he said patiently, "what have youth and beauty to do with it? The child is very sick."
"Granted that she is this is not the Middle Ages. We live in a time of antibiotics, miracle drugs and miracle surgery. Surely you can do something "
"I can do nothing," he said sourly, turning to put his instruments back in the sterilizer. "Where you live, it may be an age of antibiotics and so forth. Here it is still a good deal of the Middle Ages. Furthermore, you are being sentimental, and I wonder whether you are sincere."
"Now it's your turn to be insulting."
"Not at all. The fact of the matter is that I live and work here. But because you have been emotionally moved by the sight of an Indian peon on a donkey and the fact that his little girl is beautiful not an unusual thing with the Mexicans, you will admit you have raised the issue of this child's sickness as if I could save her but will not."
"And can you?" I insisted
"I cannot. First of all, she is suffering from a very bad kidney ailment. One of her kidneys must be removed, and even then it is anyone's guess whether the other could heal to an extent to take over the burden."
"But there is a chance. You have just said so."
"I have said nothing of the sort. Do not turn your thoughts into my words, please. How are her parents to pay for an operation they have not even money to pay for their calls here? My fee from you is fifty pesos; if they can pay one, it is a lot, and an operation must cost two thousand pesos, that is, without the cost of a trip to Mexico City, and living there and extras like hospital and anesthesia and drugs and heaven knows what. That is, considering that they would consent to an operation, and a very dangerous operation, you must know."
"How could they not consent to something that might save the child's life? Surely it's plain that they love her. The father told me that she is their only child."
"Surely it is not plain. Everything that might be plain to normal people," Serente said bitterly, "is turned on its head for a Ggringo. Please, I'm not being insulting and only angry at myself and the world I live in. I like you and admire you, but you share the worst characteristics of your countrymen, not the least of which is to endow the entire world with your mental processes. For fifty years, your people have been educated to the fact that operations are beneficial, even when they are not necessary. But to plain, poor people who have never seen a hospital, an operation is a terrible and frightening thing. And if the patient dies in spite of the operation, they conclude that it is murder. Anyway, it's out of the question. There is no money."
"I can spare the money
"Can you? Name of God, will you spare the money to operate on a hundred patients of mine who need operations just so urgently? Will you declare yourself God to decide who shall live and who shall perish? Or perhaps this will become a new game for the North Americans an amusing lottery to see which Mexican deserves life "
"Really, Serente, that's not called for."
"No, I suppose not. I'm sorry. But don't you think I have any feelings? Don't you suppose I saw the mother and the father and the child? Now why did I choose you for this scene? I don't know. This is every day for me, day in and day out, every day for every Mexican doctor. But why should I torture you, when you are already tortured enough?"
"You are not torturing me at all. I understand."
"How can you understand? I have been here fifteen years, and I still do not understand, and still I do the wrong thing because I have never been a peasant who in all his life never knew what it is not to be hungry, not to be cold, not to be sick. Yesterday morning a peon came in, with his wife and his son and daughter. Both children had been having bloody stools for months, but what a decision it was for them to pack up their household and journey thirty miles to the frightening city! Finally, they are here. They tell me and I examine the children, and to do anything for them I must know what organism it is. So I give the father two cardboard cartons with the children's names on them and tell him to have the children defecate in the boxes and then bring the stools back to me. He looks at me like a hurt animal, but after fifteen years I do not understand. I am too busy. I have too many other patients and I am insensitive. But of course, he never returns. Why? Because of him, I am like a God, and when I tell him to bring me boxes of stools, it is some dreadful joke I am making on him, or an insult, or just horror. Does he know there are organisms that cause disease? Has he ever seen a microscope? So now, probably, the two children are dead, and it is my fault because I have forgotten the terrors and suffering of plain people. Well, enough. Come to dinner, and when I am your host, I will have to talk gently."
"Talk the way you want to talk," I said. "We will be there."
AS I walked home from his office, I remembered that I had to stop by at the carpentry shop. It had long been a dream of my wife to use this vacation to do some sculpture, and a few days ago I had stopped at a little carpentry shop and had asked them to make an armature for me. I had wanted a very simple thing, a block of wood with a wooden upright about which the clay would be molded. The carpenter understood immediately, and said he would have it in a day or two.
When I came into his carpentry shop now, the armature was ready. The carpentry shop itself brought m back to my earlier mood, for it was a place that reached back to the oldest memories of man's work with tools, bent-bow rawhide drills, the same drills one sees painted on Egyptian tombs, handmade planes and handmade saws, yes, even the adz unchanged from the Spanish adz that the Conquistadors had brought to the land four centuries ago, and even the nails they used were four-sided and hand-hammered. Sleepy, with its white front the shop lay in the afternoon sunlight like a painted picture of some long, long ago, the two carpenters, in their leather aprons, with their work-hardened hands and their fine brown faces, in the picture and of the picture, yet possessed of that particular and peculiar quality which the carpenter, of all workers, has a singular relationship to tools and wood and people, a gentleness of visage, a certain contemplation of life, a particular warmth and oneness with the world around him and its people. This is not my imagination; I have worked with carpenters and seen them in many places and situations, in Europe and Asia, in Maine and Vermont and California, in my home, on a job, and as prisoners working in prison, and always the quality is there.
"Here is your armature, señor," the older of the two carpenters said to me, holding it out to me, a marvel of beauty and workmanship which made me gasp with astonishment, a base of polished mahogany, the upright Jointed into it, the whole finished and polished like a piece of precious furniture. "It must cost four pesos," he said, which is thirty-two cents in American money. And then, seeing my face, he asked whether that was too much money. I answered, no, that it was very little money, too little money for the work he had done and the beautiful wood he had used. No, I said, my astonishment was due to the fact he had taken such pains to make it beautiful.
"And why should it not be beautiful, señor?" the man asked.
The question posed itself with no answer, for behind the meaning of beauty to this man lay a thousand years of culture and experience of which I knew all too little, and could comprehend even less. It brought to mind the unending stream of peasants and workers who travel far in Mexico to look at the paintings that bedeck their walls and buildings as no other buildings in all the world are bedecked. I took the armature from him, paid him, and went home....
I saw the priest the next day. It came about quite by accident, for my wife and I and the children had wandered into the great cathedral with no other thought than to see what the old rock and mountain of a place contained, but soon the cold gloom of the church drove the children back into the sunlight and my wife went after them, leaving me to contemplate alone the mass of jewel-laden images, the ancient murals, the gold and silver candlesticks, the silks and tapestries and precious stones all of it gathered here in the wet twilight, shut off by wall and darkness from the bright Mexican sunlight and the heartbreaking Mexican poverty. I must have been entirely lost in contemplation when the priest addressed me, for I was entirely unconscious of his approach and rather startled when he said:
"You like our cathedral, señor?"
"I don't know that I have thought about liking or disliking it. I am impressed by it."
"Then señor is not a Catholic." It was more a statement of fact than a question. His English was excellent, and I remarked upon that. "Yes, I studied English in Spain."
"But you are not Spanish, you are Mexican." He was obviously Mexican, a heavy-set, fleshy man of about fifty, with the round, healthy look that some priests have.
"I was in Spain between 1935 and 1940 a time when the Mexican government did not see eye to eye with our mother, the Church. It was better to be in Spain then." But he said nothing of what had occurred in Spain during those years, and I wondered why. Perhaps because I was wondering, I told him briefly the story of the man on the donkey who looked like Jesus Christ and of his daughter and her sickness. Was there nothing he could do, I wanted to know?
"And why do you ask a priest?" he said.
"I think because there is no one else to turn to."
"But this man he is a Mexican, and he will turn to God."
"Perhaps, but that will not cure his daughter."
"Are you so sure, señor? If it is God's will that his daughter should live she will live, and if it is God's will that she shall die, then she will die. Such things are ordained and not for you or me to decide."
"But isn't such an attitude old-fashioned, to say the least?" I asked carefully, considering each phrase. "There is a science of medicine and there are hospitals and surgeons and antibiotics, and surely you would not deny that people are helped by these things?"
"We talk at cross purposes, señor." The priest smiled. "Do you believe in God?"
"That's a somewhat of a personal question, isn't it?"
"And do you talk less personally, señor? You see a man, who to you looks like our Savior. Would that occur to a Christian? You do not think twice before you pronounce your thoughts to me, blasphemous though they may be. And then when I ask you whether you believe in God, you feel I am asking a personal question. No, it is not antibiotics the Mexican needs, but faith."
"In other words," I said, no longer attempting to conceal my annoyance, "you remain unmoved by this story and have no intention of doing anything about it."
"Quite the contrary; I am deeply moved, and I shall do something about it, more than you, I believe."
"May I ask what?"
"I shall pray," the priest said.
DINNER at Dr. Serente's was always a special treat. Not only was his lovely Spanish wife a charming and thoughtful hostess, not only were the people one met there always interesting and very often amusing, but the food was good, and when Mexican food is good, it is better than any in this hemisphere.
The Serente house was an old one, in the old Mexican style. The living quarters lay in one row, presenting a flat, characterless front to the street, the few windows barred, and the entrance through an arched carriage-way. But once inside, inside the walled quadrangle that contained house and garden, a veritable fairyland opened to one's view. A long veranda stretched the full length of the living quarters, each room opening onto it, a veranda upon which the Serentes lived, entertained and ate, all the while facing the lovely garden. Like most of the best Mexican gardens, it was not very large, and owed its beauty to the intensity of its tropical green and to the variety of its trees and shrubs and the surprising velvet quality of its grass. In the twilight, as now, it became a place of utter enchantment, connected with our world only through the play cries of the doctor's son who was about ten years old and his friends.
When my wife and I arrived, the labor leader was already present, a man of about thirty, heavy-set, broad-shouldered, with a broad and warm Indian face. A few minutes later, the exile and his wife arrived, his wife a thin, weary woman with fine dark eyes and an air of incredible loneliness. A Chilean, a member of the Chilean Senate, completed the party. After we were all introduced, we sat around and drank the very excellent drinks the doctor served and talked, the conversation half in Spanish, half in English, flowing from one language into the other, the stiffness of the English soothed and modulated by the melodious lilt of the Spanish. The Chilean had been in Spain during the Civil War, and he and Serente's wife whom he had known as a nurse then recalled old memories, most of them tortured by time, defeat and resignation. The Mexican labor leader, whose name was Diego Gomez, was too young to recall those times, and Serente, to whom talk of Spain always brought sorrow, changed the subject by telling the story of how I had seen Christ riding down Dwight W. Morrow Street. He told it mockingly, watching my reaction, and then the exile pointed out what a charming title for a story it made, Christ on Dwight W. Morrow Street. What in the whole world could be as incongruous?
"Just Dwight W. Morrow Street," Mrs. Serente said. "Each time I hear it, I find it as unbelievable."
"Christ in Cuernavaca," Gomez said in Spanish. "There is the best title. Only I am dubious. Of all the places on earth, I feel that Cuernavaca will be the last for Christ to visit if He returns."
"Isn't it obvious?" Gomez said. "The sorrows of Mexico are doubly visited here. My people, who have an affection for pungent phrases, explain all that afflicts them by pointing out that Mexico is too far from God and too close to North America. You have peopled our plain Mexican saloons with your rich alcoholics, our dance halls with your homosexuals, and our lovely plazas and streets with your lean and ravenous and sexless women. You have built your great mansions all over our hills, and you dazzle us with your wealth. My sister-in-law's cousin, a plain peasant woman, works as a domestic for the Thompsons here, the one who used to be ambassador to the Argentine. She is paid one hundred and fifty pesos a month and she works seven days a week. Last week a Texas oilman was visiting the Thompsons. He had too much to drink and he was courting Thompson's wife. As a gesture, he lit her cigarette with a twenty-dollar bill. Four times he did this one thousand pesos and only last year this woman the domestic this woman's child died because 250 milligrams of terramycin costs two pesos "
"I know," my wife broke in, "that happens. But it isn't all of us. You don't judge a hundred and sixty million people by the Thompsons."
"Who am I to judge?" Gomez smiled. "We are talking of Christ in Cuernavaca."
"You see, the Mexican is always the center of the earth," the Chilean said gently. "Oh, what a people!"
"With good reason," Gomez said.
"Any Mexican reason is a good reason. Their ego would even include a monopoly of the world's suffering a monopoly of all afflictions, including the United States."
"You are too kind to us."
"The trouble is," the exile said, "that no European can even begin to understand Mexico."
"With the possible exception of yourself," Serente put in.
"Possibly. I think I understand Mexico in part, at least."
"I don't," the Chilean said comfortably. "Nor will I ever. I have even decided to stop trying. I have been here only three weeks, but I have decided it is easier to love Mexico than to try to understand her."
"We are very easy to understand," Gomez said slowly. "We are plain people and very poor and our backs are bent because always upon them there has been either a Spaniard, or a North American. Why is that so hard to understand? Why does everyone complicate it so?"
"And when your backs are no longer bent?"
"You will see Mexico then," Gomez nodded. "It will be like this garden all of it."
"But we have all forgotten the little girl," said my wife. "What will happen to her?"
"She will die," said Gomez flatly.
"And we must accept that?"
"I have never really understood," observed Serente, "why people come to Mexico to vacation."
"To see our cathedrals," said Gomez.
I observed that we had seen one of them today, and that I had told my story to a priest.
"In your Spanish?" Serente snorted.
"He spoke English excellently. He learned it in Spain during the Civil War."
"What was he doing in Spain?"
"Mexico was uncomfortable for him then, so he went to Spain. I did not ask him what he did there. I could guess."
"And did he listen attentively to your story?"
"And what did he say?"
"He said that the life or death of the little girl is up to God, and he resented my interference."
The exile smiled bitterly and said, almost in the way of a non sequitur, "When I was in India, many years ago when it was still a British colony, I spent an hour with the Communist Party District Organizer of the State of Bengal, and I asked him about his program. He pointed out that while the program was long and involved, he could condense it into one sentence. All we have to do, he explained, is to teach our people to spit once together, and then there will be such a wave of water as will wash every Englishman into the sea."
"Once together." Gomez nodded appreciatively. "A simple act that often takes many centuries to perfect."
"I don't like your smile," Serente's wife commented. "It's rather nasty."
"But homely. Don't you think we often confuse the two?"
Then the Chilean asked me, "But what made you think that the man's face was the face of Christ? How could you know?" He used a Spanish idiom that confused me, and Serente had to translate it.
"Well, there is a face. It's the face that recurs in most of the paintings and sculptures."
"I wonder," the Chilean reflected. "There is so much speculation. Rembrandt painted Jewish faces, if there is such a thing. When the Spaniards came to our land, the Christ they brought had Spanish faces, but little by little, our own painters and sculptures made it a Chilean face, the patient, tired face of the Chilean miner or the Chilean peasant. I don't understand why you felt so strongly that this was the face and figure of Christ."
"Neither do I," said Serente. "The man has been a patient of mine, and it never occurred to me."
His wife said, "Things occur to writers that would never occur to you. That is why they are writers. But really we must come to dinner. It's an interesting dinner, but it will spoil if it waits too long."
More than that, it was a very good dinner, a wonderful dinner, with hot tortillas, veal with mole over it, that ancient, incredible chocolate sauce that the Aztecs perfected a thousand years ago, frijoles, hot and whole in their own sauce, arroz, the good Mexican rice, with chicken and shrimps to go with it, and calavo, mashed with onions and garlic, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, and cold Mexican beer, which is as good as any beer in the world and better than most.
The talk at dinner turned to other things with a sense of relief to my wife and myself and they talked of Mexican art and of Chile, and then the difference between Mexican dances and Spanish dances, and why so many Spaniards in Mexico owned grocery stores, and how the superhighway between Mexico City and Cuernavaca had been built by peons who were paid six pesos a day. Then the exile spoke of University City, and the wonders in mosaic that Diego Rivera had wrought there, and the Chilean asked whether it was not true that, because the new university had been built so far from the city, the students lacked bus fare to get there? It was true, Gomez admitted, admitting that Mexico had the most magnificent university and possibly the poorest in pesos student body in the whole world. Then the talk turned to Guatamala, so recently betrayed and raped, and how instead of the earth-shaking moan of anguish and hatred arising from Mexico, only a few tears had fallen. But more tears than one might have expected, Serente said, recalling an Indian woman in his office weeping uncontrollably for what had been done to the good place of the south, and his wife told of the Guatamalan flag that Rivera had painted upon the gates of his house, proudly and defiantly and pathetically, for the whole world to see.
So the evening went, a good evening, with warm people and good talk and good food. Republican Spain lived a moment and so did the Republic of Guatamala, and others lifted the fallen standards out of the dust and held them, and so memories and hopes were mingled. None of these were people who lived by the secure retreat of talk and speculation; all of them had ventured their bodies and souls in what they believed, and they knew the winnings and the losses in the life they lived. And finally it was over and time to go, the moon high in the sky which the brief evening rain had washed so clean and pure, and we began to say our good-bye. Dr. Serente offered to drive us home, but Gomez, who was staying with an uncle who lived near our hotel, said he thought he would like to walk home because the night was so fine, and we decided to walk with him. We said little as we walked through the darkened streets, for when an evening such as this is finished, it is hard to pick up new threads, and as a matter of fact the silence was restful and comfortable. Because it was the shortest direct way, we turned into Dwight W. Morrow Street after we had crossed the empty plaza, and in the last block before we reached Morales, we saw a man standing under the street light.
He was a telephone-cable repair man, out on a late call, and he had just climbed down from the cable pole. The light lit him and magnified him as he stood there, legs spread, arms akimbo, a coil of wire over one shoulder, a climbing rope slung over the other, his tools in his leather belt and his feet in heavy leather climbing boots. He stood there like a rock, his whole muscular body and his fine chiseled Indian face of one piece and part, his cotton shirt open at the neck, his lips parted in the slight smile of recognition that honest folk have for one another so late at night. Gomez greeted him softly and with dignity, and he in turn returned the greeting with the same calm dignity. There was no comment made, and Gomez needed to make none. We said good night to Gomez, and we went home....
A day or so later, my wife, not willing to let the matter rest as it was, went to see Serente and begged him to take money from us to go through with the operation on the little girl; but as in my own case, he was able to convince her that it was impossible. He pointed out to her that he did not even know where these people lived; he had no address for them; they had a few acres of land, somewhere out in the hills; and unless they came to his office again, he could not reach them. Better than I was able to, he pointed out the overwhelming difficulties, in what had seemed to us to be a very simple matter. He also stressed that there was no proof at all that the operation would be successful. "You offer charity," he said to her. "You do it because you are kind and good. But I think you know what charity is. Charity is like facing a thousand hungry people with a crumb of food."
To us, our frustration was a lash on pity and sentimentality. In Mexico, where the dollar can buy twelve and a half pesos, the poorest American tourist is overcome with delusions of grandeur until the moment when he looks at himself. It is true that many never look at themselves, but some do and for those there is at least a flash of insight in which they see themselves as others see them....
About ten days more passed before we saw Serente again. His practice was an uneven one. If somewhere in the hills there was a sudden sweep of dysentery, of virus or of any of many other diseases, a flood of patients would overwhelm his office. The poor Mexicans knew he was Spanish and Spaniards are not liked by Mexicans, whose memory is a long one but they also knew that he never turned patients away, and there was many another doctor who would not look at a patient unless the pesos laid on his palm first, so his practice slackened only rarely. But then, one day, he turned up at our apartment at about two o'clock, haggard with the pressure of work, and said to me:
"Either I get away for a few hours, or I go out of my mind. What do you have for this afternoon?"
"Like all afternoons here I work hard at resting."
"Oh. Why can't I be a tourist? "
"You don't have the personality for it. Where do you want to go?"
"To a strange, wonderful place called Xocalco, an ancient city on top of a mountain. It is about thirty kilometers from here, and it will do so good to spend an hour there. It is very restful. Will your wife release you?"
"I think so. But I'm told I'm a sick man, so I wonder about climbing mountains."
"This one we can climb most of the way in my car. It will do you good, believe me as a doctor." My wife agreed with him, and in a little while Serente and I were in his car, speeding through the green, gleaming rice fields and then climbing into the great wall of mountains that lies south and west of Cuernavaca. Then we turned off the main highway onto a small side road through a broad, beautiful, but strangely uninhabited valley. Even the grass huts and little patch fields of the peasants were missing here, nor was there a burro to be seen munching the grass or a bullock pulling a wooden plow against the horizon. We drove on until Serente pointed to a hulking purple mass. "There it is," he said, and I commented that it was very high and that it hardly seemed possible that a car could climb it. "Perhaps, but the old Mexicans built a stone roadway up to the place, and much of it still remains and the rest is dirt fill. They were mighty workers in stone, and a very great people, and their works dwarf the antiquities that we Europeans admire so. Mexicans are very proud and one of the reasons is that they have not forgotten the old times."
"Yes, others have."
Serente was an excellent driver. We turned off the road onto what seemed to be only a dirt cow track, but after we had crossed several fields, it emerged as a fairly good dirt road. It wound up the side of the mountain, with ancient stonework, buttressing the hillside above it as well as the road below, and it went on and on, in endless curves and convolutions, and as it mounted, the hills around us rolled back and the whole broad vista of the valley below spread out before us. Finally, we came to a place where the car could go no further, and Serente parked in a small clearing, and from there we went on by foot over four or five hundred feet that remained to the summit.
From Serente's description, I had anticipated an unusual sight, but my thinking was shaped by the other ruins I had seen near Mexico City and in the South. Those ruins represented years of archaeological work, and this place had hardly been touched only a single pyramid excavated yet in its vastness in the grand purpose of the concept that had made it, in the immensity of its ruins, it dwarfed anything I had seen before. It took my breath away. It left me awe-stricken and speechless, and full of a sense of the awfulness of time.
We had emerged on the top of a long, rolling plateau, and for a mile of its length in front of us, and half a mile behind us, an enormous dead stone city lay, dead and clothed all over with verdure, but with here and there an outcropping of stone, a ledge, a wall, a sill; and under the green cloak, the shapes remained, mighty buildings, tall pyramids, sunken courts, giant columns with only the base left, formal gardens where brightly dressed people had once walked, and fountains which had once picked the Mexican sunlight into all of its bright colors. We walked through its lonely emptiness, interlopers in time, and examined the single pyramid that had been uncovered. It was strange, different from any pyramid I had ever seen before, but precise and handsome in its workmanship. I asked Serente whether he knew what manner of people had once lived in this city. "They don't know yet," he replied, "but whatever they called themselves, we know that they were the same people as the peasants who live in the neighborhood now. The people who are fastened to the earth never change. They endure everything and survive everything " But did they, I wondered? Serente had told me that at one time, it was estimated, ten thousand people lived in this city on a mountaintop, and how many tens of thousands had lived in the valley below to grow the food to feed these? But now the valley was silent and empty. I asked Serente.
"It is not empty. A few people still live there. They are the remnant of agony. I saw the agony of Spain myself, and I was a part of it, but the agony of Mexico is something else. All that is hideous and monstrous on the earth has bled Mexico. She has been raped, not thrice, but a hundred times, raped, bled and betrayed. Church and North America taught her lessons and still teach her, and her own rich suck the half empty veins of her body, and this has been for four hundred years. What other people could live through that and remain so strong and proud and brave? Possibly, at one time, a hundred thousand people lived in that valley below, and someday a hundred thousand people will live there again. Now only a handful are left. But they have not gone no, they have not gone. Their children will plow the land, and the land will bloom."
We walked down the slope of the plateau to a ceremonial ball park, looking up at the stands where the dukes and knights of the old Indian civilization had sat, and our thoughts filled in the panorama of bright color, of painted walls and painted gods, of banners flying and gold glittering. A little Indian boy joined us there, his flock of goats scattered behind him, munching among the ruins. "If the señores desire," he said, "I will show you where the priests of old lived." We said yes and gave him a peso, and his beautiful dark face lit momentarily with a smile of appreciation, and then he and his goats led us down a winding path to a broad ledge where a long row of houses had been partly excavated. They were invisible from above. "Who told you they are the houses of priests?" Serente asked him, and he replied, "When the curator comes from Mexico City, he instructs me carefully. He tells me that my own people built these houses, and that I must remember all I can, for some day we will rebuild them. When I am older, I will go to the university and study such things and be an archaeologist myself. See, already I think about it. Look on that hillside there." He pointed to a mountainside toward the end of the plateau. "Do you see the even space between the trees like a storm cut a swathe there? Well, I have decided that no trees grow there because a stone road lies beneath the grass, and even the curator did not know that until I pointed it out to him. Next week he will make what we call a sinking there. Do you know what a sinking is?" We said we did, and we followed him to other places and listened to more of his chattering and his uncanny childish wisdom. When we said good-by to him, he bowed formally with that courtly grace which so many Mexicans have and which no Mexican needs to be taught, and, as a host, he invited us to come again and to bring our friends. "Because people do not know what lies on this mountaintop. You must tell them."
We returned to the car in silence, and in silence we drove down the mountain to the road below. Only when we were well on our way back did I ask Serente:
"Is there any news of the little girl?"
"She died two days ago," Serente said evenly. "Yesterday, I went to the church where her body lay." I learned afterward that he had provided the money for the funeral, but he said nothing about that. "She was a beautiful child," Serente continued. "I wanted to weep. I am afraid I am becoming sentimental, like a North American, and with a few exceptions, I dislike North Americans as much as I hate sentimentality. You are one of the exceptions, my friend, and I am sure you have learned to forgive me the things I say. Anyway, it will comfort you a little to know that, in my opinion, she could not have been saved."
"It doesn't comfort me, and anyway I think you are lying."
"Perhaps I am lying. What difference does it make? All children are beautiful, whether in Mexico or in North America. Here they die from dysentery and virus; your people destroy childhood in other ways, and now that you have this splendid toy of yours, your hydrogen bomb, you will be able to spread death among the Chinese children much more economically and profitably than among the Mexicans, where you only use such old fashioned tools as oppression, ignorance, and monopolies in anti-biotics.
"I have noticed that a number of Mexican companies make anti-biotics and keep the price as high as we do."
"True and deserving," Serente sighed. "Some kind of a mood has come over me, and it is best if I just keep my mouth shut now. Anyway, I want to be back in my office before the rain."
The clouds were gathering as we entered Cuernavaca. Serente dropped me at the hotel, shook my hand warmly, and begged forgiveness. But no one could be angry at him, and therefore no one ever had any need to forgive him. I went upstairs to our apartment and told my wife about the afternoon. The children were still playing in the garden, and she suggested that we go out onto the terrace and smoke a cigarette, and then there would still be time before dinner for a drink in the restaurant downstairs. The terrace was a favorite place of ours at this time of the day, for during the rainy season each evening presented a breath-taking and impressive spectacle. Most often, the clouds would begin to gather at about five o'clock, and from our terrace, one had a clear view of a mighty gorge in the mountains, down which a wild river ran. As the rain approached, this gorge would fill with dark green and purple clouds, and the clouds would appear to tumble down through the ravine, even as the river did. The whole vista then became unearthly, full of fright and grandeur, and shot through with wild beams of sunlight, so much like an El Greco, but so much more real and colorful.
As this took place, I told my wife what Serente had said about the little girl, and she nodded silently and woefully. Then the rain started, and we went down to the restaurant. The manager of the restaurant was a Spanish Republican, the head of the organization of Spanish Republicans in Cuernavaca, and his warm greeting, his gentle smile, and his just as gentle salud, brought us back to reality. We invited him to join us, and we drank to life, to the consternation of the butcher Franco, and to the day when Madrid would be the tomb of fascism.
We ordered whiskey and I proposed a toast. My wife nodded.
We drank to Mexico to Mexico, the mother, who shelters the oppressed, the driven, the hungry not to poor, bleeding Mexico, but to Mexico angry and proud.
We went back to our apartment, and our children were there and they saw our faces and asked what was wrong. We embraced them and held life in our arms, assuring them that nothing was wrong only live and grow valiant and proud and strong!
About a week later, walking on Guerrero, the narrow, crowded market street of Cuernavaca, the street with the savage and defiant name, we saw him again, riding on his little donkey. "There he is!" my wife said to me, and as if in answer to her words, he raised his head. Oh, how his face had changed! The repose was gone, the peace was gone. We no longer saw Christ as one sees him in the thousand paintings and sculptures; we saw a Mexican peon, whose heart had filled to overflowing and had broken with the weight of sorrow.