Mexico

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In spite of the obvious hazards, the trains were continuously used for the transportation of soldiers and their families from one battle area to another, often resembling mobile tenement buildings. Hundreds of men, women, and children were crammed into boxcars designed for livestock, some perched on top like sparrows, others blissfully slouched in hammocks slung between the wheels. With a stoic indifference to danger, the women cooked the tortillas, frijoles , and carnitas on oil-can braziers loosely attached to the catwalks on top of the boxcars, their children scrambling in and out of the moving cars in never-ending games of tag and hide-and-seek. However, these same carefree children grew up fast. By the age of ten most of them were buglers, drummers, couriers, and sentries, and many became full-fledged soldiers at twelve. The women also joined the fighting, especially if their husbands or lovers had been killed. There were hundreds of soldaderas whose military exploits were praised in earthy ballads like “Adelita,” a hauntingly beautiful song that would make strong men weep on their second glass of tequila. My father never tired of telling us about a reckless, dark-eyed señorita named Conchita Gomez, who could shoot a hole through a silver peso at fifty paces. “She was a stunning beauty,” he said, “but her prowess with a .38 pistol tended to scare away any potential suitors.”

But the presence of daring and lovely soldaderas could not conceal the essential horror and ugliness of the war itself. For several tortured years the whole country was plunged into a nightmare of carnage, looting, and physical devastation beyond all description. It was probably the bloodiest war in the bloody history of Latin America. Millions of Mexicans, rich and poor alike, had to adjust themselves to a most tenuous existence, ready to migrate at a moment’s notice as the contending armies swept back and forth across the scarred landscape. Every “general” printed his own money, which of course became the only legal tender in the locale he occupied at that moment. With nearly two hundred varieties of worthless paper money floating about like confetti, the economic chaos caused thousands of dejected workers to leave their jobs and join whatever troops happened to be passing through. Life was soon cheaper than the worthless paper bills, and the average mexicano had reason to believe the melancholy lyrics of “La Vida No Vale Nada.” Yet, strange as it may seem, few people showed fear or gloom, their mood being instead a curious blend of resignation and simmering excitement. Even now, fifty years later, the revolución is the favorite theme of Mexican movie producers. Every week, year after year, millions of men, women, and children crowd into theatres all over Mexico to watch the latest version of this or that battle, always cheering like mad for the rebel troops as they raid a hacienda or demolish an enemy troop train. Totally identifying with the insurgents, they never grow tired of watching the underdogs re-rekilling the rich, powerful overdogs.

When they leave the gilded movie houses to return once more to their crowded, smelly slums or their bleak, adobe shacks in the arid countryside—for many of them are no better off than they were before the downfall of Diaz—those briefly bedazzled peons may wonder what all the fighting was about. Nevertheless, one must admit that, despite the persistent misery of millions of campesinos and obreros , Mexico as a whole has indeed progressed during the past half century, particularly in such urban centers as Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey. Thousands of factories, skyscrapers, and housing developments have given urban Mexico the most modern face in all Latin America, while hundreds of villages and rural areas still suffer from gross neglect. Not surprisingly, huge masses of Mexicans have been afflicted by an urbicentric mania that has drawn them into the larger cities and has created almost insurmountable problems for the capital, which has mushroomed into one of the largest cities in this hemisphere. The once serene elegance of Paseo de la Reforma, where Emperor Maximilian rode in a gilded carriage to his home in Chapultepec Palace while Carlota waited for him on the broad shaded terrace, has given way to the ugly onslaught of jackhammers, bulldozers, and cranes as old colonial mansions come tumbling down to make room for cold, glittering skyscrapers. Thousands and thousands of automobiles, purchased by an ever-increasing middle class which buys new cars but never abandons their old ones, have polluted the air and created endless traffic snarls that get worse day by day. Mexican chaos is somehow less organized than American chaos. Caught in the nerve-wracking mesh of this latinized urban crisis, breathing foul air while he rides to work in a sardine-packed bus that now takes twice as long to get him there, the average Mexican is no longer the easy-smiling, carefree latino who seemed so charming to tourists. He is, in fact, well on his way to becoming an angry, sullen, urban animal with all the feral fulminations of a New York cab driver.