Frances Calderon de la Barca: Life in Mexico

Inka Piegsa-Quischotte

For the first time in my life, I was on my way to Mexico. Two things had brought this trip about: a surprise invitation to the wedding of my Mexican friend’s daughter, and… a book.

By chance, I had come across Life in Mexico, by Frances Calderon de la Barca, published in 1842. It had such an impact on my imagination that I decided on the spot to use it as my travel guide, well over 100 years after it was written.

Scottish born Frances Erskine Inglis was the wife of the first Spanish ambassador to the independent Mexico. They met and married in New York, and in 1839 he was posted to Mexico, where the couple spent the next two years.

During that time, Frances – after her marriage, Mrs. Calderon de la Barca – wrote a total of 54 letters to her family and friends. Her intention was to depict life and circumstances in a country totally different from their own and to do so through the eyes of an enlightened traveler, neither blinded by prejudice nor afflicted by the snobbery of the Victorian upper class to which, due to her husband’s rank, she belonged. Without even trying, she turned out to be a natural travel writer and did a fascinating job of it.

Her letters were never meant for publication. But historian William H. Prescott heard about the letters and read them, and he thought otherwise; Frances’ letters were published in 1842 under the simple title of Life in Mexico.

Excerpts from her letters accompanied me throughout my short stay in Mexico City and my excursion to Xochimilco, as well as the wedding I was so fortunate to attend.

As the plane descended through a thick layer of clouds, I re-read Frances’ impressions in letter five when she first set foot in Mexico. It was the rich vegetation, the colors, the smells and the exotic look of the people which had the most impact on her.

One circumstance must be observed by all who travel in Mexican territory. There is not one human being or passing object to be seen that is not in itself a picture… The Indian women with their plaited hair, and little children slung to their backs, their large straw hats, and petticoats of two colours…

“She’s got that right,” I thought when I disembarked into utter pandemonium. On that particular day the arrivals hall was struck by air conditioning failure, a not uncommon occurrence as I learned later.

“How will I ever find Juanita?” I sighed to myself as I pushed my way through a crowd of Frances’ “pictures.” Although dressed in linen pants and a silk blouse, I was already drenched when I nearly stumbled over a thickly swaddled baby crawling on the floor between hundreds of legs.

The mama was happily standing nearby dressed exactly as Frances had described, albeit with two more babies: one slung on her back and one over her ample chest. Her multi-colored shawls, straw hat and many petticoats gave her even more substance and made me wonder how she didn’t suffer a heat stroke.

Pushing and shoving my way among the crowd – which presented a good mixture of Frances’ people and their modern counterparts – I managed to reach the conveyor belt to retrieve my suitcase.

“Me permite,” a male voice said, as a suit-clad arm stretched out, grabbed the handle of my bag, pulled it off the belt and deposited it at my feet. A smile, a bow, a “que tenga buon dia,” and my Mexican knight was gone. I had experienced my first example of how polite the Mexican people are, a fact which also struck Frances.

Pulling my suitcase behind me, I scanned the waiting crowd to see if I could spot Juanita. A bright red umbrella swayed well over the heads of everyone else, and I assumed correctly that my friend would be standing underneath it.

She pulled me to her plentiful figure, asking about my trip and if I was tired, assuring me that “mi casa es tu casa,” a phrase which I would hear many, many times during my brief stay. All this without catching her breath, while embracing me and fussing as if I were her long lost sister although we were not very close friends.  Frances observed:

In point of amiability and warmth of manner, I have met with no women who can possibly compete with those in Mexico, and it appears to me that women of all other countries will appear cold and stiff by comparison. To strangers this is an unfailing charm, and it is to be hoped that whatever advantages they may derive from their intercourse with foreigners, they may never lose this graceful cordiality.

I can only say that from my own experience, her wish has been fulfilled.

Food is very important in Mexico, so after our greetings Juanita’s first words were, “You must be starving. Before we go home, we’ll have a tortilla as soon as we are out of here.”

Greater Mexico City has a population of over 19 million people, who all seem to be driving around at once. What might Frances have thought had she stepped into Mexico City’s traffic bedlam? She might have fainted in her beloved “stays”; but maybe not, given her insatiable curiosity which led her – an ambassador’s wife – to attend bullfights, cockfights, and gambling casinos, to fend off robbers and undertake trips around the country on horseback, on foot or on stubborn mules.

Undisturbed by the traffic, Juanita maneuvered her battered VW Mexico in the direction of one of Mexico City’s landmarks, the cathedral.

“Well come back later for a visit,” she said. “Food first.”

Street vendors and stalls are everywhere, and the smells of oil, garlic, spices and sweets happily mingle with the exhaust fumes of millions of cars. At an altitude of 7300 feet and situated in a valley, Mexico City’s very special aroma stays put and follows you everywhere.

Tortillas with a multitude of fillings are to be had in many countries, but they never taste the same outside of Mexico. This is what Frances had to say:

Tortillas, which are the common food of the people, I find rather good when very hot and fresh-baked, but insipid by themselves… They are considered particularly palatable with chile, to endure which, in the quantities in which it is eaten here, it seems to me necessary to have a throat lined with tin.

I guess we are so used to them these days that we don’t need a throat of tin anymore!

Batteries recharged with tortilla, we made our way to Juanita’s daughter’s house, where the wedding was to take place the next day. Of course, being a woman, I’m interested in fashion, and I was looking forward to seeing what modern Mexican ladies would wear to the occasion. Frances dedicated quite a good part of her letters to fashion in Mexico at her time, including jewelry.

Diamonds are always worn plain or with pearls; coloured stones are considered trash, which is a pity, as I think rubies and emeralds set in diamonds would give more variety and splendour to their jewels.  Many dresses were overloaded, a common fault in Mexico; and many of the dresses, though rich, were old-fashioned…

Evita (Juanita’s daughter) wore white, of course, and lovely pearls. Apparently, colored stones are definitely no longer considered trash. Proud mother of the bride Juanita showed up in a bright red silk suit and matching enormous hat, with an impressive ruby at her throat. The younger crowd, as well as the older Mexican ladies, had splashed out in the latest fashions, blue and green in all hues being the favorite colors of the individual outfits. All of the women loved two things: stilettos and loads of jewelry with the odd diamond thrown in. Frances would have approved, even if the “stays” are, fortunately, a thing of the past.

I had a hard time rolling out of bed the next day. Dancing, eating, floods of champagne and tequila, mariachi music, good wishes, and whatever else make a great Mexican wedding had taken their toll. The newlyweds were off to their honeymoon in Hawaii, the guests had gone home, and Juanita appeared at my door:

“Come on girl, you can sleep when you are dead. We are going to Xochimilco to chill out.”

Xochimilco? I clapped my slightly aching forehead. Of course! Chinampas, Viga… slowly, this part of Frances’ letter came back to me.

I greatly prefer the Viga, which now begins to be the fashionable promenade. It is bordered by a canal shaded by trees, which leads to the Chinampas, and is constantly covered with Indians in their canoes bringing in fruit and flowers and vegetables to the Mexican market. Early in the morning it is a pretty sight to see them in these canoes gliding along in a perfect bower of green branches and flowers… and the canoes are covering the canal, the Indians singing and dancing lazily as the boats steal along, and the whole under a blue and cloudless sky, and… you would believe that Mexico must be the most flourishing, most enjoyable, and most peaceful place in the world…

This system of canals is situated approximately 28 km south of Mexico City. In a centuries-old tradition, fruit and vegetables are grown on floating artificial islands – the “Chinampas” – and brought to town on flat, brightly colored boats called “trajineras.” The Viga promenade Frances referred to no longer exists, but Xochimilco is still a very popular weekend destination.

“It’s Saturday,” Juanita pointed out. “We’ll have a picnic, rent a boat and drift along. Let the champagne fumes go out of our heads,” she added with a giggle.

There was plenty of wedding food leftovers which we transformed into yummy sandwiches, and packing mineral water into an icebox, we stowed our supplies into the boot of her VW and set off south.

The weather was with us – not too hot, no downpours – and as we approached Xochimilco, we already saw a multitude of people waiting to hire boats, armed with picnic baskets.

“Come over here,” Juanita directed. “I know where we can hire a small boat and I also know a guy who will do the stroking for us.”

And so we set out on another Mexican adventure. It’s heaven to have a guide in the know, and for once, Life In Mexico had remained at home.

SPECIAL NOTE: Author Inka Piegsa-Quischotte recently won a Readers Favorite Award 2009 under the category of fiction/light women’s fiction for her novel: The Househusbands’ Club.

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