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Mexico in the Full Light of Day

Sybille Bedford
Sybille Bedford; drawing by David Levine

Many twentieth-century British travel books and novels about Mexico, including D.H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico (1927), Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), Evelyn Waugh’s Robbery Under Law (1939), and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), focus on the dark side of Mexican history, in a sense its violent night. But there is another, earlier tradition, much calmer and unfolding in the full light of day. The classic example of this is Life in Mexico by the Marquesa Fanny Calderón de la Barca (a Scotswoman born Frances Erskine Inglis, wife of the first Spanish ambassador to independent Mexico). The book is a collection of letters that Calderón wrote while visiting the country between 1839 and 1842.

It was her reading of Life in Mexico that in 1946 convinced Sybille Bedford to travel to Mexico, where she wrote her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio, originally published in 1953 as The Sudden View. In 1956, Bedford published A Legacy, probably the most important of her semiautobiographical novels.* She went on to write three more novels and seven books of nonfiction before her death in 2006, all characterized by her crisp style and surprising turns of phrase.

Born in Germany in 1911, Bedford was educated in England and from the age of fourteen grew up with her mother and stepfather, who moved in the 1920s from Italy to Sanary-sur-Mer, in the South of France. There she became friendly with Aldous Huxley and associated with what she would later call a “galaxy” of German literary figures, among them Thomas Mann, Arnold Zweig, Franz Werfel, and Alma Mahler. Immediately following the outbreak of World War II, her open opposition to the Nazis and the fact of her Jewish ancestry convinced her that she could no longer live in France. Soon after, she left for the United States, where she lived until her journey to Mexico after the end of the war. As she writes at the beginning of A Visit to Don Otavio, “I had a great longing to move, to hear another language, eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible.”

Though A Visit to Don Otavio is basically a traveler’s account of the year she spent in Mexico, in his admiring introduction Bruce Chatwin notes that Bedford thought of it as a novel. “I wanted to make something light and poetic,” she told him. Much of the book recounts short but often eventful trips through cities and towns in the center, south, and west of the country—Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Morelia, Pátzcuaro, and Guadalajara—but the second part, the core of the book, is a somewhat picaresque tale based on a long visit to an old hacienda that she refers to as San Pedro Tlayacán, in the western state of Jalisco, by Bedford and her companion Esther Murphy Arthur (referred to in the book as “E.,” she was a brilliant New York intellectual who never managed to write the books expected of her).

Their host, Don Otavio (for some reason spelled incorrectly, as the name should be Octavio), is a learned, pious, and chivalrous bachelor whose father had served as governor of Jalisco and adviser to the dictator Porfirio Díaz. His family has lost much of its fortune and, during the visit, Don Otavio and his three elder brothers discuss the possibility of turning the hacienda into a modern hotel. It lies on the shore of Lake Chapala, where Lawrence had written The Plumed Serpent. But Bedford’s account of Mexico is very different from Lawrence’s. She presents no cults of blood, indigenous priests, or sacrificial offerings. Instead there is nature in its full splendor—“blooms of camilla, jasmine and oleander and the fruits of pomegranate,” “tall, tapering palms,” and “striped birds as fantastically got up as cinquecento gondoliers.”

The poetic sensitivity to nature, with its echoes of the many places Bedford had visited or lived, runs throughout the book. “Gray days are unknown…the sky is always clear,” she says about Mexico City. She notes the effect of the clear air on the spirit of its inhabitants: “In the morning we are on the coast of New England…. Warmth lies gently across one’s shoulders.” By eleven o’clock the climate turns “continental” with a brief torrential rain that reminds Bedford of Egypt or Burma, and then suddenly “darkness descends with a sudden extinguishing sweep like the cover on the canary’s cage.”

Bedford treats many aspects of Mexican culture and daily life with humor and grace: the slow passing of time, religious and civil fiestas (celebrated with “barbarity and opulence”), siestas and gunfights, bejeweled women and their sinful secrets, the music—about which Bedford, no fan of Mexican folk or public art, wrote, it “has to be endured to be believed”—and political gossip. Don Otavio, “the last relic of Mexican feudalism,” employs a staff of seventeen servants, whose lives Bedford observes with delicacy, sweetness, and sometimes terror.

Completing the picture is a community of expatriates living on the shores of Lake Chapala: an irascible Englishman who hates Mexico (“dreadful savage country”) and its “natives”; an elderly woman from Virginia who, years before, confronted Mexican revolutionaries with the same rifle that she sleeps with every night in the open air; an aristocratic Creole woman accompanied by a band of mariachis; a mysterious German healer; and the alcoholic town doctor.

The travels of the tireless Sybille and the impatient Esther take place after the revolution of the 1910s, the religious persecutions of the 1920s, the Cristero Uprising later that decade (in which rural Catholics rebelled against the anticlerical policies of the state), and the tormented years of the 1930s, when land and oil were nationalized. Although Mexico was still a predominantly rural country, the period after World War II saw the beginning of a process of urbanization and industrialization that would significantly alter its landscape and society.

Bedford shows an impressive feeling for geography. Against the harmful perception of Mexico as a “horn of plenty” (as old as Cortés and still pervasive), she reads the country in a different way: “Mexico looks like the headless part of a large fish, hacked across the middle.” Arid in the north, with tropical forests on its coasts, without navigable rivers, seamed by “two stupendous sierras,” “slit by gorges, gashed by ravines, rent by chasms, blocked by volcanoes,” the rugged surface of that “fish” is far less inviting than earlier romantic depictions of the country had suggested.

Like her predecessor Calderón de la Barca, Bedford uses all of her senses to describe Mexico. Her animated scenes and anecdotes are perspicacious and poetic, never condescending or merely picturesque. Every page contains some stylistic or factual surprise. To illustrate the incredible display of Mexican markets, she reproduces a letter written by the conquistador Hernán Cortés to Emperor Charles V. His description of markets in 1520 was still accurate in 1946 and continues to be so today.

But Bedford also notices something strange about markets in Mexico that sharply distinguishes them from Oriental bazaars: “There is no noise.” Seeking to discover what lies beneath this silence, Bedford walks the streets, travels alongside turkeys on second-class Mexican buses, and talks to the many people she meets. (The real reasons for this comparative silence have to do with customary Indian behavior as well as a tradition of courtesy passed down from the Spanish empire—both features of Mexico that she notes at various points but does not probe.)

Rich Mexican muralist achievements (like all modern Mexican art and literature) don’t at all interest Bedford, but she does at least look at pre-Hispanic sculpture: “You will never be further from Greece,” she comments, and the eccentricity she sees in these figures seems to her symptomatic of “the haphazard, the absurd, the overblown, the savage, the gruesome,” of which she finds examples everywhere in the country.

But for Bedford, who had lived as a child with her father—an impoverished aristocrat and consummate gourmet—an important means to understanding Mexican culture was through its cuisine, which she sees, as she sees most things, from a perspective tilted toward Europe:

The cooking of Mexico belongs loosely to the European Mediterranean. The link was obviously made by the Navigators and Spain; perhaps it was strengthened by some shared oriental affinities. The new food was a graft that took well. It suited the climate and the land, and joined quite naturally with the indigenous roots….

Similarly, she is at her most articulate and appreciative when writing about architecture and especially its similarities to the European forms she is familiar with. She deeply admires the palaces of Mexico City and other colonial centers (Morelia, Puebla, Guanajuato) that are constructed from local materials but as products of cultural mixing (mestizaje) have features reminiscent of Spanish and European buildings. While her friend Aldous Huxley thought that the cathedral of Taxco was “one of the most sumptuous and one of the most ugly” buildings he had ever encountered, Bedford considered it “a very splendid affair…shimmering with chromatic tiles.”

Wherever she goes, she is greeted with expressions like beso sus pies (“I kiss your feet”), a sus órdenes (“at your orders”), si Usted lo permite (“if you permit it”), and que Dios las proteja (“may God protect you”). Waiters, hotel employees, businessmen, gentlemen of high society, old generals, and beggars all practice the same old-fashioned courtesy, which charms her. Other aspects of Mexican life seemed to Bedford, and rightly so, surreal: the seller of sandals who refuses to fashion a pair for her because he has made enough money for the day, the new hotel without staircases or running water, the courses at an expensive restaurant delivered to her table all at once.

Bedford’s celebration of Mexican conviviality does not prevent her from noticing its harsher realities as well. She remains unfazed when a bus she is riding is robbed by masked bandits. Throughout the country, she discovers “corruption as a matter of course” and describes cantinas as places where “there is no singing, no music, human or mechanical, there are only smells.” The rows of peasants sleeping on the sidewalks and the “vagrant camp-followers” in the sanctuaries—“prostrate, agape, chanting, swaying, scraping on their knees, hugging images with oriental intensity”—arouse in her not compassion but rather a sense that they are “unarrestable, frightening to the pitch of panic.” She feels this panic again on a rainy night when she is walking alone and sees “silent people sitting in doorways. Nothing happened, but I was seized by such a sense of desolation that several times I broke into a run.”

In her chapter “Money and the Tarascan Indians,” Bedford reflects on cultural differences in poverty. The setting is the lake region of Michoacán, inhabited entirely by indigenous peoples, where each ancient village manufactures distinct and complementary products (woolen blankets, chairs and cupboards, guitars and stringed vihuelas, pots and containers, hats, bells, fishing nets, fishhooks, tanned skins, metal products). The region’s agricultural practices are tenaciously pre-Hispanic, though its corrals are occupied by donkeys, goats, and poultry—animals imported by the Spaniards. “They grow what they eat and wear, and sometimes a little more…. There is sugar cane in the fields, tobacco grows in the kitchen garden and coffee in the shrubbery.” It is a communal arrangement that has remained intact since it was established in the sixteenth century by Father Vasco de Quiroga, who took inspiration from Thomas More’s Utopia. The Tarascans rarely use money and travel barefoot over great distances to markets. “The work is hard, but neither monotonous nor mechanical,” writes Bedford, “and a man is largely his own master.”

It is a poor life, but poor for whom? Bedford notes that the Tarascans were masters of their implements and, collectively, of their land:

They have a feeling for ritual and form, and their intercourse with their deities appears to be easy and frequent…. They have leisure: freedom from possessions and that Western thorn, worry….

Her vision of their lives is romanticized but not idealized. She sees them as passionate, hard, and violent people. She acknowledges that they could benefit from “irrigation, conservation of rainwater, storage of grain…anaesthetics,” yet she recognizes that these improvements would be difficult to introduce. “They can hardly be dropped,” she writes, like a “gift-package or loan, into their pattern of existence without disrupting its balance and perhaps its very structure, leaving chaos.”

Though Bedford could not have known, her speculations at that moment would be relevant to an intense debate, in 1951, about Mexico’s economic and social organization. In his book Mexico: The Struggle for Peace and Bread (1950), Frank Tannenbaum advocated for the preservation and strengthening of community life in the Mexican countryside in order to avoid a mass exodus to the cities. But no one in power listened.

“This is not a Western country,” Bedford is told by a Spanish refugee at a gathering in Coyoacán. Three centuries of Spanish colonization, from 1521 to 1821, had not transformed it into a fully Western country but neither had it become merely a replica of obscurantist Spain, closed to the spirit of science and the Enlightenment, which Bedford, as a good liberal, thoroughly despised. “They were very much alone,” Bedford writes of Mexicans, “severed from the established world, cut off from their place in the order of their time…and yet they were hamstrung, pinned to Spain, by a hundred bureaucratic ties.” Her impression strangely coincides with the ideas that Octavio Paz, in his Labyrinth of Solitude, was formulating during those same years.

Bedford narrates the events following Mexico’s independence, the “millennium…from Hidalgo’s revolt against Spanish rule until Calles’ suppression of the Spring Revolution of 1929,” as if it were a tragicomic parade:

Mexico has had a dozen full-blown constitutions and a larger number of Declarations of Independence and Reform…. In their time, some were called liberal, some radical, some centralized…. All followed as well as initiated a great deal of bloodshed…. Liberators, reformers and upholders of the Faith rushed about…murdering everyone in sight. Meanwhile the people got more poor and more confused, and in turn more angry, fatalistic, murderous or cowed.

She refers only in passing and quite superficially to the War of the Reform (1858–1861), which separated church and state more thoroughly than in any other Latin American country. She initially describes the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911) as “mild and remote and old-fashioned,” and concedes that “he managed—at a price—to establish internal peace, resume somewhat dilapidated foreign relations, and set out to attract foreign capital.” When he was in power, she writes, “the public aspect of the city [was] clean, safe and comfortable,” but she goes on to cast doubt on the depth of this “public aspect”:

The smug Edwardian cover pulled over a semi-barbarous country by a business-minded ex-soldier is a window dressing, not for home consumption. There are no home consumers.

But Bedford’s engagement with Díaz is general and limited. His regime achieved a great deal of unprecedented material progress. It founded cities and built harbors, developed industry, commerce, and commercial agriculture, and unified an isolated and territorially divided country. Despite its accomplishments, however, it was a personal dictatorship, repressive and often bloody, and it lasted thirty-five years.

Magnum Photos
A market in Morelia, Michoacán, 1984; photograph by Alex Webb from La Calle, a collection of his images of Mexico, published by Aperture and the Televisa Foundation. For more on Webb’s book, see Álvaro Enrigue’s essay on the NYR Daily at nybooks.com/lacalle.

Bedford’s account of Mexico’s history, as detailed in brief passages throughout the book, contains a number of minor errors concerning dates, events, place names, and people, as well as more troubling omissions, especially of twentieth-century events. The book ignores the social achievements of the 1917 Constitution, the protections accorded to workers, the various distributions of land to the peasants, and the considerable (though not total) breaking up of the large haciendas. Nor does it mention the great educational and cultural crusade of José Vasconcelos, who hired hundreds of teachers and founded schools and libraries across the country; published editions of classic books, selling them at very low prices or simply giving them away in poor neighborhoods; and hired and commissioned work from the painters Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, with whom he helped invent Mexican Muralism.

The Mexican revolution is discussed quite superficially—without any mention of its results, good or bad, or of the political and social mythologies it inspired. The immense event seemed to her (more than anything) a farce. She does not even mention Emiliano Zapata’s struggle for the rights of the peasantry in the 1910s, and she dismissively refers to Lázaro Cárdenas, the president in the 1930s who nationalized the Mexican oil industry and distributed some 42.5 million acres to peasants, as “so like Lenin and FDR.” Her notion (and specifics) of Mexico as having (she hoped) “as little present history as possible” led her to underestimate, and insufficiently account for, the complexity of Mexico’s present history.

Bedford’s true interest in the history of Mexico involves a focus on the lack of understanding between Mexico and Europe. This is evident in her repeated allusions to the ephemeral Mexican empire of Maximilian, the Hapsburg prince whom (with French support) Mexican conservatives installed as their emperor from 1864 to 1867, and about whose life Bedford had read a great deal. She visits his former country home in Cuernavaca and composes an interesting series of reflections on the convergence of various historical forces after Maximilian’s execution by the Mexican Republic in 1867. Imagining what would have happened if the South had won the American Civil War, she hypothesizes that France would have established its power in America, the United States and Germany would have developed different characteristics and degrees of international power, and perhaps the two world wars would never have happened.

Bedford is most penetrating when she considers the psychological complexity of Maximilian, a child (like herself) of European aristocracy lost in a country that he never truly understood but genuinely loved. When she is in Querétaro, the emperor’s last refuge and the site of his execution, Bedford immerses herself in a long discussion of him and Benito Juárez, the Zapotec Indian president who ordered his death. It is the same subject as Franz Werfel’s 1924 play Juárez und Maximilian. (Bedford came to know Werfel in Sanary, though she does not mention his work here.) Why, Bedford asks, did Juárez not spare Maximilian’s life? She examines in detail the enormous difficulties that Juárez—“that brave and tenacious man”—had faced in order to construct a modern, westward-looking nation:

The answers were all stacked for Juarez. Maximilian had conspired against the legitimate government of Mexico; Maximilian had himself issued a decree putting under sentence of death any Mexican bearing arms against the monarchy; Maximilian was backed by powers contrary to the public welfare of the country….

Maximilian had broken the rules. To Juarez who had seen too many die, the rules were more lasting than life, and more important, and in such a case one can never ask, which rules?…

And why did Maximilian, abandoned by France, by Europe, and by his own family, decide to remain in Mexico? Because, Bedford suggests, he had gradually, intimately, and fatally identified with his adversary, whose liberal values he shared.

I was born and live in the landscape and society that Bedford faithfully depicts. Some of the features she describes are certainly still present: the mosaic of Mexican cuisine (more varied even than she, who never visited Yucatán, imagined), the multicolored markets, the adoration of flowers, the fiestas, and the music. Various “Don Otavios,” remnants of an earlier age, still take their evening walks through the streets of the provinces. The conviviality that Bedford observed remains the same. The tradition of courtesy and popular piety have not vanished. Nor have the baleful traditions of inequality (“gulf between class and class” as Bedford puts it), poverty, and corruption.

Other things have changed for the better. The Great Temple of the Aztecs—mentioned by Bedford—has been fully excavated and can now be visited near the Zócalo, or main square, in Mexico City. There is a magnificent National Museum of Anthropology and the treasures of the colonial period are well preserved and are now visited by millions of people. The death rate has declined vertiginously, as has the degree of malnutrition. A significant middle class has been expanding for decades and the country has an incipient democracy, with a division of powers, elections overseen by the autonomous Federal Electoral Institute, a multiparty system, and more freedom of speech. Still, even though we have managed to moderate dictatorial or anarchic impulses, many Mexicans, faced with accumulating problems, expect and hope for a messiah, as Bedford predicted.

But the Mexico that Bedford grew to love is essentially gone. The old slow pace of time has sped up. Major crime is carried out not by masked bandits but by large criminal associations, often in collusion with local governments. The violence of the drug wars has escalated to levels not seen since the revolution. The degradation of rural conditions, due in part to a lack of support by the ruling elites, has driven the peasantry into a nomadic existence among the cities of Mexico and the United States. Mexico remains poised between its dark night of violence and its daylight of joy and energy, awaiting some new resolution.

—Translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz

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    Reissued by New York Review Books in 2015.