We had come down on a chartered bus from LSU with our professor to study Spanish. A classroom had been rented and arrangements made for us to stay in private homes. Classes were held in the morning and we were free to do what we wanted to do with the rest of the day.
The world was a different place, Mexico City was different then, and so was I. There were fewer people, less traffic, and life was not quite as hectic. There was no brownish shroud of smog that sometimes covers the city today. The mornings were usually bright and sunny and one could anticipate a refreshing summer shower in the afternoon. The city was cosmopolitan but not jaded. It was a nice place for a young man to be.
Occasionally I watch an old Cantinflas movie and am reminded of those days. For those who do not know of Cantinflas, he was a comic. I like to refer to him as the Charlie Chaplin of Mexico. He was the champion of the less affluent and, as I understand, one of the better-paid actors in the world at that time. Almost every video store in Mexico has cassettes of his movies.
Prior to this trip I knew virtually nothing of Mexico. I knew nothing of its history, geography, culture or its people. Not only that, I was there more for the experience than the education. I had already spent a year in Japan and I guess, had a thirst for adventure.
Field trips had been scheduled for the class, which I suppose were to expand our knowledge beyond the Spanish language. One of our first trips was to Teotihuacan, an archeological site near Mexico City. As usual, I tended to drift away from the group and probably missed a lot of what I was supposed to be learning. I came face to face with the Pyramid of the Sun, a huge structure, some 214 feet high and 740 feet square at its base. They said that the priests, over a thousand years ago, ascended to the temple at its summit, at a run. I don’t know whether this was a fact or a challenge. Anyway, I tried it and made it about two-thirds of the way. When I finally dragged myself to the top I found that a mother and her four daughters had been watching me, and laughing. Lupita was breathtaking. She slipped into my heart and took possession. After some conversation they invited me to visit them at their apartment in Mexico City.
One thing that has bothered me about the Pyramid of the Sun is that there was a large sacrificial stone on top. I had a picture of it. It’s no longer there. I’ve asked about it and no one seems to know what happened to it. The mystery is how they managed to remove it. It must have weighed a ton or so.
During the remainder of the summer I made regular visits to see Lupita and her family. As with most Mexican families there are frequent little fiestas. Mostly the admirers of the daughters and close friends attended these little fiestas. The girls were never left alone with the boys without a chaperon and the boys always showed a lot of respect for the mother. They taught me to dance the cha cha, which was popular at the time. One time I went out with a small group of their young men to drink beer and listen to the ‘mariaches’.
Another field trip was to Taxco, Guerrero. Taxco is a lovely old town, situated on the side of a mountain, in a somewhat remote area west of Mexico City. It has preserved its Spanish Colonial appearance with its architecture and narrow cobblestone streets. It was once known as the silver capital of the world because of the nearby rich silver mines.
I would learn about Taxco much later. But that day I wandered off from the group again, exploring. First I met a young man that sold me a small black stone figurine. It was supposed to be ancient but who was I to know for sure. It looked well worn as though it had been handled a lot. I kept it for years. Don’t know what ever happened to it. Next I came upon a shallow river. There was a young attractive woman bathing nude in one of the pools. There was an exchange of friendly greetings and I proceeded on my way, somewhat taken aback.
The next scheduled trip was to Acapulco. I had no desire to go to a tourist spot so I got permission to go in the opposite direction, to the city of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico. Veracruz is considered to be the first town in Mexico founded by the Spaniards. Again, I would learn about its history at a much later date. Right off I met a young man and bought a fresh pineapple and we ate it as we sat in a park and chatted, lazily absorbing the tropical atmosphere and watching the people. Except for the pineapple, that’s what one might normally do while sitting in the shade, on a park bench, when it’s too hot to move.
We finally decided to go swimming at the beach. I had brought a bathing suit and we went to his rented room to pick up a pair of short pants for him. His rented room was separated from other rented rooms by something like chicken wire. I had never seen anything like it, nor have I since. But, it was a place to sleep.
Years later I visited Veracruz and was disappointed to find that the trolleys were missing. They were something like the ‘Toonerville Trolley’, platforms on rails, open on the side, with a top.
Back in Mexico City I had met an engineer who worked for General Electric. He was probably in his 30’s. He wanted to practice his English and had an agreeable personality so we spent time together. He drove an old but well preserved little car, which I believe, was a Model ‘A’ Ford. One of his favorite pastimes was cruising the parks looking for girls. He apparently came to the conclusion that that wasn’t something I did so we didn’t do it. He invited me to play basketball with him and some of his professional type friends, which was something I loved to do, so we did. I was doing fine till I abruptly stopped and vomited. I guess it was the altitude. Their remedy for my brief illness was hot chili peppers and beer.
Then there was Maria. Maria was petite, always well groomed, and about the same age as I. She never told me much about herself. She did say that she had been the mistress of an army colonel. She had a nice spacious apartment and a shapely, attractive, friendly maid. Maria had two emotions that I could identify with some sense of certainty, passion and anger. She was kind enough to warn me that if I ever messed around with her maid that she would cut my throat while I was sleeping. I had missed Korea as the war had ended while I was in training. I didn’t feel like pressing my luck.
Maria and I enjoyed each other’s company. We did a lot of fun things together. We regularly went to bullfights on weekends. At the bullfights I had my first taste of ‘pulque’ (fermented juice from the Maguey) and pastachio nuts. These things were sold outside the bullring. We saw many bullfights. Some were bad. Either the bull or the matadors was tired and just didn’t feel like performing and the crowd would surely show their disappointment. However if the bull or the matador performed well the crowd was just as anxious to show their approval. They would shout “Ole” with each deft, death defying movement of the matador . And if the performance ended well he might be showered with flowers, or ladies handkerchiefs, and hats etc. would be thrown into the ring.
They said that if the bull showed exceptional bravery the fight could be stopped and the bull saved. They said he would be turned out to pasture and used for breeding purposes. If I were a bull I think I would prefer to take my chances in the bullring rather than the slaughterhouse. Bulls selected for the bullring normally are allowed to live a year longer than those that go to the slaughterhouse. (My intentions are to write an article on bullfighting’ sometime in the future, based on one of the fights that was particularly impressive.)
Occasionally Maria and I would take a semi-private limousine service to Cuernavaca. In those days there were few, if any, cross country expressways in Mexico. In the light of the moon and the brilliant stars the two -lane highway twisted and turned through the mountainous climb to Cuernavca. Aztec emperors, Cortez, Maximiliano and Carolta, Jose de la Borda (the silver king), contemporary government officials and foreign diplomats, have all maintained homes or summer homes in Cuernavaca. It is a lovely historic city with a beautiful climate. For Maria and I it was just a quiet, peaceful place where we could go dancing and enjoy ourselves.
One of my favorite places to visit was the Palacio de Bellas Artes. That was before the city smog had painted it a dingy gray and the trees in the nearby park were partially defoliated. After one of our visits Maria encouraged me to paint. So during the rest of the summer you might have found me sitting, bent over a small canvass, learning an art that I never quite mastered. However, later in the year I found a black and white picture in a Spanish textbook, La Vista de Toledo’ by El Greco. I copied it and did a reasonably good job. It is the only painting I have saved and is now hanging in my bedroom.
The rest of the class had gone back to Louisiana. I got permission to stay till classes started. During those last days I enjoyed such things as just sitting in the sun at a sidewalk café drinking fresh orange juice as I waited for breakfast, or sitting in a jazz bar, listening to music, and sipping a margarita.
It had been a good summer. I would be back.