Down the mountain

Emiliano Zapata and his white horse are as much a part of the Mexican Revolution of 1911-16 as George Washington and the Delaware River are of the American Revolution.

The friend who was giving me lodgment in Mexico felt that since I was going to be there such a short time I might get the deepest sense of the old and the new by way of Zapata.

Arriving on Independence Day, which is Sept. 16 -- time and the place worked in my behalf. Though Independence Day celebrates a 19th-century attempt at revolution, the electric displays on the Avenue of the Reform blend all the heroes and heroines who had, for 100 years, struggled to find an identity for Mexico.

On the day-after-the-day-after Independence Day we started for Zapata country. I had already sensed two things: that in Mexico City nowm is the only time and that the pride of Mexicans is laced together by their Indian heritage. Not really contradictory. The Indian is a nowm proposition; he has been, is now, and always will be. He existed before the Spanish conquest, he survived and grew stronger.Though the power of Spanish culture pulses in every syllable of the language, Spain has become, in the new Mexico, merely an interruption in the powerful flow of an ancient land and an ancient people.

There is not, I was told, a single monument to the Spanish conqueror, Cortes, in Mexico.

The descent from Mexico City into the valley of lower Mexico is a kind of metaphor. Up there is what can be seen and judged. Down in the hot valleys the promises are still being explored. And between them lie the stupendous mountains.

Cliffs rise out of the tiers of the mountains. They are pillared and configured by eons of wind and rain, with green things growing wherever a seed can find a home. They are so beautiful and mysterious that it is hard to take away one's eyes, and I suddenly realized that the men who had built the great Mexican pyramids and temples had simply translated these improbable cliffs into the discipline of architecture. Even the color was the same.

The way down from the mile-high city is a triumph of road building. But when we turned off we turned back 70 years. Sometimes the country roads are not really roads by modern standards but merely the way over which people, burros, horses and carts have traveled for generations -- the way along which Zapata rode that white horse as he gathered recruits, petitions and strength.

This Zapata country, from Tlaquiltenango to Tepoztlan, is generous, spacious, with wide fields of maize and sugar cane. Here the haciendas of the great Spanish landowners once controlled every detail of the life. In this utterly bucolic countryside one still sees the chimneys of sugar refineries and occasionally the ruins of a hacienda which was burned down by the peons riding with Zapata.

The villages seemed to me desperate in their poverty and beautiful in their people. We went from village to town and town to village: here Zapata had been born, here the call to the revolution had swept him from the backwater of village life, here he was seized and shot. The Independence Day bunting, the white, orange and green of the flag, hung from poles and balconies, and once or twice we passed small plazas where little bands were going at it, gaily out of tune.

For four years Zapata had directed his guerrillas from Tlaquiltenango, so we sat in its tiny square and ministered to ourselves out of a thermos. Tlaquiltenango is a dilapidated village of huts with corrugated iron roofs but japonica over the sand-colored walls, adobe houses washed in color, thatched huts set in groves. Two little boys sat on the derelict fountain beside us and went into gales of laughter as they tried out their English. When we left we crossed an old abandoned railroad, the single rail luxuriantly overgrown, a young white chicken walking confidently down the ties.

By late afternoon we regained the mountains. Tepoztlan can be seen across the valley, the high-walled Spanish church and monastery rising above the village. In a high cleft in the black mountain however -- that dominates the church, the monastery and the village -- was something immeasurably older than the foreign invaders, a temple to Tepoztecalt, a very ancient god. The temple, scarcely discernible, so ingrown with the mountain, has become a remembrance, a mood, an irony.

Tepoztlan is a characteristic Mexican village, poverty-stricken but immensely vital, its streets made of antique cobblestones and even more antique ruts. We saw almost all there is to it by circling the sqaure. The monastery, opening onto the square, is austere and powerful with the inward thrust of Spanish religious buildings, no windows, fortresslike walls, all playing on the nerves, not the heart. Zapata helped to make Mexico a secular state and stabled his horses here in this building. But even before that, the Mexicans had struck a blow for their rights, a grimly humorous blow that it took a moment to recognize in the dim light: the primitive murals on the wall tell the story of the Spanish conquest, but the conquerors have all been painted with the high cheekbones and slanted eyes of the Indians.

We went for an early dinner up a steep road that no dignified car should attempt, to an old hacienda now a restaurant. Looking across the valley, one knows the view has not changed since Mexico began. The mountains are so powerful and brilliant they stand as the rulers of time.

While we were having our dinner on the terrace, a storm gathered among the crags, lightning flashed like a spear, thunder was flung from chasm to chasm, rain fell in sheets as though at command.

The storm ended as abruptly as it began. We waited for the sunset. The mighty crags became copper red against the purple shadows, deepened to a blood red and finally melted into the extraordinary blue mists of the night.

Zapata was to have been, for me, the touchstone of Mexico. But that touchstone was the mountains. Here was where I found that state of mind called Mexico, visionary, relentless, beautiful and indomitable.

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