This article is from the April 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Book Review
Life in Mexico

by Frances Calderon


Life in Mexico
is reviewed by two different readers, Gale Randall and Michael Thompson.
Gale Randall is a Palo Alto‑based travel writer who has traveled extensively in Mexico.  Some of her articles can be found on mexconnect.com . Michael Thompson is a Mexico File subscriber from San Antonio, Texas.

Life in Mexico by Frances Calderón de la Barca. Berkeley: University of California Press, 548 pages; $18.95 paper. (This book can be ordered through Barnes and Noble, www.bn.com)


Gale Randall’s Review

Frances (Fanny) Calderón de la Barca was the Scots‑born wife of Don Angel Calderón de la Barca, the first Spanish minister, in 1839, to a newly independent Mexico. The couple met and married in New York City during his stint as Spanish minister to the United States and hers as a Staten Island school teacher. Life in Mexico, drawn from Fanny's letters to her family and her two extant journals, is her account of their experiences and travels in Mexico during the period 1839‑1842.   

Arriving in Mexico City by stagecoach from Puebla and Vera Cruz on Christmas Day, 1839, the Calderón de la Barcas were at once courted by the local political and social elite of the day: "For the last few days our rooms have been filled with visitors, and my eyes are scarcely yet accustomed to the display of diamonds, pearls, silks, satins, blondes, and velvets, in which the ladies have paid their first visits of etiquette," writes Fanny, who, as Don Angel's wife, gains entree to all levels of Mexican society. She visits cathedrals, convents, haciendas, schools, mines, a monastery and prison, in addition to taking in such typically Mexican entertainments as fiestas, rodeos and bullfights.  With an incisive wit and a keen eye for detail, she describes with equal panache the high stakes gambling at a San Agustin casino, the mores and manners of the Mexican aristocracy, and the disturbing poverty of the leperos, the street people of the period.        

Fascinated by Mexico's convents, Fanny visits several, witnessing the investiture of young novitiates, which she finds to be the saddest event she will ever observe. "What does she lose?" she asks. "A husband and children? Probably she has seen no one who has touched her heart. Most probably she has hitherto seen no men ... none but her brothers, her uncles, or her confessor."  On the education of Mexican women, she writes: "Generally speaking ... the Mexican Senoras and Senoritas write, read, and play a little, sew, and take care of their houses and children. When I say they read, I mean that they know how to read; when I say they write, I do not mean that they can always spell.... If we compare their education with that of girls in England, or in the United States, it is not a comparison, but a contrast."

In their travels about the countryside, by diligence and on horseback, often transporting their beds en route, the Calderón de la Barcas visit the Real del Monte silver mines near Tepenacasco, sugar plantations and caves in the Cuernavaca area, and Morelia and Patzcuaro, staying in haciendas along the way. They visit La Gavia, Hacienda de Goycoechea, presently Mexico City's popular San Angel Inn restaurant, and Cocoyoc, now a famous resort hotel near Cuernavaca. Warmly received at these vast establishments, Fanny observes: "The house, which is in fact intermittently used as an occasional retreat during the summer months, is generally a large empty building, with innumerable lofty rooms ... containing the scantiest possible supply of furniture." At first regretting the lack of true English‑style abodes in Mexico, she soon becomes accustomed to the haciendas, departing the country she has grown to love on the note: "experience has taught us that they [the houses] are precisely suited to this climate of perpetual spring." Life in Mexico is especially fascinating to read in tandem with the contemporary Casa Mexicana and Gardens of Mexico, which feature the current incarnations of many of these great haciendas.       

Back in the United States, Fanny is urged by their friend and historian William H. Prescott to publish her memoir. The 1843 American edition was an immediate success; a partial translation of her letters which appeared in Mexico City, however, was less well received and it wasn't until the 20th century that a complete Spanish translation appeared. Recognized today as the classic it has become, Life in Mexico is a must read for any serious student of Mexican history.      

The Calderón de la Barcas eventually returned to Madrid, where Don Angel served as Senator in the Cortes. After his death Fanny became the tutor and governess to Queen Isabella II's daughter and in 1876, in recognition of hers and Don Angel's service to Spain, was made a marquesa, dying at court in 1882.

 (Casa Mexicana by Tim Street‑Porter. New York: Stewart, Tabori and change; $27.50 paper. Gardens of Mexico by Antonio Haas. New York: Rizzoli International; $50.)
©  2000 Gale Randall

 

Michael Thompson’s Review

On board the ship "Jason" off the coast of Veracruz.   Dec. 9, 1839. 

Yesterday evening the wind held out false hopes...the rain ceased, the weather cleared, and “hope, the charmer,” smiled upon us.  The greater was our disappointment when...the most horrible rolling [again] seized the unfortunate Jason, as if it were possessed by a demon.  Finding it impossible to lie in my hammock, I stretched myself on the floor; where during a night that seemed interminable, we were tossed up and down, knocked against the furniture, and otherwise maltreated.

Mme. Frances Calderón de la Barca, Wife of the Spanish Ambassador to Mexico. 

Such was Frances Calderón de la Barca's account of her arrival off the coast of Mexico as detailed in her delightful book entitled Life in Mexico. I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone interested in Mexico or who simply enjoys reading period novels. It was a best-seller in its time, and even though it was written over 160 years ago, it is just as entertaining, witty, amusing and informative now, as it was then. 

Born Frances Erskine Inglis, the author belonged to a distinguished Scottish family. After her father's death, she moved, with her mother, to the United States. There, she met and married a Spanish gentleman named Don Angel Calderón de la Barca. A short time later she accompanied him on a two-year assignment to Mexico where he served as the Spanish Ambassador until 1842. Her story is an insightful account of her adventures there during that time.

The book is unusual in that it is compiled from a series of letters the author wrote to friends and family back home. In these letters, she describes what life was like for her in a country and culture very different from her own. Her account touches on numerous subjects ranging from fashion to politics; from unspoiled wonders of nature to the scourge of highway bandits. She paints vivid portraits of individuals she encountered and places she visited. Through her writing, she conjures up a romantic world in the mind of the reader. Places, sights and sounds come alive, especially for anyone who has been to Mexico. In fact, part of the pleasure of this book is derived from being able to identify those things which still ring true, those things which may prompt the reader to nod and say to himself, “Así es México.”

For example, she describes the sounds of street vendors selling their goods:            

“There are an extraordinary number of street cries in Mexico... performed by hundreds of discordant voices, impossible to understand at first... ‘Mantequilla’ (Butter)... ‘Cecina buena’ (Good spiced pork)... ‘¿Hay cebo-o-o-o-o?’(Do you have kitchen scraps? cries the woman at the front door)... ‘¿Tejocotes por venas de chile?’ (Does anyone want to trade their fruit for my chiles?)... ‘¿Gorditas de horna caliente?’ (Gorditas, hot from the oven.).” Even today when one goes to a local mercado the same types of cries, whether sing-song or melodic, plaintive or strident, can still be heard.

The book does have its idiosyncrasies, however. For example, the author occasionally goes into great detail, quoting long political speeches verbatim or presenting transcribed newspaper articles that go on for pages. She also describes what women were wearing in minute detail. The reader can skim through or skip over these passages entirely with no loss to the story. Another quirk about the book is that the author, with rare exception, avoided using the names of then-living personages. Rather, she just used their title and first initial. As a result, the reader encounters frequent references to the likes of Madame A_____, Mr. B_____ or Don M_____l del C_____o. Even her husband, she refers to simply as C_____. This presents quite a contrast with much that is printed today in which the concepts of privacy and decency appear to be unknown.

Of course, being the wife of a diplomat allowed her to move in a select circle. She had access to people and places that those of a lesser station in life would have been forbidden at the time. While many of her stories describe the social life of the elite, other parts deal with things of a more general, down to earth nature. Of particular interest are descriptions of her visits to places ranging from convents to gambling houses; from the halls of government to asylums for the insane. She also tells of visits to places of architectural, historical or scenic interest, both well-known and obscure.

But the best part of the story is the way she tells it. She writes in a simple, straightforward manner, yet she has a painterly quality with words that conjure up vivid images of what she saw and experienced. She describes a world of faded grandeur and crumbling ruins, a world extremely old, even in her own time. In one passage, she compares the architecture of Mexico, which was “built for eternity,” with the wood-frame houses in the United States, “which will never make fine ruins,” and keenly contrasts the easy-going nature of the Mexican people with the “wide-awake republic farther north.”

But more than anything else, Frances Calderón de la Barca paints a portrait of the Mexico of our dreams. She tells of a Mexico as it was long ago; of a Mexico that perhaps, deep in our hearts, we wish still existed. She paints romantic images of a time and place not yet plagued by overpopulation, ecological stress, drug trafficking or the concept of globalization. She takes us by the hand and leads us up to the roof of her home in Mexico City for a view of the urban landscape of her day, and as “the sun sets behind the snow-crowned mountains with a bright fiery red, covering their majestic sides with a rosy glow, while great black clouds come sailing along like the wings of night; ... then is the hour for remembering that this is Mexico, and in spite of all the evils that have fallen over it, the memory of the romantic past hovers there still.”