Coffee in the Gourd, ed. J. Frank Dobie , at sacred-texts.com
[The data for this paper have been gathered from neighboring Americans and from Mexican friends; from Mexican servants who have practiced their superstitions under my own observation; and from teachers, doctors, and officials who are in a far more intimate position with the Mexican folk than I could ever be in. The social customs described are for the most part those of the upper class of Mexicans, while the superstitions are generally confined to the peon class. All of the customs and superstitions described are extant today, but with the coming of the Americans and the maintenance of well equipped public schools, they are already about to die out.]
It is an accepted fact that immigrants of every nation cling to the traditions of their home land; and nowhere is this more in evidence than on the Rio Grande border of Texas, where the Mexican influence is so strongly felt. The history of this country dates back one hundred and seventy-five years to the rule of the Spanish viceroys. Originally, the land on both sides of the Rio Grande was divided into strips called porciones and granted to his followers by the king of Spain. At the time of the Spanish grants, however, no towns were founded on the north side of the river, that territory being recognized as a good ranching country and used as such.
Even after the differences between the United States and Mexico had been settled by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and American Texans had penetrated southward to the river, this valley country, until about the opening of the present century, remained practically separated from the remainder of the state by a chain of sand dunes seventy-five miles long. Until the coming of the railroads, it was entered only by a long and hazardous stage route, or, in the lower section, by water. Meanwhile, the vast leagues of land, for the most part, remained in the hands of the descendants of the original patentees.
Twenty years ago, though, with the building of the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexican Railroad, the influx of Americans began in earnest. During the last few years it has rapidly increased until today modern American towns with modern ideas and modern customs dot "The Valley." Alongside these new centers, nevertheless, groups of the Mexican population placidly persist in their old ways and their old beliefs that came a hundred years ago from old Mexico.
Here and there among the industrious American towns, will be found villages of Mexican jacales. These are often poor excuses for homes. A one or two-room shack, thrown up with willow branches, reinforced with moss and thatch, and covered with adobe, may constitute a permanent home for a family of ten or twelve. In addition to the family, two or three dogs, a few cats, always the family milk-goat, wander in and out of the house. If there be chickens, they too are welcome in the casita.
All along the border the Spanish language is spoken. For legal reasons, business conducted by Mexican merchants must be carried on in English, though Spanish is heard on the streets and to a great extent in the homes.
Though education is compulsory, though the children attend school for a part of the year at least, and though all schools of the public system are taught in English, yet on the playground and for any kind of communication with each other, the Mexican children lapse back into Spanish. It alone is used in their homes; consequently the ordinary child acquires a very limited vocabulary of English.
Hand in hand with the retention of the mother language on the American side of the river, is an old custom held to by many of the Mexican women, of retaining their maiden name when they are married. Señorita Maria Gonzales on becoming the wife of Juan Peña automatically becomes, in plain English, Mrs. Peña; but what a Mexican woman will do, is to say that she is Señora Gonzales de Peña, or Mrs. Gonzales de Peña. Her son, should his name be Jesus José, in turn becomes Jesus José Gonzales y Peña. Sometimes, for convenience' sake, the youngster will leave off one or the other of his names; then complications set in. The authorities find it difficult to take a census in a Mexican community, because of this old custom, as oftentimes the children are counted twice, first under one name and then the other. Where legal matters are involved there is no end of trouble. Especially is the tracing of heirs a tedious undertaking, which often requires years of labor and research. To complicate matters, the porciones are in many cases as yet undivided. A few acres will belong to a thousand or more heirs. This old custom of keeping property in one family name is a lasting one, in spite of much opposition against it.
The old forms of salutation are still maintained. These people are the greatest handshakers in the world. Even though the same person is encountered several times the same day, the performance must necessarily all be gone through again. Men embrace each other, throwing one arm around each other's neck and giving a sort of cheek brush. Women are great kissers, always on both cheeks.
To weddings and different kinds of entertainments, the formal invitation is obligatory. For affairs of any size, invitations are printed and either mailed or delivered by messenger. When these are not sent out, a committee is asked to go to each house and personally invite the guests: The telephone (American style) is never used for this purpose.
Always to a dance there must be an invitation. Should the party be so impromptu as not to allow time for invitations to be printed, a comite por invitacion is detailed to go to the home of each family listed in the community blue book. The parents are invariably included in the invitation, whether or not they are wanted. The address of "Mr. and Mrs. Peña and Family," is still a polite usage on the border. Quite unexpectedly the family sometimes turns out en masse.
Dancing is the chief amusement of the Mexican people. Strange as it may seem, Sunday is the day for recreation. The young people dance beautifully, with that sense of rhythm that appears to be inherently bred in them. Even on the American side of the borderland, a young lady is seldom seen in public with a gentleman escort. Some of the boys and girls who have been educated in the States, and have glimpsed the liberty of American boys and girls, chafe at these restrictions, and attempt to introduce reforms. Those of the old regime look on with disapproval, and tongues wag bitterly.
So, to the dance goes the young lady, accompanied by her parents or an adult chaperone. The mothers seldom dance, but appear to enjoy watching on the side lines. They keep a watchful eye ever on the young people, who have in the dance one, of the few opportunities for seeing and talking with each other. They make the best of it, but all under the eye of the chaperones. No strolls to the balconies, nor to an automobile outside. Such things are still unheard of to a well-bred Mexican girl.
The senoritas appear greatly to enjoy the promenade, with which their dance begins. They walk twice or three times around the hall before they begin dancing. Then during intermissions they repeat this. At the end of the dance, they may take another extra turn before they go back to sit with their mothers until they are claimed for the next dance.
Generally both Mexican and American music is played at the dances. Extreme jazz is not popular. In rendering a jazz selection, the Mexican orchestra manages to tone the tune down considerably. Occasionally an old fashioned dance is played, so that the older people may take part. They seem very fond of one dance which is called the dance, and which resembles the schottish. Often during an intermission musical numbers and recitations are interspersed by those talented in the arts. When a lady is asked to sing, play, or recite, it is necessary for her to be accompanied to the platform or the center of the room where she is to perform by a committee of at least two other people. They must stand beside her until she has finished whatever she started out to do. This would seem harder on the committee than on the performer. She has at least an opportunity of relaxing her muscles in the performance of her number, while those who go to make up the committee stand at the attention of a sentry on guard.
Even the informal dances are strong on committees. Aside from the one who has the sending of the invitations in charge, there must be another on refreshments, another for ceremonies, one for music, and perhaps numerous others.
Among the better class of Mexicans, the parents have a pleasing custom of entertaining with a party or dance for their young folk as they return from boarding school or college. This is in the nature of a surprise party, and takes place the evening of their return, Sunday, Monday, or whenever.
A number of Mexican holidays are observed. In fact, more celebrations are held on those days than on American or Texas holidays. Diez y seis, the "Sixteenth of September," is the anniversary of the Grito de Dolores; El Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexican independence from the French. Birthdays of Miguel Hidalgo, Iturbide, Benito Juarez, and other patriots are observed annually. The Mexican anthem is sung with much fervor on these occasions. Incidentally, the American anthem is included in the program, and folk songs are often sung.
A custom observed among the merchants is the giving of a pilon to the children. This word means literally a loaf of sugar, but its real interpretation has come to mean something extra, and it is doled out to the small boys and girls when they make purchases. If the merchant should for a moment forget, a small voice will pipe up: "No tienes pilon?" Woe to the merchant who does not comply with this custom, for he is immediately boycotted.
The customs and ceremonies in vogue during the engagement and wedding of a Mexican couple are not only interesting, but very quaint and pretty. They savor of Europe, but then the Spanish introduced European customs into Mexico; so it is not surprising that there should be a resemblance.
Some of the courtships are still made through a musical campaign. But the youthful lover no longer takes his guitar and strums a love song beneath the window of his novia. Now-adays, he and two or three of his fellow companions suffering from similar heart affliction club together and engage a commercial orchestra, which goes from the home of, one sweetheart to another. La Paloma and La Golondrina are favorite serenades, but American melodies are also played.
During an engagement, extreme rules of formal etiquette are called for. When a couple have made up their minds to be married, the young man in question sends a committee of his friends, generally of mature years, to call upon the parents of the girl to ask their permission. No definite answer is sent to the young man by his own committee. After due deliberation, the parents of the bride select their committee and by them send their ultimatum. If the answer be favorable, the parents of the groom make a call on the parents of the young lady. Definite arrangements are then entered upon.
The plans for the wedding are perfected and carried out by the family of the bride, but it is understood that the groom will pay all the expenses. In cases where the groom has no immediate family or where his family lives at a great distance, gold pieces sufficient to cover all expenses are given to the mother of the bride. The amount he gives depends upon his means. The more worldly his possessions, the more elaborate he is expected to make the wedding. Where the man is well-to-do, he is expected to have a suitable home in readiness to take the bride to. Even the linens for the home are bought by him. In the matter of trousseau, the bride's parents may furnish her with whatever they care to; but everything that she wears on her wedding day, including her going-away suit, is the gift of the groom. He pays, in addition, for the cake, the refreshments, and the entertainments that generally follow the nuptial rites.
The invitations differ in style from those commonly used in this country. Instead of the wording appearing on the first page of the folder, the invitations are a double-decked affair, so to speak. On the left-hand page of the inner sheet appear the names of the bride's parents; then on the right-hand page is a duplicate announcement, except that the names of the grooms parents are used. Below, in the middle of the page, are given the date and place of the ceremony.
The ceremony varies according to the religious beliefs; but the majority of the border Mexicans are Catholics. The marriage service then takes place at the church. In Mexico, both a civil and a religious ceremony are required, and many of the better families in the States also insist on two. No Mexican girl, no matter how poor her own circumstances or those of the man she marries, feels truly married without a white dress, a veil, a wax wreath, and a dance of some kind to follow the ceremony. Often the dance starts on the eve of the marriage, lasting until six o'clock the next morning, at which time the ceremony is performed.
Still another unique feature of the Mexican marriage is the arras, which is in the nature of a dowry of thirteen pieces of gold that is given to the bride as a good luck symbol. Sometimes the arras is given by several friends, and the whole makes a nice nest egg for the bride.
The customs and ideas associated with a death in a Mexican home, the elaborate funeral rites, the peculiarities of mourning are difficult to describe. Therein ancestral notions and practices are rigidly adhered to.
The funeral notice is not used; but an invitation is issued. One would no more think of going to a funeral without having received an invitation than of attending a wedding to which one had not been bidden. The women rarely appear during the ceremony, but remain in a secluded room and wear black shawls over their heads.
Only the men accompany the remains to the grave. In many places, where a commercial hearse is not available, automobiles or other vehicles are used. These are decorated with flowers and draped with lace curtains. Where the distance is not too great, the body is borne to the cemetery by the pall-bearers. When the death has been that of an infant, the small casket is placed in a baby buggy and laboriously pushed to the cemetery. Small children march in the funeral procession, carrying flowers in their hands, which they place over the tiny grave.
An odd funeral observance is that of having the guests photographed. The men of the family in greeting the guests thank them profusely for their attendance.
Strict mourning customs are observed. The deepest black that can be obtained is worn by the women, and oftentimes by the children, even by those as young as five or six years old. The mourning period varies, according to the relationship of the deceased. As almost all of the families have a large connection of aunts, uncles, and cousins, they are seldom out of black. It is a well known fact that there is a greater demand for black fabrics in a Mexican community than for any other kind. The customary black crepe that is tied on the door is never removed, but is left for the weather to wear off. When wearing mourning, ladies never appear in any kind of public gathering except church services. Anyone who dares to violate this custom is severely criticized. Even those who do not approve of these antique notions are often forced to observe them in order to escape censure. All musical instruments are closed and locked during the mourning period. Every mirror is either veiled or turned to the wall, as is any photograph of the deceased. In some families the beard of the men is allowed to grow uncut for one month following a death.
Observances of death anniversaries are always held. Special requiem mass is customary to people of the Catholic faith. The border Mexicans, however, prepare a bier for the first anniversary, which is placed in the church, identical in position with that of the casket the previous year. Invitations to this mass are issued. Following the service, a feast is participated in at the family residence.
The cemetery is a place of great pride. It is called Campo Santo, literally meaning the Holy Field. Profusive decorations are used, metal flowers and wax wreaths of all colors, made to withstand the weather, being placed in great numbers on the graves. Especially on All Souls' Day, November 2, the graves of ancestors and loved ones are decorated. Candles are burned about the tomb and the relatives sit all day beside the grave. Booths are erected all around the graveyard, where candies, fruits, and flowers are sold.
The peons of the rural districts are full of superstitious fears, inherited from generations of ignorant forebears, and daily they exercise their beliefs in charms and omens. But of all their beliefs, none is more curious than that in the "Evil Eye"--a superstition shared, in some instances, even by Mexicans of the aristocratic class.
It is claimed that the human eye has a magic power over persons or things, and the person exercising this power is said to make Ojo (Eye). Upon seeing a person or thing and admiring that person or thing, one must touch what he has seen and admired, else the person seen will become sick or the object will break. According to the belief, every one is possessed of the power to "make Ojo." Thus if I should while walking on the street meet an old woman who was a complete stranger to me, and if she should admire my arms or hair, she would not be satisfied to pass on without having stopped me and touched that part of my body that she admired. If some believer in the "Evil Eye" whose good will I had should come into my house and admire some object to any extent, he or she would not be content to leave the house without having touched that object. On the other hand, I, not believing in this occult power, might unconsciously cause someone to suffer by admiring his or her eyes, or complexion, or some cherished object. I could cite instances of people who had never even heard of the belief being summoned to administer treatment for the Evil Eye.
The superstition seems to be observed more in connection with children than with grownups. Perhaps this is because it is often much harder to diagnose a child's illness from outward symptoms than an adult's. And so it comes about that if the parents cannot tell what ails the child, they are wont to lay the cause on someone who has been looking at it. Not long ago a family, only recently from Mexico, had a child only a few weeks old to become very sick. The mother, though a young woman of some education, believed in the Evil Eye. As the baby grew worse, the mother and her relatives grew to believe that it was suffering from the Evil Eye. When remedy after remedy had been tried and doctors found of no avail, the blame for the illness was fixed on an out-of-town person whom it was impossible to recall. The baby died-the doctors said of undernourishment; but the mother firmly believes that the baby would have lived if the accused person could have been present to administer the proper treatment. It should be added that those suffering from Evil Eye attribute it generally to envy or malice, though, as has been said, innocent offenders are not only possible but common.
The test for El Ojo is to crack an egg over the head of the person supposed to be suffering from it. If the patient is really suffering from the Evil Eye, then a small eye will form in the yolk of the egg. Hurried steps are then taken to ascertain the identity of the person responsible for the affliction. The offender is certain to suffer from a sick headache; so in various ways the family of the afflicted one come to fix the blame. The offender found, he must go to the sick person, take a mouthful of water, and from his own mouth transfer it into the mouth of his victim. This remedio is supposed to effect instantaneous cure, but if it does not, there are other prescribed treatments. In each and all of them, however, the offender takes the place of the nurse.
A malady peculiar for its treatment among the peons is that known as Susto (literally, "fright"). A peon who has been badly frightened may have fever and suffer from lack of appetite. Should his malady be pronounced Susto, he must go to a graveyard and take a pinch of dust from four corners of a grave. If not near a burial place, he may, instead, go to a cross-roads and take a pinch of dust from the four corners of the highway. Then to the dust must be added a piece of red ribbon, a gold ring, and a sprig of palm leaf that has been blessed. From this mixture a tea is made and seven doses are swallowed. However, the tea has an external efficacy also. It is suddenly poured into a brass kettle that has been heated very hot. The sizzling sound made by the escaping steam gives the patient a start, and acts as a sort of antidote to the shock from which he is suffering.
Still another cure for the Susto is for the patient to lie flat on his back while some member of the family wields an old broom lengthwise just above the body. Meanwhile the "sustoed" person must with closed eyes repeat the Lord's Prayer once and the Hail Mary twelve times. The broom treatment is supposed to drive away the Evil Spirit.
Great significance is placed in dreams. If one dreams of a snake, then one is likely to encounter an old enemy. If in the dream the snake is overcome, then the enemy will cause no harm; if, however, the dream snake escapes, then the enemy is about to pursue.
Tuesday is the unlucky day of the peons. If faithful to their traditions, they never start a journey or commence any important business on that day. With them, as the world over, thirteen is an unlucky number. To drive a nail after dark is to invite bad luck, and in a Mexican community one never hears hammering after dusk.
Two old beliefs regarding babies are maintained. One is that if the fingernails of an infant are cut before it is a year old, the child's eyesight will be impaired. The second is that a pronounced soft spot on an infant's head indicates that "the memory is falling in."
A peon sneezing in the presence of another should instantly exclaim "Jesus!" This custom. is said to have originated in Spain during some plague, when the word was uttered as a sort of prayer.