By ANNA R1ST
THE spasmodic ringing of a a bell awakens us from a few hours sleep snatched after our night flight. Cocks are crowing; odd, in a city! Sunday morning. The day is hot and airy. We are many thousand feet up, in the tropics.
A fenced court in front of Mexico City's enormous ClassicBaroque cathedral forms one side of the Zocalo, the National Palace an adjoining side. Towers arise on either side of three doors, lifting twin globes and crosses over the city. The dome, behind, marks the crux of earlier cruciform buildings, but is here —as throughout Mexico—pure ornament. Great facades mark the ends of imaginary transepts and the whole building is squared off and storeyed with flying buttresses.
Inside, at the High Altar, Mass has just finished and Benediction begun, hidden from us by the massive enclosure for choir and clergy in the centre of the church. Presently priests, servers and choir move out with the Blessed Sacrament. singing a lively hymn, while the hells ring. One of the clergy falls out of the procession and signals urgently to the people as it passes: "Cante I Canter They do, falling on their knees. in front, candelabra flame on the gilding behind the altars; great austere pillars contrast with this glory; a third contrast is the reverent simplicity of the people—the familiar Latin to-ing and fro-ing is there—and the unconcern of hundreds of brown children.
A well-dressed crowd chats outside the Palacio de Bellas Artes after the Sunday morning ballet. Passing on, we see the national monuments: the hideous arch to the Revolution, near where Reforma runs into Juarez, and further down Reform the more hideous conglomeration of Victory, lions, patriots, obelisks . . .
The whole city seems to be out in Chapultepec Park. Everywhere are children, the babies carried by their little longplaited mothers inside their rebozos, or occasionally by their fathers, men with good-natured, melancholy faces and large black moustaches under their straw sombreros. The children are healthy and lively—a tribute to the present government, whose election car comes blaring through the crowds ...
Returning, we see slogans: "Christianismo si, Comunismo no"; "Cuba si, Yankis no".
THE bus to Guadalupe is a typical ricketty bone-shaker, with five pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe among the other ornaments over the driver's seat, and above them "Ave Maria". There are similar plaques on the houses as we near the shrine. In the industrial parts beyond, we see slogans: "Muera Comunismo"; "Viva Cristo, Muera Castro"; "Castro bestia, asesino" —expressions of local Christian loyalty!
Under the hot sun, people are creeping over the huge plaza to the basilica, on their knees. We cross it on foot. Many more are advancing in the same fashion up the nave, or praying in the pews, where we join them.
A collection is taken and our peso elicits a coloured post-card of the miraculous image of the Virgin in the green mantle which was found on the serape of the Indian Juan Diego. (It was soon after Cortes' conquest. On reporting the first apparition and Our Lady's request for a chapel where she might care for the Indians, Diego was told by the sceptical Spanish bishop to ask for a sign. He returned from the stony hilltop where Our Lady appeared, hearing roses in his sarape, which on being opened revealed also the image.) Up the steps in the steep hillside, past the fountain and the rose-garden, to the little shrine. which has for the Americas almost the importance that Lourdes has for Europe. Indeed. when all the churches of Mexico were closed during the Revolution, Guadalupe alone could not be tampered with, because the Indians' Virgin had become a national figure. Inside, two young men are reciting the Rosary and Litany; others come and go. Round the walls are ,frescoes depicting the story of the apparitions, and above the altar is the famous sarape.
We notice an unusual lack of religious; does the revolutionary ban still apply? in the square we see several women in long black dresses, their hair braided and done up on the nape of the neck, putting on black shawls or mantillas before entering the church. Throughout our stay nuns dressed like this will remind us that these are people different from ourselves only in that they have adopted a simple and self-denying life for the love of Christ—a fact often obscured by layers of serge and starched linen. The law appears to he falling into abeyance, however, as we later see one nun in a habit, and two or three Roman collars.
An old man whom we earlier saw at the beginning of his painful progress over the square is two-thirds across now and gasping. Two small girls are spreading their cardigans under his knees, as the Jews did their cloaks for Christ as he entered Jerusalem. We retire through the streets, past shops selling objets de islet& and notice the people bless themselves as they cross the straight street which runs up to the basilica . .
MOUNTING to the gallery of the Palacio Nacional, we are hit by Rivera's revolutionary frescoes. Brilliant in colour, more static, less intellectual and more optimistic than Orozco's in Guadalajara, they are yet more perfect in technical accomplishment. Their theme is anti-Spanish, anti-Christian, proIndian and Communist. The naked, industrious Indians of pre-Conquest times are seen at their crafts; the Conquistadors
arrive with horse and cannon, followed closely by Spanish missionaries conquering in the sign of the Cross.
The Indians are butchered, enslaved, branded, oppressed; they toil for their masters and prostrate themselves before the hypocritical, foolish or greedy friars. One only, perhaps Las Cases. is shown protecting them Above, Liberty and the Revolution have arrived, and over the bloody scene stands a row of dignified liberators. On the extreme left, an intellectual—his unpleasing expression is presumably only a proper satisfaction—shows a worker a copy of Das Kapital . .
In the museum are catechisms in Indian picture-writing, used by the missionary friars. The Our Father and the Creed can be deciphered . . .
In the cathedral, a man kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament altar makes wild and primitive gestures from time to time in his prayers . .
IN Puebla. the Church has been campaigning and everywhere are slogans : "Christianismo si, Comunismo no", with the following verse :
"Mas si osar un extrafio enemigo Profaner con su planta to suelo, Piensa. o Patria querida, que el Cielo
Un soldado en cada hijo to din."
(If again should dare some foreign enemy To violate your soil with steps defiled.
Think, o beloved country, heaven's decree Has given you a soldier in each child.) (It is attempted to reproduce the quality of the original as well as the sense!) A notice painted in the road beside the cathedral square asks all Catholics to meet there so that they can "declare their faith and pray for Puebla, Mexico and the world"
Inside the notorious secret convent of Santa Monica, the guide leads us through the "bookcase", with a graphic account of the arrival of the police in 1935, and the opening of the secret door by the Mather Superior herself. (This circumstance seemed unlikely, and I now find the guide's account differs from that Fiven to Mr. Graham Greene.) The Mother Superior is still alive in a convent in Mexico City. We cross a beautiful patio where the novices used to walk, and inspect the instruments of penance. The order was enclosed and flagellant. The guide explains that there are now convents again in Mexico, but no enclosure.
A kitchen contains a tiled stove and sink. glazed earthenware pottery, such as the Mexican housewife uses, and a picture of St. Pascal Baylor patron of cooks. In another room hangs a series of paintings on velvet of which the guide is very proud. Rockefeller, he says. offered a million dollars for them, Their main interest apart from this is that they were none by an Indian of no education, clearly from European models, and that the dyeing process is unknown.
In the secret chapel, below each Station is a plain cross hung with a cord and crown of thorns. Through peepholes, we see Mass in process in an adjoining church, as the nuns used to do when a priest could not be brought in to them. Down some steps is the burial-vault with a slab where the bodies were laid prior to being he a.ked into the wall. After 10 years the bones were thrown into a charnel. The police broke into the wall, but did not disturb the bodies, and sealed it again. During the 77 years of the convent's secret existence, women must have entered, lived their lives and died, and no one the wiser. The laying-out room is hung with black and a big crucifix. Replicas of nuns are praying round a bier. The ringing of the hell of the adjoining church completes the illusion
FROM the church at Cholula which crowns seven pyramids, built in succession on a base larger than that of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, we look out over a great expanse of country, hounded by mountains. Our guide waves a hand in one direction and says affectionately, "Popo!" Earlier we have seen the pure cone of PopocatApet1 emerge briefly from the cloud. Now it is shrouded. Everywhere the hills—several of them concealed temples—are dotted with domes. The Indians worshipped at 365 temples in the vicinity— one for each day of their year. The missionaries replaced each of them by a church. The guide points out as of special interest the two which were decorated by the Indians, and we descend to hire bicycles for a visit.
Santa Maria is a mass of brilliantly coloured carving. spilt all over the dome, roof, and walls. So exotic is the effect that one's taste is dulled for San Francisco, with its more restrained gilding at three ends of the cross. In Mexico one is as near possible glutted with the brilliance of this hybrid baroque, the offspring of two different traditions . . .
At lunch. the waitress confirms what we suspected a week ago: that in Mexico Catholics may eat meat on Fridays . .
In Oaxaca, a taxi-driver explains that a public meeting has been called for 10 o'clock, in loyalty to the Pope, since Thursday is the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Earlier we have noticed people collecting in the square, but by 10 they have vanished—except for the tail which we spy making its way up to the church of La Virgen de la Soledad (the Virgin of Loneliness) above the city. This is the second most celebrated shrine in Mexico. A beautiful little image of the Virgin. in an elaborately embroidered robe, stands over the altar.
As we overtake the crowd, one man, seeing we are strangers, explains "We don't want Communism", and to make his point clearer, jerking a thumb skyward, "Viva Dios!" "Y el papa," I add, to show we are no heathens, and he agrees vigorously. Asked if there are many Communists—we have seen no counterblasts—he replies "Si, muchos." Later in the day a taxi-driver denies this
TT is fortunate we are no later, A for already the crowds are dense on the terraced ground below the church, and even the open belfries are filled, The archbishop is present and a priest is introducing the first speaker, a layman, whose theme is the origin of the papacy. He is followed by a student of the University—great flourishes of Latin rhetoric here—who makes the point that man is not only material, as Karl Marx has said, but above all a spiritual force.
The Master of Ceremonies takes over and leads the crowd in assenting, clause by clause. to the "Credo Social Cristiano"— the right to private property, family life. education. etc. The next speaker represents professional men. His profoundest contribution appears to be that
Catholics must be either for Christ or against him. Finally a priest. the director of thc Secretariado Social Mexicano, expounds the social doctrine of the Church. He claims 96 per cent. of Mexicans as Catholics, but deprecates an increase in anticlericalism. "The Church does not ask for privileges, but only freedom to accomplish her mission of saving souls."
Everywhere are slogans and streamers of the papal colours. The speeches take two and a half hours, during which time most of the people. including small children and women holding babies. remain standing, many of them in the sun. We are head and shoulders taller than our neighbours, but less enduring than they; eventually we find a shady piece of grass and sit down. The crowd is crying out sporadically: "Viva el papa", "Viva Cristo Rey". and two hymns are sung. Towards the end, those in the belfry get carried away and ring the hells. Finally the National Anthem is sung and prayers are recited that Mexico may be preserved from Communism. The priest impresses on the crowds that they arc to go home without making any disturbance, and invites those who wish to remain for Mass...
In fact, we see no signs of Communism until we reach M or eli a. Here we spot a peace-front notice: "Paz si, guerra no", and a hammer and sickle over a call to vote for the P.C.M. Counterbalancing these are a graphic sign in a house window, a cross surmounted by "si" and a hammer and sickle by "no", and a notice saying "El estado comunista es el maestro mas cruel en el mundo." A paper informs us that Cardenas—Marxist ex-president of Mexico—is now in Cuba and an ardent partisan of Castro. Later we pass the inscription "Yankis, fuera de Cuba!" ...
LEANING over a parapet
where an ugly nationalist monument overlooks the town of Guanajuato. hemmed in by crinkled hills dotted with silvermines, we come across two lawstudents and fall into conversation. Particularly we question them on political matters and they seem both acute and disillusioned. What do we think of Fidel Castro? We do not know what to think. What do they think? Is he Communist? 'Yes. Castro is Marxist, but it is American policy that has forced him to court Russia. American capitalism is as bad in its way as Communism. American interests in Mexico—in the silvermines over there, for example— keep a stranglehold on the policies of Lopez Mateos, who has done something to improve social conditions, but would do more if he could. For a long while there has been no more land-distribution. (However, in next day's paper we read of a large land take-over by the government for redistribution.) Kennedy's government is a slight improvement in this respect, but is still a bar to industrialization and progress. Mention of the "Alliance for Progress" plan makes them snort : "There won't be much progress." Have we noticed the slogans "Cristianismo si, Comunismo no" on doors in the town? American funds are behind them. America sees the Catholic Church in Mexico as the great bulwark against Communism. As for Mateos, he is —"Alleluia!"—You know—"Si protestante!" But some of his adherents, including the partyleader. are Marxist. My friend here is Catholic—I am "nada". The friend warns him playfully of the fate which will attend him, and flapping his own arms plucks an imaginary harp . . .
Back in Mexico Cathedral, a man of about 50 approach.s, thinking we are Americans. He has been praying in a pew behind us: "Things aren't too good," we heard him say. He, used to work as a "bracero" on Texan farms, but this year there is no work. (The new administration is trying to meet its own unemployment problem.) He and many others are living on one meal a day. The time not spent eating this or looking for work he passes in the churches. He is off now to a small one he knows on the edge of the city. Are the churches in England as big as this one? This is too big. He looks after a party conducted by a noisy guide. "Too many tourists!" He leaves in search of peace on earth.