COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume I



Style of Dress in New Mexico Riding-dress of the Caballeros Horse Trappings The Rebozo Passion for Jewelry Apparel of the Female Peasantry 'Wheeled Tarantulas' General Appearance of the People Tawny Complexion Singular Mode of Painting the Human Face Striking Traits of Character Alms-giving Beggars and their Tricks Wonderful Cure of Paralysis Lack of Arms and Officers Traits of Boldness among the Yeomanry Politeness and Suavity of the Mexicans Remarks of Mr. Poinsett Peculiarities observed in epistolary Intercourse Salutations La Siesta.

     THE best society in the interior of New Mexico is fast conforming to European fashion, in the article of dress, with the exception of the peculiar riding costume, which is still worn by many caballeros. This generally consists of a sombrero a peculiarly shaped low crowned hat with wide brim, covered with oil cloth and surmounted with a band of tinsel cord nearly an inch in diameter: a chaqueta or jacket of cloth gaudily embroidered with braid and fancy barrel buttons: a curiously shaped article called calzoneras, intended for pantaloons with the outer part of the legs open from hip to ankle the borders set with tiny filigree buttons, and the whole fantastically trimmed with tinsel lace and cords of the


same materials. As suspenders do not form a component part of a regular Mexican costume, the nether garment is supported by a rich sash which is drawn very tightly around the body, and contributes materially to render the whole appearance of the caballero extremely picturesque. Then there are the botas which somewhat resemble the leggins worn by the bandits of Italy, and are made of embossed leather, embroidered with fancy silk and tinsel thread and bound around the knee with curiously tasselled garters. The sarape saltero (a fancy blanket) completes the picture. This peculiarly useful as well as ornamental garment is commonly carried dangling carelessly across the pommel of the saddle, except in bad weather, when it is drawn over the shoulders, after the manner of a Spanish cloak, or as is more frequently the case, the rider puts his head through a slit in the middle, and by letting it hang loosely from the neck, his whole person is thus effectually protected.

A Mexican horseman     The steed of the caballero is caparisoned in the same pompous manner, the whole of the saddle trappings weighing sometimes over a hundred pounds. First of all we have the high pommel of the saddle-tree crowned with silver, and the 'hinder tree' garnished with the same, and a quilted cushion adjusted to the seat. The coruza is a cover of embossed leather embroidered with fancy silk and tinsel, with ornaments of silver, and is thrown loose over the cushion and fuste or saddle-tree, the


extremities of which protrude through appropriate apertures. Then comes the cola de pato, literally 'duck's tail' (it were more appropriately called 'peacock's tail'), a sort of leathern housing, also gaudily ornamented to correspond with the coraza, attached to the hind-tree, and covering the entire haunches of the animal. The estribos or stirrups are usually made either of bent or mortised wood, fancifully carved, over which are fastened the tapaderas or coverings of leather to protect the toes. Formerly the stirrups constituted a complete slipper, mortised in a solid block of wood, which superseded the use of tapaderas. But one of the most costly articles of the saddle-suit is perhaps the bridle, which is sometimes of entire silver, or otherwise heavily ornamented with silver buckles, slides and stars. To this


is appended a massive bit, sometimes of pure silver, but more commonly of iron, most singularly wrought. The spurs are generally of iron, though silver spurs are very frequent. The shanks of the vaquero spurs are three to five inches long, with rowels sometimes six inches in diameter. I have in my possession a pair of these measuring over ten inches from one extremity to another, with rowels five and three-fourths inches in diameter, weighing two pounds and eleven ounces. Last, not least, there are the armas de pelo, being a pair of shaggy goat skins (richly trimmed across the top with embroidered leather), dangling from the pommel of the saddle for the purpose of being drawn over the legs in case of rain, or as a protection against brush and brambles. The corazas of travelling saddles are also provided with several pockets called coginillos a most excellent contrivance for carrying a lunch or bottle, or anything to which convenient access may be desired.

     In former times there was a kind of harness of leather attached to the saddle behind, covering the hinder parts of the horse as low as mid-thighs, with its lower border completely fringed with jingling iron tags, but these are now seldom met with in the North. Even without this noisy appendage, however, a Mexican caballero of the present day, with full equestrian rigging, his clink and his rattle, makes altogether a very remarkable appearance.

     Though the foregoing description refers par-


ticularly to the chivalrous caballero of the South the rico of the country, yet similar modes of costume and equipage, but of coarser material, are used by the lower classes. Nor are they restricted among these to the riding-dress, but are very generally worn as ordinary apparel. Common velveteens, fustians, blue drillings and similar stuffs, are very much in fashion among such rancheros and villageois as are able to wear anything above the ordinary woolen manufactures of the country. Coarse wool hats, or of palm-leaf (sombreros de petate), all of low crowns, are the kind generally worn by the common people.

     As I have already observed, among the better classes the European dress is now frequently worn; although they are generally a year or two behind our latest fashions. The ladies, however, never wear either hat, cap or bonnet, except for riding; but in lieu of it, especially when they walk abroad, the rebozo (or scarf), or a large shawl, is drawn over the head. The rebozo is by far the most fashionable: it is seven or eight feet in length by nearly a yard in width, and is made of divers stuffs silk, linen or cotton, and usually variegated and figured in the warp by symmetrically disposed threads waved in the dying. It is certainly a beautiful specimen of domestic manufacture. The finest articles are valued at fifty to a hundred dollars in the North; but the ordinary cotton rebozo ranges at from one to five dollars, and is generally


worn by the lower classes. A Mexican female is scarcely ever seen without her rebozo or shawl, except when it is laid aside for the dance. In-doors, it is loosely thrown about her person, but in the promenade it is coquettishly drawn over the head, and one end of it brought round, and gracefully hooked over the opposite shoulder. As a favorite modern authoress justly remarks, however, in speaking of the rebozo and the sarape, an important objection to their use, in this unsettled society, is the facility they afford for the concealment of the person, as well as secret weapons of the wearer. Pistols, knives, and even swords are carried unsuspected under the sarape, while a lady fashionably muffled with a rebozo, may pass a crowd of familiar acquaintances without being recognized.

     The ordinary apparel of the female peasantry and the rancheras, is the enaguas or petticoat of home-made flannel; or, when they are able to procure it, of coarse blue or scarlet cloth, connected to a wide list of some contrasting-colored stuff, bound around the waist over a loose white chemise, which is the only covering for the body, except the rebozo. Uncouth as this costume may appear at first, it constitutes nevertheless a very graceful sort of undress in which capacity it is used even by ladies of rank.

     The New Mexican ladies are all passionately fond of jewelry; and they may commonly be seen, with their necks, arms and fingers loaded with massive appendages of a valua-


ble description. But as there has been so much imposition with regard to foreign jewelry, articles of native manufacture, some of which are admirably executed, without alloy or counterfeit, are generally preferred.

     In New Mexico, coches de paseo of any kind are very rare; occasionally, however, one of those huge, clumsy, old-fashioned vehicles of Mexican manufacture, so abundant in the southern cities, and often nick-named 'wheeled tarantulas,' by strangers, may be seen. Such an apparition in a Yankee city would excite as much curiosity as a caravan of the rarest animals. The coach alone is a load for two mules, therefore the vehicle is usually drawn by four and sometimes six, and invariably driven by postillions.

     The stature of both sexes in New Mexico is commonly below medium: but they are mostly well proportioned, of athletic make, and sound, healthy constitutions. Their complexion is generally dark; but every variety of shade is found among them, from the lightest European tint to the swarthiest hue. Their darkness has resulted partly from their original Moorish blood, but more from intermarriages with the aborigines. An occasional Indian, and sometimes an entire village, have abandoned their wonted seclusion, and become identified with their conquerors. In the North, the system of Indian slavery has contributed still more to the same result. They buy the captive children of both sexes of the wild tribes, taken prisoners among each other,


or by the Pueblos in their petty wars with the former and indeed by the Mexicans themselves who are generally held in bondage to the age of twenty-one years, and some, from ignorance, their whole lives. Such as resume their liberty intermarry with the race of their masters, becoming Mexican citizens, often undistinguishable from many of the already dark-hued natives. The present race of New Mexicans has thus become an amalgam, averaging about equal parts of the European and aboriginal blood. The peasantry, as well as from a more general intermixture with the Indian, as from exposure, are the darkest; yet the tawny complexion pervades all classes the rich as well as the poor.

     The females, although many of them are about as broad-featured as the veriest Indian, not unfrequently possess striking traits of beauty. They are remarkable for small feet and handsome figures, notwithstanding their profound ignorance of the 'refined art' of lacing. The belles of the ranchos and villages have a disgusting habit of besmearing their faces with the crimson juice of a plant or fruit called alegria, which is not unlike blood; as also with clay and starch. This is not intended, as some travellers have supposed, as a beautifying appendage, but for the purpose of protecting the skin from the sun. A country beauty will often remain in this filthy condition for a whole fortnight, in order to appear to advantage at some favorite feast or ball; when, by washing off the paint, the


cheeks look as fresh and ruddy as the natural darkness of their skin will permit.

     The New Mexicans appear to have inherited much of the cruelty and intolerance of their ancestors, and no small portion of their bigotry and fanaticism. Being of a highly imaginative temperament and of rather accommodating moral principles cunning, loquacious, quick of perception and sycophantic, their conversation frequently exhibits a degree of tact a false glare of talent, eminently calculated to mislead and impose. They have no stability except in artifice; no profundity except for intrigue: qualities for which they have acquired an unenviable celebrity. Systematically cringing and subservient while out of power, as soon as the august mantle of authority falls upon their shoulders, there are but little bounds to their arrogance and vindictiveness of spirit. While such are the general features of the character of the Northern Mexicans, however, I am fain to believe and acknowledge, that there are to be found among them numerous instances of uncompromising virtue, good faith and religious forbearance.

     But taking the Northern Mexicans without distinction of class or degree, there is scarcely a race of people on the face of the earth more alive to the dictates of charity that is, almsgiving; which is more owing perhaps to the force of religious instruction than to real sympathy for the sufferings of the indigent and the helpless. The law making no provision


for paupers, there is no country perhaps more infested with beggars, especially from Chihuahua south. In the large cities, Saturday is the alms-giving day by custom; and on such occasions the limosneros (as the mendicant race is called), may be seen promenading the streets in gangs of thirty or forty, or in smaller numbers, performing genuflections at every nook and corner of the town, each croaking aloud his favorite set of orisons and inviting the blessings of heaven upon every man, woman or child, who may have been so fortunate as to propitiate the benison by casting a few clacos into his outstretched hand. In some sections of the country, this system of begging has proved so successful that parents have actually been known to maim and deform their children, during the earliest stages of infancy, in order to fit them for the trade and thereby secure to themselves a constant source of emolument for the remainder of their lives. Persons affecting disease and frequently malformation for the purpose of exciting the commiseration of the wayfarer, are also extremely numerous. I had often observed in Chihuahua a robust-looking fellow, who, to all appearance, had partially lost the use of his lower extremities, sliding about the streets from door to door upon a sort of cushion, asking alms. One fine day, a furious bull pursued by some vaqueros, came plunging down in the direction where he sat, moaning and grieving most piteously; when, forgetting his physical disabilities, he sprang to his feet with


the agility of a dancing master, and incontinently betook himself to his heels.

     The Northern Mexicans have often been branded with cowardice: a stigma which may well be allowed to rest upon the wealthier classes, and the city-bred caballeros, from whose ranks are selected the military leaders who decide the fate of battles. But the rancheros, or as they might be still more appropriately styled the yeomanry of the country, inured as they are from their peculiar mode of life to every kind of fatigue and danger, possess a much higher calibre of moral courage. Their want of firmness in the field, is partially the result of their want of confidence in their commanders; while the inefficacy and worthlessness of their weapons are alone sufficient to inspire even a valiant heart with dismal forebodings. It is true that most of the regular troops are provided with English muskets, which, by the way, they are generally too ignorant to keep in order; but a great portion of the militia are obliged to use the clumsy old fashioned escopeta, or firelock of the sixteenth century; while others have nothing but the bow and arrow, and sometimes the lance, which is in fact a weapon very much in use throughout the country. I have seen persons of the lower class do things, however, which would really seem to indicate a superlative degree of courage. Some of them will often perform journeys alone through wildernesses teeming with murderous savages; but as they not unfrequently


embark upon these perilous jaunts unarmed, it is evident they depend greatly upon good luck and swiftness of limbs, and still more upon the protection of their favorite saint, la Virgen de Guadalupe. The Mexicans, like the French, are remarkable for their politeness and suavity of manners. You cannot visit a friend but he assures you that, "Esta V. en su casa, y puede mandar," etc. (You are in your own house, and can command, etc.), or, "Estoy en Meramente a su disposicion" (I am wholly at your disposal), without, however, meaning more than an expression of ordinary courtesy. Nor can you speak in commendation of any article, let its value be what it may, but the polite owner immediately replies, "Tomelo, V. Senor; es suyo (Take it, sir; it is yours), without the slightest intention or expectation that you should take him at his word. Mr. Poinsett observes, "Remember, when you take leave of a Spanish grandee, to bow as you leave the room, at the head of the stairs, where the host accompanies you; and after descending the first flight, turn round and you will see him expecting a third salutation, which he returns with great courtesy, and remains until you are out of sight; so that as you wind down the stairs, if you catch a glimpse of him, kiss your hand, and he will think you a most accomplished cavalier." Graphic as this short sketch is, it hardly describes the full measure of Mexican politeness for in that country, when the visitor reaches the


street another tip of the hat, and another inclination of the head, will be expected by the attentive host, who gently waves, with his hand, a final 'a dios' from a window. In epistolary correspondence, the ratio of respect is generally indicated by the width of the left margin. If the letter is addressed to an equal, about one-fourth of the page is occupied for that purpose; but when extraordinary respect is intended to be shown to a superior, nearly one-half of the page is left a blank. There are other marks of civility and respect peculiar to the country, which among us would be accounted absolute servility.

     In their salutations, the ancient custom of close embrace, not only between individuals of the same sex, but between those of different sexes, is almost universal. It is quite a luxury to meet a pretty senorita after some absence. The parties approach, shake hands in a cordial manner, and without loosening the grasp, the left arm of each is brought about the other's waist; and while a gentle embrace brings their persons closer to each other, the contact of the cheeks becomes inevitable without admitting a kiss, however, which would be held as decidedly indelicate. In short, it is worth while absenting oneself; for the gratification of a first meeting with the prettier of one's female friends upon the return.

     Among the least unpleasant customs of this country is that of the siesta or afternoon nap; a species of indulgence in which all classes

Page 224 THE SIESTA.

are prone to share. The stores, private and public offices, are, by common consent, generally closed at one o'clock (that being the usual dinner hour), and not re-opened till three. During that interval nearly every kind of business and labor is suspended. The streets are comparatively deserted; the rich and the poor retire to their respective couches, and remain wrapped in slumber, or 'thinking o' nothing,' till the loud peal of the three o'clock bell warns them to resume their occupations.

southwestern-style woven rope chain

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