The French-Mex Connection

In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

In 1966, I was traveling around Mexico. I had a sturdy ’56 Volvo 444, and some money. Through my dad and his work with a director named John Sturgis, I’d hustled up some money. I wanted to “develop” a story about the French occupation of Mexico during the American Civil War.

The theme that had been done a couple of times-the old movie “Juarez” with Lewis Calhern and Paul Muni, back in the ’30s, and more recently-the mid ’50s- “Vera Cruz,” with Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper.

My not-so-subtle concept was there were grim parallels between what happened to the French in Mexico and what was happening to the Americans in Viet Nam. With every bottle of Bohemia beer, my idea seemed to have more and more validity. The only problem would be convincing the movie company. This was back during the Cold War. Patriotism was the order of the day. I knew I’d have to be subtle.

I drank beer and cruised the highways of Mexico. I went past dozens of stories, too caught up in my own to notice.

Self-destructive? I was. I’d stop in small villages and amble into bars, speaking my bad Spanish. I could easily have been vanished by anyone who wanted to do so. Nobody, though, considered me worth it. I had to show, though, I was physically normal. More than normal, at least in my head. Normal people wouldn’t do that sort of thing.

Truth is, I’m an incurable romantic (I still am, sure). Mexico, for me, was just about the most romantic place in the world for me. I’d first read B.Traven, the mysterious author of “Treasure of Sierra Madre,” and other novels about Mexico during the first part of the 20th Century.

Traven wrote in a spare and matter of fact style. And I’d read Graham Greene’s “The Power and The Glory” and “Beyond the Mexique Bay.” Greene was totally different than Traven-the conflicts were spiritual rather than economic or class-based; he was offended by Mexico and Latin America (Greene was offended by everything that wasn’t English, I think). The two writers gave a 3-dimentional view of Mexico.

It was a complex, vital, and yet frontier-like nation. In the north, rancheros fought settlers; in the south, soldiers working for lumber companies ran Indians into the deep forests. Across the border, in Guatemala, Mayan Indian villages were being bombed and destroyed.

A few days in Mexico City and Queretaro were enough to give me a physical sense of the country where things pretty much began and ended for the

The Emperor Maxmillian and his wife Carlotta ruled from Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. Napoleon III installed Maxmillian as a French proxy in Mexico, figuring the Civil War in America put the Monroe Doctrine on hold. At the end of the Civil War, America looked south and shook its head. The French troops were withdrawn. Maxmillian’s life ended at Queretaro, shot to ribbons by a Mexican firing squad.

There was something about Mexico that attracted Maxmillian, too.

He had the opportunity to leave with the French, but he chose to stay with the troops that were loyal to him. He died with them. Carlotta returned to Europe and wandered mad through the halls of empire for the rest of her life.

Queretaro is in the highlands: Vera Cruz on the tropical east coast.

It was a picturesque drive through the colonial heartland of Mexico. Small poor farms with brush buildings, better farms with adobe or brick buildings,wandering live stock, burros carrying vast bundles of firewood, rackety muffler-less trucks and busses.

The highways went past picturesque moldy colonial ruins, churches built on ancient pyramids (when the conquering Spaniards found a pyramid, they would either tear it down or build a church on top of it-I spent a night in the city of Cholula, where the ruins of the largest pyramid in the world has a cathedral on top), and then down into lush green tropical forests.

It was August. On the coast the temperature was hot and moist. It was so humid you could feel the air with your hands. Even the Gulf looked torpid and exhausted.

Vera Cruz was shabby and caught in some sort of 1940s time warp. The air smelled like the ocean and rotting fruit. No doubt the rich people had air conditioning, but nobody else did.

Arcades lined the main plaza and cafes had tables out in the shade. Skinny, open-sided streetcars wobbled around the square and disappeared into various neighborhoods. Not many people hung out, because in that climate, the siesta was a serious past time. People appeared in the evenings.

I had a room in a big, tile-roofed hotel down the beach.

White plastered walls, red tile roofs, and green palm trees. The hotel was owned by one of the ex-presidents and was intended to be a fancy resort, and was big and sprawling. There wasn’t much business.

The swimming pool had a raft of leaves. The tennis courts had grass growing through the cement.

None of the rooms had air conditioning, but the room doors had crosswise tilted slats, providing privacy and allowed the breeze free passage. The outside windows had semi-attached screens. I didn’t need much bug repellent.

Throughout, the floors were dark red tile and a worker kept going up and down the halls with a damp mop. The linens were very white and thin.

The dining room was maybe 50 feet square, with white walls and high ceilings with slow-turning fans. Several waiters stood by the doors to the kitchen; a headwaiter led me to a table by a window open to the sea. There were only three tables occupied.

Occasionally the night sky flashed bluish white with lightning; a breeze moved the curtains. I had a bottle of Bohemia and ordered seafood.

Three men came in. They were tall and blond, cleanly dressed in tropical white. They wore holsters and pistols. Two of them carried semi-automatic carbines. Nobody seemed to notice the armaments. The waiter greeted them and sat them in a corner, away from the windows, facing the door. The carbines were laid across empty chairs.

When the waiter brought my fish, I asked him who they were. “Germans,” he said, “coffee planters from up in the mountains.”

I asked him why the men were armed. He shrugged and said, “They always
are. There are bandits in the mountains.”

“And why do they carry them around here?”

He shrugged again. “Anything else, sir?”

After dinner, I went back to my room and thought more about the French occupation.

Skinny Butt