I: Twenty-One


That summer in Mexico was the most miserable I have ever known. I did not hear from my mother for several weeks. I did not like my father. And I did not know what to do about either of them.

My father was what the Mexicans called muy americano, a typical American. He was different from anybody I had ever known. He was interested only in making money.

My mother and step-father were interested in making money, too, so they were always moving about from job to job and from town to town, wherever they heard times were better. But they were interested in making money to spend. And for fun. They were always buying victrolas and radios and watches and rings, and going to shows and drinking beer and playing cards, and trying to have a good time after working hours.

But my father was interested in making money to keep.

Because it is very hard for a Negro to make money in the United States, since so many jobs are denied him, so many unions and professional associations are barred to him, so many banks will not advance him loans, and so many insurance companies will not insure his business, my father went to Cuba and Mexico, where he could make money quicker. He had had legal training in the South, but could not be admitted to the bar there. In Mexico he was admitted to the bar and practised law. He acquired property in Mexico City and a big ranch in the hills. He lent money and foreclosed on mortgages.

During the revolutions, when all the white Americans had to flee from the Toluca district of Mexico, because of the rising nationalism, my father became the general manager of an electric light company belonging to an American firm in New York. Because he was brown, the Mexicans could not tell at sight that he was a Yankee, and even after they knew it, they did not believe he was like the white Yankees. So the followers of Zapata and Villa did not run him away as they did the whites. In fact, in Toluca, the Mexicans always called my father el americano, and not the less polite el gringo, which is a term that carries with it distrust and hatred.

But my father was certainly just like the other German and English and American business men with whom he associated in Mexico. He spoke just as badly about the Mexicans. He said they were ignorant and backward and lazy. He said they were exactly like the Negroes in the United States, perhaps worse. And he said they were very bad at making money.

My father hated Negroes. I think he hated himself, too, for being a Negro. He disliked all of his family because they were Negroes and remained in the United States, where none of them had a chance to be much of anything but servants—like my mother, who started out with a good education at the University of Kansas, he said, but had sunk to working in a restaurant, waiting on niggers, when she wasn’t in some white woman’s kitchen. My father said he wanted me to leave the United States as soon as I finished high school, and never return—unless I wanted to be a porter or a red cap all my life.

The second day out from Cleveland, the train we were on rolled across Arkansas. As we passed through a dismal village in the cotton fields, my father peered from the window of our Pullman at a cluster of black peons on the main street, and said contemptuously: “Look at the niggers.”

When we crossed into Mexico at Laredo, and started south over the sun-baked plains, he pointed out to me a cluster of brown peons watching the train slow down at an adobe station. He said: “Look at the Mexicans!”

My father had a great contempt for all poor people. He thought it was their own fault that they were poor.

In Mexico City we went to the Grand Hotel. Then my father took me to call on three charming middle-aged Mexican ladies who were his friends—three unmarried sisters, one of whom took care of his rents in the city. They were very Latin and very Catholic, lived in a house with a charming courtyard, and served the most marvelous dishes at table—roast duck stuffed with pears and turkey with mole sauce, a sauce that takes several days to prepare, so complex is its making. And always there were a pile of steaming-hot tortillas, wrapped in a napkin, at one corner of the table.

In their youth, they were very lovely ladies to look at, I vaguely remembered from my trip there as a child. And they still wore their shawls of black lace with dignity and grace. They were all three the color of parchment, a soft, ivory-yellow—the blood of Spain overcast just a little by the blood of Mexico—for they were not Indians. And they were not revolutionists. They had adored the former dictator-president, Porfirio Diaz, and when they wanted to speak of some one as uncouth, they said: “Muy indio.” Very Indian!

These three aging ladies were, I think, the only people in the whole world who really ever liked my father. Perhaps that was because his property helped to provide them with an income. And perhaps also because they shared many of his aristocratic ideas regarding the peons.

Their only worry about my father concerned his soul. He was not Catholic and never went to mass. The first thing they gave me as a present was a little amulet of the Virgin of Guadalupe. But my father laughed when we got back to the hotel and said he hoped I did not believe in that foolishness. He said greasers and niggers would never get anywhere because they were too religious, always praying.

The following morning, we left for Toluca. I wanted to see my father’s tenement houses in Mexico City, but he said I could see them some other time. He was anxious to get back to the plant in Toluca.

Off the big trunk line between the capital and the border, railroad travel in Mexico then was slow and uncomfortable. Many of the coaches had been burned or bullet-ridden in the revolts, so the trains were very crowded. They had a parlor-car coach between Mexico City and Toluca, in which one could reserve a seat, but my father was too frugal with money to use this service. So we rode in a crowded second-class coach, with people standing in the aisles, and all over one’s feet, and bundles and baskets hanging from everywhere. My father said: “Be careful of pickpockets and thieves. Mexicans steal.”

The train wound up and up into the mountains, and finally came down into one of the most beautiful valleys in the world, all lush, green fields and lakes, where water lilies floated, with a snow-capped volcano in the distance, La Nevada de Toluca. We were in the highest inhabitable valley in Mexico. The air was very cool and sweet and the sky a brilliant blue.

We reached Toluca in time for luncheon. My father’s mozo met us at the station. He was an Indian boy named Maximiliano, with a broad, brown face and black hair that fell into his eyes. He wore the common white trousers and shirt you see all over Mexico, and huaraches on his feet. He put all our baggage on his back and secured it in a sort of leather thong about his neck, and trotted on ahead of us toward the house.

My father’s house faced a small park near the station. It was a low, blue-white house of one story, all spread out and surrounded by a blue-white wall. As you approached the house, you could see only high adobe walls, rimmed with dull red tile at the top. At one end of the wall, there was a big double door for the horses. At the other end, a small door that led into the patio and the house.

The patio would have been nice, had my father bothered to keep the grass and flowers tended. But he took much better care of the corral at the back of the house, where the horses and chickens were, and the cow.

He had recently foreclosed on the cow. But some shrewd Mexicans must have got the best of him that time, because the cow was ill. She had something hard in her udders; she gave bitter milk, and finally stopped giving milk altogether, as her udders began to petrify. A few weeks after I arrived, she was dead.

But there were two beautiful horses in the corral, and about a hundred large, healthy American chickens, not at all like the scrawny Mexican chickens other people had. My father said he could trade a pair of his chickens any day for a calf or a sheep, and it was true.

My father’s housekeeper was a tall Mexican woman with a kind tan-brown face, and two children approaching their teens, whom my father would not permit to eat at our house. But she used to take food home to them at night. My father lived on a rather meagre diet of beef and beans. But the cook and I soon teamed up against him, and when he was away at the ranch, we would order all kinds of good things to eat from the shops where he traded, and put them on his bill. I would take the blame. My father stormed and said I was just like my mother, always wasting money. So he would usually make a scene whenever he came home from the country, sending the cook flying from the kitchen in tears. But, nevertheless, he would always eat whatever good things were set before him.

Maximiliano, the mozo, took care of the horses and the chickens, swept the patio and the corral, and saddled the horses for me or my father. He was a silent boy who spoke but little Spanish, his being an Indian language from the hills. He slept on a pile of sacks in the tool shed, so I asked my father why he didn’t give Maximiliano a bed, since there were several old beds around.

He said: “Never give an Indian anything. He doesn’t appreciate it.”

But he was wrong about that. I gave Maximiliano my spare centavos and cigarettes, and we became very good friends. He taught me to ride a horse without saddle or stirrups, how to tell a badly woven serape from a good one, and various other things that are useful to know in that high valley beneath the white volcanos.

My father paid Maximiliano and the cook almost nothing, but he gave me ten pesos a week allowance, which I used to share with the two servants. There was nothing much to spend money for in Toluca. At least, not knowing any one and not yet being able to speak Spanish, I found nothing to spend money for, except the movies once a week, on Sundays.

The weekly movie show was a gala occasion for the whole town. Society and its pretty daughters attended and sat in the horseshoe of circular boxes, running from one side of the stage to the other around the ancient auditorium. The young blades and unmarried males of the better families sat in the orchestra proper, and between each reel of bad Hollywood movies, or arty German ones, practically all the males would rise and sweep the circle of boxes with their eyes until they found the girl each liked. Then they would stare at her until the house went dark again. The shows commenced at four o’clock and lasted an ungodly long time, because they had only one projector and had to show each picture reel by reel. When the sun went down, it got very cold in Toluca, and the old theater had no heat, but you gathered your coat about you and stuck it out until the last cowboy had killed the last red-skin and smothered the heroine in a kiss. Then you came home through the badly lighted streets, where the meek Indian policemen, huddled in blankets to the eyebrows, slept leaning against adobe corners, a lantern on the ground at their feet.

I began to get very tired of Toluca. My father did not take me to the ranch with him, because he said the roads were infested with bandits, and I could not yet ride well enough. Instead of letting me go about with him to the country or to Mexico City, he put me to learning bookkeeping. I was never very good at figures, and I got hopelessly tangled up in the problems he gave me. My stupidity disgusted him immeasurably, and he would rail at me about the need of acquiring a good business head. “Seventeen and you can’t add yet!” he’d cry. Then he would bend over the ledger and show me all over again how to balance the spoiled page, and say: “Now, hurry up and do it! Hurry up! Hurry up!”

“Hurry up!” was his favorite expression, in Spanish or in English. He was always telling the employees under him at the electric light company, the cook at home, or Maximiliano, or me, to hurry up, hurry up and do whatever we were doing—so that we could get through and do something else he always had ready to be done.

Hurry up! My father had tremendous energy. He always walked fast and rode hard. He was small and tough, like a jockey. He got up at five in the morning and worked at his accounts or his mail or his law books until time to go to the office. Then until ten or eleven o’clock at night he would be busy at various tasks, stopping only to eat. Then, on the days he made the long trek to the ranch, he rose at three-thirty or four, in order to get out there early and see what his workers were doing. Every one else worked too slowly for him, so it was always, “Hurry up!”

As the weeks went by, I could think of less and less to say to my father. His whole way of living was so different from mine, his attitude toward life and people so amazing, that I fell silent and couldn’t open my mouth when he was in the house. Not even when he barked: “Hurry up!”

I hadn’t heard from my mother, even by July. I knew she was angry with me because I had gone to Mexico. I understood then, though, why she had been unable to live with my father, and I didn’t blame her. But why had she married him in the first place, I wondered. And why had they had me? Now, at seventeen, I began to be very sorry for myself, in a strange land in a mountain town, where there wasn’t a person who spoke English. It was very cold at night and quiet, and I had no money to get away, and I was lonesome. I began to wish I had never been born—not under such circumstances.

I took long rides on a black horse named Tito to little villages of adobe huts, nestled in green fields of corn and alfalfa, little villages, each with a big church with a beautiful tower built a hundred years ago, a white Spanish tower with great bells swinging in the turret.

I began to learn to read Spanish. I struggled with bookkeeping. I took one of the old pistols from my father’s desk and fired away in the afternoon at a target Maximiliano had put up in the corral. But most of the time I was depressed and unhappy and bored. One day, when there was no one in the house but me, I put the pistol to my head and held it there, loaded, a long time, and wondered if I would be any happier if I were to pull the trigger. But then, I began to think, if I do, I might miss something. I haven’t been to the ranch yet, nor to the top of the volcano, nor to the bullfights in Mexico, nor graduated from high school, nor got married. So I put the pistol down and went back to my bookkeeping.

My father was very seldom at home, but when he was, he must have noticed my silence and my gloomy face, because if I looked the way I felt, I looked woebegone, indeed. One day in August, he told me he was going to Mexico City for a week, and would take me with him for the trip. He said I could see the summer bullfights and Xochimilco. The trip was ten days off, but I began to dream about it, and to press my clothes and get ready.

It seemed that my father couldn’t resist saying, “Hurry up,” more and more during those ten days, and giving me harder and harder bookkeeping problems to have worked out by the time he got home from the office. Besides, he was teaching me to typewrite, and gave me several exercises to master each evening. “Hurry up and type that a hundred times before you go to bed. Hurry up and get that page of figures done so I can check on it. Hurry up and learn the verb, estar.”

Hurry up . . . hurry up . . . hurry up . . . hurry up, began to ring in my ears like an obsession.

The morning came for us to go to Mexico City. The train left at seven, but unless you reserved parlor-car seats, you had to be in line at the station before dawn to be sure of getting on the train, for the coaches were crowded to capacity. My father did not wish to spend the extra money for parlor-car seats, so he woke me up at four-thirty. It was still dark.

“Hurry up and get dressed,” he said through the dark.

At that hour of the morning it is bitter cold in Toluca’s high mountain valley. From the well Maximiliano brought us water for washing that was like ice. The cook began to prepare breakfast. We sat down to eat. At the table my father gulped his food quickly, looked across at me, and barked for no reason at all: “Hurry up!”

Suddenly my stomach began to turn over and over. And I could not swallow another mouthful. Waves of heat engulfed me. My eyes burned. My body shook. I wanted more than anything on earth to hit my father, but instead I got up from the table and went back to bed. The bed went round and round and the room turned dark. Anger clotted in every vein, and my tongue tasted like dry blood.

My father stuck his head in the bedroom door and asked me what was the matter.

I said: “Nothing.”

He said: “Don’t you want to go to Mexico City?”

I said: “No, I don’t want to go.”

I don’t know what else he said, but after a while I heard him telling Maximiliano in Spanish to hurry up with his bags. Then the outside door closed, and he was gone to the train.

The housekeeper came in and asked me what I wanted.

I said: “Nothing.”

Maximiliano came back from the station and sat down silently on the tile floor just inside my door, his blanket about him. At noon the cook brought me a big bowl of warm soup, but I couldn’t drink it. My stomach kept turning round and round inside me. And when I thought of my father, I got sicker and sicker. I hated my father.

They sent for the doctor. He came and gave me a prescription. The housekeeper took it herself and had it filled, not trusting the mozo. But when my father came back after four days in the city, I still hadn’t eaten anything. I had a high fever. He sent for the doctor again, and the doctor said I’d better go to the hospital.

This time my father engaged seats in the parlor-car and took me to the American Hospital in Mexico City. There, after numberless examinations, they decided I had better remain several weeks, since they thought I had a stomach infection.

The three middle-aged Mexican sisters came to see me and brought a gift of guava jelly. They asked what on earth could have happened to make me so ill. I must have had a great shock, they said, because my eyes were a deep yellow. But I never told them or the doctors that I was sick because I hated my father.

For two or three weeks I got pushed around in a wheel chair in the charming gardens of the American Hospital. When I learned that it was costing my father twenty dollars a day to keep me there, I made no effort to get better. It pleased me immensely to have him spending twenty dollars a day. In September, I went back to Cleveland without having seen Xochimilco, or a bullfight.


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.