I: Twenty-One

Mexico Again

That summer in Mexico, I wrote a great many poems, because I was very unhappy, in spite of the fact that it was a much more varied summer than the previous one. Even my father seemed kinder and less difficult. He had a new housekeeper now, a German woman named Frau Schultz, whom he later married. She helped to make the house much pleasanter.

Frau Schultz had just come from Germany, where she said people were starving. She was a widow with several children, the youngest of whom, Lotte, a child of ten, she had brought with her. She came with a big boatload of other Germans voyaging to the new world, to Cuba, Mexico, and South America, to start all over again. Her husband had been killed in the war, and when you mentioned war to her, she would say: “Mensch!” and spit.

She was a portly, kindly woman, with dull blue eyes and chestnut hair. Her little girl was very lively and very German-looking. What German I know I learned from Frau Schultz and Lotte, for they could speak neither English nor Spanish then, and I had to learn German to say anything at all to them. It was because my father had studied German for years, and was a great admirer of the German people, that he had employed her as his housekeeper. And Frau Schultz was happy to have work, because she had arrived in Mexico with only a few pesos, and had had to depend on the kindness of fellow-countrymen to whom she had letters.

Since Frau Schultz did not know a word of Spanish in which to give orders, she was unable to keep our Mexican cook, so she did all the cooking herself. And good it was, too, for a while—until my father felt that the butcher’s bills were too high. Then for weeks at a time, we would revert to Mexican beans, except on days when he was at the ranch. Then Frau Schultz and I would often kill one of his prize American hens and she would stew the hen with dumplings and we would have a grand meal. Or else I would take the responsibility for running the grocery bills up, and would go to the store with Maximiliano and a gunny sack, and come back with all sorts of cheeses and sausages and good imported German things that Frau Schultz liked, and several cans of sardines, salmon, fruit, and American corn.

Once I came back with a delicious kind of white meat in a can with a Spanish label that neither of us could read. The meat was so good that I went back to the store and bought three or four cans more, and Frau Schultz made sandwiches of it at coffee time in the afternoons. Finally, one day it occurred to me to look up the delicacy’s name in my Spanish-English dictionary. It turned out to be eel. I didn’t mind, since I have no prejudice against eels. But when, in the English-German dictionary, Frau Schultz saw the frightful word in her own tongue, she almost died, declaring she’d as soon have eaten a snake! But by then we had both consumed several pounds of eel.

My father was away at the ranch a great deal of the summer. But when he was at home in town, he spoke German all the time at the table. And Spanish all the time elsewhere. So I began to learn Spanish fairly well, at least well enough to get about and meet people, and to read the novels of Blasco Ibáñez, whose Cuentos Valencianos I liked very much. And the terrific realism of Caños y Barro still sticks in my head.

I didn’t do much that summer but read books, ride my horse, Tito, eat Frau Schultz’s apple cake, feel lonesome, and write poems when I felt most lonesome. I began to wish for some Negro friends to pal around with. With my bad Spanish, I was still shy about making friends with the Mexicans. And I was worried about the days to come. My father hadn’t yet got around to having a talk with me about college, and it was now already late July.

That summer my father was doubly busy, because the electric light company was in process of liquidation. Its main plant in the mountains had been destroyed by the revolutionists, who hated gringoes for the airs they put on, and the low wages they paid. The revolutionists had also taken off all the cattle and sheep on my father’s ranch, and left it bare. The road to the ranch was infested with bandits, and since they had twice robbed my father, stopping him on the road and taking everything, from his boots to his horse, and leaving him standing in a pine forest in nothing but his underwear—since then my father never went to the ranch alone, but always with a party of other ranchers, or else German mining investors who were then making frequent trips to the silver mines in that region.

My father’s ranch was most valuable for timber, he said. Now the mines were flooded, but should they ever open again, he would make thousands of dollars from his timber lands, since the mines would all have to be reshafted, and new barracks and houses built for the men.

When my father felt that I could ride rapidly enough and shoot straight enough to take care of myself in case of danger, he let me go with him to the ranch one week-end, in company with a party of German mine owners and Mexican rancheros. We started out at dawn. It was a good day’s ride over rocky roads and mountain trails, through majestic scenery. The way was temporarily safe, since the Federal troops had recently been over the road and, appropriately enough, on a high pass called Las Cruces (the Crosses) they had hanged three bandits, and left them hanging there as examples to others. They were still there the day we passed, three poor Indian bandits with bare feet, strung from scrubby pine trees near the road, their thin dirty-white trousers flapping in the cold mountain wind. One had long black hair that lashed across his face. Their bodies swayed slowly in the high wind at the top of the pass, like puppets stiff against the sky.

That afternoon we passed through a large ruined village, destroyed, my father said, several years before by the Zapatistas. Now wild grass grew between the cobblestones of the main street, and nobody lived in the tumbled-down houses. The church stood roofless, with its tall bell-tower of carved stone lording it above the desolation of what had once been a town.

“The Zapatistas were bandits,” my father said. “They loved to destroy property.”

“I read somewhere that Zapata was a poor shoemaker, who wanted to get the land back for the peons,” I answered.

“Lies!” my father cried. “Zapata, Villa, all of ’em dirty bandits!”

We got to the ranch at sundown. We had been delayed on the road because Tito, the horse I was riding, became enamoured of a mare belonging to the Germans. In a sudden burst of affection, Tito made a flying leap for the mare. The mare bolted, broke her bridle and threw her German rider to the ground, then dashed off down the road. It was all I could do to hold Tito, who acted like a bronco in a rodeo, as all the horses began to wheel and whinny and neigh.

Several of the men galloped off in pursuit of the mare. The rest of us went to the aid of the deposed German, who had landed in a rocky gulley, six feet below the road. He was somewhat shaken up, but when he got himself together, he seemed none the worse for his fall, except a few stone bruises, and a tear in his trousers.

We were in a wild and lonesome-looking country as the shadows grew long in the late afternoon, and the mountains hid the sun. The party began to break up, some going to the abandoned mines, others to a ranch farther on. Those who were returning to Toluca shortly agreed to meet at dawn two days later to make the trip together.

My father’s ranch seemed to take in a whole mountain side and on over the rim beyond that. Little fires were glowing on his mountain, as we rode upward in the dusk toward a cluster of peasant huts, half-hidden in the foliage at the far edge of a broad, slanting field. It was cold and the peons had lighted bonfires outside their doors, and were sitting about the fires, wrapped in blankets. A withered old woman fixed us a meal of tortillas and red beans that were very good. Then we slept on the floor inside one of the mud huts.

The next day I went with my father to a flooded mine shaft nearby. The German, who had fallen off the horse the day before, was there. He and my father did a great deal of talking and figuring, while Tito and the mare champed and neighed and rolled their eyes at each other from the respective trees where they were tied, yards apart.

On the way back to the ranch, my father suddenly announced that he had made up his mind to have me study mining engineering.

“In another five or six years,” he said, “these mines will be open and there will be plenty of work for you here, near the ranch.”

“But I can’t be a mining engineer, I’m no good at mathematics,” I said, as we walked the horses.

“You can learn anything you put your mind to,” my father said. “And engineering is something that will make you some money. What do you want to do, live like a nigger all your life? Look at your mother, waiting table in a restaurant! Don’t you want to get anywhere?”

“Sure,” I said. “But I don’t want to be a mining engineer.”

“What do you want to be?”

“I don’t know. But I think a writer.”

“A writer?” my father said. “A writer? Do they make any money?”

“Some of them do, I guess.”

“I never heard of a colored one that did,” said my father.

“Alexandre Dumas,” I answered.

“Yes, but he was in Paris, where they don’t care about color. That’s what I want you to do, Langston. Learn something you can make a living from anywhere in the world, in Europe or South America, and don’t stay in the States, where you have to live like a nigger with niggers.”

“But I like Negroes,” I said. “We have plenty of fun.”

“Fun!” my father shouted. “How can you have fun with the color line staring you in the face? I never could.”

We were riding in a bowl of pine trees, with the distant rim of the mountains all around and the sky very blue. For once, my father did not seem to be in a hurry. He let his horse mosey along, biting at the wayside grass. As we rode, my father outlined a plan he had made up in his mind for me, a plan that I had never dreamed of before. He wanted me to go to Switzerland to college, perhaps to Basle, or one of the cantons where one could learn three languages at once, French, German, and Italian, directly from the people. Then he wanted me to go to a German engineering school. Then come back to live in Mexico.

The thought of trigonometry, physics, and chemistry in a foreign language was more than I could bear. In English, they were difficult enough. But as a compromise to Switzerland and Germany, I suggested Columbia in New York—mainly because I wanted to see Harlem.

My father wouldn’t hear of it. But the more I thought of it, the better I liked the idea myself. I had an overwhelming desire to see Harlem. More than Paris, or the Shakespeare country, or Berlin, or the Alps, I wanted to see Harlem, the greatest Negro city in the world. Shuffle Along had just burst into being, and I wanted to hear Florence Mills sing. So I told my father I’d rather go to Columbia than to Switzerland.

My father shut up. I shut up. Our horses went on down the mountain into the blue shadows. We didn’t talk much for days. At home he gave me several involved problems in bookkeeping to do and told me to stop spending so much time with the Mexicans, promenading in the Portales in the evening. But his advice went in one ear and out the other. I liked the Portales, but I didn’t like bookkeeping.


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