In Toluca, the evening promenade was an established institution for the young people of the town and, on band concert nights, for the older people, too. Toluca’s business district consisted largely of three sides of a square, with a cloistered walk running around the three sides. An enormous and very old church formed the fourth side of the square. The covered walkway had tall arched portals open to the cobblestoned street, hence its name, Los Portales.
The leading shops were along the Portales. The post office was there as well. And the biggest hotel. And a very appetizing chocolate and sweet shop, displaying enormous layer cakes, dripping with syrupy icings and candied fruits. Once a week, the town band gave a concert in the Portales. But every evening, concert or no concert, the young people of the town, between six and seven o’clock, took their evening stroll there.
I had become acquainted with Tomas, son of a dry goods merchant who had business dealings with my father, and Tomas took me to walk with the other young men of the town in the Portales, at the hour when all the girls were out walking, too. But not walking with young men. Oh, no! Not at all. That was unheard of in Toluca. The girls of the better Mexican families merely strolled slowly up and down with their mothers or married sisters, or old aunts, or the family servant, but never unchaperoned or alone.
The boys promenaded in groups of three or four, usually, slowing down when you passed a particular girl you wanted to make an impression on. The girls would always pretend not to notice any of the boys, turning their heads away and giggling and looking in the shop windows. It was not considered polite for a nice girl really to notice boys, although it was all right for the boys to turn and stare at the girls as they went by. So the boys would pause and look and then walk on, turning at the end of the walk to retrace their steps until they had covered the three-sided promenade of the Portales perhaps fifteen or twenty times an evening. Then suddenly, it would be supper time, and the sidewalks would be deserted. The shops would begin to pull down their zinc shutters, and everybody would go home through the cool mountain darkness to a hot merienda of steaming chocolate, tamales, goat’s cheese, and buns. And maybe some of the sticky and very sweet cake you had seen in the shop window on the Portales.
In Toluca, if a boy fell in love with a girl, he could not visit the young lady in her home until he had become engaged to her. He could only go to call on her outside the iron grilles of her front window, for all the houses in Toluca had iron grilles at the windows to keep lovers and bandits out. Within the living room, back in the shadows somewhere, the chaperon sat, and the lovers would have to speak very low indeed for that attentive female not to hear every word. The boy could hold the girl’s hand, and maybe kiss her finger tips, but not very often would he be tall enough to steal a kiss from her lips, for most of the windows had a fairly high sill. And even if the girl sat on the floor, it is not easy to achieve a real kiss through grilled bars and with a vigilant chaperon in the offing.
Good girls in Toluca, as is the custom in very Catholic and very Latin countries, were kept sheltered indeed, both before and after marriage. They did not go into the street alone. They did not come near a man unchaperoned. Girls who worked, servants, typists, and waitresses, and others who ran the streets free, were considered fair game for any man who could make them. But good girls—between them and the world stood the tall iron bars of la reja, those formidable grilled windows of the Latin countries. Sometimes groups of boys in love got together with guitars and went from house to house serenading their sweethearts. And lots of boys wrote poems to their girls and handed the poems, in carefully folded little notes, through the grilles for the beloved to read at night in her bed.
But when the mother, or the old aunt, or the family servant decided it was time to close the shutters of la reja, the suitor would move on up the street in the dusk, for the shutters were usually closed early. Perhaps he would go home, or perhaps he would play a game of carambola in the town’s one billiard hall. Or perhaps, if he could afford it, he would go to Natcha’s house. There were in Toluca, two houses of love—one for gentlemen and army officers, the other for laborers and common soldiers. Natcha’s house was for gentlemen and officers.