‘Are you a priest?’ The question came from a taxi-driver in Mexico City’s Calle Francisco Madero. And it was, I suppose, a reasonable question. In Mexico, priests are never allowed in the street in robes, except at Easter time. I did once see a monk in habit walking at dusk between the churches of Santo Domingo and Caridad in San Cristobal de las Casas, but I was assured that he must have been a ghost. In addition, I now look, at a distance, vigilant and sombre: and that day there had been a great manifestacion of loyal Catholics a short distance away in the cathedral square, the Zocalo. The issue had assumed astonishing proportions. About three weeks before, the Museum of Modern Art had allowed a modern painter to exhibit in the main hall a representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe with the face of Marilyn Monroe in place of that of Our Lady. This blasphemy had outraged the leaders of Catholic opinion. The unwritten understanding in Mexico is that while the Church is not constitutionally recognised, the state does nothing to interfere with el culto. In a few weeks the director of the Museum of Modern Art resigned and began writing articles in the press about the unworthy prolongation of Mexico’s centuries of censorship. The assembly in the Zocalo followed. The previous day our host at a beautiful hacienda near the pyramids of Teotihuacan had said that he was returning to the capital on Saturday night, not Sunday, breaking the habit of a lifetime, in order to be present at the Zocalo at 8.30 a.m. He was taking the event exceptionally seriously.

The gathering was impressive. The manifestantes were asked to parade along the western side of this enormous square in a broad file of about ten people. They took three hours or so to pass. Most of the people, unlike my friend from the hacienda, were not aristocrats, but poor people, a vast number of them Indians, and many that I saw were close to a trance of devotion. The banners and cries recalled the late 1920s and the Cristeros’ war – the passionate peasants’ revolt against state hostility to the Church. ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do: Viva Christ the King,’ ‘Santa Maria de Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico, save our country,’ ‘Our Catholic Mexico loves Mary and the country just as its ancestors did.’ I also heard a, to me, very pleasing cry. There rang out across the square, where so much of Mexican history has transpired, within earshot of the remains of the Aztec temple, the irresistible words Maria, Maria, a los museos darle duro (‘Mary, Mary, give it to the museums on the chin’) – irresistible to those who like me, twenty years and more ago, had heard Cuban schoolgirls shouting to the same measure: Fidel, Fidel, a los Yanquis darle duro. A month later, there was another, smaller parade, organised by some of the country’s leading artists in Santo Domingo square, demonstrating in favour of free expression. In front of an old building which was once the Mexico headquarters of the Inquisition, and is now part of the Ministry of Education, a university professor told the press that he and his friends believed, fervently, in Marilyn.

My first thought was that the demonstration in the Zocalo had been disproportionate to the offence. But I can quite understand it. The Mexicans, Octavio Paz once wrote, believe in two things: Our Lady of Guadalupe and the National Lottery. Mexico is a profoundly Christian country, 95 per cent of the population telling the Census-makers that they are Catholics. Yet the Church has no official power or status. The great churches and conventos of the three hundred-year viceroyalty are the glory of the country, even those whose buildings are now used as libraries, museums, hotels, government offices and schools. Yet the President, whatever his private beliefs, never goes officially to church. Priests do not vote. Probably the Catholics who organised the meeting in the Zocalo felt that things had gone a little too far this time, and that, while they abhorred Voltaire, they believed in the truth implicit in his saying: ‘This animal is very dangerous – when one attacks him, he defends himself.’ The present compromise between church and state, after all, was only finally reached after much blood and trouble, with many churches still being closed in the late 1930s, and priests forced to ‘bootleg religion’, as the saying went, till the Second World War, and till President Avila Camacho confessed: ‘I am a believer.’

My taxi-driver and I made our way, tranquilly, along the Alameda, a beautiful park founded in the 1560s, once the site of autos-da-fe and the theme of one of Diego Rivera’s more celebrated paintings, The Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda. The picture used to be in the Hotel de Prado, one of the many buildings in this part of the city which stand gutted and waiting to be pulled down, after the terrible earthquake of 1986. The Alameda, with its ironwork benches, its fountains and bandstands, has a distinctly Parisian feel. Modern Londoners might be unhappy there, not because of the Parisian element, but because, like all Mexican public places, it is kept wonderfully clean and free of litter. Anyone used to walking in Holland Park would be nonplussed to find a nation of the so-called Third World so careful in its avoidance of ugly rubbish.

We turned into the Reforma, the great artery of the central part of the capital, adorned with very handsome statues of 19th-century statesmen. It was a Sunday, the visibility was excellent, the traffic modest; the capital seemed again for a time to be the ‘beautiful and cloudless’ city that it used to be. Earlier that morning, I had walked down the avenue in the opposite direction from my hotel near Chapultepec park, where I had faced the four thousand runners in that day’s Mexico City Marathon. The policemen had blocked off the side-streets and runners of every age, old women and children, had pelted by, some in families, some seriously alone, some in pairs. Now it seemed there was something else going on in front of the statue to Cuahtemoc, last Aztec emperor, which stands in the middle of the street in an elegant round-about. As we drew closer, we found there was dancing on the plinth of the statue. The driver asked me if I’d like, priest or no priest, to stop and look. We parked the car in the corner of the Calle Mississippi. The dancers were in full Aztec dress, feathered headdresses, anklets of shells which rang like castanets as they leapt in the air, and golden breast-plates. There were perhaps twenty of them. They danced round some smoking cinders, which symbolised the torture put to Cuahtemoc’s feet by Cortes in order to discover the hidden store of Aztec gold. Most of the dancers seemed to be swarthy, but one of them, a girl, was plainly a blonde: a descendant, no doubt, of one of those gods of the golden West, a Scot perhaps, who some believe reached Mexico long before Cortes and taught the art of baking. After a few minutes we made our way to Chapultepec park and the Anthropological Museum.

Cuahtemoc, the loser, is a hero in Mexico, Cortes, the victor, a non-person. The two, all the same, to quote Octavio Paz again, ‘continue to fight secretly inside each one of us’ – by which he means Mexicans. Cuahtemoc, is commemorated. Cortes is ignored. His only memorial in Mexico City is a small plaque in the Church of San Jesus Nazareno. It is, moreover, part of the modern myth of Mexico that the entire population is descended from Indian forbears. Not everyone would agree that this has a sound biological basis. To anyone concerned with history, however, it is interesting to be in a country where the past, including the remote past, is much more controversial than the future or even the present.

Mornings in Mexico – the book by Lawrence of this title was written in the lovely southern city of Oaxaca, where I spent over a week in March. Although I was never, alas, a pupil of Leavis, I went four times to try and identify and enter the house where Lawrence lived: I cannot explain this solicitude. I placed the house on the corner of Pino Suarez Street, where it joins Constitution Street, one block south of the square known as the Llano. Pino Suarez is another of Mexico’s defeated heroes. He was the Liberal Vice-President murdered with Madero in 1913 after a heady year of hopes and illusions before the real civil war began. The house has two doors on the street, one facing south. It is a green-painted single-storey building, but, on the top, a new attic seems to have been built. There is an umbrella there against the sun, and a hanging green plant with a red flower that I cannot identify. It is now a shop. I asked after an English writer who probably once lived there. ‘Tall? Strong?’ the shopkeeper asked. I hesitated. ‘Probably yes, that’s him,’ I said hopefully. ‘In Pino Suarez Street?’ ‘Yes, many years ago.’ ‘How many?’ ‘Oh thirty, or fifty.’ ‘Ah I can’t say. I’ve only been here twenty years,’ the shopkeeper said sadly. I retreated. Outside, the ship advertised that it sold something called Bimbo. In Mexico this is not a girl devised to ruin presidential candidates but a mass-produced bread.

Mexican presidential candidates are not as a rule sunk easily – one more proof of the inaccuracy of Porfirio Diaz’s famous saying: ‘Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.’ Except in respect of the cars, jeans and musak, I can’t think of any country further in spirit from the US than Mexico. Nor, despite a debate about the real number of church attenders, of any country so close to God.

Outside the shop, too, was a poster proclaiming the virtues of the official candidates in the election in July. But that is another story. I am sure it would be against the spirit of the Mexican Constitution to write of the election and the Church in the same diary. All I will say is that this year’s presidential election, unsatisfactory though it seems to the opposition, looks like being the most open, the most difficult and hence the most important since at least 1940, probably since 1929.

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