THESE legends of the City of Mexico are of my finding, not of my making. They are genuine folk-stories. Each one of them is a true folk-growth from some obscure curious or tragical ancient matter that, taking hold upon the popular imagination, has had built up from it among the people a story satisfying to the popular heart.
Many of them simply are historical traditions gone wrong: being rooted in substantial facts which have been disguised by the fanciful additions, or distorted by the sheer perversions, of successive generations of narrators through the passing centuries. Others of them have for their kernel some unaccounted-for strange happening that, appealing to the popular mind for an explanation, has been explained variously by various imaginative people of varying degrees of perception and of intelligence: whose diverse elucidations of the same mystery eventually have been patched together into a single story--that betrays its composite origin by the inconsistencies and the discrepancies in which it abounds. A few of them--starting out boldly by exalting some commonplace occurrence into a marvel--practically are cut from the whole cloth. All of them--and most obviously the most incredible of them--have the quality that gives to folk-stories in general their serious value: they reflect accurately the tone of thought, and exhibit more or less clearly the customs and the conditions, of the time to which they belong. Among the older people of the City of Mexico, alike the lettered and the unlettered, they still are cherished with a warm affection and are told with a lively relish--to which is added, among the common people, a lively faith. The too-sophisticated younger generation, unhappily, is neglectful and even scornful of them. Soon, as oral tradition, they will be lost.
Most fortunately, the permanent preservation in print of these legends--and of many more of the same sort--long since was assured. Because of the serious meaning that is in them, as side-lights on history and on sociology, they have been collected seriously by learned antiquarians--notably by Don Luis González Obregón and by Don Manuel Rivera Cambas--who have searched and sifted them; and who have set forth, so far as it could be discovered, their underlying germs of truth. By the poets--to whom, naturally, they have made a strong appeal--they have been preserved in a way more in keeping with their fanciful essence: as may be seen--again to cite two authors of recognized eminence--in the delightful metrical renderings of many of them by Don Vicente Riva Palacio, and in the round threescore of them that Don Juan de Dios Peza has recast into charming verse. By other writers of distinction, not antiquarians nor poets, various collections of them have been made--of which the best is the sympathetic work of Don Angel R. de Arellano--in a purely popular form. By the playwrights have been made from the more romantic of them--as the legend of Don Juan Manuel--perennially popular plays. By minor writers, in prose and in verse, their tellings and retellings are without end.
While the oral transmission of the legends among the common people--by heightening always the note of the marvellous--has tended to improve them, the bandying about in print to which they have been subjected has worked a change in them that distinctly is for the worse. In their written form they have acquired an artificiality that directly is at odds with their natural simplicity; while the sleeking of their essential roughnesses, and the abatement of their equally essential inconsistencies and contradictions, has weakened precisely the qualities which give to them their especial character and their peculiar charm.
The best versions of them, therefore, are those which are current among the common people: who were the makers of them in the beginning; who--passing them from heart to lip and from lip to heart again through the centuries--have retained in them the subtle pith that clearly distinguishes a built-up folk-story from a story made by one mind at a single melting; whose artless telling of them--abrupt, inconsequent, full of repetitions and of contradictions--preserves the full flavor of their patchwork origin; and, most important of all, whose simple-souled faith in their verity is of the selfsame spirit in which they were made. These are the versions which I have tried here to reproduce in feeling and in phrase.
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My first winter in Mexico, twenty-five years ago, was spent in Monterey; and there, in a small way, my collection of Mexican folk-lore was begun. My gathering at that time consisted mainly of superstitious beliefs--omens, house-charms, the evil eye, the unlucky day--but it included a version of the story of La Llorona essentially identical with the version, here given, that I later found current in the City of Mexico. The sources from which I drew in Monterey were three or four old, and old-fashioned, women with whom my wife established such friendly relations as to win them into freely confidential talk with her; the most abundant yield coming from a kindly old Doña Miguelita (she was given always the affectionate diminutive), who was attached loosely as a sort of brevet grandmother to the family with whom we were lodged. Had I been alone I should not have been able to extract any information from these old people. It would have been impossible to convince them that such matters could be regarded with anything but contempt by a man.
In like manner, later, from a most valuable source in the City of Mexico, my information was to be had only at second-hand. This source was our dear Joséfa Correa, who during four successive winters at once was our washer-woman and our friend. Joséfa's semi-weekly visits gave us always a warm pleasure; and her talk--of which she was no miser--gave us always much of interest to ponder upon: she being a very wise old woman, with views of life that were broad and sound. As she was precisely of the class in which the folk-stories of the city originated, she was the best of authorities for the current popular versions of them: but always was it through my wife that her tellings of them came to me. Various other old women, encountered casually, similarly were put under contribution by my wife for my purposes. One of the most useful was a draggled old seller of rebozos; another, of equal value, was a friendly old body whom we fell in with at a railway station while waiting through two hours for a vagrant train. To me all of these women would have been sealed books; I could have got nothing from them without my wife's help.
For that help, and for the help that she has given me in searching and in collating my authorities for the Legends and for the Notes relating to them, I am very grateful to her.
To my friend and fellow-lover of things ancient and marvellous, Gilberto Cano, I am under signal obligations. In addition to his nice appreciation and his wide knowledge of such matters, this excellent man--twenty-four years ago, and later--was the best waiter at the Hôtel del Café Anglais. (It is gone, now, that admirable little hotel over which the brave Monsieur Gatillon so admirably presided--and the City of Mexico distinctly is the worse for its loss.) Our acquaintance, that had its beginning in my encounters with him in his professional capacity, soon ripened into a real friendship--still enduring--along the line of similarity of tastes. His intelligent answers to my questions about one or another of the many old buildings which attracted our attention in the course of our walks about the city--then all new to us--early impressed upon me a serious respect for his antiquarian attainments; and this respect was increased when, after making a hesitant offer of them that I accepted eagerly, he lent to us several excellent books treating of the ancient matters in which we were interested: explaining, modestly, that these books were his own; and that he had bought them in order that he might acquire an accurate knowledge of the city in which he had been born and in which for all his life he had lived. As my own knowledge grew, I found that in every instance he had answered my questions correctly; and the books which he had lent to me were certified to, later, by my erudite friend Don José María Vigil, Director of the Biblioteca Nacional, as standard authorities--and I bought copies of all of them to add to the collection of Mexicana that I then was beginning to form.
Gilberto was so obliging as to spend several afternoons in our quarters--coming to us in the dull time between luncheon and dinner when his professional duties were in abeyance--that I might write at his dictation some of the many folk-traditions with which his mind was stored. Like our dear Joséfa, he was an absolute authority on the current popular versions, and he seemed to share her faith in them; but he told them--because of his substantial knowledge of Mexican history--more precisely than she told them, and with an appreciative understanding of their antiquarian interest that was quite beyond her grasp.
He was a small man, our Gilberto, with a low and gentle voice, and a manner that was gentle also--both in the literal and in the finer sense of the word. In the thrilling portions of his stories he would lean forward, his voice would deepen and gather earnestness, his bright brown eyes would grow brighter, and his gestures--never violent, and always appropriate--would enlarge the meaning of his words. With the instinct of a well-bred man he invariably addressed himself to my wife; and through his discourse ran a constant refrain of "and so it was, Señorita"--pues si, Señorita--that made a point of departure for each fresh turn in the narrative, and at the same time gave to what he was telling an air of affirmative finality. Usually he ended with a few words of comment--enlightening as exhibiting the popular viewpoint--either upon the matter of his story or by way of emphasizing its verity.
His tellings ranged widely: from such important legends as those of Don Juan Manuel and La Llorona--his versions of which are given in my text--to such minor matters as the encounter of his own brother with a freakish ghost who carried the bed on which the brother was sleeping from one part of the house to another. All the knowledge being on his side, I could give him little guidance--and whatever happened to come into his head, in the way of the marvellous, at once came out of it again for my benefit. Some of his stories, while exhaustively complete, and undeniably logical, were almost startling in their elemental brevity--as the following: "Once some masons were pulling down an old house, and in the wall they found many boxes of money. After that, those masons were rich"! In justice I should add that this succinct narrative merely was thrown in, as a make-weight, at the end of a long and dramatic hidden-treasure story--in which a kindly old ghost-lady, the hider of the treasure, had a leading part.
Because of the intelligent interest that Gilberto took in my folk-lore collecting, it was a source of keen regret to him that our meeting had not come a little earlier, only two years earlier, during the lifetime of his great-aunt: who had known--as he put it comprehensively--all the stories about the city that ever were told. I too grieved, and I shall grieve always, because that ancient person was cut off from earth before I could have the happiness of garnering the traditionary wisdom with which she was so full charged. But my grief is softened--and even is tinctured with a warm thankfulness--by the fact that a great deal of it was saved to me by my fortunate encounter with her grand-nephew: who so faithfully had treasured in his heart her ancient sayings; and who so freely--to the winning of my lasting gratitude--gave them to me for the enrichment of my own store.
September 26, 1909.