Serving Two Mistresses: Maria Escandon's Life with Rosario Castellanos and Trudi Blom.
By 1963 Maria Abarca Escandon was already working in Na Bolom's kitchen, a large, high-ceilinged chamber whose skylight gave the room the feeling of being deep under water. Once I got the run of the house I was allowed to knock on the kitchen's great wooden door to speak with members of the staff, a privilege not permitted Na Bolom's paying customers. So I must have said good day to "Mari," as she was known in her blue gingham apron, any number of times. But I paid her no special attention, at the time having only a beginning interest in the Mexican writer Rosario Castellanos and no idea that Mari had been her servant and caretaker for more than half of Castellanos's life.
So it was salvage ethnography of a kind that brought me to wait in Na Bolom's main courtyard on a chilly February morning in 2009 while someone in the front office rang for Beti Mijangos, a friend from the old days who worked with Mari for over thirty years. When the bell system didn't bring Beti, the office sent a runner down to her house at the back of the garden to get her.
At Na Bolom nearly everything has changed. Frans Blom is forty-seven years dead, Trudi Blom seventeen, Dona Mari nearly as long as Trudi. These days the guests breakfast off a menu in the patio ("Huevos Frans Blom") instead of at Trudi's baronial-length table in the dining room. For a while, disco music was piped into the courtyard in the afternoon, but that has been stopped. Along the yellow corridor walls are poster-size photographs--Frans in 1922 soon after his arrival in Mexico, Trudi also young in profile in a swooping great black hat and ruffly white jabot--I suppose to give those who do not feel the shades of the Bloms all around some sensation of what it must have been like in the days when these larger-than-life characters still stalked the premises.
Beti arrives finally, in her seventies still slight as she was nearly fifty years ago, appraising, smiling, beautiful. We take a table against the wall and she offers me breakfast, but we settle on coffee, brought by a deferential waiter in black bowtie and vest.
Dona Mari, says Beti, was eight when her mother "gave" her to Rosario Castellanos' mother ("gave" is Rosario's word). Mari became the cargadora or "bearer" for Rosario, the older of the two children of Cesar and Adriana Castellanos, leading citizens of Comitan, a town down the road toward the Guatemalan border. In an essay written in the 1970s in Tel Aviv, where Rosario had gone as Mexico's ambassador to Israel, she says she does not know whether the tradition of the cargadora survives where she grew up in Chiapas. In the households of the wealthy, a cargadora was a near-same-age companion to the master's daughter (Rosario was seven when Mari came along), a "playmate" the writer says, but also sometimes a sort of toy, a "mere object" on which the little mistress could vent her frustrations.
I remember seeing cargadoras in the 1960s, raggedy, unkempt, scrawny little girls who, in addition to carrying their charges' packages and effects, occasionally lugged better dressed girls almost as big as they were across muddy streets or strained to lift them one at a rime up stairs, even when the privileged child appeared to have perfectly serviceable legs of her own. The actual carrying is one detail of the cargadora's job Rosario does not mention.
The critic and historian Cynthia Steele befriended Mari in the early 1990s and produced a loving, bright personal portrait of her published in Spanish in 1995 in the magazine Inti. When Cynthia read Mari what Rosario had written about her, Mari rejected entirely the idea that she ever was a cargadora. They were too close in age, Mari said (Mari was two years older than Rosario says Cynthia, only one Beti Mijangos thinks), and besides, too much the same size for Mari to carry Rosario anywhere.
In her essay, Rosario did not bring up the question of any beatings.
Mari told Beti when she first came to the Castellanos family home--this would have been 1932--she slept on the floor in a little room off the kitchen. In addition to her duties to her little mistress, she swept up and chopped things for the cooks and they beat her with the handles of their brooms. Mari's mother was a laundry woman from Guatemala who lived in the Comitan barrio where they made the flower-pot-shaped cakes of half-refined brown sugar called panela. She came by every month and left Mari one centavo. Then afterwards Mari slept in a tiny alcove, just a hole or hueco under a stairwell, on a little cot with wooden slats and only a straw mat to wrap herself in. And Rosario, her little charge, also sometimes beat her.
Was it true? By now it is hard to say, as none of the possible witnesses survive. And even by the time my friend Beti came to know Mari, she had active reasons for bitterness since between her and Rosario there had been a rift. In exchange for years of devotion to the Castellanos family, first in Comitan and then in Mexico City, by the early 1960s Mari had been paid off by Rosario and sent back to Chiapas. And though Mari could read only a little, she must have known the growing reputation of her former employer rested largely on Rosario's advocacy of equality in general and increasingly of equality for Mexican women.
Rosario's account of their relationship (the piece is called "Herlinda Leaves") is notable for its coolness. Cynthia Steele asked Mari if Rosario was affectionate and Mari said as a mistress no. Although she was a good person.... In Rosario's recollection of their early years together, when she finally realized Mari was a person and not an object (she does not say how old she was when the "blinding" revelation came to her, but both girls were in their teens), Rosario immediately vowed to beg Mari's pardon and never again to take advantage of her class to humiliate another person. Yet seeking forgiveness from Mari did not improve things. "Between a startled Maria and a defenseless Rosario," the writer says, "there was no possible contact." Each retreated into the place society had prepared for her, Mari back to the Castellanos' kitchen and Rosario to her studies. "Although near one another, we led parallel lives...."
According to what Mari told Cynthia Steele, the scene of Rosario begging pardon never occurred. A fiction writer's invention. "She never cared about me," Mari added, "and I loved her a great deal, and her parents as well. Never thought of me. And I was with her 20 years."
(It was actually twenty-five.)
Until at the age of forty-nine, when serving as ambassadress from Mexico Rosario Castellanos stepped out of the shower and turned on a defective lamp in her Tel Aviv home and was electrocuted, her life had been marked by a series of narrow escapes. As a writer, she made it her mission to disarm the boobytraps in her path and to diagram their inner mechanics meticulously for her readers' sake. Her characters, too, were alert to the dangers: In "Three Knots in the Net," a mother tries to interest her adolescent daughter in housework by making a game of it. The daughter, "noticing that a trap had been set for her, answered, 'That's servants' work.'" Or again: In a shut-down Comitan church the seven-year-old narrator of the novel Balun Canan is terrified by a gory representation of the Crucifixion and tries to flee, but finds the church doors locked against her. "I am caught in the trap," she thinks. "I will never be able to get out of here. I have fallen down the black well of the Inferno."
The first great real-life snare that Castellanos had to elude was the existence destiny had prepared for her by dint of being born female into Chiapas's landed aristocracy--an indifferent education, a loveless marriage and passionless sex, a baby every year, deferral in all matters to an uncaring or brutish husband, so that eventually the woman would have no idea left of what her own desires or needs might be. For her own escape into the freedom to invent herself while she was still a girl, Castellanos credits Lazaro Cardenas, President of Mexico from 1934 to 1940, as it was Cardenas who ordered the redistribution of the latifundias, which in turn cast adrift much of the class Rosario came from.
The Castellanos and other displaced chiapaneco families regrouped in Mexico City, "just the right place to pretend they weren't people who all of a sudden had lost everything," as Rosario's fellow Comitan poet Oscar Bonifaz put it. The Castellanos brought Mari Escandon along to the capital, although no servant character appears to make the meals or lighten the lonely, alienated days of the mother, father, and teenaged daughter in Rosario's story "Three Knots." Rosario went to high school and then to the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (the UNAM), where she studied philosophy rather than literature because, as she told her gringa friends Janet Marren and Marcey Jacobson, she knew she was bound to get literature on her own.
Her parents died within a month of one another just as Rosario was about to turn twenty-three. During her mother's final illness, Mari proved a more devoted and sacrificing nurse than Rosario, who had felt uncared for and rejected in childhood. Mari, Rosario says, "loved my mother with a deeper, more daughterly affection." And so when the time came Mari agreed to comply with Adriana Figueroa de Castellanos' deathbed wish, which was that she, Mari, would take care of Rosario forever.
The trap set for Rosario by her mother proved a subtle and initially agreeable-sounding one. Mari constructed for Rosario in Mexico City a home life so convenient and so fixed in its routines that, as Rosario says, "I never even needed to order anything: everything was always ready. The bath at just the right moment, clothes laid out properly for each occasion, the meals on time..." In exchange, the young poet accepted Mari's "discipline," dealt out only praise, and stayed within the "boundaries" set for her, the study, the bedroom, and the parlor. Thus, this most independent-minded but conflicted of souls "handed" herself over to Mari, as she says, "with total confidence and passivity."
Given its contradictions, the arrangement could not last. Yet it did. In 1951, at the age of twenty-six, Rosario returned to Chiapas to take over direction of the state's cultural programs. But she contracted tuberculosis and had to return to the capital for treatment and rest. Contagious as the TB was, Mari refused to abandon her charge. While recuperating, Rosario read War and Peace. Five years later, Alfonso Caso, director of INI, the newly formed Instituto Nacional Indigenista or National Indian Institute, asked her to return to Chiapas to write plays and direct a puppet theater at INI's Tzotzil-Tzeltal Center. Called Teatro Petul, the itinerant theater was designed to promote public health and education and bring "civilizing" messages to highland Mayan people. Mari went along and kept house in San Cristobal while Rosario rode into the back country and obtained an extraordinary kind of second sight, a re-visioning of her own earlier life that illuminated the intensely creative period that followed. The Indians' resistance to INI's attempt to draw them into the "modern" world surprised Castellanos less than it did her cohorts. She, after all, had been weaned on resistance. Her fellow writers and anthropologists could focus on the shocking anachronistic serfdom of the indigenous people, but none of them possessed her knowledge of the actors on the other side of the equation, the ladinos or "whites" who made their living exploiting Indian labor. Castellanos could enumerate the intricacies of ladino snobbery in her sleep, knew the ladinos as she knew herself, being of them.
Turning from poetry to fiction, in six years she published three books set in southern Mexico, a region very much like the American South as she pointed out in one essay, where the dominating fact of life was the misapprehension and distrust between two faces. The works include her masterpiece, the novel Balun Canan in 1957 (translated as "The Nine Guardians"), a book of stories, Ciudad Real, in 1960 ("Royal City" in English), and her only other novel, Oficios de Tinieblas, in 1962 ("The Book of Lamentations"), which relocates a nineteenth century Mayan rebellion in the era of Cardenas.
Elena Poniatowska, another in the triumvirate of twentieth century Mexico's extraordinary women novelists, believes that beyond Rosario's unique social position there was a personal reason that allowed her to avoid sentimentalizing indigenous people. Despite a huge gift for making and keeping friends, Rosario suffered all her life from a pervasive loneliness, not unlike the loneliness of the twin who survives for the one who is gone. The little girl narrator of Balun Canan has a little brother who dies suddenly. In real life, Rosario's parents let her understand they considered it an "injustice" their son and heir had been taken from them and that she, the daughter, remained "alive and kicking," as she put it. The Balun Canan narrator describes her teacher in her black dress as being "as small and as alone as a saint in her niche." While her brother is still alive, the parents tell them to call an itinerant singer "uncle" although he is not actually related to them, "so that he will feel less alone." Elena Poniatowska relates Rosario's personal isolation to the national neglect amounting to rejection of Indian people. "Rosario came close to them not only because of Comitan or Chiapas, her place of origin, but because she recognized in their abandonment her own aloneness." By "abandonment" Poniatowska means, among other things, Mexico's long history of leaving indigenous people to fend for themselves while the rest of the nation marches off in pursuit of modernity.
Given my youthful ambition, perhaps it is better that I knew almost nothing about Rosario Castellanos when I first arrived in Chiapas six years after she last lived there. The anthropologists I trained with were not against literature, but they did want us to imagine we were engaged in original research. We students were led to believe that with the exception of Perils of the Soul, Calixta Guiteras-Holmes' account of the municipio of Chenalho, the rest of the small body of ethnographic work on the resident Maya was inferior to what the Harvard Chiapas Project was about to bring forth. Being ignorant but full of ourselves (being, that is, Harvard undergraduates), we subscribed to this judgment readily. We heard INI's now-discontinued puppet theater had been an interesting experiment, but were taught to look down on the rest of the Institute's projects. By our standards, their purpose was impure (the Mexican anthropologists meant to change conditions, not just study them), and their efforts so far misguided failures. On my way out of Mexico at the end of that first summer I did buy a copy of Castellanos's Ciudad Real, but her vocabulary was so rich and my Spanish so mediocre I could not get through it.
In the 1920s Frans Blom and the u.s. writer Oliver Lafarge produced a three-volume survey of ancient Mayan sites and present-day settlements in Mexico and Guatemala called Tribes and Temples. Blom also worked on the major Olmec discoveries, helping to extract the mysterious monster heads from the buggy marshes of Tabasco and Veracruz. Separated from his position at Tulane University for bad behavior fueled by drinking, in 1943 he was at loose ends in the Lacandon rainforest of southeastern Chiapas when Gertrudis Duby showed up and the two fell in love.
Trudi was as large and as contradictory as any character in Balzac. Speaking out against Hitler at rallies in Germany in the 1930s, she was dubbed by the newspapers "Red Trudi." In her Mexican incarnation she came coiffed and exactingly made-up, eyebrows plucked and penciled back in arches, hung with silver bracelets and earrings aglow with semi-precious stones like some sort of pre-Columbian Christmas tree. She was a royalist about everything concerning her own person, a feudalist in the way she ran Na Bolom, and a fierce democrat about everything else. When a group of Lacandons along the Jatate River were starving, Trudi mounted an international publicity campaign and flew in by small plane with donated food to save the little community. (The Mexican press named her the "Queen of the Jungle.") She treated the Lacandons as her personal charges and swanned about their territory alternately bellowing in German, French, Spanish, or English and condescending to one and all. Yet Trudi also became the first photographer to portray Mayan people in a way that granted them their full humanity. She was so much a force of nature that her friend Jorge Bolivar said if he heard she had drowned in a river, he would dredge for her body upstream.
Guests at Na Bolom were supposed to possess serious scientific interests, but in fact anyone with the money could secure one of the fifteen or so rooms, each named for one of the surrounding Indian towns and decorated with textiles and artifacts collected there. The great leafy calm of the house provided by a large, loyal staff of gardeners, cooks, and maids was endlessly put asunder by the high drama of the two principals. (The Bloms' artist friends from New York, Janet and Marcey, took to calling the house "Na Baloney.") Frans would spend his days lolling on a raised chair in the library with two of "his" long-haired, white-robed Lacandon men crouched at his feet, the very image of a colonial tyrant out of Conrad. He cultivated a coterie of fellow drunks to keep him company and the party eventually got so out of hand that Trudi banned liquor from the house entirely.
Strangely enough, given her decades of loyalty to Frans and Trudi, my friend Beti Mijangos appeared first in their lives as a troublemaker. Beti was born in 1932 into one of the handful of ladino hacienda families in the remote coffee-growing municipio of Bachajon. In her childhood her mother left and her father brought Beti and the rest of his brood to live in San Cristobal. For fun, Beti and her girl friends would sneak down the shady street to Na Bolom's front door, ring the bell and dash off. When they were caught finally, Don Pancho, as Frans was called, reprimanded them in no uncertain terms. But after that Beti became welcome in the house, and by the time she was in her middle twenties she was employed there as a cook. Frans and Trudi treated her more like a daughter than a servant. A surrogate perhaps, people said, since having met and married in middle life the Bloms had no children of their own.
Trudi was the more possessive. A Canadian traveler named Bill Ballantyne drank some with Frans and then was taken along on a trip out to a fiesta in the Tzeltal town of Tenejapa, much harder to reach from San Cristobal in those days than it is now. Smitten with Beti, Bill undertook to pay her court. Frans he says encouraged him, bur when Trudi noticed what was going on she arranged to keep Beti far from young Mr. Ballantyne for the rest of the outing. People who predicted Trudi would reserve Beti for herself and her old age were surprised when Trudi acceded finally to Beti's marriage in 1964.
Trudi and Rosario Castellanos had become friends during the time Rosario was directing INI's puppet theater. Rosario and Mari Escandon were back living in Mexico City when Beti went on a trip there with Trudi. They went to stay at Rosario's house and Mari offered to share her bed with Beti. That was all right with Trudi, but she got mad because Beti was made to eat in the kitchen and told Rosario under those circumstances she and Beti could not stay, grabbed her suitcase and stormed out.
From the point of view of Gertrudis Duby de Blom lore, a fairly standard Trudi huff. But regarding Rosario Castellanos the incident is a reminder that while the events of history may change our destinies, or we may contrive to remake ourselves as a reproach to our origins, in some part we cannot help veering back toward who we were. In this case, the Rosario Castellanos schooled long since in Comitan manners probably simply missed a cue. Confused by the fact Beti was in the kitchen at Na Bolom, or maybe because Beti's self-possession can make her appear self-effacing, Rosario failed to recognize her as a member of her own class. Or else she simply failed to take account of how close to Trudi's heart Beti had come.
In 1959 Beti went to the States to work for the family of Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple, discoverer of six comets. In Boston she learned English, which she says she has since forgotten. She came home in 1961 or 1962 because Frans Blom had taken sick. What she discovered on her return was Dona Mari running the busy Na Bolom kitchen.
What had happened?
Instead of avoiding the trap this time, passion had made Rosario complicit in setting one for herself. For ten years she had been in love with Ricardo Guerra, a philosophy professor at the UNAM. She wrote him, "I never thought I would need anyone else the way I need you." The gaze of others made her feel like "an insect under the microscope," she said; only Guerra made her feel like a person in the presence of another person. (The form of her obsession indicates that it may well be in her psyche Guerra filled the void left by the death of her little brother. Balun Canan ends with the little girl covering every available space with her sibling's name, writing it over and over again on the patio pavement, the corridor walls, in her notebook.)
In 1951 the man Rosario claimed was her only possible "Other" married another woman without bothering to inform Rosario. She continued writing him funny and observant but also confessional and self-denigrating letters while he went to live in Paris and then Heidelberg. By early 1958, the year after Balun Canan was published, Rosario was back in Mexico City from Chiapas, Ricardo Guerra was home from Europe and divorced, and they married, Rosario thirty-three years old and dressed all in white.
Mari must have been surprised. As long as the affair was carried out mostly by mail and in Rosario's head (Guerra responded to her letters only infrequently), Mari may not have recognized she was in the presence of a great, if one-sided, love. But once they were under the same roof the woeful defects of the man in question would have become obvious to the servant soon enough. Guerra was not only a drinker, he was a chronic womanizer as well. The marriage proved hellish. (In the story "Cooking Lesson," the young wife thinks, "Thanks for letting me out of the cage of one sterile routine only to lock me into the cage of another....") Entirely trapped now, Rosario contemplated suicide. She miscarried twice before finally bearing a son, Gabriel, in 1961. A separation followed. Only in 1967 did Rosario grasp the full extent of her husband's infidelity and determine to divorce him. "An act of self-esteem," Elena Poniatowska calls it. Yet even then, Rosario could still write Guerra, "It is my pleasure and my pride and my happiness and my security to think that my body does not know any other pleasure than what you have given it."
Her marriage, Rosario writes, coming "under the hand of a man" as they say in Chiapas, relieved Mari Escandon of the obligation she had taken on standing by the bed of the dying Adriana Figueroa. And in a way it must have been convenient for Rosario that in 1958 Mari had to go home to Comitan to see her own mother, Francesca Escandon, through her last days. Apparently what happened was the introduction of Guerra into the peaceful, regulated home life Mari had produced upset the mistress-servant equilibrium permanently. According to Cynthia Steele, some people thought it was Mari's bossiness that made the new husband want her gone. Beti Mijangos thinks Guerra's presence made Mari hugely jealous and intractable. It is also quite possible that with her below-stairs watchfulness, Mari knew more about the new master's philandering than was comfortable for him or for Rosario in her determined blindness about him.
Whatever the case, after Francesca Escandon's death Rosario sent Mari the money tradition required and Mari remained in Chiapas. When the severance proved not enough to keep Mari, she went to work first for a gringa and then to Na Bolom.
Trudi Blom reproached Rosario, saying she would never get over her surprise at the discovery Mari could not write and could hardly read. And after all those years living with a writer! "There I was," Rosario says, most likely quoting Trudi directly, "off playing Quetzalcoatl, the great white civilizing god, while right there next to me someone was walking around ignorant." Ashamed, Rosario vowed never again to keep a servant in such darkness. She failed to notice that Trudi herself, while often effective at alerting the world to disasters like hunger in the Lacandon or the destruction of the jungle by loggers, hardly lifted a finger to educate any of the people who kept Na Bolom going.
And if Rosario used Mari all those years and then, as a sacrifice to the husband who did not pan out, let her go? Prolific as she was, she had a very hard rime getting down to her writing. She told her New York friends Janet and Marcey she usually had to take to her bed and feign illness to accomplish anything. What kind of career would she have been able to piece together, what would she achieve as a writer, who needs above all time and quiet, without a Mari to go to the market, singe and pluck the chickens, change the linens? It is not news that most calls for human liberation have come from would-be liberators who have captive labor available to provide daily life for them.
But there is a further complication to the Rosario Castellanos-Mari Escandon story, one Rosario also avoided mentioning in print. She and Mari were related by blood, although at some distance from one another on the family tree. Cynthia Steele has traced their kinship: Rosario's grandmother on her mother's side, Carmen Abarca de Figueroa, was a first cousin of Trinidad Abarca, Mari's father. But Mari's father, a mason and builder, had another, legitimate family and so did not recognize the three children he had with Francesca Escandon or give them his family name. The Abarca women, however, seemed to take a protective interest in the welfare of at least the two Escandon girls (there was also a brother). Rosario's grandmother made Mari's older sister Carmen her maid and, as we have seen, Adriana Figueroa de Abarca took in Mari, who was her own second cousin, though in age much closer to Adriana's only daughter. Though Mari was therefore Rosario's second cousin once removed, in some families for convenience she might be called an aunt. In mine we would call such a person "Cousin So-and-So," although we children would soon discern that a cousin like Mari was of less significance to us than some of our other cousins and we might even suspect our kinship was that kind I later learned to call "fictive."
Rosario was thirteen when her parents pulled up stakes and left Comitan. If her mother and grandmother felt obliged to help their less fortunate illegitimate female kin, their sense of duty did not carry across the distance to Mexico City or into the third generation, especially given the constraint and difficulty Rosario felt in the imposed relationship with Mari.
In Balun Canan, the young girl's mother goes to visit a crippled woman. Why does her mother do that, the girl asks her Indian nana. "To bring her some happiness," the nana replies, "she took her on like a little sister." And then, to explain further, the nursemaid tells a version of the Mayan gods' several botched attempts to create a human being before they finally got it right. Though the nana's tale is like the one in the Popol Vuh, it ends on a more Christian note, saying the rich must protect the poor because of the blessings they, the rich, have received, and that the poor will answer for the wealthy "before the face of truth." The nana concludes, "And so it is that our law says no rich man can enter into heaven without a poor man to lead him by the hand."
The nana folds up her mending and gets to her feet. But before she can take a step, the little girl asks, "Who is my poor person, Nana?"
The nana says, "You don't yet know. But if you pay attention when you are older and have more understanding, you will recognize her."
At some times in Mari Escandon's life, she must have longed to be that person for Rosario. But in the end Rosario did not choose her.
When Beti Mijangos came back from the States in the early sixties, she did not adjust at all well to the new order at Na Bolom, Mari Escandon lording it over everyone in the kitchen. Don Pancho, she recalls, didn't like the situation either, especially since he had come to the conclusion that Mari might be a witch. Even fearless Trudi hesitated to go in the back of the house to confront the woman. So Mari was dismissed from Na Bolom too.
She had such a good reputation as a cook she got another job almost at once with the Munoa family down by the little market in the barrio of San Francisco. But it turned out the widow Munoa went away every Friday and locked her servants up in the house for the weekend. Coming from the market with a hen hanging off one arm and a basketful of vegetables on the other, Mari met up with Janet Marren and Marcey Jacobson and told them how she was being treated. Janet and Marcey decided this would not do and went at once to intercede with Trudi and Mari got back her position at Na Bolom.
The second time Mari managed to get along better with the rest of the staff. She shared with Beti her Comitan cooking secrets--dishes, Beti notes, that are no longer called for at Na Bolom now that Trudi's menu has been abandoned. When she was fixing what we call in English "Spanish Rice," Mari browned chicken wings in oil and then sauteed the rice in it. She prepared a very easy Pollo de Olla, "Chicken in a Pot," where the parts are browned lightly in a little vegetable oil before tomatoes and onions are added, then salt, pepper, and dry laurel leaves rubbed to fine bits between your palms; you put a lid on and simmer for a half hour. The recipe for Sopa de Pan ("Bread Soup") in Diana Kennedy's Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico (1978) comes from Mari. A chicken stock and vegetable stew topped with large lard-browned sour-bread croutons, it is a dish Spanish in origin but elaborated in Chiapas with fried plantains and potatoes, hard-cooked eggs, and spiced with cinnamon and clove.
Gringos often don't know what to make of Mexican ates, jellied fruit pastes served in little slices as dessert. Na Bolom's were made from diced fruit from the garden, apple, pear, and peach, each stirred in copper pots for days by Mari and all given away at Christmas to guests and staff. Mari also made the house's fine plum jam, also from Na Bolom's own trees.
She was a handsome woman, Cynthia Steele thought, well-preserved in her late sixties, "small, plump, aquiline nose and a beautiful full head of curly hair now dyed chestnut, a color which made her look ten years younger." Crippled in one leg and with a bad hip, walking hunched and always looking in pain, as she aged Mari became even more feisty. She shouted at the household's shy young interns and waved her broom at them. Fights that began when Trudi dared intrude on the kitchen and give orders ended surprisingly with the great lady herself bending a little and calling forth some of her considerable charm to get back in Mari's good graces. If she liked you, Mari could be all sweetness and light, and under the counter might sell you a loaf of the dense, no-dome German-style whole wheat bread she made. Some days, however, even when her favored ones asked for the bread she would tell them to get out of her kitchen, no bread for sale, and would act indignant, as though she had never heard of such a thing!
The writer Miriam Wolfe Laughlin, who has had a home in San Cristobal for almost fifty years, recalls being laid low with hepatitis when her children were still small. Twice a week dinner for her entire family would arrive at the house--vegetarian, since none of them ate meat--a gift from Na Bolom, but due to the thoughtfulness of Mari, not Trudi.
Mari lived out her life between the kitchen and the small room called "Santa Marta" out by the rear gate. Trudi eventually willed her the room so Mari wouldn't need to worry about where she would spend her old age. She covered the walls with pictures of saints and cut-outs from magazines and some photographs of Rosario. There they brought her the news Rosario had died in a far-off country in the most bizarre of accidents. (Marcey Jacobson reported that the Mexicans still say, "The Jews killed Rosario Castellanos.") When Rosario's son Gabriel Guerra grew up, he would come to Na Bolom to visit Mari.
She told Cynthia Steele she knew all of Rosario's ways, "... how she ate, how she dressed, I combed her hair and everything." And now, as Cynthia puts it, Mari combed and bathed and ironed for another famous lady, Trudi.
In Chiapas you use "don" and "dona" not only for people of higher status but also longtime employees with rightful liens on your affection. For many years Na Bolom had three of them, Beti, Mari, and Dona America, a tiny, white-haired, also hunched, very cheerful little woman who washed clothes and sheets and hung them on lines crisscrossing the back patio. America's father had owned the house before the Bloms purchased it and America herself was a find of Trudi's from the time she was studying the soldaderas, women soldiers and camp followers from the days of the Mexican Revolution. Dona Beti remembers America as a vigilante, out patrolling the house on the darkest nights, rebozo high about her face so only her sharp little eyes showed, candle in one hand, a knife in the other. The poet Ambar Past remembers how, tiny as Dona America was, she would stand up on her bed and howl--to give you an idea of what it was like to be a wolf on top of the mountain.
Frans Blom died in 1963. In later periods, whether Trudi was present or not, the routines of the house became so set that though managers came and went, some good, some thieves, things ran pretty much as always. If the lady herself was in residence, by 7:3 A.M. Dona America would have the thirty or so flower vases from around the house lined up in rows in the rear courtyard and Trudi would be in from the garden in boots and pants, followed by one of the men of the house bearing armfuls of fresh blossoms. She paced up and down like a general on inspection, ordering the removal of the dead, propping the wilting against sturdier stems, jamming new lilies into the arrangements. After breakfast, she painted or wrote or brushed out Pamir and Sammy, her skittish, guest-nipping Afghans (the hair she saved and stuffed in an armadillo shell for Indian women to spin and weave garments for her). Usually she then engaged in some bellowing, either for bellowing's sake or to teach the student interns from the u.s. and Europe how to become the Trudis of the future. Then at 1:30 P.M. the bell to summon guests to the great table in the dining room.
The food was plenteous and first-rate, a combination of traditional chiapaneco cuisine and amoeba-free salads from the garden and the breads and cakes Trudi had learned to make in her youth. The dishes were passed in through a little window in the wall by Mari and other shadowy figures in hairnets. Trudi's Swiss soul could not abide waste. On the wall hung a sign inviting guests to take what they liked, but warning that they must eat what they took. Scenes of great humiliation followed, Trudi from the head of the table brow-beating grown men and women into finishing their chard or the offending piece of pineapple pie crust left on their plates.
In summer the heavy hollow drumming of the chill afternoon rain on the huge leaves of the elephant ear in the inner courtyards, the tire laid in the library, the preparation of the charcoal pots to take the chill off the guests' rooms before bed, the large enamel kettles of milk, coffee, and chocolate heating above the blue gas flames for supper, the distant bell, the house closed up so early against the night....
To Mari and the others who performed the rituals that held Na Bolom together it often must have felt time had stopped.
But of course it had not.
As she grew old, Trudi often became more truculent and then frequently confused. By the late 1980s, when I came to San Cristobal, I hesitated to visit. ("How's Trudi? Should I try to see her? .... Well," they would say, "if you want to be yelled at in German--" So I would stay away.) Beti says they would find her in the street in front of the house not knowing where she was. Or she would get an urgent need just to go. Then they would pack her a little suitcase and telephone for a cab and when it arrived everyone would come out and say goodbye and Beti and Trudi would leave. They would drive up around the Periferico, the circle road around San Cristobal, and then they would go to the home of Cristal, a German lady, and she would make them tea and then they would come home and put Trudi safely to bed and she would be satisfied and calm.
At Na Bolom they marked the coincidences of the times of deaths in the household. Frans Blom's was the twenty-third of June, 1963. Trudi died thirty and one-half years later, the twenty-third of December, 1993, and at the same hour, exactly one week before the Zapatista army came out of the jungle and briefly occupied San Cristobal. Dona Mari waited a polite interval and then died thirteen days after Trudi, at 1:30 in the morning. The one-time cargardora was about to turn seventy. When Dona America died in the next year, Beti says, although she kept sixteen cats they discovered a number of smaller animals and one big rat in her room because she had gotten the habit of hiding food away there.
And me, I continue gathering my little bits, which come to seem less like biographical crumbs off the table and more like highly charged
particles that radiate pleasure when they fall into my hands. For example, finding out a woman I knew, Dona Sara Esponda, had been Rosario's grade school classmate.
I had put an effort into locating Flor, Dona Sara's daughter. Flor has a background in anthropology, knew Trudi Blom, may even have lived at Na Bolom for a while. Ten years ago I often had long Sunday lunches with Flor and her mother out under the trees at my friend David Halperin's spread outside Comitan. At seventy-five Dona Sara was serene, slight, olive-complected. She pulled her pure white hair back and held it with combs. A recognized keeper of the flame of old Comitan cooking, each week she arrived at David's bearing a small offering of some spicy and mysterious guiso or pickled vegetables or deep-fried meatballs she admitted to having spent the morning--or sometimes all Saturday--preparing.
I caught up with Flor finally in Mexico City, where she had gone to take a course in electromagnetism. There was heavy September rain all that day, but I was leaving the next morning so Flor very kindly agreed to come an hour by subway to my hotel in the Colonia Roma to go to supper. She chose the Casa Lamm, a soaring glass enclosure in the courtyard of an old mansion where during the week classy ladies lunch while their chauffeurs lounge outside in sunglasses smoking and chatting against their double-parked limos or town cars. Over cocktails Flor explained how Dona Sara's cancer and sad death had made her aware of how terribly we the survivors also suffer and that she, Flor, had the power to help others. Hence the course she was taking on the therapeutic uses of electromagnets.
We were the only diners. The soup was hot and good, the huitlacoche crepes OK. The rain beat against the great glass wall. Over coffee, I told Flor what I was working on. I mentioned Mari Escandon not being portrayed in Balun Canan, but how she might be present in a spectral way in a description of the little school the novel's girl narrator attends. I quoted:
At noon the maids arrive, their heavy cotton clothes crinkling with starch, smelling of brilliantine, bringing gourds of posol. We all drink, sitting in a row on a bench in the corridor, while the maids probe between the brick pavements with their big toes.
Flor shook her ringlets brusquely, as though to shrug something off, and said, "What happened was the Cardenas government closed all the private schools, which were the ones run by the religious of course. And since Don Cesar, Rosario's father, couldn't bear the thought of his daughter going to a public school with the kind of people you would encounter there, he hired a lady teacher to give classes for the girls from the right families in his own home. My mother went there, with Rosario of course, and the others. So Mari could not have been one of the ones to come in with the posol, because she was already present, of the household, don't you see?"
Yes, I see. Bony little Mari just recently deposited at the Castellanos', a labyrinth grander and more confusing than anything the eight-year-old middle child has ever known being from the casa chica of the gentleman builder, cousin of the mistress here. Most likely existing from one month to the next in the hope of a visit, of her mother the laundry woman unknotting a handkerchief and pressing a still-warm centavo into Mari's outstretched hand.