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Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution
Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual.
In a blend of personal essay and a rendition of deeply researched metaphysical and Mexican history that reads like a novel, award-winning writer and noted literary translator C.M. Mayo provides a rich introduction and the first English translation of Spiritist Manual, the secret book by Francisco I. Madero, leader of Mexico's 1910 Revolution and President of Mexico, 1911-1913.
Very slowly, in several visits over several months, I combed through Madero's library. In the intervening days and weeks, trying to make sense of what I found, I made many scrambles down many rabbit holes, as it were, some empty but for a dead beetle or two, some draped in velvet and thick with cough-inducing incense. I had seen a good portion of his library when the archivist brought out the black leather-bound book with his initials, F.I.M., embossed in gold on the lower right corner. This was "Bhima's" Manual espírita, the same I had seen so long ago, but that one cheaply bound in thin paper, in the Ministry of Finance. And so I held this finest monogrammed century-old book, the object of all these years of reading and research and reflection, in my hands. Slowly, I opened it. The front- and backboards were papered in a William-Morris-style pattern of moss-green leaves. The inscription was to Sara Pérez de Madero.
That same afternoon in the archive, I came across Adrien Majewksi's Médiumnité guerrissante par l'application des fluides électrique, magnétique et humain (Healing Mediumship by Application of Electric, Magnetic and Human Fluids); as I thumbed through it, I found, tucked in tight, an envelope with the typed address, Doña Sara Pérez de Madero, Zacatecas 90, México, D.F. The post office had stamped it 4 JUN 16. That is, June 4, 1916: A little more than three years after she had been made a widow. By this time she had returned to Mexico City from her exile in New York and New Jersey to this house in the Porfirian neighborhood built over Aztec floating gardens and nineteenth century circus grounds.
She had no children; she lived alone.
And now, summer of 1916, the hero's widow a mere bystander, the Revolution grinds on. General Victoriano Huerta, the traitor, is already overthrown, dead of cirrhosis of the liver and buried in El Paso, Texas. U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson—whom Huerta had asked, should Madero be sent to the lunatic asylum?, and who had answered, after all his outrageous meddling, after Huerta's troops had tortured and killed Madero's brother Gustavo, whatever Huerta thought right and best for Mexico—has been recalled in disgrace. The U.S. Navy has already retreated from its occupation of Veracruz, and now General "Black Jack" Pershing's troops—including my dad's old friend, Ralph Smith—are chasing Pancho Villa, like a dog after its tail, around the desert. Maximilian von Habsburg's nephew, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, has been assassinated in Sarajevo, now the Germans intrigue for an advantage, fighting on every front of World War I, and fighting among themselves over increasingly byzantine strategies regarding Mexico.
Emiliano Zapata, the campesino leader of Morelos, is still alive and fighting, as is his nemesis, the also soon-to-be-assassinated President Venustiano Carranza, whose Constitutionalist Army overthrew Huerta. The cities are plagued by strikes, the countryside by banditry. The peso buys less each day.
June is the rainy season in Mexico City. The trees turn lush and the air-back then-would have smelled sweet, even on the grayest of afternoons. Even in the midst of political chaos, the city goes on.
Imagine: From the roof next door, where a maid is pulling down laundry, a dog barks. In the street beyond Doña Sara's window, umbrellas bounce by, and cars and horse-drawn wagons spray their wakes onto the sidewalk. Doña Sara, surrounded by her books, sits on her sofa, her letter-opener poised…
I drew out the envelope's contents. A postcard of President Madero on horseback and a photo, sepia with age: a middle-aged man, seated in profile, whom I did not recognize; behind him and to the left, unnaturally, as if pasted in from another photograph, a blurry image that, for the shape of the face and beard, could have been Madero; a hazy woman to the right; and, floating mid-air front and center, the large white blob of a baby.
A spirit photograph.
Who sent it to her? (I found no return address, no letter.) Who slipped it into Majewski's Médiumnité guerrissante? A cataloger? Another researcher? Was it Sara Pérez de Madero herself?
(Another rabbit hole: Majewski. One could write a book about him, but I'll suffice to note that a Google search brought up the news that three of his photographs of hands emitting "magnetic fluid," photographs reproduced in Majewski's book, were sold by Sotheby's at auction in New York City in December 2012 for 18,500 dollars.)
Back to Doña Sara. You don't have to live in Mexico long before you begin to see her. In the iconic photographs from the Revolution-and the Revolution is celebrated more often than Christmas, it seems—she is grimly smiling with her mouth closed, yet easy-eyed and with the placid forehead of a madonna. By 1911, we see her as First Lady in a high-necked blouse and extravagant hat, the fashion of the time; and also in an incongruously heavy-looking coat as she follows behind President Madero—he lifting his bright fedora—as he strides through a crowd (note the huge cone of a campesino's sombrero and raised sword). In Enrique Krauze's biography of Madero we see the couple in twin bergères, framed by lace curtains, their elegantly shod feet upon an Oriental carpet: President Madero in a pale suit and tie, Señora Madero in a sailor-collared frock and Edwardian bouffant. And then 1913, shot from below (the photographer must have been crouching): the young widow's swollen, grief-ravaged face.
But in Collado Herrera and Pérez Rosales's 2010 biography, there are two more photos of Doña Sara I had never seen before. Perhaps taken in the late 1930s or 40s: a halo of white hair, laughing eyes, a big, surprisingly toothy smile: she's patting a cat. And, a decade or two later, perhaps shortly before her death in 1952: in a chair, dressed in a dark skirt, dark sweater, and large crucifix, and with a wise, weary, whisper of a smile, Doña Sara looks straight into the camera—that magic portal to us.
It must have been so strange for her, a girl from a small town near Querétaro, to have been swirled into the vortex of her husband's political career, fueled as it was by Spiritism and that text so beloved by the Theosophists, the Bhagavad-Gita—certainly not reading assigned in late nineteenth century Catholic girls' schools!
The Bhagavad-Gita or "The Lord's Song" is a chapter added in about 200 BC to the possibly even more ancient Mahabharata, jewel of Sanskrit literature, a scripture of yoga, and the world's longest epic. Lord Krishna, the blue-skinned eighth incarnation of the god Vishnu, appears on a battlefield and reveals to the warrior Arjuna the true nature of reality, morality, and the need for calmness and courage. It was introduced to the West in an English translation in the late 18th century; French, German, and other languages quickly followed. Annie Besant, who retranslated it into English, called it a "priceless teaching;" Henry David Thoreau, poet of Walden Pond, considered it his textbook. Introduced to it by English Theosophists, Mohandas Gandhi considered it his "infalliable guide to conduct," and reread it while in prison in South Africa in 1908. Madero found it of such inspiration that he kept it with him during the Revolution and later, while in office as President of Mexico in 1912 and early 1913, he published his commentary as a series of articles "by an adept" in Helios, a Spiritist magazine, concluding that
[T]he Bhagavad-Gita encompasses glorious conceptions and it is far indeed from recommending those superstitious practices so in fashion with the majority of religions, including those professed by civilized peoples and, according to which certain religious practices are given more importance than fulfilling one's duty, overlooking that, in fulfilling one's duty, one better aligns with a vaster and greater plan for humanity's progress and well-being.
What did Sara think of her husband's passion for the Bhagavad-Gita? It might seem a koan of a question but for the fact that she was a warrior herself. She was there, right beside him, throughout her husband's first presidential campaign of 1910, and his arrest and imprisonment in San Luis Potosí by Porfirio Diaz's henchmen, who stole that election in the crudest way. She helped him escape across the border to Texas, she helped him launch the Revolution of 1910—he even asked her to sell her jewels to help pay for it—and then, she was there by his side campaigning all over again to win the Presidential election of 1911. She was never braver than that terrible day of February 20, 1913, with downtown Mexico City under seige and strewn with bodies, her husband and his vice president held prisoner. Just the day before, her brother in-law, Gustavo, had been beaten, blinded with a bayonet, and finally shot to death by a gang of Huerta's jeering soldiers, and Huerta himself was now triumphant in power thanks to negotiations hosted by the U.S. ambassador in the U.S. legation. She led her mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law to that legation and addressed herself directly to Ambassador Wilson, who she said she found drunk. As Doña Sara recalled, several times Mrs. Wilson had to tug at her husband's jacket to prompt him to change his language. In Los últimos días del Presidente Madero (The Last Days of President Madero), the Cuban ambassador, Manuel Márquez Sterling, who would help the Madero family escape to the United States via Havana, having heard it from Doña Sara, renders the scene (my translation):
The Ambassador: Your husband did not know how to govern. He never asked for nor would listen to my advice…I do not think he will be killed, but I would not be surprised if Pino Suárez were to be sacrificed on the scaffold, forever extinguishing his virtues…
Señora Madero: Oh, that would be impossible! My husband would prefer to die with him…
Ambassador Wilson: Nevertheless Pino Suárez has done him nothing but harm… He's a worthless man...
Señora Madero: Pino Suárez, sir, has a beautiful heart, he is a patriot, a good father, a loving husband…
As the brusque conversation continued, Mr Wilson offered not one kind, gentle, nor consoling word... What, he ask for the freedom of Madero, interest himself in the fate of Pino Suárez? Huerta could do whatever he thought best!... The Ambassador was unmoved.
Señora Madero: Other ambassadors, your colleagues, are trying to avoid a catastrophe. The ones from Chile, Brazil, Cuba…
Mr. Wilson (smiling cruelly and hammering out each word): They… have… no…. influence.
It must have seemed to Doña Sara, her heart in an agony of grief and terror, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law beside her, in blackest mourning for Gustavo, that she had confronted Satan himself.
Márquez Sterling, arriving for his own appointment with the ambassador, met the Madero women, Sara in tears, in the foyer. He escorted them to their car, directing their driver to the Cuban Legation. He then went back inside and found Wilson smilingly cool as if nothing untoward, nothing at all, had happened.
From Wilson's photographic portrait, a quick sketch of this late-on-the-stage character who would have made our good John Bigelow squirm in his grave:
His big chin crowned by an animal-sized mustache; his receding hair, parted in the middle and arranged into wings oiled and combed into exquisite submission. Head cocked, arms crossed, he wears a double-breasted jacket, starched collar, and an expression that says, "Mine, that's the answer." Those smirking eyes are sharp enough to nail a sparrow. Henry Lane Wilson, a Hoosier lawyer who had lost his money in the panic of 1893 but whose political connections with the McKinley administration levered him into a first ambassadorship in Chile, may not have worn a Stetson, but he was a diplomatic cowboy, who went a-roaming on the Mexican range by his lonesome, packing a crappy little pistol that Madero's enemies mistook, alas, for an army's worth of howitzers.
"Poor Mexico," as Porfirio Díaz so famously said, "so far from God and so close to the United States." (I had never forgotten my dismay to read John Bigelow's diary of his visit to Mexico in the early 1880s, wherein he confided that the then U.S. ambassador, "a large and pleasant looking man," an ex-judge from Louisiana, "betrayed his diplomatic experience… by saying that when he came there they told him he ought to call on people of the city whom he wished to know but he said to himself, if they wish to know me, let them come to me." The U.S. ambassador to Mexico then casually called Matías Romero "a nigger.")
And, no, Ambassador Wilson did not think it necessary to send Señora Madero's telegram to President Taft. She insisted. It made no difference. Two nights later, Madero and Pino Suárez were killed by the Ley Fuga, that is, executed quick and dirty, Porfirian-style. Doña Sara would not have received her husband's body if not for the intercession of the Cuban ambassador.
But what Ambassador Márquez Sterling either was not told or chose to leave out of his memoir is the little exchange between Ambassador Wilson and Señora Madero just before that business about Vice President Pino Suárez. As she told the American journalist Robert Hammond Murray and later attested to the American Vice-Consul (my translation from the Spanish in Collado Herrera and Pérez Rosales' biography):
The ambassador told me: "I will be frank with you, señora. Your husband's fall is due to the fact that he never wanted to consult me… You know, señora, that your husband had very peculiar ideas." I answered him: "Mr. Ambassador, my husband does not have peculiar ideas, but high ideals…"
"Peculiar ideas": two small words encapsulating a thunderstorm of visceral disgust.
Wilson knew of Madero's Spiritism. In his memoirs, Diplomatic Episodes in Mexico, Belgium, and Chile, Wilson repeatedly disparages Madero as "a dreamer of dreams," "more of a mountebank than a messiah," "the dreamer of Coahuila who essayed the role of a Moses," "a person of unsound intellect, of imperfect education and vision," with a "disordered intellect," "disorganized brain," "dangerous form of lunacy," and so on.
Henry Lane Wilson may have been a lush and a heartless blowhard, but his hostility toward "peculiar ideas" fell lock-step in line with those of most educated men of his day and certainly with Mexico's "científicos," those Porfirian-era followers of Compte, exemplified by Finance Minister José Yves Limantour. Material men in a material world: oil, mining, breweries, railroads! The afterlife? Concern with such insubstantialities was for old ladies-or, say, for Freemasons of the more esoteric stripe.
Indeed, the Freemasons set up a howl of protest at the murder of Brother Madero, the Scottish Rite's New Age editorial of March 1913 calling it "the foulest and blackest crime of the age." When President Woodrow Wilson (no relation) took office that same year, he refused to recognize Huerta's outlaw government. To Ambassador Wilson's indignation—for he thought he had done a swell job protecting American interests, considered General Huerta "an able, adroit [and] courageous man" and Mexico "an ignorant nation," unfit for democracy—he was dismissed, to spend the rest of his life suing for libel and otherwise attempting to defend the indefensible.
But again I venture too far ahead of the story. Let's boomerang back to when Victoriano Huerta was just another Porfirian officer whack-a-moling another campesino uprising and Henry Lane Wilson just another junior ambassador en route from Santiago de Chile to Brussels: 1904, the year after Sara and Francisco's marriage, and the year the words her young husband believed came from another realm propelled him onto the battlefield of the Porfirian political arena.