31 March 2021

Stages of Language Attrition

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 171-172:

So that, then, is what I eventually discovered became of the children I spent so much time with in the mid-1980s. All of them acquired some Tayap, and a few of them came to be passive active bilinguals, possessing good competence in Tayap but never putting it to any use. Perhaps as they get older, speakers like Mbonika and Orbmes will begin to use their Tayap in the village. But I predict that if they do so, they’ll use it mostly to sourly chastise people younger than themselves for not speaking Tayap. And by then, it will be too late.

As I looked closely at young people’s Tayap, I saw how the very idea of language death is misguided. A language never just dies; it isn’t here one minute and gone the next. Instead, languages dissolve; they waste away. Looking at young people’s Tayap is like watching ink fade or flesh wither: the language loses its suppleness and becomes etiolated and spare. It shrivels from blowzy fecundity to become a kind of stiff, desiccated husk.

In young people’s Tayap, the first thing to go is the ability to construct intricate synthetic verbs like “She intends to carry him down on her shoulders.” Next to disappear are the complicated ways of linking verbs and forming relative clauses and subordinate clauses (so no “the pig that I speared yesterday” or “we were eating when you came”). Verbs of motion—except “come” and “go”—melt away too.

As speakers get younger in age and less competent in their command of the language, Tayap’s range of tenses disappears, and gender agreement gets wonky. The youngest and least fluent speakers lose the ability to inflect any verbs for their correct subjects and objects; they collapse all classes of verbs to a single paradigm, and they replace Tayap vocabulary with Tok Pisin words.

In their language, the mighty tree that once was Tayap has been whittled down to a skinny toothpick.

28 March 2021

Hidden Language Skills

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 166-168:

Not only were young villagers eager to narrate; it turned out that all but the very youngest of them were also able to narrate in Tayap. Many of the narratives were short, and most of them were scaffolded by the narrator’s relatives and friends, who sat on the floor with them and helped the teller remember what things were called and figure out how verbs were inflected. But what emerged in the narrative sessions was that all young people in the village over age eighteen have some active competence in the vernacular, and some of them have excellent active competence—even though they never use it.

Several of the young villagers in their mid- to late twenties were highly proficient storytellers. They spoke relatively unhesitatingly, they had a broad vocabulary, they used a variety of tenses and verbs of motion (which are often irregular in Tayap and very tricky to inflect correctly) in the stories they told, and they also commanded other features of the grammar that showed unexpected mastery of Tayap. The truly curious thing about the speakers is that outside of these sessions, they never displayed their command of the language. I once asked Membo, a twenty-six-year-old woman, what she thought about her twenty-five-year-old husband Ormbes’s competence in Tayap. Membo laughed dismissively. “Oh, he messes it all up,” she told me, “He doesn’t speak Tayap.”

I later asked Ormbes to tell me a story in Tayap. He narrated an almost flawless tale of how he and his brother went hunting in the rainforest and speared a pig. Ormbes turned out to be one of the most fluent younger speakers in the village. That his wife, who not only had been married to him for ten years but also had grown up with him and had known him all her life, was convinced that her husband didn’t speak Tayap, was remarkable—and telling.

I scoured the linguistic literature for a label to name people like Ormbes, and I came up empty. Ormbes isn’t what’s known as a passive bilingual because he is capable of relatively advanced language production. Nor is someone like Ormbes quite the same as what linguists who work with endangered languages call a semi-speaker. Semi-speakers are speakers of a dying language who have perfect passive competence and perfect communicative competence in that language. In other words, they understand everything that fluent speakers say to them, and they respond in culturally appropriate ways, using short bursts of the language. Semi-speakers’ ability to get jokes, interject comments, and actively participate in conversations by contributing a few well-turned utterances here and there is deceptive, and it often masks the fact that they can’t actually say very much. Linguists who work with endangered languages report cases in which their work with semi-speakers has caused extreme embarrassment to a whole community. The linguists have given such speakers language proficiency tests because they assumed that they were fluent speakers (having seen them conversing with fluent speakers, and because fluent speakers identified them as fluent speakers). When confronted with a language test, though—and to everybody’s dismay—the people who everyone thought were fluent, in reality, could barely manage to compose a single grammatically correct sentence on their own.

Young people in Gapun like Ormbes aren’t semi-speakers partly because they can construct grammatically correct sentences, and also because they don’t ever actually converse in Tayap. They actively participate in conversations when older speakers speak Tayap, but their own contributions are always in Tok Pisin. With the exception of lexical items and a few formulaic phrases like “Give me betel nut,” they never use Tayap at all.

Rather than calling the young people in Gapun who can narrate stories in Tayap passive bilinguals or semi-speakers, I’ve taken to calling them “passive active bilinguals.” The convolutedness of that label seems fitting to describe speakers who possesses sufficient grammatical and communicative competence in their second language to use that language, but who never actually do use it because social and cultural factors make it unnecessary or undesirable to do so.

27 March 2021

The First Casualty of Tok Pisin

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 36-38:

The first casualty of the villagers’ increased acquisition of Tok Pisin was their competence in other local languages. Before the arrival of Tok Pisin, Gapuners were a highly multilingual people. No one in the surrounding villages bothered to learn their little language—a situation that suited Gapuners just fine since it meant that they could employ Tayap as a secret code that nobody else understood.

To communicate with people from other villages, men and women in Gapun learned the local vernacular languages that those people spoke. During my first long stay in the village in the 1980s, I listened to old people who had grown up before the Second World War confidently speaking two other local languages that were unrelated to Tayap or to each other, and I also heard those old people responding to one or two other languages, which they clearly understood even if they couldn’t speak them.

In the generation born after the war, when Tok Pisin “came up big,” competence in other village vernaculars plummeted. People no longer needed to learn local languages because, at that point, it was easier to communicate in Tok Pisin. Women lagged behind men, and they continued to learn other vernacular languages for another generation, largely because women in the area generally still did not speak Tok Pisin as easily as men did. By the 1970s, though, even Gapun women’s active competence in other vernaculars was eclipsed by Tok Pisin.

Once women started speaking Tok Pisin, they started directing it at their young children. This in itself didn’t necessarily mean very much. Unlike middle-class parents in places like northern Europe and the United States, adults in Gapun don’t spend a lot of time talking to small children. They don’t use language to try to teach their kids anything since they don’t believe that toddlers learn by being taught. And to try to converse with a baby is nonsensical since a baby can’t hold up its end of the conversation and talk back.

But when children, especially girls, start to get pressed into service to help mothers care for a new baby, mothers begin to give the kids orders. And those orders—to fetch firewood, to hand the baby whatever it is crying for, to climb up a tree to get betel nut—increasingly got formulated in Tok Pisin. Women started doing to their small children what men had been doing to boys and young men (and their wives) for decades—ordering them about in Tok Pisin. And indeed, the men who ordered their sons, nephews, and wives around in Tok Pisin learned the language themselves in situations where they had been ordered around in Tok Pisin by white overseers.

In language death, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. . . .

This, then, is how a language dies: in Gapun, Tok Pisin was incorporated into the villagers’ linguistic repertoire first at the expense of other village vernaculars, and, ultimately, at the expense of their own vernacular. There has been a steady reduction in the number of languages that villagers command, to the point where their impressive multilingualism has in the course of four generations been reduced to monolingualism. A people who used to command many languages now increasingly command only one. And that one is not their ancestral language, Tayap. It is, instead, Tok Pisin.

26 March 2021

How Tok Pisin Came to Gapun

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 31-33:

Tok Pisin entered Gapun in around 1916. A year or so before the outbreak of the First World War, word spread from the coast that white men were in the area searching for young men to work for them. These white men were German labor recruiters, and the men they recruited were to be shipped off to the copra plantations that the Germans had established along the Rai Coast of eastern New Guinea (at that time, it was German New Guinea) and on various distant islands. Two Gapun men, Ayarpa and Waiki, went to the coast to find those white men. They resisted the protests of their relatives, who believed that the white men wanted to lure them away from the village to kill them. The two men were itching for an adventure. They ignored their relatives, found the recruiters, and left with them.

Ayarpa and Waiki joined the scores of men from various parts of the mainland who were taken to a copra plantation on Kokopo near the German settlement of Rabaul, on the faraway island of Neu-Pommern (“New Pomerania”). They remained on this plantation for at least three years, and they apparently witnessed the Australian occupation of Germany’s New Guinea territories at the outbreak of World War I (at which time “New Pomerania” was imperiously changed to “New Britain”). My language teacher in Gapun, old Raya, recalled Ayarpa—who was Raya’s father—describing how the inglis (that is, the Australians) rounded up the Germans and “put them into big crates. They put them all inside the crates, nailed them shut, and sent them back to their country.”

Sometime after the Australian takeover of German New Guinea in 1914, Ayarpa and Waiki came home. The stories that survive them recount how they arrived triumphantly in the village, carrying with them the fruits of their labor. Each man had a small wooden patrol box filled with “cargo”: steel knives, machetes, axes, bolts of factory-made cloth, European tobacco, saucer-sized ceramic plates that looked like seashells. (Villagers throughout New Guinea regarded such flat seashells as valuable items, and knowing that, the Germans mass-produced counterfeit ones in white ceramic to pay their laborers.) But just as impressive and even longer lasting than the goods they brought with them were the stories they told about working on the plantation. And most impressive of all was the new language the men had acquired while working for the white men.

As most people in New Guinea did at the time, Ayarpa and Waiki assumed that Tok Pisin was the language of white men. And like the steel axes and fake seashells that entered the village’s redistributive networks, so did the white men’s language: Ayarpa and Waiki immediately set about sharing the language with their peers.

A few years after Ayarpa and Waiki returned to Gapun, a group of Australian labor recruiters suddenly appeared in the village. This was the first time any white person had actually come to the village, and panic ensued. Most of the terrified villagers fled into the rainforest. Only Ayarpa, Waiki, and a few old people who were too frail to run fast enough to escape were left. Seeing the village thus deserted, the Australians resorted to what was presumably a time-tested technique of persuasion: they gathered together the old people who remained and prevented them from leaving, and then they waited until their anxious cries brought back a few young men. At that point, Ayarpa and Waiki did the recruiters’ work for them: they told the men that if they went off with the white men, they would go to where the two of them had gone, and they would learn Tok Pisin. “We’ve taught you some of the white man’s language,” they are said to have told the men, “but you don’t know it well. If you go away to the plantation, you’ll learn it well.”

Five men left with the recruiters.

And so a pattern of learning Tok Pisin became established. Young men acquired a basic knowledge of the language in the village. They then went off to work as contracted laborers to learn Tok Pisin “well.” Later, when they returned to the village, they taught the language to the young men.

25 March 2021

On Language Use in Fieldwork

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. ix-x:

Long gone are the magisterial days of departed anthropologists like Margaret Mead, whose attitude about the people she worked with was neatly summed up in an article she published in 1939 in the professional journal American Anthropologist. Mead wrote in response to one of her colleague’s claims that for anthropological work to be believable, anthropologists needed to learn the languages spoken by the people among whom they did fieldwork. Margaret Mead thought that earnest counsel like that was nonsense. She waved it away like an irritating housefly. All the fuss about learning native languages was intimidating to anthropology students and just plain wrongheaded. It wasn’t necessary. To do their job, Mead insisted, anthropologists don’t need to “know” a language. They just need to “use” a language. And to “use” a language requires only three things.

First of all, you need to be able to ask questions in order to “get an answer with the smallest amount of dickering.” (What you were supposed to make of those answers if you didn’t speak the language in which they were delivered was not something that Mead seemingly bothered herself about.)

The second thing Mead thought that an anthropologist needed to use a language for is to establish rapport (“Especially in the houses of strangers, where one wishes the maximum non-interference with one’s note taking and photography”).

The final thing you need to use a language to do—this is my favorite—is to give instructions. Invoking an era when natives knew their place and didn’t dare mess with bossy anthropologists, Mead offered this crisp advice: “If the ethnologist cannot give quick and accurate instructions to his native servants, informants and assistants, cannot tell them to find the short lens for the Leica, its position accurately described, to put the tripod down-sun from the place where the ceremony is to take place, to get a fresh razor blade and the potassium permanganate crystals and bring them quickly in case of snake bite [wouldn’t you love to know how she barked that in Samoan?], to boil and filter the water which is to be used for mixing a developer,—he will waste an enormous amount of time and energy doing mechanical tasks which he could have delegated if his tongue had been just a little bit better schooled.”

24 March 2021

People Differing Only by Language

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 26-28:

As far back as anyone in Gapun has been able to remember, though, Tayap has never had more than, at most, about 150 speakers: the entire population of Tayap speakers, when the language was at its peak, would have fit into a single New York City subway car. Tiny as that count is, such a small language was not unusual for Papua New Guinea. Most languages spoken in the country have fewer than three thousand speakers. And linguists estimate that about 35 percent of the languages (which means about 350 of them) have never had more than about five hundred speakers.

Contrary to received wisdom, and common sense, this constellation of tiny languages was not the result of isolation; it didn’t arise because villages were separated from one another by mountain barriers or impenetrable jungle walls. Quite the opposite: throughout Papua New Guinea, the areas that have the highest degree of linguistic diversity (that is, the most languages) are the ones where people can get around relatively easily, by paddling a canoe along rivers and creeks, for example. The areas where travel is more difficult, for example in the mountains that run like a jagged spine across the center of the country, is where the largest languages are found (the biggest being a language called Enga, with over two hundred thousand speakers).

The conclusion that linguists have drawn from this counterintuitive distribution of languages is that people in Papua New Guinea have used language as a way of differentiating themselves from one another. Whereas other people throughout the world have come to use religion or food habits or clothing styles to distinguish themselves as a specific group of people in relation to outsiders, Papua New Guineans came to achieve similar results through language. People wanted to be different from their neighbors, and the way they made themselves different was to diverge linguistically.

Large swathes of neighboring groups throughout the mainland share similar traditional beliefs about what happens after one dies; they think related things about sorcery, initiation rituals, and ancestor worship; they have roughly similar myths about how they all originated; and before white colonists started coming to the country in the mid-1800s, they all dressed fairly similarly (and they all do still dress similarly, given the severely limited variety of manufactured clothing available to them today—mostly T-shirts and cloth shorts for men, and for women, baggy, Mother Hubbard–style “meri blouses” introduced by missionaries to promote modesty and cover up brazenly exposed breasts). Neighboring peoples hunt the same pigs and cassowaries that inhabit the rainforest; and they all eat sago, or taro or sweet potato—whichever of those staples their land is capable of growing.

In terms of the languages they speak, though, Papua New Guineans are very different from one another.

16 March 2021

Castaway Healers Without Borders, 1530s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 189-192:

As they traveled, the castaways continued to burnish their reputation as healers. Cabeza de Vaca in particular became more confident in his skills. He became bolder in his interventions; he was no longer content merely to pray and blow. The medical procedures he employed may go some way toward explaining his success. Not far from the Rio Nadadores, he treated a man who had been struck by an arrow below the shoulder. “I touched him and felt the point of the arrow, and I saw that it had passed through the cartilage,” Cabeza de Vaca writes with the precision of a surgeon, “and with a knife that I had, I opened his chest to that place. And I saw that the point had passed through and was very difficult to remove. I again cut deeper, and I inserted the knife point, and with great difficulty, at last I pulled it out. It was very long. And with a deer bone, plying my trade as a physician, I gave him two stitches, and after that he bled a great deal and with scraps of hide I stopped the bleeding.” After the surgery, the patient claimed that he no longer felt pain. The arrowhead was passed around throughout the land, and everyone was amazed by the miraculous cure that Cabeza de Vaca had bestowed. The travelers’ authority over the peoples of central Coahuila became great indeed.


They never traveled alone. Since crossing into northern Tamaulipas, they, and their string of indigenous hosts, had worked out a system that was part processional, part doctor’s visit, and part plunder. It must have been a marvel to behold. When the strangers arrived in each new Indian community, it set an elaborate series of rituals in motion. The natives would offer shelter, food, and gifts to the four men in exchange for access to their healing powers. Festivities would follow, sometimes for days. Then, reluctant to see the medicine men go, the Indian hosts would insist on traveling with them to the next settlement.

The four survivors had set ideas about where they wanted to go: first due south toward Pánuco, and then due west toward the metal-working peoples. They could not, however, simply dictate their route. Their Indian sponsors had their own notions and constantly tried to steer the drifters toward their friends and away from their enemies. The route actually taken by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions was often the result of complicated negotiations, and occasionally of deception. A native group by the Sierra de Pamoranes, for instance, tried to dissuade the four men from going inland by falsely claiming that there was neither food nor people in the direction the healers wished to travel. In that case the wanderers paid little attention and pursued their inland course. Yet in general they were not immune to such subtle manipulation, as they depended entirely upon their indigenous followers for information and knowledge about the terrain and geography of the region.

Each time the explorers approached the next indigenous settlement on their journey, a curious exchange would ensue. Those who had accompanied the medicine men would pillage the new hosts, entering their huts and plundering whatever possessions or food they could carry back to their own encampment. In return, they left the medicine men. A certain sense of reciprocity undergirded the entire transaction, yet the details were unsettling for the explorers. They were initially taken aback by this custom when they first witnessed it in northern Tamaulipas. They were distressed by how badly the new hosts were treated and feared that the widespread sacking would lead to serious altercations. Yet their fears turned out to be unfounded as the plundered Indians offered reassurance. “On seeing our sadness,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “[they] consoled us by saying that we should not be grieved by that because they were so content to have seen us that they considered that their possessions had been well employed, and that farther ahead they would be compensated by others who were very rich.” And indeed, a few days later the erstwhile victims would plunder the villagers that followed, “and the ones always sacked the others, and thus those who lost, like those who gained, were very content.”

Precise instructions about how to deal with the healers were also passed down from group to group. The hosts were told to lead the foreigners onward, always treating them “with great respect and being careful not to anger us in anything,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “and to give us everything they had, and to take us where there were many people, and that wherever we arrived to steal and loot what the others had because such was the custom.” Soon the “new custom” became so entrenched and so well known that native villages on the way began to take precautions like hiding their most valuable possessions in advance of the procession’s arrival. Reverence and intimidation were closely intertwined. An approaching band bent on plunder could easily cower villagers into surrendering their possessions and venerating the four outsiders.

15 March 2021

Spaniards Discover Hurricanes

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 65-68:

Unbeknownst to the expeditioners, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, billowing clouds and localized thunderstorms began to clash and combine with each other, and this mass of clouds, rain, and wind started to rotate around a low-pressure center due to the earth’s spinning motion. In the course of two or three weeks the wind must have picked up steadily, until the system developed into a tropical storm and finally a hurricane. And it drifted toward Cuba.


The great majority of the Florida expeditioners had never experienced such a towering, rotating giant, shuffling erratically from place to place and smothering everything in its path. Because hurricanes require tropical heat and high humidity to form, they do not occur anywhere in the Mediterranean or the northeastern Atlantic. Columbus was the first to report one during his second voyage. European residents of Española and Cuba had some encounters with them in the early decades, adopting the Taíno word for them, hurakan, meaning “big wind.”

Cabeza de Vaca could not hide his astonishment:

At this time the sea and the storm began to swell so much that there was no less tempest in the town than at sea, because all the houses and churches blew down, and it was necessary for us to band together in groups of seven or eight men, our arms locked with one another, in order to save ourselves from being carried away by the wind. We were as fearful of being killed by walking under the trees as among the houses, since the storm was so great that even the trees, like the houses, fell. In this great storm and continual danger we walked all night without finding an area or place where we could be safe for even half an hour.


The following day, on Monday, Cabeza de Vaca and about thirty survivors of the expedition who had remained in Trinidad went to the shore to find out what had happened to the ships. There were only a few traces of them at the anchorage: some buoys but nothing more. Search parties moving along the coast found a rowboat atop a tree close to 1 mile away. At a distance of more than 25 miles, they recovered two bodies so bludgeoned that they were impossible to identify. They also found a cape and some blanket rags. All in all, that day the Florida expedition lost two ships, twenty horses, and sixty men to the strange ways of the New World. The God-fearing survivors could only interpret this violent storm as a divine warning, an unmistakable omen.

13 March 2021

Dead Reckoning and Portolan Charts

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 77-79:

In the sixteenth century, the basic method of ocean navigation was “dead reckoning.” Pilots steered ships from an origination point or “fix” to a new position by estimating the direction and distance traveled. Any point on the globe could be specified by means of only direction and distance. To keep track of direction, navigators used a thirty-two-point magnetic compass. To judge the distance traveled, pilots estimated the speed of the ship by simply looking at the passing bubbles on the sea. During the Age of Discovery this disarmingly simple system was used with accuracy to negotiate even long ocean passages. Dead-reckoning navigation, for instance, enabled Columbus to sail four times from Spain to the Caribbean and back.

Dead-reckoning navigation, in turn, was made possible by a new type of chart known as a portolan. Invented in the thirteenth century, the portolan chart caused a nautical revolution, first in the Mediterranean and later in the Atlantic. Unlike medieval mappaemundi with their fanciful renderings of land masses and distances, portolan charts are incredibly accurate. One can gain a sense of their accuracy by comparing conventional maps of the sixteenth century, which often exaggerate the length of the Mediterranean by nearly twenty degrees (a problem traceable to Ptolemy), with portolan charts, for which the comparable error seldom exceeds one degree.

Intended for real, working seamen, portolan charts include only relevant geographic details like coastlines, islands, rivers, and mountains. But their most visually striking and useful feature is the series of lines bisecting the charts. These lines were the lifeblood of sixteenth-century navigators. Each one represents what pilots called a rutter (derrotero in Spanish) or technically a rhumb line—a path defined by a fixed compass direction. These were the lines that pilots strove to follow as they steered the ships through the oceans. Portolan charts thus gave pilots information about the distance between point A and point B, the precise direction that they needed to follow, and indications about any prominent geographic features along the way; all they needed to know, nothing more and nothing less. Crucially, portolan charts do not depend on latitudes or longitudes. Indeed, virtually no portolan charts contained such measurements prior to 1500. Moreover, they do not require the use of declination tables or any additional conversions or calculations, as these charts were drawn on the basis of the magnetic, rather than the true, north. Simply by maintaining a course with a magnetic compass and keeping track of the distance traveled on a portolan chart, an illiterate pilot—and roughly one out of four pilots in the sixteenth century was still unable to write his own name—could steer an expedition skillfully and safely to its destination.

12 March 2021

Crossing the Atlantic in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 59-61:

The Florida expedition left the Spanish coast on June 17, 1527. The novelty of sea travel, the anticipation of life in another continent, and a natural curiosity for the vessels and their occupants would have made the eight- to ten-day journey to the Canary Islands bearable. Fleets headed for the New World normally stopped briefly at Gran Canaria or La Palma to restock with water, wood, live animals, and some other provisions.

An entire month of open-ocean sailing across the Atlantic began when the ships departed the Canaries. By now the passengers would have had a very good idea of the level of endurance needed for the journey. The most aggravating factor was overcrowding. By our modern standards, sixteenth-century ships were appallingly small, measuring around 20 yards in length by 5 yards across by 2.7 yards of depth. All told, there were between 1,615 and 2,153 square feet of habitable space—roughly the surface area of a good-sized apartment. Within the confines of this space, some 100 to 120 human beings commingled day and night for weeks, using the most rudimentary latrines, and with no privacy at all except in the rarest of cases. On average, each person on board had a suffocating 1.8 square yards to himself. The luggage made the limited space more unbearable still. Travelers brought a variety of chests, boxes, and personal effects that inevitably ended up scattered all over the deck, cluttering every nook and cranny. Fights sometimes erupted when someone moved a chest just a few inches, unavoidably encroaching on a neighbor’s area. Voyagers were also forced to share their precious space with numerous animals, some deliberately transported and others uninvited. Chicken coops abounded, and pigs, goats, sheep, cows, and horses were also included in these voyages. From a distance, the decks of some of these vessels must have looked like veritable floating farms. The uninvited guests were surely the worst, however—rats, fleas, and lice roamed freely through the ships and mingled with everyone on board, recognizing no distinctions of social rank.

Overcrowding affected every single facet of life. Food and drink, for instance, were made available in a centralized, regimented fashion to all but the privileged few. Ordinary travelers could expect three square meals consisting mostly of water, wine, and hardtack (unleavened bread), with occasional meat and soup dishes. Unfortunately, the large number of mouths to feed put a premium on expediency rather than quality or flavor. Passengers found many reasons to complain. They noted the murkiness and smelliness of water; wine, even the cheap and watered-down kind, was always far more popular. The hardtack was dependably dry, blackened, rancid, and often bitten by rats and covered with cobwebs. Neither did the passengers have much praise for the salty, leathery, half-cooked meats that only increased the pangs of thirst. Polite eating manners were out of the question. Two, four, or more individuals shared big platters that were placed on the floor since there were no tables. Everyone took food liberally with his or her hands and passed around knives as necessary (conditions were not necessarily much better on land, as spoons and forks were just becoming widely used in Europe, amid some skepticism. Objecting to the use of forks, one German preacher remarked that God “would not have given us fingers had he wanted us to use this instrument.”).

11 March 2021

Spanish Women Pioneers in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 52-55:

ALONGSIDE THESE THREE caballeros [including Cabeza de Vaca], a microcosm of Spanish society was to travel to Florida. The expedition must have included a full complement of letrados, physicians, merchants, artisans, sailors, all the way down to lowly peasants seeking a fresh start. Five Franciscan brothers were to introduce the Indians to the mysteries of the Catholic faith.


The Florida expedition included women as well. Women were a fixture of early voyages of discovery and settlement. According to one estimate, they comprised around 10 percent of all licenses issued to departing passengers from Seville during much of the sixteenth century. In certain years they accounted for as much as 20 percent and even close to 30 percent of all European migrants to the New World. The majority of these pioneering women were married to members of the expeditions, but unmarried women traveled too, including the daughters of families, female servants, and prostitutes. 

The lure of the Americas was all too evident for those women interested in marriage. In Spain there was an overabundance of women due to male migration and early death from war. According to the ambassador of the Republic of Venice, in the 1520s Seville appeared to be “very nearly under the control of women,” many of whom earned their living in manly occupations like peonage, masonry, and roofing. The situation was the exact opposite in the Indies, where European women were notoriously scarce and greatly appreciated by affluent but lonesome conquistadors.


Not surprisingly, most women traveled to parts of the New World already settled by Europeans; they were far less likely to risk voyages of exploration and conquest headed for unknown lands. Some expedition captains refused to take females altogether. But Narváez was not among them. The first European women in Mexico had traveled with Narváez in the imposing armada that was to confront Cortés. In the Florida expedition there were ten women, all of whom were married and traveling with their husbands.

10 March 2021

Seville as Port City in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 39-41:

IN SIXTEENTH-CENTURY SPAIN, ALL NEW WORLD explorations originated in Seville, that marvel of a city-port on the Guadalquivir River. As Spain’s only port licensed to do business with the American colonies, Seville became a protagonist in the history of discovery, the starting and end point of all transatlantic voyages. As one contemporary so aptly put it, “Seville is the common homeland, the endless globe, the mother of orphans, and the cloak of sinners, where everything is a necessity and no one has it.” In the 1520s many sevillanos could still recall the stir caused by Columbus’s triumphant entrance in the spring of 1493. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea had paraded around town followed by ten natives and a few resilient parrots that he had brought from the newly discovered lands. The people of Seville had more recent memories of that cantankerous Portuguese commander, Ferdinand Magellan, who had departed in 1519 with five good ships. Three years later a lone vessel with tattered sails and twenty-one famished survivors pulled up into harbor after having circumnavigated the entire globe.

But far from being a backdrop or a silent witness, Seville was a beehive of activity, its workforce specializing in the procurement, outfitting, and manning of fleets bound for the New World, activities that drew men and women from all over Europe and North Africa. The main action centered on a stretch of beach that joined the left bank of the river to the city. Measuring 800 yards long and 350 yards wide, this area, commonly referred to as El Arenal (the Sandy Beach), functioned much like a surgeon’s operating table. On any given day, one could see dozens of ships crowding each other, all floating perpendicularly to the waterline to make the most of the work space. Many of these vessels were surrounded by swarms of carpenters, caulkers, riggers, stevedores, boatmen, pilots, accountants, royal officials, aspiring passengers, and the many other characters that populated this vibrant maritime community. Since the average lifespan of sixteenth-century ships that plied the transatlantic routes was a mere four years, repair crews were ubiquitous. Caulkers skillfully laid ships on one side by shifting the ballast and taking advantage of low tides to expose parts of the hull. They had a few frantic hours to scrub the bottom and add tarred oakum between the planks before the tide turned again. Loading a vessel required less skill but far more stamina. There were no piers or wharves at El Arenal, so the entire cargo—fifty, seventy, 120, or more tons—had to be taken by smaller boats and lifted up with ropes onto the deck, or carried on the backs of stevedores who staggered from shore to the ships over narrow planks.

It took about ten minutes to walk from El Arenal to the city center, where the imperial and ecclesiastical powers resided and expedition leaders wrestled with the overwhelming logistics of raising armadas. Human rivers flowed between the rowdy port scene and the august downtown through two main streets. The principal thoroughfare, a cobblestone street flanked by high stucco walls and wrought-iron grilles, began in the heart of El Arenal and ended at the steps of the Cathedral of Seville. Shipmasters recruited crew members and volunteers from these steps, and in the cool shade of the surrounding archways. Fittingly, the street was named La Calle de la Mar (“The Street of the Sea”), as it was here that crews bid their last farewells and caught their last glimpses of the city before boarding the ships.

06 March 2021

Fates of Mexican Revolutionaries

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing's Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 325-327:

THE LEADERS of the Mexican Revolution all died violent deaths. Venustiano Carranza assumed the presidency in mid-March of 1917 and returned to Mexico City. Emiliano Zapata, who had carried on his fight for agrarian reform in nearby Morelos, had continued to taunt Carranza, writing insulting letters to him that were published in the daily newspapers. In an intricate plot, Carranza succeeded in having Zapata and his bodyguards assassinated on April 10, 1919.

The relationship between Carranza and Álvaro Obregón grew strained as the presidential elections of 1920 drew near. Obregón, who had done more than anyone else to ensure Carranza’s triumph, expected Carranza to step aside so that he could become president. But Carranza was reluctant to give up power, especially to a military man like Obregón. The Mexican Constitution banned the reelection of the president so Don Venustiano, unable to run again, did the next best thing and threw his support to Ignacio Bonillas, a minor politician whom he thought he could control. In response, Obregón’s home state of Sonora declared that Carranza was no longer Mexico’s legitimate president and named Adolfo de la Huerta, the Sonoran governor, as the interim leader. Other leaders throughout Mexico joined the revolt.

Carranza, realizing his time had come, decided to leave Mexico City. But first he systematically looted the government treasury, exhibiting the “quiet, tireless sleepless greed” that Edith O’Shaughnessy had once spoken of. (During his tenure, theft was so common that a new verb, carrancear, was coined.) Onto a long train, he loaded millions of dollars in gold and silver, priceless antiques, presses and ink used to print paper money, and even disassembled airplanes. As the train chugged toward Veracruz, it was attacked by insurgents and smashed by a locomotive loaded with dynamite. High in the mountains, the presidential entourage was finally halted at a point where the tracks had been torn up. Carranza proceeded on horseback, carrying what he could on pack mules and leaving millions in gold and silver behind. In the remote village of Tlaxcalantongo, he took refuge in an earthen hut. He ate with his usual deliberateness and then retired for the evening. At four o’clock on the morning of May 21, 1920, he awoke to the sound of gunfire and the cries “Viva Obregón!” and “Muera a Carranza!” He screamed at his guards to save themselves as multiple bullets slammed into his chest, killing him. He was sixty years old.

The Mexican legislature appointed Adolfo de la Huerta to serve as interim president until the elections could be held. An urbane and friendly man, de la Huerta wanted to heal the wounds of the revolution and granted amnesty to numerous revolutionaries. To Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, de la Huerta seemed like “a virgin lost in a crowd of rabid and shrewd old hags who think they can become young again by rubbing against her.”

05 March 2021

Travails of U.S. Cavalry Horses

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing's Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 189-192:

The horses suffered the most. They were not the tough little ponies that the Villistas rode, but large-boned thoroughbreds or crosses between several breeds. They were big and powerful, but fragile, too. Nearly all of them were classified as “bays,” a stingy army description that failed to capture the many hues of a brown horse. In actuality, they were the color of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves; rich, warm chocolate, coffee, and the watery tannic of tea. Only their eyes were the same, huge dark pools revealing an animal capable of great fear and great courage.

Horses have a grazing animal’s nature; they are self-reliant and content enough to live alone, in the middle of a great plain, with only the wind and crows for company, but happier still with another horse that they can stand parallel to in the buggy months of summer, noses and rumps reversed, the tail of one swatting the flies from the face of the other. They are creatures of habit and thrive on the monotonous turning of day into night, looking forward to a pat of hay for breakfast, a pat of hay for lunch, a pat of hay for dinner, and grass in between. They become cantankerous when their feeding time is altered, startle at loud noises and sudden movement, and are made uneasy by changes in their environment. Yet these were precisely the travails that they would have to endure on the expedition.

Soldiers are expected to stand and fight, but everything in a horse tells it to flee when confronted with danger. Horses are gentle and unaggressive by nature, but their dispositions can turn rebellious in the hands of the wrong rider. Their mouths open willingly for the bit, which sits at the corners of their lips. If this most intimate of spaces is violated, if the reins are jerked or pulled repeatedly, horses can become tough mouthed and nonresponsive, or even worse, clamp the bit between their teeth and run away with their passenger. Their flesh is extremely sensitive—who has not seen a horse shudder under a fly’s weight?—yet ignorant riders think it necessary to pummel them with whips and spurs until the animal retreats into some reptilian corner of its brain and refuses to move at all.

A horse’s back—the beautiful curve that begins at the top of the head, slopes down across a smooth plain, and gently rises into the tail—must be carefully tended. Horses that experience pain and discomfort while being saddled learn to jig and prance and fill their bellies with air so that the girth strap needs to be repeatedly tightened. The long, twisting rivers of muscle covering the leg bones are susceptible to strains and microscopic tears, and an injury in one leg often means the other three have to compensate, with one injury frequently leading to a second. Even more impractical are a horse’s ankles, dainty as a ballerina’s and prone to wind puffs—swollen tissue that subsides only with rest and liniment.

The hooves, which are hard as stone, seem to be perfectly adapted to withstand the enormous impact of walking and trotting and cantering. At their center, though, is a wedge-shaped “frog” prone to drying and bruising. The wrong kind of food can flood the thick horny material with heat and cause permanent damage. Regular trimming and properly fitted shoes are essential. Unfortunately, the animals ridden into Mexico received neither, and their hooves grew long and added to their fatigue and the strain on their legs. The cavalrymen were considerate of their horses and tried to lessen their suffering. They brushed them twice a day and turned them loose to graze whenever possible. (The young Patton was adamant about the need for grazing and wrote scorching memos whenever he saw horses standing on the picket line.) But even the most tender, loving care could not make up for the lack of rolled oats and green alfalfa. The horses chewed up leather bridles, saddlebags, halters, and ropes. The soldiers purchased native corn, but before the grain could be fed to the horses, it had to be dumped onto blankets and the many small pebbles found in the mixture laboriously picked out. Starved though they were, many horses simply stopped eating if their teeth struck a rock. As the flesh melted from their bones, extra blankets were needed under the McClellan saddles to protect their backs. “Great care was taken of the horses’ backs,” remembered Sergeant Converse. “Blankets were folded carefully, saddles packed so the weights were distributed evenly and the men not allowed to lounge in the saddle.”

Many of the horses taken into Mexico were debilitated from the trauma of being boxed up and transported in railroad cars and they suffered from shipping fever and lice. During the campaign, they developed constipation, diarrhea, and life-threatening colic. Some fell to their deaths when they lost their footing on the mountain trails, or were dragged off a cliff by the wagon they were pulling. Many more were killed in the running gunfights, for they were always the largest targets on the battlefield. The majority, though, died of exhaustion and hunger. Quickly, like the little Villista ponies, they gave up their lives. A few were let go on the trail, to fend for themselves, but most were put out of their misery by a merciful bullet to the head. The soldiers grieved their deaths. Poor beasts, they muttered as they passed the huge, ungainly forms, bloated and barrel shaped, a blasphemy of the graceful creatures that they had been in life. With each one lost, Pershing’s challenge became greater. And the fighting had not yet begun.

04 March 2021

U.S. Army Units in the Villa Expedition

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing's Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 175-176:

The initial cavalry regiments tapped for service included the men of George Custer’s fabled Seventh, the Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth, the horse soldiers of the Eleventh, and the troopers of the Thirteenth. Accompanying these mounted regiments would be the Sixth and Sixteenth infantries and two batteries of the Sixth Field Artillery. The heavy artillery hardly seemed worth the trouble: “To transport one gun required ten animals, which needed shoeing and forage, plus a dozen men to look after the mules as well as assemble and fire the gun,” points out military historian Herbert Molloy Mason. Supporting the combat troops would be a signal corps to establish communication, an ambulance company and field hospital for the wounded, engineers to build roads and bridges, and two wagon companies to haul supplies. (A wagon company consisted of 36 men, 27 wagons, 112 mules, and 6 horses.)

Army quartermasters from around the country worked frantically to locate supplies and ship them to Columbus. A boxcar of Missouri mules was requisitioned from Saint Louis. Twenty-seven new trucks were purchased from the White Motor Company in Cleveland and the T. B. Jeffreys Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Newly broken horses were entrained at Fort Bliss. Strange-looking vehicles that were actually the military’s first tanks were loaded onto railroad cars. Wagon parts, ordnance, radio sets, medical supplies, rations, and forage were also hunted down and shipped to Columbus.

Troops were sent from Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Huachuca, Arizona; and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. At the request of President Wilson, Congress passed emergency legislation to increase the strength of the regular army from 100,000 to 120,000 men. Nearly all the additional men would be assigned to guard duty on the border or the expedition itself. Also dispatched to the border were Captain Benjamin Foulois and the country’s entire air force, which consisted of the First Aero Squadron and its eight Curtiss JN-3s, or Jennies. Flimsy as negligees and notoriously unreliable, the planes were dismantled and shipped by train. Captain Foulois posted ten riflemen at the front of the train and scattered more soldiers armed with rifles and pistols throughout the sleeping cars and the rest of the compartments.

03 March 2021

U.S. vs. Germany in Mexico, 1915

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing's Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 64-65:

Villa left the civilized comforts of Juárez and began the arduous march across the Sierra Madre. It took his men twenty-five days to get through the mountains with their horses, forty-two cannons, and pack mules. Men and horses perished when they lost their footing on the narrow passes and plunged headlong into the deep canyons. Especially treacherous was the Cañón del Púlpito, a name taken from a towering rock shaped like a church pulpit.

When the Villistas had exited the mountains and were toiling toward Agua Prieta, Villa learned that President Wilson had recognized Venustiano Carranza as the de facto leader of Mexico. To Villa, who had professed himself a friend of the Americans early on, Wilson’s decision was an unthinkable betrayal.

FOR WILSON, the decision had as much to do with the deteriorating geopolitical conditions as it did with Villa. In Berlin, the German high command had continued to watch with interest the tension between the United States and Mexico, hoping against hope that war might break out between the two countries. Such a conflict, they theorized, would slow the U.S. supplies going to Great Britain and discourage the United States from entering the European war. An even more delicious scenario involved manipulating Japan, which had allied itself with Great Britain, into joining Mexico in a war against the United States, thereby diverting resources from that potential enemy as well.

The Germans had hoped to use Victoriano Huerta as their catalyst and had offered to supply him with arms and money to return to Mexico, regain control of the country, and attack the United States. Huerta accepted the German offer and arrived in New York City on April 13, 1915, almost a year to the day after the Veracruz invasion. Two months later, he boarded a train for the border and was arrested a few miles west of El Paso. By then, Huerta was extremely ill from cirrhosis of the liver, and was eventually allowed to spend his remaining days with family members, who were now living in El Paso. He died on January 13, 1916, his bed facing his convulsed country and his parlor filled with old generals who wept openly and smoked corn-husk cigarettes. Thousands attended his funeral, where he lay in a coffin covered with flowers, wearing his full-dress uniform. Worried about further German attempts to destabilize Mexico, the United States decided to recognize the bellicose Carranza. The War Department’s chief of staff, Hugh Scott, had gotten wind of the administration’s plan and did everything he could to stop it. “The recognition of Carranza had the effect of solidifying the power of the man who had rewarded us with kicks on every occasion and of making an outlaw of the man who had helped us.” But the American decision was a pragmatic one. Carranza had the upper hand, Villa’s fortunes were in decline, and stability in Mexico mattered most.

The United States had even gone beyond simply recognizing Carranza as Mexico’s legitimate leader. The government allowed Carranza’s troops to travel by train through the border states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to reinforce Agua Prieta. On the thirty-first of October, as the yellow plume of dust signaling the advance guard of Villa’s army appeared on the horizon, three infantry brigades consisting of five thousand Carrancistas arrived in the little town.

02 March 2021

Pancho Villa's Boxcars

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing's Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 47-48:

Villa used long trains to transport his soldiers from city to city. On top of the boxcars rode pigs, chickens, children, and soldaderas—wives, daughters, and even grandmothers who served as helpmates and nurses and fellow fighters. His pride and joy was his hospital train, which consisted of forty enameled boxcars staffed with Mexican and U.S. physicians and supplied with the latest surgical appliances. With its bright blue crosses and the words Servicio Sanitario stenciled on the sides, the hospital train followed Villa’s troops into battle and transported the most severely wounded back to hospitals in the cities. He had a boxcar for correspondents, a boxcar for moving-picture men, a boxcar for his cannons and extra railroad ties, and a caboose, which he used for his headquarters. Painted gray and decorated with chintz window curtains, the caboose was big enough for a couple of bunks and a partitioned area for his cook. In the early days, Villa would sit in his caboose in his blue underwear while as many as fifteen generals lounged at his feet to argue and plot strategy for their next campaign. Hanging on the walls above them were pictures of Villa on one of his frothing horses; the querulous Don Venustiano; and Rodolfo Fierro, Villa’s handsome and ruthless friend, who was christened el carnicero—the butcher—after he had made a sport of shooting three hundred prisoners as they tried to escape over a corral wall.

If Fierro represented the dark side of Pancho Villa’s nature, then the aristocratic and exquisitely mannered Felipe Ángeles represented the good. Ángeles, the army general who had been detained along with Madero and his vice president, had been educated at the Colegio Militar and excelled at mathematics and artillery science. He was in the federal army when the revolution broke out and offered to fight against the revolutionaries. But he soon became personal friends with Madero during the latter’s brief presidency. After Madero was killed, Ángeles joined Don Venustiano’s counterrevolution. Disgusted by Carranza’s opulent lifestyle and the preening sycophants who surrounded him, Ángeles eventually aligned himself with Pancho Villa’s División del Norte. Villa revered Ángeles’s intellectual and military capabilities and his rigorous honesty. While he considered himself far too ignorant and uneducated to govern a turbulent country like Mexico, Villa often thought Ángeles could be the next president.

01 March 2021

Mexico Before Its Revolution

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing's Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 21-23:

By the end of Díaz’s reign, Mexico had a population of fifteen million. The majority were mestizo—individuals of mixed blood—but one-third were of pure Indian stock. Chihuahua and Sonora, two of the northern states that lay along the U.S. border, were home to the Tarahumara and the Yaquis. The Cora, Huichol, and Tarascans lived along the Pacific coast and in the hills and valleys west of Mexico City. The Mazahua, Nahuatl, and Otomí had settled in the central highlands. The Gulf state of Veracruz was home to the Huastec and Totonac. The Zapotecs, Mixes, Zoque, Huave, and Mixtec, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Chontal, and Tzotzil lived in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And in the Yucatán peninsula, remnants of the ancient Maya had survived.

In 1521, Hernán Cortés conquered Tenochtitlán, the great center of the Aztec civilization and the site of what was to become Mexico City. For the next three centuries, Mexico lived under Spain’s rule, which could be harsh, benign, or indifferent, depending upon the financial needs of the mother country and the temperament of the monarch who happened to be in power at the time. When Mexico finally gained its independence, in 1821, political chaos, internal revolts, and repeated clashes with foreign powers ensued. Texas was lost in 1836 to English-speaking colonizers who had been encouraged by Spain to settle the far reaches of its empire. A decade later, following a war with the United States, Mexico lost another huge chunk of territory to its hungry neighbor—millions of acres that one day would become New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Exhausted and humiliated, struggling under a huge debt load, Mexico found itself in 1863 once again under the yoke of a European power. This time it was France and Napoleon III, who installed Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg and his wife, Carlota, as emperor and empress of Mexico. The monarchy survived less than five years, defeated by an army led by Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian. Afterward, Maximilian was executed, Carlota went insane, the republic was restored, and Juárez was elected president. Juárez died of a heart attack in 1872, after winning a new term in office, and was succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Four years later, Porfirio Díaz toppled Lerdo from power and began a thirty-year authoritarian regime known as the Porfiriato.

In order to bring Mexico into the twentieth century, Díaz had opened the doors of his country to foreign investors and through them came the Guggenheims, Hearsts, and Rockefellers, Standard Oil and Phelps Dodge, and hundreds of other, smaller land speculators, wildcatters, miners, ranchers, and farmers. The Americans built railroads and sank mine shafts, the Spaniards opened small retail shops, and the French established factories and banks. Vast cattle ranches emerged along the northern tier of states, and huge farms devoted to single crops such as sugar, cacao, coffee, and rubber were carved from the tropical lowlands. For his efforts, Díaz garnered admiration from industrialists, politicians, and even great literary figures, such as Leo Tolstoy.

His popularity was greatest in Mexico City, where wealthy foreigners and daughters and wives of native hacendados lived in walled compounds fragrant with roses, bougainvillea, and hibiscus. The melancholy cries of tamale women and scissors grinders dropped like birdsong into the somnolent quiet of late afternoons, and in the distant recesses of the lovely old homes, legions of cooks and nannies and cleaning girls worked soundlessly, faceless and nameless to the lady of the house. With its colonial languor and lingering Victorian mannerisms, Mexico City seemed like a metropolis enclosed in a shining glass bubble, drifting in its own time. Wearing Paris gowns, London-made tuxedos, or hand-sewn lace, the wealthy shuttled to luncheons and teas and dinner parties in horse-drawn carriages and chauffeur-driven cars. They went horseback riding in Chapultepec Park, organized group outings to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, and in the evenings flocked to the opera.

Pouring through their salon windows was a golden sunlight that made everything seem like a dream. So dreaming, the wealthy foreigners and their Mexican friends failed to see the horrors in their midst: the women crouching behind the waiting carriages picking undigested corn kernels from horse manure; the press gangs who snatched husbands and sons and young girls off the street, the men destined for the army and the women for gunpowder factories; the tubercular Indians who clogged the charity wards and were fodder for medical experiments; the political victims of the firing squads, who spun on their heels in the liquid light, the bullets turning them round and round until they collapsed in front of adobe walls stained dark with old blood.

The modernization and prosperity that Díaz had presided over caused grave dislocation among the country’s peasants, factory workers, and even Mexico’s elite ruling class. By the time the Mexican Revolution erupted, foreigners controlled most of the country’s vast natural resources, its railroads and businesses.