I was thirteen years old when I first saw Mexico; it was March of 1953. I am quite sure of the date because we attended a bullfight and I still have the stub of my ticket. Thirteen is probably the ideal age for a little boy to see a bullfight. I had read a good deal about them beforehand and I appreciated it for what it was, and felt no need to see another. Had I thought there any possibility that the bull might win, I might have felt differently.
Already at that early age I had a picture in my mind of Mexico, confected from movies and magazine pictures and photographs my parents had brought back from their trips, including the one they had said they were going to take me on, but forgot to.
The Mexico of my thirteen-year-old’s imagination was an extravagant place of mountains and deserts, of bare-footed peons leading burros loaded with firewood, of cactus and maguey and rattlesnakes. Of bandoleered bandits and poor peasants in white pajamas and huge straw hats and garish serapes. Aztecs and pyramids and feathered serpents. Volcanoes and tamales and goods spread on the ground on market day. Old churches and mariachis and venal policemen and happy, tinny coronet-band music. Women in flowing shawls and high combs in their hair and the evening paseo. Rifle-festooned revolutionaries coming out of the desert riding the front end of a locomotive. “Treasure of Sierra Madre” country. “A musical comedy country,” said Covarrubias. A dusty country of cracked plaster and peeling whitewash on colonial buildings with red-tiled roofs. A country where everything looked old and deliciously romantic.
That was my Mexico when I was thirteen years old. And for 1953, it may not have been that far off. Thirty years later, when I returned, that was the country I went looking for. We both had changed, and Mexico had changed more than I had, and to find my Mexico I had to poke around a bit, though not as much as you might think, as Old Mexico is still there, just a little harder to find than it used to be.