This place we live in, a deeper awareness of it, settles on us in bits and pieces. We go to a party at the hacienda in San Marcos that existed before the town because we met the heiress at our book club in Xalapa – and then again at the Universidad Veracruzana -- Escuela para Estudiantes Extranjeros where she is an administrator and we are students. So we are neighbors of a sort. Only fleeting ones, though, because the hacienda is now uninhabited and Christina uses it only for parties and gatherings.
The party at the hacienda is a birthday party for a woman named Felicia, an old woman now, elegant and intelligent. An American, she has lived in Xalapa for over 40 years and raised six children, three of whom live in the U.S., three who live in Mexico. One of the daughters is an actor here in Mexico. She is a serious actor and like most good and serious actors here she makes her living in telenovelas. She was at the party as were two other of Felicia’s children, all beautiful, and some grandchildren. All the children here are married to Mexicans. Christina, our hostess, is married to an American and has been for forty years. He and she met when he was a student at the UV Escuela para Estudiantes Extranjeros many years ago. It is he who takes us through the faded, high-ceilinged old rooms now barely furnished: an elegant old canopied bed here, an old chest there; artwork framed in termite-ridden frames, an array of antiques on the floor which the heirs haven’t gotten around to choosing from, a game table with chairs pushed away as if a game had just ended; here the room he and she stayed in when they were first married, there her parents’ marriage bed. Ancient photos of her grandfathers: one sympathetic to the revolutionaries a hundred years ago, the other not.
The party is outside, in the coredor, or covered porch which runs the inside length of the building. Sitting here in a large circle of friends and relatives, we are completely unaware of the buses and cars and trucks making their way up and down the busy road just forty feet away. The party is a convivio: everyone has brought something to eat, from Mexican flautas (not called flautas here, but if I remember simply rolled tortillas) to sushi. We have brought salami and cheese and crackers. The birthday cake is glorious. Cream and chocolate, towers and swirls of icing. There is one candle with one of Felicia’s rings around it in the center of the cake. The grandchildren, the children, the friends, the men, then the women, take turns ringing Felicia at the table to sing Las Mañanitas and Happy Birthday as well.
The coredor does not look out on a garden as one might expect, but on a large, two-levelled concrete courtyard. This was a working hacienda, a coffee hacienda. The coffee was dried in the courtyard. Christina’s husband, a Minnesota boy when he arrived, ended up running the day-to-day operations. In those days, they lived here for the coffee-harvesting part of the year. Even as a child, Christina did not live at the hacienda full time, but only perhaps five or six months of the year. She and her family lived in a house in el centro de Xalapa, one that now contains some store or other.
In days gone by, the land around the hacienda was all coffee-growing land that belonged to Christina’s family. I have not yet fit this into the broader history of our area, but bit by bit, they sold the land off or squatters claimed it and the townof San Marcos grew while the hacienda became a beneficio, a place where small growers and pickers bring their coffee to sell. Christina’s husband told us how the growers brought the coffee and how he sorted it. He showed us tubs for soaking the coffee before it was hulled and how the coffee was laid out on the courtyard for the first part of the drying process which was then was finished in large cookers. He also talked about how the coffee has been hijacked recently by giant companies and how he would like once again to open his beneficio so he and the growers could sell directly to smaller buyers in Mexico City and the U.S. He had had good relations with the producers and felt they all deserved a better deal than they were now getting.
I thought of the movie, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis as we said good-bye. All these beautiful people, the generations of them together and seemingly happy inside a wall, so close and so distant from the noise of modern Mexico outside. But unlike the Finzi-Continis, their cloistered existence ended some time ago, if it ever existed at all.