Michener's Mexico

A book on bullfighting, not Mexico

James A. Michener's Mexico (New York: Random House, 1992) is the place to go if you like entertainment and an explanation of the corrida for norteamericanos. It is not the place to get an idea of the culture and history of Mexico. Things happen in a fictional city, Toledo, that would seem to be in the location and circumstances of Guanajuato, but which is nothing like Guanajuato at all. There are not only the mines, but also a pyramid, both of which figure prominently in the story. The mines particularly attracted my interest, since there is a lot of fascinating material here that I do not know, and was eager to discover. However, Michener's metallurgy is like this: you take the silver ore, hammer it to powder, and out comes the silver. His mine, even when 1600 feet deep, is totally dry. Ventilation and illumination are not much problem, and Indian women carried the ore up in baskets on steps until the 1860's. The diagram of the mine is like one that would be drawn by someone who had never seen a mine, like the elephants on medieval maps whose artists never saw an elephant. The conclusion is that one is never going to discover anything useful about Mexican silver mining from Michener.

In fact, the Indians had no silver, except for the small amounts of native silver they happened to find. The silver is found in the ore argentite, a soft material with metallic luster that quickly tarnishes when cut, and which is usually disseminated. Silver was produced by the Patio process in olden days, perfected in Pachuca. The ore was ground, mixed with copper sulphate and salt, and roasted. The roasted ore was ground and amalgamated with metallic mercury, dissolving the bits of silver. The amalgam was separated, and then distilled to reveal the silver. The silver was further purified, and cast into bars to be sent to Mexico City to be minted. Michener says the king got 60%, the church 30%,and the mine owners 10%. Actually, the king got his quinta, or 1/5, and the mine owner the rest.

The struggle for independence is referred to only once, as the "Revolution of 1810," Hidalgo and Morales are never mentioned, nor the fact that the struggle was lost, and independence only achieved by the conservative reaction to liberalism in Spain. The bitter opposition of españoles and americanos to one another is never mentioned, equally little the fierce opposition of the indios and castas to both. The name Iturbide appears only once, with only incorrect information on his short reign as emperor. The war with the United States is treated very sketchily and erroneously, as is the Civil War--both receive far more room than any Mexican conflict, and both are treated from a purely U. S. viewpoint. Santa Anna is mentioned several times, but his importance is scarcely indicated. He is said to have shot Iturbide, but then this is changed to merely having him shot. Of course, it was more complicated than this. It is very possible that Michener knew very little Mexican history, and only threw in a few references he found in his research.

His account of the Indians is equally superficial. He has them as slaves, whereas many communities were autonomous, exempt from civil and military duties, though oppressed by taxes and the Church. His local Indians, which he calls Altomecs, seem to be modelled on the Mixtecs, and he develops a fabulous ancient history for them, as northern conquerors of the peaceful Drunken Builders, discoverers of pulque. This all seems so close to rubbish as could be, especially the overthrow of a terrible Mother Goddess by irate women. It is good story, but hardly likely. One can learn as much about Indians from Michener as about mining, it appears.

I do not know much about bullfighting (except that I have seen bullfights, and the impressive black bulls standing on high rocks in the Guadarrama from the train between Madrid and Ávila. Michener tells a lot, and it certainly seems true. One supposes he was a definite aficionado. One chapter he calls The Sorteo, which he defines as "sorting," when the bulls are separated into groups that are distributed among the toreros by lot. Actually, sorteo is the lottery part, not the sorting part, and the word has nothing to do with sorting at all. This is just another case of a Spanish word's looking like an English word with which it has no connection, and it's strange that Michener did not catch it.

Mexico is a good read, but tells very little about Mexico. There is a danger that some people may regard the fiction in it as fact, which would be lamentable. Most of the characters treated in detail are actually Americans, or Spaniards, not Mexicans at all.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 6 November 2001
Last revised