Don Ambrosio’s joints ached. As he climbed the stairs to the platform containing the rusting remains of the haciendas henequen scraping machine, 3 large white ladies in straw hats and plaid shorts bearing what must surely be expensive camera equipment close on his heels, he suddenly felt older than his 73 years. He was getting tired of this, showing a seemingly never-ending stream of tourists the ruined plantation that had been a part of his life for the last 60 years.
He turned to face them, directing his gaze at each of the three flushed red faces that stared back at him expectantly. Two had already raised their cameras and were pointing them directly at him; he wondered if he should start a little song and dance number. Wearily, he took a battered henequen leaf – one of his props – from the floor behind a giant metal wheel and, bending it in half, showed them the fiber that would have been extracted and motioned to them how the leaves came up from the fields and onto a conveyor belt that fed them into the scraper, leaving liquid and pulp behind. The tourists snapped away with their cameras and he paused for a moment and smiled a tired smile. His English was unfortunately non-existent and their Spanish was limited to “si” and “no“.
It seemed – no it was – so long ago now that he had worked as a henequen leaf cutter in the vast extensions of land that had once belonged to the plantation, working from 5 AM to 5 PM under the merciless sun for very little pay. In those days, he remembered, there was no question about what one was going to do, or to be, other than a worker at the hacienda. If you were lucky you worked in the hacienda buildings, tending to gardens or perhaps performing cleaning duties for the wealthy owners who spent an inordinate amount of time lounging around on the expansive terraces, sipping cool jamaica tea or perhaps something a little stronger. If you were less fortunate, you worked in the fields and were woken each morning by a 4 AM whistle that signaled the beginning of another backbreaking day in the fields or on the machines.
The gringas had stopped taking photos and were waiting to move on.
He had already taken them through the haciendas main buildings, including the kitchen, living and dining areas and had tried to explain, as best as he could with his mime techniques, the fact that every room in the hacienda could be converted into a bedroom or sleeping area thanks to multiple hammock hooks on the walls. He had also shown them the office, where he recalled Don Ignacio, the owner, spending many hours poring over papers with the assistance of an accountant making sure that every aspect of the henequen production was recorded, measured and accounted for. The gringas had shown special interest in – and taken many photos of – the wooden desk, now infested by out of sight termites and ants, who were silently reducing the ancient piece of furniture to dust before his very eyes.
He now showed them the silent motors that once ran the scraper machines; hulking steam engines that belched smoke unfettered by environmental concerns into the Yucatan sky for years through tall stone chimneys that rose, San Giminiano-like, above the flat land like lightless-lighthouses and now served as beacons for visitors intrigued by the prospect of exploring the Yucatans rich past. He recalled the noise of these machines that could be heard for miles around and while it may have been annoying, it was the sound of money as well, for this was the time of the so-called “green gold” which made the chosen families – those of European descent – rich beyond their wildest dreams and allowed them to furnish their mansions and plantations with the finest offerings from Europe, from floor tiles and furniture to crystal chandeliers and marble statues. Meanwhile, Ambrosio, and the other 300 dark-skinned Mayan workers and their families, lived in the most basic conditions and shared none of this wealth. Instead, they were paid a meager salary in currency produced expressly for their hacienda – it was useless anywhere else – and were limited to buying their provisions at the tienda de raya, or company store, at often inflated prices.
He led the gringas on to the hacienda’s small chapel. While they – somewhat disrespectfully he thought – snapped close-up photos of the altar and the haciendas patron saint dressed in a purple frock, he recalled that many of his friends from the village had initially been glad when, in the mid 1930’s, the leftist federal government introduced land reform and forced the hacienda owners to relinquish control of the thousands of acres they had and turn them over to the mostly Mayan workers. These same workers had quickly changed their tune when they realized that without the machinery, still under the control of the hacendados, they were unable to do anything with the henequen plantations. The owners, meanwhile, also came to a similar realization as the upstart Indians began demanding a better price for the plant, thereby cutting into their enormous profit margins and making the business less attractive. Many of Ambrosios friends had then complained that perhaps they had been better off under the old system as they had been more or less taken care of by the hacienda owners, who, while not permitting anyone to improve their lot in life had provided such basics as elementary education, a living wage, basic medical care and a strict dose of Catholicism. Of course it was too late; the federal law was now the law of the land and things were about to get even worse. The invention of synthetic fibers dealt the final death blow to the henequen industry which, through the demand for rope produced from this plant for the worlds shipping industry and many agricultural applications, had made a select few Yucatecans inordinately wealthy.
In a way, he had been glad to see the end of the henequen; glad to see the owners abandon the buildings to find refuge and undertake other business ventures in Merida. With the demise of the hacienda, the beatings, the 12 hour work days and the harsh penalties for the most trivial transgressions also disappeared.
He took the ladies to the hacienda gift shop, where they examined postcards and trinkets and bought refrescos from Ambrosios daughter who had forgone a life in the city of Merida, preferring to remain in the pueblo surrounding the former plantation and work alongside her father. She had never known the hard life he had led in the long-overgrown henequen fields and for that, he was grateful.
The gringas were done with their shopping and handed Ambrosio a $50 peso bill and through their gestures and smiles, he could make out that they were very pleased with the tour, such as it was. He smiled back and said softly, “Gracias.”
Unexpectedly, melancholy tears came to his eyes – the eyes that had seen so much – and he turned away before anyone could see.
He was very tired indeed.