Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Stream of consciousness from the past.....but it leads to the future. The Hacienda de Santa Engracia, quite near the Quinta Tesoro de la Sierra Madre

     To be clear, it should be first stated that the ex-Hacienda de Santa Engracia
The Hacienda de Santa Engracia - a bit of distortion
due to the 360 degree format, but a true presentation
remains as a hotel, with an official rating from the certification group within the central government as a 5 - Star facility.   The main problem at this time is that the occupancy has dropped from an average in 2009 of 55% to the present 01.4%.   In relative terms, it is essentially moribund.   The worst of the decline began in 2011, and by the end of the year of 2012 the facility was comatose.   What was a permanent staff, "de planta" under full coverage, wage & hour, IMSS, etc. was 19 people, and it is now 3.

     Given a week's notice they could be up and running to receive a group.  Given 10 or 12 days they could be ready for the bishop to officiate the wedding of the governor's daughter.   It is one of the great lamentations.   We used to pick up clients referred by the Hacienda who would use the Quinta Tesoro de la Sierra Madre as an overflow valve, especially from functions like weddings and funerals.   Many of our repeat Mexican guests came from those who had first contact with us via said method.

An interior corridor
     (1)   The times of the Hacienda as an outback, hideaway place for the rich folks from Texas, Mexico City, and Monterrey (and other places including New York, Chicago, Dallas) began shortly after Emilio Portes Gil, native of Tamaulipas and the Cd. Victoria area .... and one-time provisional President of Mexico, signed the formal normalization of the Agrarian Reform initiative at the Hacienda de Santa Engracia in 1932.
     He served the next administration as sort of a minister plenipotentiary in  implementation of a very clunky, arbitrary Agrarian Reform Law mandated by the Constitucion de 1917.   By his efforts, it was agreed that depredations by extreme leftist agitators would desist from further anti-social and bellicose behaviour as it was stated.  It was further agreed that the latifundistas (large property owners) had agreed and complied to sacrifice their properties, once and for all times, to the process of repartition of small tracts to what was hoped to become self-sustaining farmer & family operations.   Various "ejido" governing councils had been established and they signed the agreements along with the five or six hacendados (large land holders) who held massive citrus and other farming operations, totalling up to 2,000,000 acres.
The main dining room.
  The all-ebony table
weight a little over 4,400 pounds.
     They all went their separate ways, more or less, and Don Jose' Martinez Gomez decided to try to make a living raising ultra-fine horses and breeding bulls.   To this day, amazingly, there are scores of trophies from State Fairs and other expositions where the Hacienda de Santa Engracia took a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place trophy....from Texas to Queretaro, Aguascalientes, and other places.  Don Jose (known as Don Pepe among his friends and the locals) also had a horse in the Kentucky Derby that finished 4th....

     Because of the hobnobbing he did with the Gringos...especially Texans of the Southern Methodist University and University of Texas crowd, and oddly, the Texas A & M crowd....conversations would turn to the old Hacienda that his family had held for "....thousands of years down in Old Mexico".​   He invited people down, and as were things in those days....although the heads of government were decidedly anti-American....there seemed to be little to no 
compunction about driving down to the interior even though the roads were not up to the task, at times.   Of course, in those years, the highways and bi-ways were of a different level  as well.

The front veranda to the Hacienda
     There was a train that ran from Saint Louis, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Laredo....and then made connections with the elegant old Aztec Eagle (Aguila Azteca) for the 40 hour trip from Nuevo Laredo to Mexico City,   It had 224 stops, carried 3rd, 2nd, and 1st class coaches, an opulent saloon car, an amazing diner, and usually 6 Pullman dormitory cars, two of which would be from the Missouri Pacific's Texas Eagle International.

   In Monterrey, the passengers could de-board and take the Monterrey - Tampico train that left around 8:00 am.   It would have a 1st class car or two....somewhat survivable...and normally had a consist of 8 - 10 coaches, and occasionally a few freight-laden boxcars.   It could normally make the arrival at the Estacion Santa Engracia shortly after mid-day.   There (in the 1930s - 1954 +/-), buggies and buck-boards awaited, along with a Packard (or similar) if arrangements had been telegraphed two or three days in advance.  The Packard was, of course, from the Hacienda.   The six mile trip from the Estacion to the Hacienda would require almost an hour.   There was a mule-drawn drayage on a very narrow-gauge extension​ that went out to the Hacienda with two flat cars, one for passengers, and one for freight.   If there were any blockage or catastrophic damage to the dirt road that went to the Hacienda, everyone had to use the drayage.   Our first trip - (Summer 1952) to the Hacienda was on one of the last runs of that same drayage. 

     Returning to Don Pepe's Gringo friends  -  a group came down in the early 1930s to have a good ole Texan time in Old Mexico.   They actually drove down, did all the bad roads, and lack of facilities.   They had engaged a guide in Monterrey...something that was required by laws en force at that time...and that guide, interestingly enough worked with us on our Excursions fifty years later.   The Pan American Highway had been been constructed to Cd. Victoria by that point, and that guide was offered and accepted a position of secretary and administrative aide to the Construction Superintendent of that project from Cd. Victoria to Tamazunchale, San Luis Potosi....because the Guide, old Rudolfo Tellez Vasquez spoke completely unaccented English (he had lived and studied in Dallas, Texas from age 5 to 25.) and had a college degree from the University of Nuevo Leon in History and Anthropology, and could speak Huastec to a more than functional level. (Rudy is another whole story)

     In any regard these people arrived at the Hacienda and were greeted very, very warmly.   Remember how absolutely boring it must have been out there at that time.  Plus, Don Pepe was a true Gringo-phile, and had a deep affection for the concept of America.   The pachangas (barbecues) and the music played by rustic but competent musicians, and the service and the mystique of Mexican food and alcohol, civility, and that sense of a perpetuity that Mexico seems to have intoxicated the Gringo friends who had taken Don Pepe up on his offer of a free week's stay.

    During one session while under the influence, let us say of the gardenias, orange blossoms, and mesquite smoke from the grill...., it was noticed that there is a support beam of the ceiling of the dining room where a hammer and sickle had been carved.   When queried, Don Pepe confessed that he had ordered his carpenters to put the hated emblem there, in case the leftist "community organisers" would manage to break through some day and threaten the lives and property that pertained to the Hacienda.  He also allowed that he still had fear of such an event, because the "communists never give up until they have ruined everything and replaced it with slavery". 

     One of his Gringo friends who had been handling various cases that had to do with Mexico opined to Don Pepe, "You know that there is a provision in the Agrarian Reform law that states that any large holding that has  remnant buildings, homes, and other such antique structures can gain exemption from harassment and over-enforcement by establishing a touristically oriented service.    Such a service can be a hotel, restaurant, or some culturally important matter."   He outlined a plan whereby the Hacienda could become a destination for city people to "return'' to the country in order to escape the madness of the big city, at least for a week or a week-end.   He also said that he would be willing to guarantee, the very next summer, the arrival of 30 Gringos to stay for a fortnight, and to pay 10 dollars per day each for room and board.

     For the next year every three or five days, the runner from the telegraph station at the Estacion Santa Engracia would come with a message about the group to come...how many married couples, how many single men, how many single women, who wanted a girls' room for four, who wanted a poker-after-supper setting for the men....can we have a huapango group play so we can dress up and dance?   They also warned that perhaps not all the people would be Texans.   Then one day the messenger came from the telegraph office with 1,000 pesos (about 1/2 a good salary for a year in Mexico in those days).  The message?   Tell Don Jose that this is a deposit for the group arriving in June.

     On the date indicated, the people arrived.   There were seven or eight motorcars with a bunch of people and lots of luggage.  Don Pepe had his "peons" (they were all employees at that time) ready to carry the bags of all to a centre point in the interior patio where the bags could be claimed and then carried by the staff to the appropriate quarters.  In those years there was only the Manor House of the Hacienda.  It miraculously accommodated the group, with the four single ladies over there, and the married couples here, and the rowdy single men at the next place....
     The next thing was that the rowdy men were swinging on the long rope off of the rubber tree, and dive bombing each other in the concrete swimming pool.  The benches were made with the very expensive, special order tiles, and were covered with towels, people, and all nature of food and drink.
     All were toasting to the idea that there was no electricity, no telephones, no radio.   Of course, Don Pepe came to inform everyone that there is now electricity, derived from his diesel powered generator.  There will be electric lights until midnight.   He also informs one and all that there is a desk at the entrance where the Telegrafos y Comunicaciones de Mexico has established a temporary desk for the sending and receiving of telegrams.   And....there is a radio in the library that can pick up American stations if you wish, he would add.

     As the fortnight came to an end....the horseback riding, the trips to the mountains, a couple of nights for some to Ciudad Victoria and purchases at the markets and from the State Prison of nice furniture made of ebony and mesquite....training to Victoria and training back to the Hacienda and all the pleasantries....tears....abrazos....good-byes....you come and visit us now....the bulk of the group left, and only the four single ladies stayed behind.
    They stayed behind because they needed another fortnight to truly appreciate the Mexican addiction.   And Don Pepe said he would personally escort them back to Monterrey and put them on a Pullman dormitory, destination Dallas.   We have no understanding of the impressions of Mrs. Martinez during these matters, but it is known that she went and stayed in Mexico City with her aunt for a couple of months after this entire episode.

       It is true that Don Jose Martinez Gomez had some peculiar sway over women....and he was just a scrawny bald guy.   It is still something that some of the now-middle aged, but then younger employees noticed.   Correct ladies putting on careful make-up, wearing designer cowgirl outfits and heirloom jewellery for supper.   Don Jose did appreciate attractive women.

      But the main point is that from that time forward, from about 1935 through 1960, including the Second War, Korea, prosperity and recession the Gringos emanating from that first group arrived at the door of the Hacienda de Santa Engracia.   People from the registry of America's cities....especially Highland Park area of Dallas....made the visit a once or twice event every year.   Many took their children and grandchildren there in order to experience their first encounter with the "Real Mexico" that seems to entice so many Gringos.

(The bulk of this information comes from conversations about Don Jose' Martinez  Gomez is derived from Ascension Ramirez Martinez, the ranking non-commissioned officer of the Hacienda.  He was Don Jose's man-friday, butler, general overseer, and the boss in the absence of Don Jose'.   He learned a good use of the English language by practice and by reading many of Don Jose's books.   Our conversations were in Spanish, and usually after Ascension {"Chon"} had taken a good amount of relaxant (beer mixed with tequila).  One thing that made his stories good to excellent were the photographs, some that dated back into the 1920s that demonstrated Chon's closeness to Don Jose' from Jose's adolescence until his death.   Ascension (Chon) left this earth about 10 years ago now.

     (2)   The train between Monterrey and Tampico was used by people (the people we speak about above) as a conveyance of choice....more like a "fling among the common-folk"  when coming down and back from Monterrey.   Once involved in this cocoon, they knew that they could get back on an essentially deluxe overnight train from Monterrey to Dallas.  The Monterrey - Tampico train, in those days, had no amenities beyond restrooms that functioned well-enough in the first-class cars and then in declining  quality in the 2nd and 3rd class.   By 1946 the 3rd class designation was eliminated.  I rode the train on various occasions, and it was tolerable, but not what one might consider "World Class - Gran Turismo".   During the 1950s, people arrived more commonly by motorcar, although a few came by train just for the lark of it.

     Late in the final stages of passenger train service in Mexico, "Star Trains" were established.  One of those was an overnight express between Monterrey and Tampico (every night, simultaneous departures)....the trains were full and quite nice with refurbished and well-maintain coaches, but all passenger trains stopped running in the mid-1990s, leaving only the Copper Canyon run as true passenger, business, tourist, and local use transportation line.

     (3)    We began to operate at the Hacienda de Santa Engracia in general tourism in 1977/1978

.  It followed a search to find "where I had been as a child" while I was trying to show a friend, Gordon Simmer, some of the back doors and closets of Mexico.  It was somewhat difficult to find a place with a paved road where there had been none, and where there were big electricity standards where there had been none, and where there were great extensions of citrus and other tropical vegetables where once there had been nothing but hennequin maguey plantations.

      I finally remembered where "it had to be" and we drove up a paved road....the same one you left the Santa Engracia area on....passing through the fields and orchards, until finally arriving at the Hacienda de Santa Engracia.   We went up the steps and met the same boy that you met, but when he was 13 years old.   I asked if Don Jose was around, and he asked "Which Don Jose?"

     I responded, "El sen~or hacendado, el pelon."  (The hacienda-owner,  the bald fellow.)

     The boy...whom you know as "Efrain", declared that El Sr. Dn. Jose is with the Angels.  "His son is now the owner of this."  Efrain declared simply.  I advised him that we were interested in seeing some of the work, because we had heard that there was quite an investment being made in the modernisation and expansion of rooming capacity for tourism.  Efrain told us that the son was not available but that he would be to-morrow, early in the morning because there was a crew coming in to do a foundation and to outline the old gardens so as to renovate them.

     "Can we speak with him?"   I asked.

     "I can call for you on the radio-telephone"

   Then, to make a long story longer, I spoke briefly through the radio-telephone with Jose (4) aka "El Hereford" and he assured me that he would be at the Hacienda in the early hours of to-morrow morning.   So, Gordon and I made ourselves comfortable at poolside, because the owner had left instructions to give us whatever we wanted, and that everything was courtesy of the house.

    We found ourselves ensconced in the best and biggest of the rooms...the master room of the residence for our night's rest.   The next morning we awoke to a tap at the door and the entrance of the same Efrain who came through the door with a tray, balancing a clear ice-water cruet, another cruet with freshly squeeze orange juice from nearby orchards, and a large hottie-pitcher with an excellent coffee.   "What time do you wish breakfast and what would be your preference?"  He asked as he placed the tray on a service table.

     We ordered whatever came to mind after being awakened at 06:45 in the morning.   Later, as promised, "El Hereford" showed up, before 09:00 and he joined us for the tail end of breakfast.   We talked about business, I showed him a list of possible dates of reservation for groups of 32 people, and he negated all requested dates Feast of the Nativity through Feast of the Epiphany because that was for the Martinez family's annual reunion.

    All the other dates he confirmed.   Two nights for most groups, at 20 dollars per night per person with breakfast and supper included....no gratuities to the employees because such had to be given to the owner or manager, because the men would just drink up the tips and the husbands would beat up their wives when they came home from the day's service to get money to buy beer.

     Strange contractual conditions, to be sure, but I signed onto the reservation-of-dates sheet, with a proviso that there would be no charge for partial or total no-shows with 48 hours notice.

     This led to our first group going in on 26 January 1978,   It was a group returning from El Tajin Archeological Zone near Poza Rica - Tuxpan - Papantla in Vera Cruz State.   The forecast as we headed northward was not good, but Rudy, and our driver from Mexico City's ADO Tourism Group, and your humble servant decided not to tell the people that we had a rare snow, sleet, and freezing bridges advisory after leaving lunch in Tampico at the Club Corona (82 degrees F).

     By the time we arrived at the parking area of the Hacienda de Santa Engracia the wind was whipping and stinging and a fine mist had set in and the temperature in Fahrenheit was passing below 40 degrees.   All of the rooms with fireplaces were being filled with firewood, and the little electric heaters were being plugged in the rooms where that was the heating solution.   By the time the supper was over, and a fine supper it was, a fine sleet and snow was falling....a true rarity thirty miles from the Tropic of Cancer.   Being Midwesterners and convivial, they all retired to the saloon / recreation room by the pool and began to play canasta and poker, drinking anti-freeze and Irish coffee/chocolate....the call went out for "Otra, otra!!! Otra, otra!!".   Then they apparently set about a conspiracy to mutiny.  They called Efrain over to bring the Gringo to the "rec-hall".

      Efrain​ come looking for me in the library where a small Klatch of folks was demanding and receiving a comprehensive explanation concerning the source, meaning, and purpose of the wall-murals....that story we save for later, as we do many stories.   "Don David....La gente quiere hablar contigo".

     I wrapped up the lecture and went to the saloon / recreation room and found myself among the vast majority of the clients.  A man said that they had taken a secret ballot among 24 people and the vote had been 24 - 0.   It was unanimous that everyone wanted to stay at least one extra night....no matter the cost.

     The rest of that story is for later.    But suffice to say that the people in the morning were tearful and hugging one another, the Mexicans with tears, the Gringos with tears, because this had been the first group of general tourist visitors since the remodelling of 1977.

     When it was all over, we had conducted 116 excursions to the Hacienda with an average of 30 persons in each group, during the last quarter of the 20th Century.

​El Gringo Viejo