Life in Mexico, an account by Frances Calderon de la Barca

In 1843, a collection of letters was published under the name of Life in Mexico as a sort of travelogue relating the impressions and observations gleaned and recorded by Madame Frances Calderon de la Barca during her sojourns in Mexico as the wife of Spanish diplomat. It is of special historical note as it is the only account of such type written by a woman, even though it was reviled at the time of its publication as “offensive.” Fanny, as she was known, gives us insight into the cultural, political, and socio-economic realities of Mexico during a period of great turmoil and unrest. 

Frances Calderon de la Barca was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1804, the daughter of William Inglis, a lawyer, and Jane (Stein) Inglis. After her father’s death, she moved with her mother and siblings to Boston, settling eventually in Staten Island, where Frances, an educator, helped run the family school. There she married Don Angel Calderon de la Barca, a Spanish diplomat stationed in Washington, D.C. who was subsequently posted to Mexico as the country’s first Spanish Ambassador. His posting afforded Fanny a two-year opportunity to record her perceptions of the country during their travels. Her husband was later recalled to undertake other official duties in Washington and Europe, and the couple eventually settled into a quiet life in Northern Spain. After her husband’s death in 1861, Madame Calderon de la Barca continued duties as an educator and tutor to members of the royal family of Spain. She died in Madrid in 1882. 

Excepts from Life in Mexico

in the words of Frances Calderon de la Barca.

From Letter the Fourth (Veracruz)

At last appeared in view, faintly, certain spires beside the low sandy land, which for some time we had anxiously watched, and at length we could distinguish houses and churches, and the fort of San Juan de Ulua, of warlike memory. By slow but sure degrees, we neared the shore, until Vera Cruz, in all its ugliness, became visible to our much-wearied eyes. 


The houses seemed blackened by fire; there is not a carriage on the streets—nothing but the men with the wide trousers slit up the side of the leg, immense hats, and blankets, or sarapes, merely a closed blanket, more or less fine, with a hole for the head to go through; and the women with reboses, long coloured cotton scarfs, or pieces of ragged stuff, thrown over the head and crossing over the left shoulder. Add to this, the sopilotes cleaning the streets,—disgusting, but useful scavengers. These valuable birds have black feathers, with gray heads, beaks, and feet. They fly in troops, and at night perch upon the trees. They are not republican, nor do they appear inclined to declare their independence, having kings, to whom it is said they pay so much respect, that if one of the royal species arrives at the same time with a plebeian sopilote, in sight of a dead body, the latter humbly waits till the sovereign has devoured his share, before he ventures to approach.

From Letter the Fifth (Jalapa)

It was difficult to believe, as we journeyed on, that we were now in the midst of December. The air was soft and balmy. The heat, without being oppressive, that of a July day in England. The road through a succession of woody country; trees covered with every variety of blossom, and loaded with the most delicious tropical fruits; flowers of every colour filling the air with fragrance, and the most fantastical profusion of parasitical plants intertwining the branches of the trees, and flinging their bright blossoms over every bough. Palms, cocoas, oranges, lemons, succeeded one another, and at one turn of the road, down in a lovely green valley, we caught a glimpse of an Indian woman, with her long hair, resting under the shade of a lofty tree—beside a running stream—an Oriental picture. Had it not been for the dust and the jolting, nothing could have been more delightful. 


Then Jalapa itself, so old and gray, and rose-becovered, with a sound of music issuing from every open door and window, and its soft and agreeable temperature, presents, even in a few hours, a series of agreeable impressions not easily effaced.

From Letter the Sixth (Mexico / Tenochtitlan)

The city of Tenochtitlan, standing in the midst of the five great lakes, upon verdant and flower-covered islands, a western Venice, with thousands of boats gliding swiftly along its streets, long lines of low houses, diversified by the multitudes of pyramidal temples, the Teocalli, or houses of God—canoes covering the mirrored lakes—the lofty trees, the flowers, and the profusion of water now wanting to the landscape—the whole fertile valley enclosed by its eternal hills and snow-crowned volcanoes—what scenes of wonder and of beauty to burst upon the eyes of these wayfaring men!


Some Mexican visits appear to me to surpass in duration all that one can imagine of a visit, rarely lasting less than one hour, and sometimes extending over a greater part of the day. And gentlemen, at least, arrive at no particular time. If you are going to breakfast, they go also—if to dinner, the same—if you are asleep, they wait till you awaken—if out, they call again. An indifferent sort of man, whose name I did not even hear, arrived yesterday, a little after breakfast, sat still, and walked in to a late dinner with us! These should not be called visits, but visitations,—though I trust they do not often occur to that extent. An open house and an open table for your friends, which includes every passing acquaintance; these are merely Spanish habits of hospitality transplanted.

Life in Mexico, by Frances Calderon de la Barca
Teotihuacan pyramids, Mexico

From Letter the Sixteenth (San Juan Teotihuacan)

The road grew more picturesque as we advanced, and at length our attention was arrested by the sight of the two great pyramids, which rise to the east of the town of San Juan Teotihuacan, which are mentioned by Humboldt, and have excited the curiosity and attention of every succeeding traveller. The huge masses were consecrated to the sun and moon, which, in the time of Cortes, were there represented by two vast stone idols, covered with gold. 


The whole plain on which these great pyramids stand was formerly called Micoatl, or the Pathway of the Dead; and the hundreds of smaller pyramids which surround the larger ones (the Temples of the Sun and Moon) are symmetrically disposed in wide streets, forming a great burial-plain, composed perhaps of the dust of their ancient warriors, an Aztec or Toltec Pere-la-Chaise, or rather a roofless Westminster Abbey. So few of the ancient teocallisnow remain, and these being nearly the only traces now existing of that extraordinary race, we regretted the more not being able to devote some time to their examination.

Read the Book from Project Gutenberg 

Life in Mexico, originally published in 1843 with an introduction by Manuel Romero de Terreros, Marques de San Francisco, is in the public domain and is offered for downloading and on-line reading in a number of formats from the Project Gutenberg website. It can be read on-line in HTML format or downloaded in text, EPUB (with or without images), or Kindle (with or without images), formats. 

Life in Mexico
is a travel narrative published by William Hickling Prescott in 1843, which contains 54 letters Fanny Calderón wrote during her two years in Mexico (October 1839-February 1842). It describes the politics, people, and landscape of Mexico through the eyes of a Spanish diplomat’s wife, thus providing a unique lens into the culture, which is why Prescott applauded its ethnographical and historiographical significance.

Overall, the account documents class distinctions of Mexican women, perspectives on Indians, and the tumultuous political atmosphere, including two revolutions.

Wikipedia contributors. “Frances Erskine Inglis, 1st Marquise of Calderón de la Barca.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 Jul. 2018. Web. 5 Sep. 2018.