Blog 7: Pánuco, Veracruz

Of the many routes from Gómez Farías to Veracruz, we chose the one through Pánuco because, well, because I’d never been there. And more importantly, a key event in the book I am writing took place in Pánuco in March of 1586, and I wanted to fix the place in my mind’s eye. The story, in brief, went like this:

            By the late 1570’s a very talented, ambitious, middle aged adventure and businessman named Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva managed to (1) acquire permission to explore and conquer what is now northeast Mexico, (2) get himself appointed governor of the new territory, (3) secure a waiver of the law that said only people of pure blood (i.e., no Muslim or Jewish ancestors back 3 generations) could emigrate to the Indies, (4) recruit 100 settlers, men and women, many of them his relatives, and a substantial number of them descendants of Jews and some of them still practicing as crypto- or secret-Jews, (5) bring them all to Mexico, and (6) settle them initially in the river port of Pánuco, a day’s safe sail upstream from the port city of Tampico. Among them were Carvajal’s sister, brother-in-law, and their many children, two of whom in 1586 married two of the miners I am studying.

            Of the six achievements I’ve listed above (and I left out Governor Carvajal’s previous careers as an accountant, a slaver, treasurer of the colony of Cape Verde, and pirate fighter, both on land and on sea ... for that you’ll have to buy the book), I am certain of the first 5, and am fuzzy about the precise details of #6. The documents that talk about to the family’s first residence in Mexico alternately reference the place as the Province of Pánuco (encompassing from the whole Pánuco River watershed to the Rio Grande at Brownsville), Pánuco Port (which might mean Tampico), or merely Pánuco (the river port). So my goal, as we drove across the bridge into the city under seriously darkening skies, was to find documents, local traditions, or a good local historian who could resolve the ambiguity. Does any of this matter in the great scheme of things? Of course not, but if you are going to put it in a book you ought to at least try to get it right.

            First, though, Linda and I needed a hotel, and soon, before the thick clouds decided to relieve themselves of water. From the bridge we drove all the way to the end of the city, past two- and three-story moldy stucco houses and businesses, without seeing anything that looked like a city center or a hotel or, for that matter, anything very old or very modern. Pánuco has 30,000 inhabitants and is an important center of oil production, so it HAS to have a nice hotel. At the far edge of town we stop at a gas station and Oxxo convenience store. I ask the woman behind the register if there are hotels near by.

            Para bien o para mal?” she asks with a smile and a wink. “For good or for bad?”

            I know exactly what she means. On the exit routes from every Mexican city of a certain size are hotels that rent by the hour. You enter through a closed courtyard and slip your car into a driveway next to a room; you close the curtain behind the car for privacy (what if your brother-in-law were to drive in and spot your car?), and you and whomever you brought with you slip into a room with a king-sized bed and a flat-screen TV that gets all the pornography channels.

             Para bien,” I smile back, shrugging my shoulders; “what else?”

            “Then it’s the Plaza Hotel, on the Plaza. Follow the taxis. They’ll take you right to it.”

           We do. They do. We check in to the Plaza Hotel. And the skies open up. We work for a while, and when the sluicing rain finally fades to a heavy mist, I tuck my URI umbrella under my arm and set out on the trail of de-ambiguization, which is how you would express that concept in Spanish. 

           My first thought is to inquire in Pánuco’s Presidencia, the City Hall that is right in front of the hotel. Maybe the mayor or some other official will know something about the city’s early history. But Something is Going On, and the first rule of prudent touristmanship is to turn tail when Something is Going On. The street in front of the Presidencia is blocked off. There are three military vehicles parked nearby, and —by quick rough count— 18 heavily-armed soldiers standing around. The two carrying assault rifles standing in the military pickup truck are hooded. Life in the plaza goes on as usual. Kids are buying popsicles from vendors with little carts; the bootblacks are shining shoes; women with bulging shopping bags are sitting on benches resting their feet; two men are unloading kiddy-cars from a truck; three teenagers are kicking a soccer ball around. But there are those two uniforms with machine pistols flanking the Presidencia. A senior military official and six men in suits and ties fil

e past me into the Presidencia. Clearly there is nothing at all to worry about, but . . . I take my historical queries elsewhere.


            I cross the plaza to the little bookstore I have spotted between a large pharmacy and a Michoacana ice cream store, Michoacana being largest national chain of such places. It must get really hot in Pánuco in the summer, because I count four separate ice cream stores around the plaza, three of them Michoacanas. That’s a life record for me! I make a mental note. The bookstore sells mostly pens and paper, notebooks, wrapping supplies, and elementary and secondary school texts. There is one shelf of what I would call real books, and half of it is taken up by Bibles and editions of Pablo Coelho’s psycho-spiritual pap. That man is an industry, all by himself. He must write with a pen in each hand! I ask the proprietress if she has any history books about Pánuco.


            “We used to have one, but I think it sold out. I don’t think we have . . . Claudia!” she shouts to the woman at the far end of the counter who is trying to help an eight-year-old choose between two identical notebooks. “Do we have any of don Raúl’s books left?”

            Claudia looks up and shakes her head.

            “Don Raúl??”

            “Don Raúl Pazzi. His book is called Pánuco. That’s the title, just the name of the ciy. I’m sorry.  But you might try the ice-cream place next door. I think that they might . . . or somebody there might know where . . .”

            I thank her and go next door.  A bored boy sits on a stool behind the popsicle freezer and row of ice cream tubs. The dulce de leche with cajeta and the guayábana look really good! I am not surprised when the boy expresses ignorance about don Raúl’s book. It is too cold for ice cream.

            The clouds are lower now, but they are still only misting, so I go for a walk along the street that follows the riverbank. After a block or two it becomes a park, with benches, cannons, statues of mermaids (well, I

guess, to be accurate, they must be rivermaids). Loud dance music and the drum-sound of heels against a hollow wood floor spill out of an ornate building. The plaque on the wall announces that it is the Don Raúl Pazzi Centro Cultural. A few six-year-olds in tutus and clunky white boots with heavy heels stomp around the building’s porch in approximate time to the music. Through a door I can glimpse a few adults stomping and swirling but without the tutus. Next to the dance hall is another door, and behind it a policeman seated at a desk. I explain who I am and ask if the Centro Cultural might have any of don Raúl’s books.


            “I don’t know,” says the cop. “But you can ask don Raúl. He should be here in a couple of minutes.”

            I wait outside, sitting on a high curb. An man with a stop watch is timing a dozen kids, ranging from maybe 4 years old to 15, as they race from the end of the block to an imaginary line at the far end of the cultural center. Then, panting, they all walk back to the end of the block, with the watch-man encouraging the little ones as they tromp back. Then they do it again. And again, always finishing in the same order, with the two oldest ones neck and neck at the finish line. They run 14 heats (I count them) before the policeman comes out to get me. Don Raúl has arrived.

            The policeman escorts me to don Raúl’s office. He is a small, slim, clean-shaven man, impeccably dressed, who shakes my hand warmly. I would place him in his early eighties. The folded handkerchief in his jacket pocket matches his tie. The walls of his small office are covered with photographs and plaques. Certificates of appreciation. Pictures with people I assume are politicians or celebrities. Several photographs of don Raúl and a woman—I presume his wife—dancing in white boots with thick high heels. Framed newspaper articles about don Raúl winning the Veracruz Huapongo competition, and then the national and international competitions. Another about the dedication of the Centro Cultural. It dawns on me that the music I heard and the twirling tots . . .  they’re learning the Huapongo. I ask don Raúl and he confirms it. Huapongo is a Huastecan dance, he tells me, the Huastec nation being the first major tribe that Cortés subdued when he landed on the Mexican mainland with his army.

            “There was a time when every young person who lived in the Huasteca grew up dancing the huapongo, but nowadays . . . It’s all modern music they dance to. Television, the movies . . . That’s why we offer classes here at the Centro. The children all come; parents, too. There aren’t so many here today but come back another day, you’ll see.”           

            He reaches behind him and from a shelf hands me a large paper bound book with a red cover: Huapongo, authored by Raúl Pazzi Sequera: no surprises there. I leaf through it: photos of people dancing; the lyrics of presumably famous huapongo songs; capsule bios of dancers, composers, singers.

            I give him one of my cards, tell him what I am working on, and ask him about whether “Pánuco” used to designate the city, the river, or the whole region.

            “Do you know that this is the second-oldest town in the Americas? Cortés came here after he first landed in San Juan de Ullóa. In ten more years we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of that founding.”

            I make noises of being impressed, and tell him I am actually interested in people who lived 60 years after Cortés founded the town. Does he know anything about Governor Carvajal settling here?

            “Cortés came here because this was the largest Huasteco village on the whole coast. He had to fight them here, and when the Spaniards won, they built a Spanish city here.”

            “Yes, I have read that. But Governor Carvajal . . . I understand that he used Pánuco as his base for the conquest of the north. And that from here opened up the road to the mines at Mazapil. He . . .”

            “Almost 500 years ago. Cortés left some men here to hold the city, and from here he went . . .”


            Round and round we go for more than half an hour. Don Raúl’s only topics are Cortés and the huapongo, and each new iteration comes out sounding pretty much like the last. By now it is obvious that if don Raúl used to have a deeper knowledge of Pánuco history, it has gone the way of the conquistadors themselves.

             As I start to bid my adieus, the policeman comes back in and places a copy of Pánuco on don Raúl’s desk. He has gone to don Raúl’s house to retrieve a copy.

            “They printed 200 copies for me,” don Raúl tells me, “and people just gobbled them up. This is the only one I have left.”

            I leaf through it. There is a brief chapter on Cortés and then the book skips to the 19th-century. The last two thirds deal with the huapongo. There are no footnotes, no references to any historical documents, and no bibliography. It dawns on me that it is not that don Raúl has, with age, forgotten the details of the town’s history. It may be that he never knew any details.

            He is a sweet man, enthusiastic and gracious, dedicated to his city. He has a deep love for the traditions that he knows and treasures, and has put his energy into transmitting them to the next generation through his gifts of the Cultural Center and, year after year, of his time. He and his wife must have been elegance itself on the dance floor. I feel enriched for having met him.

            And so, mission accomplished. Well, sort of. Part of the business is exploring the blind alleys to make certain that they are truly blind, that the gaps in your story are not because you have overlooked something, but that you have carefully looked over everything, and have done your best with the bits and pieces you have.

            I head back to the Hotel Plaza to tell Linda what I have and haven’t found. I need to put my umbrella up, now, and it keeps most of me mostly dry. The army, like Cortés, is no longer camped in the plaza.