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An Old Train Station

November 5, 2020

Trains were always around when I grew up. My home town in south-east England had – and still has – nine train stations on two lines within its municipal borders, and there was a train marshalling yard a few hundred yards from my primary school. The relative absence of passenger trains in Canada and the US always struck me as a noticeable lack.

A preserved steam engine from the early 1900s at the train museum in Cuautla, Morelos.

Mexico was slow to get going on railroads, and only had its first passenger line, from Mexico City to the port of Veracruz, operational in 1873. By then, the UK and the US had had trains for over four decades. Further, Mexico abandoned inter-city passenger lines in the second half of the 20th Century, only later realising their usefulness as the drawbacks of the internal combustion engine became progressively more apparent.

As an alternative to some of the more ankle-risking paths round here, Ixchel and I have recently been walking sections of old rail track above the town of Tepoztlan. The rails and almost all the sleepers are gone from it, with mostly broken limestone making up the trail. But it’s used by cars and a few trucks, and since it climbs at a shallow gradient, it doesn’t make for an arduous afternoon’s hike. The mountains rise up to the north, but at certain points, there are vistas over many miles to be seen to the south.

Along the former train tracks outside San Juan Tlacotenco.

The village of San Juan Tlacotenco is reached today by car or bus, the road corkscrewing up hundreds of feet above what is now the far larger town of Tepoztlan. But in 1897, when the rail line from Mexico City to the town of Cuernavaca (the Cuaunahuac of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano) was extended to this region, San Juan got the station, not Tepoz. Perhaps the decision was based on the relative importance of the two places, or the difficulty in building the line down the mountainside in that area. Our hikes had already shown us how much had to be done to create the line, blasting through rocks, spanning wide gulleys, and cutting into hillsides that could produce mudslides in the rainy season. Nineteenth Century infrastructure called for a lot of backbreaking labour and vast amounts of earth-moving. Nature has reclaimed the sides of the trail, but it’s still easy to imagine old steam trains, and the later diesels, chugging along the track.

We’d already been surprised on our walk by the village cemetery, picturesquely sited under steep hills, and feeling somehow busy after the Days of the Dead had filled it with marigolds and candles. Satisfied with photos we’d taken, and having compared the styles of grave compared to the types closer to where we live, we followed the track’s old loop past the fringes of the village, and back to the roadway where we’d parked our aging Ford Explorer. 

The long, red wooden shack seemed insignificant at first, until we noticed some hand-painted signage on it, and a pair of big, rusting wheels in front of it. We then realised it was the old station, abandoned since at least 1997, when this section of the line was torn up. We began taking photos, happy to have found what seemed to be a modest relic of a different time. A relic, too, that perhps wouldn’t last that many more years. Part of it had become a small grocery store, while another section had a sign indicating (I thought) that it was a photographic studio.

The former wooden station for El Parque, still in its traditional red paint.

Outside, weathered signs said the station was at 2,306 metres of altitude (7,576 ft), and 91.7 kilometres (56 miles) by rail from Mexico City. I’d seen such data at the train station museum in the nearby city of Cuautla, so I assume it was usual to include it.

We were about to move on, when a woman with a small child, who was at the edge of a sports field opposite the relic station, remarked to us that there was a museum to be seen. Without being asked, she went to fetch the grocery store owner, who opened the “photographic studio,” which I then realised was the one-room museum. Inside were mementoes of local soccer victories, and also a bunch of photos of trains going back a century. 

Photos on the little museum’s walls.

One that caught my attention showed federal troops at the station in Cuernavaca, presumably preparing to fight Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionaries. That period, with its dreadful upheavals, violence and sacrifice, fascinates me, and it’s still celebrated every year. Many of the most famous photographic images from the time show people on or beside trains, even though the decade of conflict actually degraded the rail system quite severely. Some Mexicans argue it never truly recovered, even after being nationalised in 1937.

Soldiers around 1910, waiting to board a train in Cuernavaca. Troops are lined up at the right.

The station, for reasons we didn’t discover, was called El Parque – the Park. The Chichinautzin nature preserve is all around San Juan, but that wasn’t formally created until 1947. The site was, however, always surrounded by trees and hillside farmland. One day, perhaps, we’ll find out why that name was selected.

Meantime, a hike we’d started simply for basic exercise had put us in touch with a fading but still remembered piece of Mexico’s history. It’s one of the benefits of living here that there are odd quirks and relics of human endeavours to be found all over the place. Some are fragments of ruins, signs of the ancient cultures of Mexico. And others are reminders of people and changes that have happened far more recently, but which are still treasured in memory.

Colonels

Emiliano Zapata is an enduring figure in this part of Mexico. Where his northern rival, Pancho Villa, engendered a swaggering, brutal image, Zapata over the years has retained a reputation for integrity of purpose combined with military ability. Both men were key figures in the revolution that broke out in 1910, but where Villa survived until he was assassinated some years after it ended, Zapata was betrayed and murdered close to its culmination. As a commander, he had lost and regained territory, and survived several setbacks. Only a clever deception by a presumed ally snared him, and he was killed in an ambush at a hacienda (plantation) in Chinameca on April 10, 1919.

For the actual centenary, a local history group compiled documents and photos of people who served under him, and mounted it in the square in town. Zapata was born fifteen miles from here in 1879, and this area saw some of the most intense fighting of the decade-long conflict. The effort to sever the rich plantation owners from their control of most of the farmland (and of the farmers) was partly successful, and it reshaped the agricultural landscape. But Zapata’s murder at Chinameca was the hacenderos’ way of ensuring they retained a measure of power, and his dream was never wholly fulfilled.

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The statue over Zapata’s tomb in Cuautla, Morelos. (‘Gral’ is an abbreviation for ‘general.’)

I wanted to write about the revolt when I saw the photo exhibit, but found it hard because it moves me in ways that surprise me. Usually, revolutions and revolutionaries leave me cold, but there was a desperate nobility to the struggle here. Moreover, it WAS here. Going through the photos, I saw surnames I recognised, and references to villages whose streets I’ve walked down. When I first visited here fifteen years ago, two of Zapata’s children were still alive.

Zapata, and his movement, live on today, and not just in the Zapatistas of Chiapas further south in Mexico. On the bus to the nearby city of Cuautla, I pass a couple of tall brick chimneys, the walls below them still standing, that belonged to haciendas where sugarcane was grown and processed, and which Zapata’s men attacked while Europe was wracked by its own more massive war. In the north, the U.S. sent General Pershing to help put down Villa, who learned the hard way what machine-guns would do to his cavalry; while Zapata had to fight against his own countrymen and supporters who switched sides. In my local town of Tepoztlan, citizens fled from the fighting to hide in caves for weeks on end.

Yes, it was bloody.

The photos showed some absurdly young officers, generals and colonels scarcely out of their teens. The forces under their command were modest, perhaps a few score for a colonel and a couple of hundred for some generals. A few of them were educated, like Zapata; others look like they couldn’t write their own names, but were trusted by their troops because they’d all grown up together.

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A photo of a few of Zapata’s colonels, from the exhibit in Tepoztlan, where some had fought.

One time, my Spanish language teacher showed us students a documentary made in the 1990s, featuring interviews with old men who’d been fighters seventy years before. Two of them, I remember, tried to mimic the distinctive cluck-click noise their rifles made when a bullet was loaded into the chamber. A third, who’d been one of those post-adolescent colonels, pulled out his old weapon, and demonstrated the actual sound for the interviewer.

It was a brilliant bit of editing. The fact that these were simple farmers, not fighters, with little weaponry beyond these German-made rifles, was something I never forgot. They’d grown up in a hardscrabble life, with no real civil rights, and were fighting for their children to have something better.

Other men, politicians who’d played their own part in the revolution, tried to complete Zapata’s dream of land redistribution in the decades after the conflict ended. In the end, though, a changing world was what defeated that dream. Today, people round here sell off the land won with blood so that outsiders can build hotels and houses. Trucks roar through small towns that were once villages where half-forgotten battles and skirmishes were fought. And since so many fighters couldn’t write, records of the battles are often sketchy or non-existent.

Zapata, though, since he died before power could corrupt him, remains an admired figure. I try to be coolly cynical about his image, but I can’t be. One thing that ties me to this place is respect for those peasant soldiers who found the strength to rebel against brutality and poverty through the will of a leader who dared risk it all; and how he paid for that with his life in an ambush.

They don’t make them like Emiliano Zapata any more.