Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Alma Reed: Beloved ‘Peregrina’

Forty-seven years ago today Alma Reed (1889-Nov. 20, 1966) wrote and delivered her last column for “The News.” In celebration of the Revolution, it was to be published the following day, November 20. Alma wrote of revolutionary ideals, it’s martyrs and heroes. She’d known many of these; one in particular traveled in her heart. Felipe Carrillo Puerto’s (1872-1924) photo was, as always, beside her typewriter as she wrote. Their story is one of the great love stories of Mexico — immortalized in the popular ballad “Peregrina.”

A native Californian journalist, Alma Reed, wrote a popular column in the “San Francisco Call.” Unabashedly progressive, Alma used that forum to fight against poverty, injustice and the death penalty. After her successful campaign in 1921 to save a 17-year-old Mexican national from death row, President Álvaro Obregón gratefully invited her to be Mexico’s honored guest. Though Alma spoke little Spanish she recognized her name and was thrilled in Aguascalientes when mariachi sang “Alma de mi Alma” outside her railcar, assuming it was for her they sang. When her Spanish improved she self-deprecatingly told the humiliating story to the delight of many new admirers. It’s part of La Peregrina’s legend.

Alma returned to the U.S. with one goal — an assignment in Mexico. In 1923, as a passionate amateur archeologist, she was offered a position with “The New York Times Sunday Supplement.” Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the new governor of Yucatán had opened a road to Chichén Itzá and the Carnegie Institute was sending an exploratory survey team. The assignment surpassed her wildest dreams.

As a colonel in Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionary army, Carrillo Puerto started his work on behalf of peasants and working poor in the central Mexican state of Morelos. Now, elected governor of Yucatán, he had power to implement the ideals of the Revolution, including an obligation to uplift indigenous people. It was his hope to restore Maya pride by opening magnificent Maya ruins to tourism, supplementing the hemp-dependent Yucatecan economy. Alma’s initial interview with Governor Felipe Carrillo was love at first sight. “We were non-dogmatic humanistic socialists with shared passion for the underdog, reform, justice, the Maya.” Despite the Governor’s married state they were also rapidly inseparable.

Famed, eccentric archeologist Edward Thompson had begun excavations in Yucatán in 1885. He owned a dilapidated hacienda used to house the survey team. Thompson liked young Alma and promised to provide her with a real “scoop” before she left. In fact it was a confession. For years Thompson had been “removing” immense treasure from Chichen Itza’s Sacred Cenote and sending it to his benefactors at the Peabody Museum in Boston. He put his “confession” in writing and the greatest story of Alma’s professional life was headlines.

Despite a near constant proximity, Alma tried to maintain distance from her soul-mate, the charismatic, handsome governor. She left Mexico knowing she loved and was loved but vowing never to return. Her triumphant return to New York with the Peabody story only increased her popularity in Mexico.

The New York Times sent her back. Newly divorced Felipe appeared and proposed. Alma joyously accepted agreeing to meet him in Mérida.

Aboard ship a storm arose; despite violent winds, at midnight she heard a lovely melody, opened her cabin-door and found a trio strapped to the railings as they inaugurated “Peregrina.” Yucatecans — esteemed poet Luis Rosado Vega and famed composer Ricardo Palmerín — had written the song at Felipe’s request. It achieved overnight popularity.

Wanderer of clear and divine eyes
and cheeks aflame like clouds at sunrise,
little woman of the red lips,
and hair radiant as the sun.
Traveler who left your own scenes,
the fir trees and the virginal snow,
and came to find refuge in the palm groves
under the sky of my land, my tropical land.
The singing birds of my fields,
offer their voices when they see you,
and the flowers with perfumed nectar
caress and kiss you on lips and temples.
When you leave my palm groves and my land,
traveler of enchanting looks,
don’t forget — don’t forget — my land,
don’t forget — don’t forget — my love.

Alma and Felipe enjoyed two months together before Alma’s October return to San Francisco to plan for their Jan. 14 wedding. They wrote every day until Alma received word of serious political problems in Mexico; all communication with Yucatán was abruptly severed. Felipe, three of his brothers and other comrades faced a firing squad Jan. 3, 1924. His last act was to give the soldier charged with killing him the wedding ring he held for his beloved Alma with instructions to be sure it was received.

Alma always loved Mexico and returned in the 50s to live and work here until her 1966 death — receiving the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 1961. She heard “Peregrina” thousands of times throughout her long life. There are stories of musicians interrupting whatever they were playing to launch into “Peregrina” whenever Alma entered a room.

Felipe is buried in Mérida at the Socialist Rotunda. Alma is buried across the path.“Peregrina” lives on. No matter where you are in Mexico, tomorrow is a grand day to request it.