DIEGO RIVERA -- MY ART, MY LIFE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY (WITH GLADYS MARCH)
I SAILED ON THE Alfonso Trece, an old Spanish steamer, overdue for the scrap heap. The Alfonso, however, was the easiest vessel to board with my irregular papers. Her destination, Spain, was also the least difficult country through which to enter Europe.
The ship remained in Havana for about three days. From Havana, the journey to the nearest Spanish port usually took eighteen or nineteen days. This voyage, however, lasted seven days longer.
The third day out of Havana, I perceived a great deal of uneasiness among the officers and for a good reason. The Alfonso was short of lifeboats and other rescue equipment. A gale was blowing, piling up high seas in which the old steamer rolled dangerously. The passengers grew sick, and every day fewer of them showed up in the dining room.
Finally, there were only three coming to meals. I was one. The other two were both sea captains. Naturally, we became good friends.
The younger of the captains, a Catalonian named Roig, was about thirty-five and full of sharp Mediterranean humor. His conversation was as tangy as garlic and as light as olive oil. Roig was a minor executive of El Valle Nacional, a wealthy tobacco firm, infamous for its exploitation of its workers during the Diaz regime, and he himself was anything but gentle. In addition to supervising the virtually enslaved tobacco workers, he made commercial sea voyages to South America with cargoes of tobacco products, vanilla, and indigo, which he traded for algaroba in Peru and coffee in Brazil. When the opportunity presented itself, he was not averse to enlarging his exchequer by smuggling contraband.
The older sea captain possessed the almost unpronounceable name of Huruchaustegui. He had sailed in such faraway waters as the Indian Ocean and the Melanesian and Micronesian Seas. He could recall experiences of seventy years before. He must have been at least eighty-five. This venerable sailor was returning to Spain to die in peace on his native coast. Captain Huruchaustegui spoke a strange language which consisted of almost no Spanish, a little Japanese, more Chinese, and a great deal of Malayan. Though it was almost impossible for anyone to understand him, he would make long speeches throughout the day.
Each morning, the two captains and I would meet for breakfast, The crew, aware that my companions were captains and I their friend, made us the delighted recipients of the choicest food and the most devoted service. Our diningroom steward wore his pants rolled up high above his knees, because the sea washed in through all the doors.
With so few customers the ship's cook had opportunity to use all his art, and we encouraged him with congratulations and applause. Breakfast was so enormous that we only had time to smoke two or three cigars before lunch was served. Besides, there really was no reason to leave the dining room.
What marvelous lunches we had! No soups, because it would have been impossible to eat them, but unbelievably juicy steaks, delicious red snappers, and huge sweetmeated crabs.
When the dishes were ready, the steward would place them before the older captain who, making the sign of the cross over his head and chest, would then commence to cut the meat into three equal parts. As he served, he would chant, "In the name of the Father," putting the middle part in his plate, "in the name of the Son," in the Catalonian's plate and "in the name of the Holy Ghost," in mine.
Many bottles of wine were likewise emptied in honor of the Holy Trinity. We made each other laugh and sing, and each of us would retell the story of his life without any of the others listening, caring, or understanding.
On the eighth day of this ecstatic regime, the first mate entered the dining room and politely asked permission of the captains to have a few words with me privately. We were about to be served our lunch-hour liquor, and I assumed the mate was going to speak to me about the way we had been swilling the ship's supply of intoxicants.
It turned out, however, to be nothing of the kind. "Above everything," he began, "I first convey to you and the two captains, your friends, the apologies of our Old Man, who would have liked to enjoy the good company of you hard- oiled mariners and guests of his ship. I want to tell you, personally, how sorry I am, too, not to have partaken of your company, as the rules require. But I'm certain you understand the situation. You're all good enough sailors to know there's a chance of our going under. And we know that when things are as they are, only real seaman can eat and drink as you've been doing. The trouble is we're carrying civilian passengers who have no understanding of our precarious situation.
"The Old Man and I have literally not closed our eyes for the past two days. The Old Man sleeps at the commander's desk, standing up. He's practically through. The men below are in the hands of the ship's doctor.
"The tradition of the sea authorizes the skipper to ask a meritorious service from any professional seaman traveling on his ship during an emergency. Therefore, my boy and comrade, you must excuse me for asking, but would you please convey the Skipper's request to your captain friends. He asks them to take one turn every three days at the commander's desk, and you, if you will, shall divide my time with me."
I replied promptly and with gusto, "Fine, I'll tell the captains pronto and I know they'll be as greatly honored as I am. But, my friend, I'm not really a seaman. I could as easily be a substitute Pope as a substitute sailor."
"Stop talking like that, my boy! Do you think I came to talk to you without first studying the passenger list? You're the Mexican painter, Diego Rivera. All right; but as good a painter as you may be, no damn fool in the entire world could eat, drink, and have such fun when he knows his ship might sink momentarily if he didn't have the stuff of a true sailor. So that's settled."
I didn't attempt to argue with him. I remembered my feelings as a child when I had seen the ship model in General Hinojoso's library. I thought of boyhood days on the beaches of Veracruz, where I had battled the surf raised by the furious north wind. I returned to the table and gave the captains the message. They responded with whoops of joy, the Catalonian Roig twirling his mustaches in anticipation.
When I got back to the first officer, I asked, "Listen, friend, who is in charge downstairs, below deck, right now?"
"Only the cargo master. Both of the officers are out of service," he said.
"Then I will go downstairs and stay there until one or the other of these men recovers sufficiently to replace me."
"But how dare I allow that? That's the hardest service on the ship."
"Two of your men are out. Have you the right to refuse replacement?"
The first officer stiffened, looked me square in the eye as he touched his hand to his cap, and said smiling, "You're right, Mexican. That's the way of your country. Thank you!"
He left to get me service togs and soon returned with a helmet with microphones over the ears and a pair of coveralls for protection against the heat. When I had dressed, he gave me two long whips and a pistol.
"These are to
preserve your authority," he explained.
I walked past them, threw my whips and pistol in a corner, and adjusting my helmet, shouted to the men, "Listen, comrades, I'm nothing but a Mexican passenger. I'm here because I was asked to help. I'm as interested as you are in stopping this ship from going to hell and taking us all with it. A Mexican comrade does not need whips or guns to keep his Spanish comrades working. Isn't that so? So I'm going to tell you what the man upstairs ordered, and you're going to do it."
After looking me over, they shouted back, "Go ahead, we're with you!"
The men worked on without pause or complaint though, by now, they were on the verge of exhaustion.
I was inspired to pitch in with more energy than I had believed I possessed. In the darkness of a ship's hold there is no way to measure the passing of the hours except in variations of pain and fatigue. Three or four times I was asked from above whether I needed to be replaced. Looking at the valiant sailors, on the point of collapsing before my eyes, I angrily answered "No!" I held my post until the rolling of the ship subsided and the danger was past.
Before we arrived in Santander, my port of debarkation, the captain of the Alfonso gave a banquet for his passengers, honoring the bravery and courageous services of the two captains and the Mexican painter. More important, he presented gifts of three thousand pesetas to each of my captain friends and two thousand pesetas to me, which I admit I appreciated more than the glory.
The captains and I spent all our money together along the way from Santander to Madrid and Barcelona, trying to have an even better time ashore than we had had in our first days at sea. When our money ran out, I took regretful leave of my shipmates and entrained for Paris. In September, 1911, I was in Paris again.