"Six Months in Mexico"
By Nellie Bly (1864-1922)
New York: American Publishers Corporation, 1888.
Elizabeth Jane Cochrane and her family moved to Pittsburgh in 1880. In 1885, in response to a sexist column about the place of women, in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, she sent a fiery rebuttal, signed "Lonely Orphan Girl". The editor, George Madden, was sufficiently intrigued with what she said to request her to identify herself. After visiting the Dispatch office, she worked up a couple of articles at his request. Her first, "The Girl Puzzle", pointed out that there were too few traditional jobs to employ all the women who needed work. She called for new professions to be opened to women, suggesting that smart, quick girls might do well as office workers and Pullman car conductors, among others. Her second article discussed the need for divorce law reform. Divorce was a contentious topic, but Elizabeth had considerable first-hand knowledge, due to her mother's divorce from her step-father. Madden, readying the article for print, needed a neat and catchy byline for his new writer. One of the suggestions from the newsroom was "Nellie Bly".
So, "Nellie Bly" was born. Her grammar and handwriting left something to be desired, but her rough edges were balanced by intelligence, drive and determination. After she completed an initial series on factory girls, Madden rewarded Nellie by appointing her to the women's pages. But Nellie was desperate to break out of the narrow confines of society gossip, gardening, and fashion, the standard assignments for women reporters of her time. Determined to take on broader topics, she created her own opportunity.
In January 1886, with her mother as chaperon, Nellie boarded a train for Mexico, to prove that she could write successfully as a foreign correspondent. Over the next six months, as she sent back reports of her travels in Mexico, the Pittsburgh Dispatch published them under variations of the headline: "NELLIE BLY IN MEXICO". More than thirty such articles appeared, some of them picked up and reprinted by other newspapers around the country. They became the substance of her first book, "Six Months in Mexico." But more importantly for Bly, they put her name in front of press and public as a "real" reporter.
Mexico, in 1886, was under the control of Porfirio Diaz. Diaz was an accomplished general who served as President from 1876 to 1911, with the exception of a four-year term served by his political ally Manuel Gonzalez from 1880 to 1884. Diaz' approach to governing has been described as "Bread, or stick" -- those who could not be brought to support him were violently repressed. It was also a time of modernization and economic growth for Mexico, externally lauded by American capitalists who were courted by the Diaz government, but internally fraught with corruption.
Bly was quick and observant, but neither she nor her mother knew Spanish, and most Mexicans knew little if any English. Bly made up for her own inexperience by meeting writers, diplomats, and newspapermen who could offer her insights and information about Mexico's history, politics and culture: Joaquin Miller, Theo. Gestefeld, and Charles Dudley Warner were among her contacts. She quickly learned that to remain safely in Mexico, she must choose her subjects, and her words, carefully.
While in Mexico, she avoided writing about governance or politics. Detailed descriptions of her travels, and the places and people she saw, were safer subjects. She waxed lyrical about the natural beauties of the country: its mountains, monuments, luxurious foliage, and potential for abundant and beautiful growth. She also described the people of various classes, in detail. Generally, her descriptions of the indigenous people of Mexico were complimentary. She emphasized their compassion for each other, their natural friendliness, courtesy, and honesty, their cleanliness, and their intelligence, willingness and loyalty as workers. In all these, she was writing counter to the stereotypes of her time.
While she criticized the conditions of poverty under which many Mexicans lived, and the cultural pastimes of drinking pulque, buying lottery tickets, and going to bull-fights, she was also quick to point out that American dog-fighting and boxing would be as justly criticized by Mexicans. She spent considerable time discussing the position of women of the different classes, their possibilities for work and love, and their day-to-day dress, food, and entertainment. She could not resist an occasional dig at lazy men, and she delighted in asserting her independence as an American girl.
Bly was aware that open criticism of the government might lead to her expulsion or even imprisonment. She describes her eventual return, slightly earlier than planned, as follows:
"I had some regard for my health, and a Mexican jail is the least desirable abode on the face of the earth, so some care was exercised in the selection of topics while we were inside their gates. Quite innocently one day I wrote a short notice about some editors, who received no pay from the government, being put in jail. The article was copied from one paper to another, and finally reached Mexico. The subsidized sheets threatened to denounce me and said in Spanish, "One button was enough;" meaning by one article the officials could see what my others were like, but by means of a little bravado I convinced them that I had the upper hand, and they left me unhurt."
Nonetheless, she decided it would be wise to hasten her departure. She had tired of the food and the hard metal beds long before. She arrived in Pittsburgh on June 22, where she felt herself free to give a less censored view of Mexican government. In her subsequent columns, she spoke openly of the extent to which the press in Mexico was censored and repressed:
"The Mexican papers never publish one word against the government or officials, and the people who are at their mercy dare not breathe one word against them, as those in position are more able than the most tyrannical czar to make their life miserable. "
"All the papers which I know of are subsidized by the government, and, until within several months ago, they were paid to abstain from attacks on the government. This subsidy has stopped, through want of funds, but the papers say nothing against the government, as they care too much for their easy lives; so they circulate among foreigners misrepresenting all Mexican affairs, and putting every thing in a fair but utterly false light. ... If a newspaper even hints that government affairs could be bettered, the editors are thrown into prison, too filthy for brutes, until they die or swear never to repeat the offense."
"The best paper in Mexico is El Monitor Republicano (the Republican Monitor), which claims to have, in the city, suburbs, and United States, a circulation of five thousand. It is printed entirely in Spanish. ... One of the newsiest, if not the newsiest, is El Tiempo (the Times), which is squelched about every fortnight, as it is anti-governmental."
From Pittsburgh, Bly gave a blistering description of the governance of Mexico, outlining the agreements of Diaz and Gonzalez to maintain power, Gonzalez' stripping of the state treasury while in power, and his subsequent appointment as governor of Guanajuato, "having no duties and being looked up to as a king by the people". She also described the army, its use of convict soldiers, and the outlaw "rurales" who were brought into the army as highly paid troops. Of Diaz, she concluded: "President Diaz has two years from next December to serve, that is, providing a revolution does not cut his term short." In the event, Diaz was to retain power for another 25 years, before the Mexican Revolution would occur, but Nellie could not know that.
"The constitution of Mexico is said to excel, in the way of freedom and liberty to its subjects, that of the United States; but it is only on paper. It is a republic only in name, being in reality the worst monarchy in existence. Its subjects know nothing of the delights of a presidential campaign; they are men of a voting age, but they have never indulged in this manly pursuit, which even our women are hankering after."
"Six Months in Mexico" has a slightly schizophrenic feel due to the contrast between the largely positive descriptions of places and people that Bly sent from Mexico, and the harsher assessments of the country that she published from the United States. Nonetheless, it is of interest for her views of Mexico, and for its significance as an initial step in Bly's fight to become a reporter. Her trip did not open a wide horizon of opportunities for her in Pittsburgh, so she determined to create another opportunity for herself. One morning, her colleagues at "The Dispatch" found a simple note. It said,
"I am off for New York. Look out for me. BLY."