El Día de los Niños
The Legion Monument Revisited
El Camarón, Veracruz

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

Something Pending
There was still something pending from my last trip to El Camarón, Veracruz.

For some time, I had been looking for a plaque that had been placed there by the Antiquities Commission sponsored by then President Porfirio Díaz in 1892. It had to be somewhere nearby.

My last visit to el Camarón, had been a good one, and there were still some clues to follow up.

Present Day Camino Real No. 2
Spring in Veracruz
From around April 30 until the rains start in mid June or so, the weather is unbearable hot. Heat factors in the range of 110 to 120 degrees each day.

The rainy season is usually over in October or November, and the land out in the countryside dries out.

During this hot season, the area west of Veracruz becomes parched and some of the small rivers dry out.

Farmers look vainly at the skies for a cloud hoping the bless rains will come soon, before their water wells run dry.
Camino Real
A Quiet Sunday Morning
Sunday mornings in Veracruz are quiet and people don´t get moving until around noon.

I was up early, not really wanting to do much, and had to push myself to get in the car, and go to the Pemex station and gas up with $200 pesos.

It was another hot morning in June, and the lady who pumped the gas that morning remarked,

"Qué calor hace, ¿verdad?"

Maybe I should have stayed at home, but kept moving anyway.
Camino Real
If I didn´t get up and go, I probably wouldn´t do anything the rest of the day.

I needed to put to rest the lead about the plaque from 1892 I´d heard about the last time I was in el Camarón.

The Camino Real No. 2
Once you get out into the countryside past the Paso del Toro bypass towards Soledad de Doblado, it seems very quiet.
The Bridge at Soledad
There´s no traffic, and the countryside is the way it has always been since it was the second Camino Real between Veracruz and Mexico City for several hundred years.

The Camino Real was the lifeline of two way traffic between Europe and Mexico City.

Many times it was the main route to Mexico City, because the first Camino through Xalapa was closed due to bandits or revolutionaries at the passes in Puente Nacional, Plan del Rio, or Banderilla.

I don´t know when this particular route was opened, but it must have been shortly after the Xalapa route in the 1500´s.

Later the Mexico-Veracruz railroad followed the same route I am following this morning.

On this map from the 1830´s, the names of the little towns are different. Soledad de Doblado is San Diego, and El Camarón is El Temascal.
The Bridge at Soledad
The Bridge at Soledad de Doblado
In Mexico, I have seen bridges that resemble others in the US.

At the old abandoned mine at Mapimí, Durango, is the Puente de Ojuelas which is one of the first suspension bridges built in the 1800´s.

Some say it is a miniature of San Francisco´s Golden Gate Bridge.
The Bridge at Soledad
A Magnificent Structure At the Time
Another bridge like this is the double decked railroad bridge in Soledad de Doblado, Veracruz.

In its design, it looks like a short version of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge.

It was built originally as a railroad bridge, and the train still passes overhead, the same as it has when the first rail service between Veracruz and Mexico City began in 1872.

President Lerdo de Tejada was aboard the inaugural trip to show people that rail passenger service was reliable and safe.

I stopped for a minute to take some pictures of the Bridge at Soledad and admired its basic design and hot rivet construction from the 1860´s after the French left Mexico.

A Little Scary
It is still a little scary to cross over the boards. I kind of hope the train doesn´t pass over head and shake the boards loose.
The Bridge at Soledad
Built for Stage Coaches
I prefer to take the bypass around Soledad and only crossed the bridge once just for the experience. I hope I don´t have to do it again.

At the same time it doesn´t bother local people who seem accustomed to using it every day.

In the horse and buggy days, it probably wasn´t bad.

Many times these old structures still have a plaque, kind of like a cornerstone on a building.

When I got out of the car to take these pictures, I looked for a manufacturers plaque.

At one end of the bridge, I found a very old marker from a the foundry in England that built the structure.

They simply assembled it as a bridge in far away Mexico.
The Bridge at Soledad
A Plaque from Far Away England
From history, the first train to arrive in Veracruz was on the inaugural run in 1872.

On the Soledad end of the bridge, I found this plaque by the iron company Francis Morton of Liverpool dated 1908.

This looks like a later addition built during the administration of President Don Porfirio Díaz.

Can there be a better explanation?

The bridge is still a magnificent structure for those times, and it is still in good condition.
Framboyan Blossoms
Framboyan Blossoms and Mangos
From just outside of Veracruz, you begin to see the "framboyan" trees in full bloom along the highways and in front of people´s homes.

They begin to bloom in late April and are a flaming red.

When they begin to bloom, it means that the hottest weather of the year is not far away.

But one of the blessings of this time of the year are the juicy yellow "manila mangos" from this area of Veracruz.

There are many varieties but the "manila" is probably the sweetest and the juiciest.
Fresh Mangos

Mangos don´t keep well, and the markets are flooded with them during these months.

They kind of look like a canned peach, but the wonderful taste is hard to describe.

They are so juicy you have to eat them outside, or over the kitchen sink.

It is hard to eat them gracefully.

Reason for the Trip
The reason for my trip today was to visit the local "panteón" or cemetery.
Parked the Car
People told me several years ago they found the remains of the French soldiers from the Battle of El Camarón in 1862, and took them north of town where they were buried.

Their directions were general, and I wanted to see it for myself.

Someone told me the plaque was in the cemetery and it was the logical place to look.

So, I followed the signs to the Mausoleo, and parked under the framboyan trees in front of the local cemetery.

Inside the Cemetery
Inside the Cemetery
The cemetery was small, like a small town.

I looked at some of the dates and most were within the last 50 years or so.

Towards the far end, I noticed 3 ladies and a little girl, sitting on one of the long tombstones, arranging flowers.

In Mexico, it is impolite in such situations not to speak or say hello to people, especially in small towns where people are friendly.

So, when I got closer, I said a polite, "Buenos Días".

They were friendly, so I asked them if they had seen a plaque dedicated to the French soldiers killed near town in the Battle of El Camarón.
Inside the Cemetery
Talking to Some Ladies
"No", they replied, "There are some remains buried years ago at the monument. You will find them there."

I had been to the monument many times, but had never noticed anything prominent.

I thanked them, and looked around the cemetery looking at dates and taking pictures.

It´s a well kept cemetery, clean of weeds. Some times you have to watch for snakes.

Later when I walked past the ladies again, I stopped to talk awhile. Maybe they had some new information about some of the other leads I´m following.

They told me again there weren´t any remains of the French soldiers in the local cemetery and I should look again at the monument.
Inside the Cemetery
We talked awhile longer, and when it was time to go, I thanked them for the information. We shook hands, and on the way back to the car, I took a couple of more photos.

One of my fears, being far from town, is car trouble.

When I got back to the refreshing air conditioning of the car, when I turned the key, the engine wouldn´t start.

Usually breakdowns are expected because of a noise, but there was nothing wrong with the car. I had just changed the oil two weeks ago.

When this happens your heart gives leap and you automatically think, "Now, where I am I going to find a mechanic around here."

I tried the key again, and the car started up on the third try. Whew! You don´t know what a relief it was!

Since then it hasn´t acted up. Maybe some of the spirits from the cemetery had crept into the starter.

The Road into Town
A Drive into Town
The car was running smoothly so I forgot about the possible breakdown and concentrated on my next step: to find the lady.

On a quiet Sunday, there´s not much going on. The highway is not busy, and people walk in the streets.

Main Street
The main part of downtown Camarón is only about 3 blocks long.

A monument to the Battle is at the end of the street and is the beginning of a two block long park.
Main Street
You can hear the music from one of the "cantinas" nearby, and it´s peacefully quiet in comparison to peaceful Veracruz.

But one day of the year, April 30, the small town is blocked off and the town is full of people from outside for the formal speeches and the opportunity for people to get together.

It´s a day everybody looks forward to.

Today it is quite a change from that day a couple of weeks ago.
April 30, 2005
April 30, 2005
As I drove into town, I remembered the celebration on April 30, 2005. Each year, it´s marked on my calendar and I have been twice.

In spite of the intense heat of that time of the year, each year it is a moving experience.

And, not many people from around Veracruz go to el Camarón on this day because it is also the Día del Niño, which is kind of like Christmas for kids.
April 30, 2005
April 30, 2005
April 30, 2005
April 30, 2005
April 30, 2005
The Governor Interviewed by the Press
The Celebration Winds Down
The Town is Friendly
El Camarón, like many of the towns around Veracruz, is a friendly town in the country, and several of the retired French Foreign Legionnaires come over from France each year.

They come a couple of days ahead of time, and stay at the home of the ladies family and enjoy the hospitality and get to know the life of the small town in Mexico.
The Vistors from France
Although they are from a foreign country, this is where their comrades of many years ago died for a cause that perhaps is not all that popular today in any country.

But the old wars are over now, and people just enjoy being together and talking.

Over the years, you can see the French have made friends with some of the people in town.

They look like they feel right at home, just like other tourists drinking a beer under a palapa.

The Humanitarian Story of "Mamá Juana"
On my last trip to the ceremony at El Camarón, one of veterans of French Foreign Legion told me the story of Mamá Juana, a wealthy Mexican lady who cared for the wounded and dying after the Battle of El Camarón. Later I found the same story in Spanish on the internet. But, here is the story he told me:

"In those days, honor had no borders, and the wounded Legionnaires were taken to a hospital in Huatusco, some 80 kms. away.

The Hospital of the Daughters of Charity had been founded by the widows and ladies of the high society of the small town, and they had dedicated their lives to the service of helping the sick.

Mamá Juana and the Death of Second Lieutenant Clement Maudet
Doña Juana Marredo de Gómez, the widow of a wealthy merchant had a good education as well as a great generosity for the poor French soldiers and took several of them into her own home to care for them. She was affectionately and respectfully called "Mamá Juana" by the wounded soldiers who appreciated her kindness.

Among them was Second Lieutenant Clement Maudet who had been seriously injured. He knew he was dying and with great effort he wrote:

"I left a Mother in France and found a new one in Mexico."

On May 8, 1863, when he passed away, Mamá Juana could not contain her tears. She closed his eyes for the last time, crossed his arms, and placed a rosary of the Daughters of Charity around his neck, and a gently placed a cross between his fingers.

A Matter of Honor
When she informed her brothers Francisco and Manuel Marredo of the death of Second Lieutenant Maudet, the two colonels in the Mexican Army immediately ordered that Maudet be given all military honors.

They personally dressed him in his clean uniform, and placed the medals that Maudet had been awarded at the battles of Sebastopol and Solferino, and placed his "kepi" and sword next to the body. Over his body they placed the flag of France, and a phrase in French "Glory to the Arms of France." Next to the body they placed a capped vial with a message "Clemente Maudet, murió el 8 de Mayo de 1863. Francia".

The funeral procession with the coffin was escorted by Mexican soldiers and placed in the Masonic section of the church. A platoon of Mexican soldiers presented arms and fired a "Salva de Honor".

In this way, the Mexican Army honored itself and elevated itself above political ideas, paying homage to a military values where it is more noble to die than to give up.

Destiny is Strange
The toughened French veteran went on to tell me:

"But fate is strange, and two years later, on October 24, 1865, two French officers knocked on the door of Doña Juana to tell her the sad news that her younger brother Mexican Colonel Manuel Marredo had been killed in a battle near Huatusco.

It is said that without a word, they gave her the honors given to French soldiers fallen in combat. They did this not only out of appreciation for her help with the wounded soldiers from El Camarón years before, but because it is the sacred code of the gentlemen of war who wear the uniform."

The French veteran of the Foreign Legion coughed a little and looked over towards the wall, and said, "Well, now I think you understand why we come here each year."

I think it was then that I finally understood the reason why these people come from so far away in France to visit this little town in Mexico where it is so beastly hot on April 30. It is something personal that you have to feel and admire, and a story I will never forget.

To be there is very different from just reading about it. I hope one day you will be able to visit El Camaron, then you´ll know what I mean.

Water Cooler and Floor Length Windows
Another Story
Because of the hot weather, most of the homes have their windows and doors open.

The older homes are built for the times when the weather is hot.

The windows are almost from the floor to the high ceilings.

The weather was hot, and I stopped for a coke at one of the little stores in town.

In talking to one of the people, I was told that back in the 1930´s, some French came to town and documented the town of el Camarón as being where the battle had occurred.
A Solitary Chair
Little Cedar Boxes
Later in the 1960´s, they did some digging and found many of the remains of the French and Mexicans who died in the battle.

At that time, they carefully placed all of the remains found at the site, mixed with dirt and the rusted relics of battle, into small cedar boxes.

Later each of the boxes were placed in the raised white platform in front of the monument. On top of the platform is a white plaque in Latin.

As for the plaque I was looking for from 1892, it is probably in France, perhaps at the French Foreign Legion monument in their headquarters in Aubagne, France.

(I thought for a moment, it would be interesting to go to Aubagne to see if this is true.)
The Raised Platform
Back Out to the Monument
After finishing a coke, I decided to go back out to the monument for one last look around. I parked in front of the monument, and was the only one there.

You could heard the cicadas in the bright red framboyan trees nestled among the tall straight cedar trees.

Raised Platform
The Platform with the Cedar Boxes
Now I knew what I was looking for.

The various times I had been to the monument I hadn´t realized the remains of the soldiers, both Mexican and French Legionnaires, were buried there in small cedar boxes.

There are no labels or signs. It is simply there.

I wondered what the plaque on the platform said, as I reverently climbed up for a closer look.
The Plaque
A Closer Look
Lone Bricks
Lone Bricks
Each Brick Has a Cross
Two Grey Bricks
When I started walking back toward the car. I noticed at the entrance were two small grey bricks.

Each had the reclining Mexican cross. I have never seen this cross in any other country than Mexico.

I guess some of the local people also wanted these men to rest in peace, and scratched the cross on the bricks.

Or perhaps this marks the entrance to a camposanto, known as a holy burial ground.

Never Alone
In Mexico, you are never alone, no matter how alone you may feel. There is always someone there.

As I turned to go through the big black unpadlocked gate, there was a little old man.

A Little Old Man
He looked like he was from the area with his "jarocho" straw hat. He was old and wore thick glasses, perhaps evidence of a cataract operation, and he could no longer work in the fields. Perhaps he was just a curious neighbor, or the paid caretaker of the monument. I didn´t know.

On previous visits, he was always there at the gate, quietly waiting, respectful of the wishes of the visitor to the French cemetary.

I turned to say hello, and we talked for a few moments. I asked him about the little grey bricks. He said that the people of the town had scratched the crosses on the bricks in the Mexican tradition. He said he didn´t know.

Perhaps it was a way for some people in town to add their own blessing to their neighbors from the far away land of France who were to be there forever, fallen comrades from 150 years before. I will probably never know. Sometimes you find mysteries like this in Mexico.

The Framboyans
It´s Time to Go
The flaming red framboyan trees stand among the tall ramrod straight cedar trees.

They have been here for a long time, and will be here for some time longer.

Each year the veterans of the French Foreign Legion will come to remember, and to be well received by their friends in the small village of El Camarón de Tejeda, Veracruz.

It has become a small annual tradition on the Día de los Niños.

Here during the rest of the year, it is quiet and peaceful, far from the controversies of the past.

I am neither Mexican nor French, but when I visit a place like el Camarón, I feel the same as both sides.
One Last Look at the Framboyans
One Last Look at the Framboyans
The wars of yesterday have been over for a long time.

For many, it is a time to attend these events and to enjoy driving the back roads around Veracruz.

To meet the people in the small towns of Veracruz, and enjoy the best of the hospitality both countries is what nourishes my soul on the Día de los Niños.

When it was time to go, my car started right up. It was time to go back to civilization again.

On the way back, I remembered there were still a couple of cold mangos left in the refrigerator. They would taste good when I got back home.

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