"The Mexican Governor
and the California Journalist"

By Ruth Ross Merrimer
March 2003 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 19, Number 7

      One of the great romantic stories of Mexico concerns Felipe Carrillo Puerto, a governor of Yucatan, and Alma Reed, an American newspaper columnist in San Francisco. Back in the early 1920s, Reed wrote a column under the byline “Mrs. Goodfellow” that was devoted to answering questions for people who needed legal advice but could not afford the services of a lawyer. Reed began concentrating her efforts on helping the poor Mexicans living in California when the mail that came into the newspaper made it apparent they were the ones in the greatest need of help.
      As the weeks and months passed and Reed’s reputation as a defender of the poor grew, she was contacted by the family of a 17-year-old Mexican, who was on death row in San Quentin, accused of murder. They asked for her help in getting his death sentence commuted. Outraged at the idea of killing a young man, Reed began a campaign to save him. As a result of her efforts, the laws were changed and the adolescent’s life was saved.
      When the Mexican press picked up the story and it was brought to the attention of then-President Alvaro Obregon, he invited Reed to visit Mexico as his guest. Accepting the invitation, she boarded a train to Mexico and began a journey that would change her life and bring her many honors. Reed’s lack of knowledge of Mexico and its customs became apparent as she stepped off the train in Mexico City. A group of mariachis had been hired to serenade the wife of a rich Mexican who was traveling on the same train, and as the train pulled into the station, the mariachis began singing the love song, “Alma de mi Alma,” (Soul of My Soul.) Thinking the song was meant for her, Reed was so touched she broke into tears, alternately embracing the mariachis and President Obregon’s aide who was there to greet her. Careful not to hurt her feelings, the Mexicans did not tell her serenade had no relation to anyone named Alma.
      Later, Reed traveled to Yucatan where she met Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto and it was love at first sight. Felipe traveled with her throughout the Yucatan, introducing her to the culture and history of the Maya. Seeing the ruins of the many buildings and temples left by the Maya and hearing the stories of their accomplishments, ignited a love and fascination for the Maya that remained with Reed until her death.
      At the end of her visit to Mexico, the governor returned with her to San Francisco to meet her family and tell them of their plans to marry. The family was as enchanted with Carrillo as Reed was, and upon receiving their blessing for the marriage, he made plans to return to Yucatan where the wedding would take place with Reed to follow in three weeks. Alma Reed never saw Felipe again, but one of the engagement gifts he gave her has survived in Mexico for over seventy years. Having been told the story of her emotional reaction to “Alma de Mi Alma,” Felipe, with the help of famous Mexican musicians and composers Ricardo Palmerin and Luis Vega, wrote the song, “La Peregrina” and dedicated it to her. The song tells of a Yucatan governor who fell in love with a journalist from California, who had traveled to Mexico to interview him.
      Arriving back home in Yucatan, Governor Carrillo faced a crisis. These were tumultuous times in Mexico. Revolution that had blazed across the country for ten years and put eleven different presidents in office, had broken out again, this time between the ruling political power in Mexico and the poor farmers. Though Carrillo was part of the hated government, the Mayas looked upon him as their savior. Under his leadership, the Mayas were building schools for their children and planting crops for themselves instead of the hated landowners. Realizing the Mayas would never join their cause as long as Felipe was alive, the revolutionaries began plotting his assassination.
      On a bleak December day in Merida, capitol city of Yucatan, Carrillo and ten of his followers were taken by force, lined up against the wall of a cemetery and shot to death. Legend has it that before the order was given, Felipe took a Maya wedding ring from his pocket and asked the leader of the firing squad to see that it was delivered to Alma Reed.
During this period, Mexico closed its borders to travelers and a year went by before Alma Reed learned the fate of Felipe. When the trouble was over, she returned to Yucatan, this time working as a journalist for the New York Times. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt had created a worldwide interest in ancient civilizations, and through Reed’s stories in the Times the world learned about the Maya, whose achievements were equally as astonishing as those of ancient Egypt.
      During the 1930s Reed’s life took a turn. She left Mexico for New York and ran with an arty crowd which included the Mexican artist Orozco. Recognizing his talent, Reed is credited with helping bring him fame through her writings. Leaving New York, she lived for short periods in Greece and Lebanon. Ultimately tiring of travel and life in the fast lane, Reed returned to Mexico and again took up writing about the Maya. In 1950 Mexico awarded Reed its highest civilian honor, The Order of the Aztec Eagle—one of only three American woman to be so honored.
      Alma Reed died at age 77 in a Mexico City hospital, November 20, 1966, Mexico’s Day of Independence. The exact day, many believe, she would have chosen had she the choice. Her friends said she had finished writing her autobiography, and anticipated going home from the hospital and sending the manuscript to her publishers. Sadly, though intensive searches were made and inquiries about it went on for months, the manuscript was never found.
      The ashes of Alma Reed were laid close to those of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, her only love. Her tombstone reads: Alma Reed, prolific writer, emotive conversationalist, affectionate friend of Mexico, who Mexico honored with the Aztec Eagle in recognition of her merits as a promoter of art, in critique, as an historian, and humanist.
      (Ed. Note: This story is from a collection now being assembled by Merrimer in a book titled Tall Tales & True Tales of Mexico. She is also the author of Champagne & Tortillas, a novel set in Mexico.)

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