Two very real women, Rosa King and Angelina Jimenez, inspired the characters of Grace Knight and Angela Sanchez.
In 1905, the newly-widowed Englishwoman, Rosa King, came to Cuernavaca from Mexico City to open a tea shop catering to the city’s foreign community. The governor convinced her to buy and restore the almost-four-centuries-old ruin of a hacienda’s manor house in the heart of the city. Rosa named her hotel the Bella Vista. After the Revolution’s decade of warfare she wrote Tempest over Mexico, a compelling memoir of her experiences before, during, and after the fall of Cuernavaca. Little, Brown, and Company published her book in 1935.
Angelina Jimenez, who became known as Lieutenant Angel, tells her story in a book called Those Years of the Revolution: 1910-1920. It’s a collection, in English and in Spanish, of the memories of the Revolution’s veterans who fled to California toward the end of the war. Edited by Esther Perez and James and Nina Kalla, the book was published in 1974. It contains a photograph of Lieutenant Angel at about age seventy-five.
Rosa King refused to leave her hotel until General Zapata’s troops were storming the city. Her descriptions of the Cuernavacans’ flight through the mountains are harrowing. She wrote that 8,000 people started out, but only 2,000 made it to safety.
Rosa waited out the war as a refugee in Veracruz. She returned to Cuernavaca after hostilities ended with the eventual assassinations of many of the Revolution’s leaders. She found her beloved hotel in ruins. She tried to make a new start, but conditions in the devastated city were so dire that even she, as determined as she was, could not manage it.
Lieutenant Angel’s experiences were more amazing than Rosa’s. After blowing up a train, stealing weapons, and rescuing comrades imprisoned on it, she rode north to join her father. She, her father, and other officers were captured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death when a former ally betrayed them. Angel’s account of her perilous escape and flight to safety across the border to El Norte is also a page-turner.
Students of Mexican history may notice that in Last Train from Cuernavaca I have engineered the fall of the city a year before it happened on August 13, 1914. Cuernavaca did come under siege and attack by the rebel forces in the summer of 1913, but managed to revive and survive for another year.
Sadly, while dictators Porfirio Diaz and Victoriano Huerta lived in exile, revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, and Francisco Madero were murdered. Venustiano Carranza was killed in 1920 by followers of General Alvaro Obregón, who was subsequently elected president. Obregón was a pragmatist who said, “The days of revolutionary banditry have ended because I have brought all the bandits with me to the capital to keep them out of trouble.
Today Cuernavaca is a bustling city built on top of and around those deep, lush ravines known asbarrancas. A city bus route passes the concrete bridge and steep path to the village of San Anton, the inspiration for San Miguel. Now a suburb of Cuernavaca, San Anton is known to this day for the ancient style of pottery that (the real) Rosa King and (the fictional) Grace Knight bought there almost a hundred years ago. The village overlooks two spectacular waterfalls in the gorge below it, and the openings to caves (where I have the rebels hiding) are visible in the face of the cliff.
The railroad station built in 1899 during the regime of Porfirio Diaz still stands across the street from the depot where buses arrive from Mexico City which lies about fifty miles across the 10,000-foot-high mountain range. The two volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl keep watch over the valley.
The building that was Rosa King’s Bella Vista Hotel still exists across the street from the city’s main plaza. It now houses small businesses and doctors’ offices, but the courtyard and wide corridors with their elegant arches are in place. The Victorian bandstand graces the zócalo and a band plays concerts there on Sundays.
Cuernavaca has two nicknames: the City of Eternal Spring and the City of Flowers. Even today it is easy to see why Rosa King and Grace Knight loved it. (author’s note: and so do I).
P.S. The lovely B&B where I stayed while in the City of Eternal Spring is Inn Cuernavaca. To find out more about it click on this link: Click here: Cuernavaca Bed and Breakfast | Your Host Inn Cuernavaca.
Available in five formats!