Neill James, Anita Brenner and the origin of the popular Mexican saying about “Dust on my Heart”
One of the modern myths of Lakeside is that long term American resident and benefactor Neill James, author of Dust on my Heart, was the originator of the phrase “When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land.”
Dust on my Heart, published in 1946, was James’ final book, the only published work she wrote in Ajijic, and the only one of her books to include descriptions of life in the village. However, you only have to read the first page of the book to realize that James never claimed any credit for the “dust of Mexico” quote; she fully acknowledged that it was an existing saying and not an original line. What James actually wrote on the first page of Dust on my Heart was:
There is a saying, ‘When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land.’”
In several modern accounts, this has been modified to:
Neill James wrote, “Once the dust of Mexico settles on your heart, you can never go home again.””
In the years since James, several other authors utilized versions of the same saying. The most famous of these authors is Malcolm Lowry, who writes in Under the Volcano, that “He upon whose heart the dust of Mexico has lain, will find no peace in any other land.”
In recent years, Carolena Torres chose Dust on Their Hearts as the title of her debut novel, which is partially set at Lake Chapala. She paraphrases the original proverb as, “When the dust of Mexico falls upon your heart, you will never be the same.”
How or where did Neill James first encounter the proverb? Immediately prior to her arrival in Ajijic in 1943, James had spent several months in and out of a Mexico City hospital following a climbing accident and a volcanic eruption. It is entirely possible that it was in the hospital or shortly afterwards, during her convalescence in the spa town of Ixtapan de la Sal, that she read Dust of Mexico , a romance novel by Ruth Comfort Mitchell. Embedded in the story line of this novel, first published in 1941, is this version of the saying: “Once the dust of Mexico has settled on your heart, never can you rest in any other land.”
On first hearing it, the central character in Dust of Mexico—Priscilla Carpenter, a staid, single New York librarian—laughs at the idea. However, she changes her opinion after being taken on a trip to Mexico by a married, frivolous aunt, who promises Priscilla’s mother that there will be no men on the study tour of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women. But there are men, including a famous radio comedian and an ambitious American doctor, and in the process of choosing between several men, Priscilla “gains a knowledge of the romance and lure of Mexico.” Prior to publication as a novel, Dust of Mexico had been serialized in Women’s Home Companion.
Or perhaps James had read Anita Brenner? A decade earlier, renowned Mexican author and art critic Anita Brenner (1905-1974) quoted an almost identical version of the same proverb on the very first page of her Your Mexican Holiday: A Modern Guide, published in 1932: “Because there is a proverbial obsession expressed in a line which goes: ‘Once the dust of Mexico has settled on your heart, you have no rest in any other land.’ Mexico means something to you…” Three years earlier, Brenner had included this line on page 15 of Idols Behind Altars (1929): “But with the dust of Mexico upon it, that heart can find no rest in any other land.”
Within Mexico, it is common to see a translation of the “dust of Mexico” saying attributed directly to Brenner, failing to recognize that, like Neill James, she was not claiming any credit for the saying, merely quoting it. Several institutions and newspapers that should know better have done this, including Mexico’s National Museum of Art and Mexico City’s El Universal, and Nexus.
And there are earlier users in print of the saying than Brenner. For instance, in 1923, reporter, artist and screenwriter Wallace Smith used an extremely similar version in The little tigress; tales out of the dust of Mexico, a collection of stories set during the Revolution. He opened the chapter titled “Dust of Mexico” as follows:
“Once the dust of Mexico has settled on your heart there can be no rest for you in any other land. That is a saying in Mexico. It is spoken proudly and sometimes hopelessly. The truth of it is in the empty, seeking eyes of exiles in other countries- in places far away from the land of golden lights and purple shadows.” Smith was a talented cartoonist and “these tales of love, treachery, courage, and adventure are illustrated by the author’s atmospheric drawings from his field sketchbook.”
He, too, makes it clear that it is an old saying, not his original creation.
If you can add other early instances of the use of versions of the “Dust on my Heart” saying in mainstream works, please get in touch!
– See comments for details of a 1935 version of the saying in Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing.
References in reverse chronological order
- Carolena Torres. 2013. Dust on their hearts.
- Malcolm Lowry. 1947. Under the Volcano.
- Neill James. 1946. Dust on my Heart.
- Ruth Comfort Mitchell. 1941. Dust of Mexico.
- Todd Downing. 1935. Vultures in the Sky.
- Anita Brenner. 1932. Your Mexican Holiday: A Modern Guide.
- Anita Brenner. 1929. Idols Behind Altars.
- Wallace Smith. 1923. The little tigress; tales out of the dust of Mexico.
To read more about Neill James and her life in Ajijic, see chapters 13, 14, 21, 26, 34 and 39 of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village.
- Roberta C Gilman. 1941. “Lure of Mexico Gets in Blood.” Detroit Free Press, 14 September 1941.
- New York Times. “Dust of Mexico. By Ruth Comfort Mitchell.” New York Times, 16 Feb 1941.
- Mexican Life, June 1941, p 39.
Comments, corrections and additional material welcome, whether via comments feature or email.
Tony Burton’s books include “Lake Chapala: A Postcard History” (2022), “Foreign Footprints in Ajijic” (2022), “If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants” (2020), (available in translation as “Si Las Paredes Hablaran”), “Mexican Kaleidoscope” (2016), and “Lake Chapala Through the Ages” (2008).
I came across this saying in Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing: https://penzlerpublishers.com/product/vultures-in-the-sky/, originally released in 1935, but recently re-published. The saying intrigued me and I wondered where it came from. On quick internet search, this blog post was the most informative I found.
In this latest edition, it’s on page 272. Here’s the snippet:
“When the dust of Mexico has settled upon a human heart,” Rennert quoted, “that heart can find rest in no other land.”
Hi Demian, Thanks for taking the time to comment, for your kind words, and for documenting another very interesting example of “dust on my heart”! Best wishes, TB