A two-story house

The peculiarities of a migration Short history of the establishment of the Proal family in Jicaltepec (State of Veracruz/Mexico)[1]former colony sold to the United States in 1803, but was still a French-speaking region, where the harbor of New Orleans, hub of “commercial Atlantic”, opens towards Cuba, the Caribbean and Mexico. Joseph and his wife, Clémentine Froissier, remain some time in Algiers, the large port region where their son, Frédéric, was born in 1864. Life was not easy in this cosmopolitan hive and especially the plantation economy, which was supporter of slavery, responded badly to the habits of a mountain dweller from the Lower Alps.

The family went through the Gulf of Mexico, whose destination was Veracruz because of the existence of a French community established against the odds since about thirty years before in Jicaltepec, alongside the Nautla River. Arms were needed to clear and then culturing the neighboring lands of the Colony which ownership is contested to the French. In a letter sent to Barcelonnette in 1900, Joseph described the colony as he discovers it:

I arrived here in 1865. Here I found a lot of French men and women, almost all from Franche-Comté, Haute-Saone, all farmers. At that time, they did not own properties, they were only farmers and all the houses were covered with straw; but since 1874, the land was sold: since then it changed a lot. Today these are brick houses covered with tiles. Here is how it is arranged from the mouth of the river all along, it is houses; they are set down about 25 meters from the river and the road goes between; many of them take water from the river, others have wells. [2].

The peculiarity of this first native from the Ubaye Valley implanted in Jicaltepec (they are only few) is to be and remain a farmer, because the chain of Barcelonnettes rather directs them to the big trade news (linens, fashion items, etc.), mostly in large urban centers. As we can see with Joseph, a necessary adaptation to climatic conditions of this very rich tropical zone was needed, which advantage will be the production of a good quality vanilla throughout all the Porfiriato. Once started planting, with the help of his growing up son, the rough farmer (prematurely widowed in 1869), adds to the culture the commercialization of precious pods that will be the golden age of the French. Since the 1880s, the disputed colony moved to the other side of the river, San Rafael was born; the land is cleared and sold in lots around the new town, including Telaya, which is a former river crossing.
When wasthe Proal House we know built? The oral tradition makes this relatively a late construction: sometimes people say it was finished in 1903. A reading of private archives, however, allows us to modify this dating since in a letter of 18 June 1888, Jean Desoche wrote:

Proal is building a house; he did a pretty good crop last year, which put him at ease. Almost everyone in the colony is pretty well; we built many homes and families are increasing.[3].

Period of prosperity and growth; Frédéric, who now is 24 years old, helps his father, who married his second wife Anne Millot [4] and gave birth to little Louise (1880). He married himself in 1896 the oldest daughter of Jean Desoche, a distiller and plantation owner originally from Haute-Savoie, which makes the Proal part from the later settlers, out of the first nucleus of the Burgundies, mountaineers, enterprising and concerned by not “mixing”. They quickly thrive: building a two-story large house (Frédéric Proal has 6 children, 2 boys and 4 girls), of colonial-type is for sure an exterior sign of success, even if the second floor is also due to the frequent floods of the river. The building is amazing, with its vast roof pagoda and its covered galleries with colonnade. The walls have a double row of bricks, standing and lying against one another, providing the necessary wall thickness. The columns of the ground floor are also in half moon bricks, all joint and covered with oyster lime and sand, bound with nopal juice and egg white; left drying for a few days and the mixture that took a light dazzling white. Clay tiles on the ground; upstairs, a wide wooden floor like ship decks and the beams with numerous fine joists made of Canadian pines. Visconti forged the iron works; porcelain doorknobs come from France, while the steps of the staircase are of dew stone from Teziutlan and sent on mules. [5]. As such, the proud house dominates all its neighbors.

Success September 26, 1897, thirteen San Rafael vanilla producers join forces to ensure consistency of crops and selling prices; among them Frédéric Proal ranks second (25,000 pods) after Charles Chatrenet (60,000). [6]. The plantation is thriving as evidenced by its progress: in an official report on trade in the colony (16 June 1909), [7], Jean Desoche, who became consular agent, classifies Frédéric Proal as part of the “vanilla merchants that have 200 to 500,000 cloves for export”; [8]; aparece también en la lista de las principales explotaciones agrícolas: “cosecha 80.000 vainas de vainilla y 30.000 quintales de café”.

Revolution! factors may explain some jealousy, perhaps animosity. When the sky darkened in the early hours of the Revolution in San Rafael, a few months after the murder of his father in-law Jean Desoche and of his brother in-law Théophile (6 January 1913), this is the turn of the Proal House to be attacked: miracle! Frédéric among its assembled family left unscathed:

Jicaltepec, November 16, 1913

From the Consular Agent of France in Jicaltepec and San Rafael to Mr. Vice-Consul of France in Veracruz

I have the honor to confirm my telegram of today, which said: « Siguen atentados Paso de Telaya – Anoche hirieron a Federico Proal de tiro carabina, afortunadamente leve. Cinco individuos entraron hasta la puerta de su casa, exigiéndole dinero. Carta detalles. »

Indeed, Frédéric Proal, who lives in Paso Telaya in the other story house, such as T. Couturier’s house, who attended the banquet in San Rafael; being home and ending dinner at 6 pm, rose from the table, and while going to the door found himself facing three individuals, blackened with soot, asking for him all his money on, he gave them his wallet in which he could have $ 50, telling them that here was all he had; at that moment, he received only a bullet that grazed his head and the other 7 balls are embedded in the door frame, at 10 cm from his head; it seems that there were two other masked men with a tissue and one of them is the one that shot; note that Mr. Proal is the son-in-law of the deceased Desoche, people are against the family and want their money; that’s all I know right now. Research continues (we). I will keep you informed; please, tell the Governor and Mr. Lefaivre.

Alphonse Roussel

Rectified in these terms by Judge Jalacingo: On November 15, at 7 pm, the aforementioned Fr. Proal, American [crossed out and corrected by Brouzet: French!] was in his house when five men led by a masked leader and armed with a rifle broke in; the others were only armed with machetes and without masks. However, Mr. Proal could absolutely not recognize them. He simply points out the following detail: the likelihood of their young age. The one who had the gun pointed it at Mr. Proal saying: “your money or your life!” Terrified by such unexpected attack, he handed without wobbling his wallet, which contained 14 pesos, and as this amount did not satisfy the aspirations of the bandits, they asked him for more money; he replied that he hadn’t more. At that time the masked man shot him and that he had no time to adjust, only one of the bullets was slightly injured to the head, the others going to file in one pane. Due to the unrest and calls for help pushed by the family, the bandits fled without having been able to apprehend them despite the willingness shown by the neighbors, the police and the federal forces whereas on the premises. Subsequently the suspects Leon and Manuel [Missing a line at the bottom of the page] were detained. To date, the Leon sirs could not prove the defense they unenthusiastically offered and there are elements, which indicate their liability. The present data comes from the declaration made by Mr. Proal and we can realize inaccuracies committed by the Consular Agent of France in Jicaltepec in its report to the Consulate of France through it. […]

Fatherland and Freedom

Jalapa-Enriquez, December 29, 1913

Provisional Governor,
Manuel R. Ruiz [Translated from original in Spanish] [9]

Nevertheless, the family crossed the revolutionary disturbances without further catastrophe. It is said that, given the insecurity and the bands of different factions who roamed the area, ransom, sometimes in search of fresh meat, the pretty Proal ladies spent hours hiding in the large hull of the attic at the top of the paternal house.

Awakening the Sleeping dormant- After the death of his father in 1919, Frédéric continued his planter life cultivating his garden. He particularly enjoyed fishing in the river full of fish at that time. When he died octogenarian on September 22, 1944, a violent hurricane devastated the valley; the flooding that followed prevented the burial of the body three days long. While Marie Desoche, his widow, was still alive, the house holds, with its garden and its backyard like the first settlers in a rural environment that speaks both to the memory of the granddaughter, Virginia. But isolated, abandoned by the family for the benefit of San Rafael, she saw her lands occupied in the eighties and, with the virtual disappearance of the vanilla, she is now surrounded by extensive banana plantations.
As she threatened to ruin early 2010s, Samuel Proal sold the house to Carlos Couturier for him to restore it without betraying the spirit of its builders. Couturier has created an artist residency fully immersed in the wonderful tropical nature, inspiring sensual retreat for creation. With this new start, no doubt that the old lady who bravely through so many storms began an unprecedented phase of his career.

Jean-François Campario

April 21, 2016


[1] Do not forget that the Arnaud brothers, pioneers of Barcelonnette presence in Mexico, first tried it in the Mississippi Delta.

[2] Letter to the notary François Arnaud, Jicaltepec, April 29, 1900. Sapinière Museum Funds, Barcelonnette.

[3]Letter sent from San Rafael to his former partner in the distillery, Georges Galley, private collection.

[4] Jean Desoche, March 7, 1891: « the brave Proal will always be a luron and his wife too. »

[5] Testimony of Samuel Proal, the last owner of the family.

[6] Bernot Family Archives, Mexico.

[7] MAE-DAD Nantes, Veracruz 9, #39

[8] This leaves him in a very good position, after Charles Couturier, Philippe Bernot, the widow Castagné and Charles Stivalet with 100,000 pods.

[9] 1913 Attacks File, MAE-DAD Nantes, Veracruz 23.