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Hasta Pronto ?

November 9, 2021

The Tepoztlan town cemetery last week. It’s picturesquely located below the cliffs to the north of the town.

One of the things that I don’t much appreciate about the Days of the Dead is that it’s all about contacting your ancestors. Maybe it’s recent ones, like your parents or grandparents, but theoretically it might be about someone born before there were trains, telephones or effective toothpaste. Smelly ancestors, therefore.

I’ve never much wanted to meet my forebears. Nobody that I’ve heard about sounds particularly interesting. Going back well over a century, they were all from the English middle classes, whose main ambition was often to be come more middle-class than they were when they were born. And judging by the attitudes my own parents inherited, they’d be pretty scornful of someone like me, who has lived in three countries, and much of the time uses a language that isn’t English.

So, when everyone was partying in the village cemetery last week, I … wasn’t. After all, I just might have run into some discarnate predecessor of mine who would ask me questions he or she just wasn’t ready to have answered.

Mexicans, of course, can argue with or criticise their grandparents when they show up. “Why did you have to start an unending feud with the most aggressive family around here?” “What did happen with the cash from selling the old house?” “Was my little sister really dad’s, or …?”  But I know there’s no lost cash for me – according to family tradition there was some, but it turned out to be perpetually inaccessible – and I’m not embroiled in any feuds. 

Mostly, though, I’m just scared my deceased relatives would be snooty or boring. The Days of the Dead (nights, really, more than days) are a time for partying, and my ancestors were not, on the whole, party animals. A second glass of sherry was their idea of letting their hair down: consuming a third would have been cause for unending family scandal.

The big cemetery in town had a covered walkway put up at the entrance for the Days, with the word Bienvenidos (Welcome) on it traced in marigolds, the traditional flowers of this season (see photo above). Each time I passed it, I wondered whether this was meant to welcome back the deceased, or the still-living. I decided that since the deceased were already in residence, so to speak, it must have meant people currently walking around. 

Today, however, as the grave-visiting season ends, I saw the flowers had been renewed, and the wording had been changed. Hasta Pronto, it said. That’s the Mexican equivalent of “See you soon.” I keep wondering if it was someone’s idea of a joke, like the old undertaker’s crack about “We’re taking advance reservations.”

So, if I do end up expiring round here, perhaps I should first apply to be interred at one of the two cemeteries. If my own deceased relatives’ company doesn’t attract me (as it doesn’t), then people who can make sly jokes about human mortality are probably far more fun to chill with. 

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They’re Ba-a-a-ck

October 19, 2021

The first salvo of rockets from the village church went off at exactly midnight on Sunday, followed right after by a brief peal of the bells. Yes, it’s almost the Days of the Dead again. The deceased were warned by this summons that it’s time to come and visit us again, though how they know this when so many other rockets are let off over the course of the year, I can’t figure out.

I’ve always been iffy about my ancestors.  Most of them were undistinguished, so I doubt they’d be interesting to talk to. I would like to meet the few who took part in famous battles or other noted events, but that’s about it. I also wonder what a centuries-dead person might seem like if they came to talk. Personally, I’ve always thought it would be bad form to come back and haunt my descendants after I’ve gone, so I’ve not been one for seances or communion with tmy forebears

But here, picking up on a tradition the Mixteca (Aztecs to you and I) followed, people welcome their ancestors at the end of every October and at the start of November. The markets fill up with pots of marigolds for sale, and all the little variety stores stock up on candies and sweet things for the incorporeal visitors.

Marigold sellers in the Tepoztlan zocalo, a photo I took last year.

Marigolds, we’re told, are bright enough to guide the souls of the departed through the darkness to their old homes, or at least to a graveside party. There will be music in the cemeteries, myriads of candles, and people will keep all-night vigils.

Many people have seen Coco, the Disney movie which does an excellent job of presenting some of the traditions around the Days. I’ve watched it a couple of times, and marvel at how sympathetic the script is to its topic, even if it is a cartoon. It makes the celebrations much more elaborate than what I see here, but the intentions behind them are well captured.

The first stage of it all, that salvo of rockets I mentioned, happens right at the start of every October 18, and in this area of the country is particularly aimed at those who have no-one to greet them nor a place to visit. Then, on the following Saturday, prayers start in the local churches, and novenas (i.e., nine days of supplications) are made to remind the dead they are expected. Those who have died in accidents or tragedies, who are legion across Mexico, receive offerings on October 28 … and so on, and so on. One of the days in early November is particularly for children that have died.

People are not reticent about receiving guests at this time, though obviously individuals’ reactions and feelings vary. The deceased who have been gone for some time stir no strong emotions; the recently dead, or the lost children, can produce a different reaction. I’ve therefore always been cautious about intruding on the celebrations, even if the invitation is an open one. Once stepped on, cultural toes can be hard to un-step from.

None of my own forebears died anywhere close to this part of the world, so I don’t expect any humanoid spectrals to show up at this house. Still, next week I’ll buy some marigolds and light a votive candle, and leave the flame burning out of the breeze in the kitchen, with the outer door left open. Three of the dogs that have been companion animals here are buried in the garden above the house, and while the usual candies might not be appropriate, a few doggie treats left in a bowl on the retaining wall won’t go amiss. Even if they’re actually eaten by something other than ectoplasmic canine visitors in the night.

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A Lack of Naughty Forebears

I have little concept of most of my ancestors. After all, they were all dead before I showed up, except for one grandmother and my parents. They might have included a really interesting bunch of people, but my sense of them has always been otherwise. I’ve heard very few tales of people who were nonconformists or exceptional individuals. And I’ve had a lifelong desire to avoid them all, which might explain why I left England for Canada, then Canada for Mexico.

Marigolds for sale on a street in town.

So, here are all my neighbours putting out marigolds. Why does that concern me, you wonder? Because we’re coming up on the Days of the Dead, and the bright orange flowers are believed to be visible to the deceased in the dark. People put them out so the dead can find their way to the altars with offerings of sweet things and more flowers. And they’re all over town right now. 

A trail of marigolds leaning into a restaurant in Tepoztlan.

Sarcasm about my forebears aside, I’ve always been fascinated by the different notions about death and the dead that the Protestant world in which I grew up had from the place where I now live. A lot of horror movies make marginal sense here, because the dead are assumed to be hanging around anyway. In my upbringing, we feared ghosts, vampires and zombies, and our scariest movie villains weren’t alive in a conventional sense. We wanted the dead to remain inert, and preferably absent. Here, you at least invite them for dinner once a year.

This country still has a fascination with the ouch-y forms of human sacrifice once practiced from coast to coast. There used to be a theory that the Maya, at least, didn’t kill captives, but that turned out to be false. People before Columbus’ time expected to kill, and to be killed if captured. It was an honourable death, they believed, even if it was a nasty one. And there are lots of temples around whose primary purpose was for sacrificing people in order to sustain and nourish the gods with extracted hearts. 

The half covert pride in this is quite palpable. Quite possibly, a person’s fifteen-times-great grandad was sacrificed for the benefit of some now-forgotten deity. Cool, right? Yeah, I guess.

Coco did pretty well in capturing the essence and traditions of the Days of the Dead. (image: Disney Pixar).

I have tried with the Days of the Dead. There’s one day here for relatives and friends, and a second for lost children. So, I’ve lit candles and contemplated the memory of now-dead aunts and uncles I encountered. But I always end up thinking they were boring. The English middle classes could go to war (my uncles and great uncles did), and keep their most exciting and traumatic memories to themselves. Meanwhile, they avoided any appearance of creative originality. 

Where’s the fun in that?

Thus, I always end up shrugging, blowing out the candles and going to bed. I remain convinced that if you’re dead, it’s because you don’t belong here any more. Popping back for an annual visit and to sip a glass of tequila left on an altar seems out-of-place. 

The Tepoztlan cemetery is Party Central on November 2. BYOB, plus a few candles and some flowers, and you’re set.

Maybe, therefore, I’m a bit too like my uptight forebears. I need to drop my skepticism, and get drunk with a deceased wastrel, or at least someone who broke a few of the rules.

There was great uncle Willie, who did something bad with part of the family finances, but he did it without flair or success. They caught him, and he did time for it. Still, I suppose he’s the best option I have. Maybe I’ll buy some marigolds tomorrow, and put them out for him, with his name written on the pot. 

If he doesn’t show up, or can’t get to Mexico because of the pandemic, I’ll at least have some pretty flowers to brighten the patio.

Tepoztlan Wall Art

December 1, 2019

Yesterday, I took a walk through a part of Tepoztlan I only visit every month or two. And lo, there were some new murals I’d not seen before, at a quiet intersection. I assume they were done by local artists, of which there are many, for the Days of the Dead, although there are obvious non-Mexican influences in them.

I love the street art here, and so I’m reproducing a selection of the finest work. No claims, naturally, are made to ownership of the images. I’m not even sure how copyright works in relation to murals in public places, but I’m happy to post these photos of my favourites. Some of the artists’ signatures are visible in the photos.Dark woman.jpg

This brooding lady of the night, complete with cartridge belts, evokes those who fought and fell in the 1910 Revolution.

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A little night music, perhaps? A skeletal trombonist.

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The Lord of Mictlan, I believe: the Land of the Dead.

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Skull and candle on a wall.

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A skeletal figure partying the night away.

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More ex-people partying.

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A brooding figure with a candle.