Feting the Dead in Mexico - San Francisco Chronicle Magazine
IN THE BLACK OF NIGHT on Nov. 1, the cemeteries of Michoacán hum with life. Women in woven shawls bow their heads over lumpy graves; men in cowboy hats flash gold-toothed grins in the dark; children dart through shadows, giggling between bites of sweets. Tourists do their part snapping photos, sidestepping unmarked graves, kneeling at marked ones to admire offerings meant to please the dead. And the dead? They're lurking, for this is their chance to greet family and feast on foods they love. I'm here at Lake Pátzcuaro not only to learn from this ritual, but also to better get to know my 15-year-old nephew, Spenser.
This part of central Mexico, the volcanic highlands around Lake Pátzcuaro, is home to indigenous people who speak the Purépecha language. After the Spanish arrived in 1522, the willful Purépecha resisted attempts to alter their lives, and now their traditions, although firmly Catholic, are grounded in their pre-Hispanic past. Our home base for the week is a Spanish colonial hotel on Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, the main square of Pátzcuaro, a mid-size town right off the shores of the lake. Our balcony overlooks a patchwork of red roofs and bright adobe walls. Rooster calls echo every morning. It's hard to leave the plaza, for vendors from dozens of crafts villages have set up for the week to sell pottery, figurines, wooden sculptures, weavings, guitars and more. One block is devoted to sweets shaped like skeletons, skulls and coffins, bought by families to decorate graves. Although the cultural extravaganza here is alluring, on Nov. 1 we head into the country to see the goings-on in Michoacán's scattered cemeteries.
Above the lakeside village of Tzintzuntzan lie giant foundations of a ceremonial site that was central to Purépecha life before the Spanish conquest. From afar, it looks like a blocky bunker. Up close, we see slim petroglyphs tapped centuries ago into the massive stones. On Nov. 1, Tzintzuntzan becomes festival central as Mexicans arrive from all over to see the candlelit offerings the townspeople construct over gravesites in order to welcome back their dead. This is our first of three cemetery visits in one night. Crowds clog the path connecting the ruins to the Catholic church plaza below. They buy food and crafts. I buy a shot of tequila at a roadside stand, while Spenser drinks lemonade. Teenagers swat a ball of fire with sticks in an ancient game that, according to some interpreters, pits the powers of darkness (the players) against the sun (a cluster of burning twigs). Inside the church, a priest gives blessings for a small fee.
At dusk, we venture into the cemetery, where families are picnicking around headstones decorated with food, candy, drinks and flowers. Some offerings are elaborate, their candles cuffed with luminous paper wings. Others are spare, a sprinkle of flower petals in the shape of a cross. In the twilight, I snap dozens of images with my camera flash respectfully turned off. Spenser, a keen photographer, uncharacteristically quits after taking just a few pictures. Is he bored, I wonder, or queasy about intruding? I watch for clues he's having fun, but gather little.
Our guide, Henry Wilds, discourages us from tasting the street food we see here, but some in our tour group ignore him, and gorge on smoked almonds and a steamy stew of rice and chicken. Tzintzuntzan will have a late night of dancing and feasting, but we leave it behind for the quieter doings of Cucuchuchu. The Day of the Dead is practiced in a million ways in Mexico, from "Discos for the Dead" in cities, to single-night Thanksgiving-like feasts at home, to the quieter cemetery vigils around Pátzcuaro. Wilds, a Day of the Dead junkie who has attended more than 30 festivals here, prefers the quiet ones. "There will be a lot of people here in Cucuchuchu, soon," he whispers as we tiptoed through an archway into the stone-walled cemetery. Grave offerings here are simple - arched or squared-off frames clad with marigolds and other flowers and footed with food baskets topped with hand-embroidered linens. Knee-high candles warm the cemetery with winking light.
When a family welcomes Spenser and me into their circle, I plug away at conversation, relying on budding Spanish and facial expressions to convey my sentiments. Spenser doesn't want to practice his Spanish yet and wanders off. He's more an observer than a talker anyway. I've learned to connect with him in other ways - a glance, a shrug - and settle into silence.
In many parts of rural Mexico, villagers illuminate roads and paths with kerosene lamps to make sure their hallowed kin return safely to the graves, for lost souls can cause trouble on Earth. At our final stop, the village of Arocutín, lanterns extend for blocks, as do tour buses bearing visitors to an eerie midnight bell ceremony. Tourists - mostly Mexican, but also North Americans and Europeans - cling to the lighted church, which sags with age, but I abandon the light to wander among the graves, where I find families huddled around campfires, laughing, telling stories, scolding children - as if it's market day. I think that if we could see their ancestors' faces, we'd find them chuckling, too. That's how scores of Mexicans imagine their departed - laughing, playing jokes, as if content with where they are.
Alone in the far corner of the graveyard, I face a problem: how to start a conversation when no one has invited me to speak? Should I ask, "Who's buried here?" What if a mother answers: "My son, who died last week," and starts to cry. The woman I ask in fact responds with, "This is my husband. He died 10 years ago." I do not look away from the yellowing photograph of that once puffy, earnest face, as I might have done before coming here. Instead, I soak it in. I have never been comfortable talking about the people I know who've died - friends, family - even distant acquaintances.
On the Pátzcuaro square, vendors may be suggesting a sweeter way to handle death. They sell sugar or chocolate skulls and upon request will squeeze your name in loops of frosting onto the skull's forehead. By nibbling the skull labeled with your name, you metaphorically eat your own death, incorporating death into life. "Mexicans are better friends with death than we are," Wilds likes to say. I hope I'm absorbing some ability to sit someday more comfortably with death.
Where is Spenser? He is on his own. After the bell song, we find each other in front of the church, where an old woman beckons us into a courtyard. Over a steaming cauldron, she extends two cups of brown ponche, a mixed fruit and alcohol drink I've read about, and waits for us to taste it. Spenser and I lock eyes. Floating raisins look like bloated bugs. We want to receive her gifts, yet don't want to get sick. Spenser takes the first gulp. I wash mine down, too, joining the two of us in fate. Rather than churning my gut, though, the liquid comforts me, like a mellow apple cider.
The next evening, Wilds takes us to a "secret" cemetery (whose name no amount of bribery would release), where friends of his are in vigil. Right away, Spenser darts away. This time I don't stalk. A seated woman motions me to kneel beside her. Soft as dough, great arms billowing over an apron of lace, she queens over baskets of fruit and the Frisbee-like loaves called "bread of the dead." To my surprise, she tries to give me a banana. "I can't take food from the dead," I say. She meets my refusal with a resolute face. In the end, I'm given loads of fruit, candy and bread. When Spenser reappears, his cheeks are riding high. "They gave me so much food," he says with a laugh. He unzips his backpack to reveal a bounty, breaking off hunks of bread and passing them around to the rest of us. We savor the bread's sweetness, praise his kindness. I realize that while my intention with the trip was to introduce Spenser to indigenous culture, instead, he's given me a gift - his trust and friendship, and the memory of his generosity, which mirrors the selfless sharing demonstrated by our Purépecha hosts.
Back home, like Wilds, I've become a Day of the Dead junkie. As for Spenser, his mom reported he grew an inch during his week in Mexico. My mom, who lives near them, said when she asked Spenser about the trip, he talked a blue streak.--
If You Go
WHEN: It's best to arrive in Pátzcuaro for the Day of the Dead a few days early in order to enjoy the town while the crafts booths are up, and to see any parades, arts shows or public performances offered. It's easy to book day trips from your hotel or the Tourism Department office on the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, or plan your trip in advance with a tour company like Adventure Travel Institute, www.adventuretravelinstitute.com. For more information, visit www.michoacan-travel. com and www.visitmexico.com.
It's important when traveling in countries involved in the drug trade to be aware and cautious at all times. Don't travel alone in the dark; use a guide in remote regions. Don't accept suspicious rides, and be aware of your surroundings and who's around you. There has been drug activity and violence in Michoacán, but shortly after being sworn into office in December 2006, Mexico's President Felipe Calderón sent troops into the state to clamp down on gangsters and drug dealers.
HOW: The closest major airport to Pátzcuaro is the Morelia International Airport in the state capital 30 miles away. Cab trips, about $20, take about 45 minutes along the fast toll road to Pátzcuaro. Regular local buses leave from the Morelia bus station about a mile and a half away from the airport.
WHAT: Pátzcuaro is full of shops and great restaurants, so it's easy to get anything you need. Be sure to see the dramatic Juan O'Gorman mural of the Spanish Conquest inside the Biblioteca Publica on the Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra, and visit the Museo de Jose Maria Artes Populares on Arciga street. Try Argentine fare at hip Mistongo a block up Dr. Coss street from Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, or enjoy regional cuisine at El Patio, where there's upstairs dining on balconies overlooking the plaza. For day trips, boat across Lake Pátzcuaro to the island of Janitzio and climb the interior spiral staircase of the José Maria Morelos statue for views of the whole lake and its islands. Take a cab or bus to the nearby village of Santa Clara del Cobre to see the region's famous coppersmiths at work.
All Photos Copyright Laura Read