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My Muertos Altar

          As most of the world must know, what with Coco drawing crowds  at multiplexes from Vincennes to Varanasi to Vladevastok, Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is one of Mexico’s two biggest festivals. The other in the tie for number one is Christmas. The festival of the Three Kings, Candelaria, The Virgin of Guadalupe, Easter Week, the entire liturgical calendar of saints, and all the rest, as important as they are, have to compete for ranking beginning at number 3. The importance of Muertos has been canonized —and I’m sure that is the wrong word— by UNESCO which has placed it on its list of Intangible Human Cultural Heritage Events.


By the way, the holiday’s very name, “Day of the Dead,” is a misnomer, for in the same way that Mardi Gras transcends Fat Tuesday, the “Day” of the Dead lasts at minimum a week. The multiple events of Muertos week –parades, religious plays, kids dressing up like skeletons, costume parties, concerts, visits to cemeteries, special foods, and all the rest, are worthy of a whole library of books. They exist. And if the library is too far away, Muertos articles and images are likewise all over the internet. Also by the way, Coco’s depiction of the festival is pretty accurate to the way itis celebrated in Michoacán, despite the overblown Disneyfication of its last half hour. The village scenes are faithful to actual villages, and I even recognized two of them, the area around the Plaza Chica in Pátzcuaro and the village of Paracho that really does manufacture the best Mexican guitars.  


            The backstory for the Day of the Dead is that the souls of the dead can be enticed to return to their home turf to communicate with the living souls they have left behind. The way-backstory is that this derives from an Aztec festival honoring Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of death, who is the great-great grandmother of the figure that modern Mexico knows as the Catrina.  

The way-way-backstory is that the festival derives from a concept prevalent long before the Aztecs among many Mesoamerican peoples holding that death is merely a new phase of life. And, human imagination being as anthropocentric as it is, the pre-Columbian afterlifes have a lot of features drawn from peoples’ current lives, only better, or worse, depending on the decedent’s prior accumulation of merit.


Marxists might say that religion, which they termed the opiate of the masses, employs afterlife as both a carrot and a stick to influence the behavior of the living for the benefit of elites. The Catholic Church, and most other Christian sects, while agreeing with influence would carp at elites. And most of the other religions with which I am familiar, seem to concur, with the main differences being the particulars of the post-life abode(s), and the nature of the chits that validate entrance to same.


Among the pre-Columbian religions it was understood, for example, that the house of death has many mansions, and that a person’s life and manner of death determine in which mansion the spirit will reside. Die by drowning and your spirit will reside in Tlalocan, house of the Water God Tlaloc, who by killing you has become responsible for you. Die in combat, or in sacrifice, or in childbirth, you are sent to Omeyocan, the paradise of the sun. Deceased infants will live on in Chichihuacuahco, where there grows a tree whose branches drip milk so that they will never go hungry.


People who die an ordinary death (whatever that might be) go to Mictlan, the House of the Dead, which presumably had features appropriate to the homes of middle class Olmecs, Toltecs, Totonacs, Purhépechas, and the like. Note: my knowledge of these things stands on squishy ground, and I am not confident enough of my footing to venture any further than I have into the kingdom of detail.


I do presume to know that what these departed spirits all have in common is that they are receptive to persuasion to return from time to time to visit the living. That time used to be in mid-summer, but the evangelizing colonial friars, who were horrified by the bloody cult of death (their term) of the Aztecs, and desperately wanted to Christianize the whole afterlife business, moved it to All Souls Day, November 2nd, which follows All Saints Day, November 1st, which follows the Eve of All Hallowed Beings that every kid in America knows as Halloween, and here in Mexico is lamentably encroaching on local Day of the Dead customs. 


            But I digress. Back to the Day of the Dead.


            The locus of the agents of persuasion for souls to come visit is the home altar, which has to be decorated, and provisioned, with items that the departed will find attractive. The most traditional ones are                                                                         skulls: ceramic and candy.


Pictures of the deceased to remind us, and them of what they looked like in this life.


Flowers: who doesn’t like flowers? Preference is for the common ones from the home environment that reach their peak in late October. The little white ones called nubes (Gypsophila paniculata) that grow wild up on the meadows that line Calle Pípila.

The little orange flores de San Nicolás (Piqueria trinervia) that carpet the area in front of our terrace and behind out casita.

Some showy blossoms from the oleanders on the hillside. And the so-called flor de muertos, the cempasúchitl (Tagetes erecta), a burly orange marigold of a certain size that are sold all over Oaxaca  the week before Muertos. I bought four little pots of them, and will transplant them into the garden when the festival is over. Thanks to the Church’s wisdom in moving the festival to the end of October, it coincides with the end of the rainy season which is the absolute apex of yellow blooming wild flowers including the acahuales (Simsia amplexicaulis) that surround our house. 


An arch: entrance to the world of, or maybe from, the world of the dead.

            Food: I mean, they are bound to be hungry after such a long journey, and if the living take care to put out some of their favorite treats . . .  For me the choice was easy, two of Linda’s favorite delicacies, both quintessentially Mexican and Mexican in origin: aguacatl (avocado) and chocolatl.


            A glass of water: …since anyone who travels as far as the dead do is bound to be thirsty.


            Liquor: For them that take pleasure in drinking same. Mezcal is the usual, but for Gringo wine drinkers . . .


            Hard candies: for the kids and the adults who never shed their sweet teeth


            Favorite things, as in These were some of my favorite . . .: prized tools of the trade, comfy bits of clothing, peluches (stuffed animals) . . .



   Skeletons, skulls, naked cut paper dancers in skin and bones without the skin, and any other symbols of mortality are close at hand. We keep our favorite symbol, which we lugged around for 40 years, outside the back door next to the garden where Linda’s ashes repose.


It goes without saying that the Church added a few decorative touches of its own:


A table set on three levels: to symbolize Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.


Icons: the Virgin Mary in one of her guises – Guadalupe in most of Mexico, Juquila here in Oaxaca; crucifixes; favorite saints; rosaries


Votive candles.


Pan de muertos: egg-rich sweet bread, to symbolize Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and in the sense of bread to break with friends or visitors. 


            Lázaro Montesinos, who helps us with the garden, worked hard with (i.e., pretty much instead of) me to construct this Muertos altar on our front porch.


And if you happen to find yourself in these parts over the next few days, I hope you will stop by to see it, and drink with me a toast to the memory of  . . .  Another fine Muertos tradition.


            On another and very basic level, of course, whether or not souls can be so easily induced to rouse themselves for a difficult journey, whether or not there is an afterlife, whether or not there are even such things as souls, it’s nice to take a moment every year to honor and remember loved ones who are no longer physically with us, but who in this simple way are reassured — or reassure us — that they were, and still are, meaningful to us, and are much loved, and intensely missed. 


            In Memoriam, Linda Davidson, August 20, 1946 – October 24, 2017.