Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead

       I just finished putting up our Day of the Dead altar. Candles, marigolds, a sugar skull wearing a mariachi’s sombrero, and traditional Mexican figurines - skeletons dancing, teaching, sitting in a booth at a restaurant, death in normal places, because in Mexico death is normal, not something to fear.

     The photos are up: parents, grandparents, the recent dead, like our dear friend Aldo who could go nowhere without music. For a week after he died, both Bill and I kept hearing his favorites. The sound so filled the house that when a group of women arrived I actually warned them that the house was haunted by music. There is a group photo on the altar of that extraordinarily lively bunch, my father’s family. Though I haven’t seen many in decades, they are instantly present - and thoroughly themselves. I miss them and mourn them.

     You know I’m not Mexican, so why do I have an altar?  Is it mimicry, Latina-wanna-be, the spread of Day of the Dead ceremonies throughout Northern California? It began in Mexico
in 1963, in late October -

     My friends at the national university (UNAM) tell me it is time to purchase calaveras de sucre, sugar skulls, for those I'm close to,  with their names written in frosting. They are in the windows of every bakery. Julio and Rosana tell me we will be going to the island of Janitzio in the state of Michoacan for Día de los Muertos. Then I might really begin to understand their country.

    We take a second class bus to Patzcuaro, and a boat to the island. The sun is setting. The silvery lake turns orange, the color of this holy day. A parade of torch-lit fishing canoes passes us. The fisherman are performing a ritual of gratitude, and we watch a ballet of butterfly shaped nets.

     After Mass, a crowd of the P’urhépechas, as the people call themselves, emerges from the church, and immediately a group of men grab sticks from a pile, use them as canes, and begin the Danza de los Viejecitos, the little old men. They are very convincing, and very funny, and my friends tell me this was a Pre-Columbian dance to the sun god. I don't ask them why this particular dance was used to honor the sun god, and I still don't know the answer.

      And then the procession begins. Men, women and children are carrying torches, candles and tall wooden arches covered with cempasuchil flowers, the orange marigolds that have been used to honor the dead for milennia. The color symbolizes the earth, and it is these flowers that will guide the spirits to both the home altar, and the one they are now creating on the graves of their ancestors.
     Baskets of fruit are placed next to the grave, the wooden arches, like blossoming sculptures, are erected over it, and tall tapers placed around it. And then the chanting and singing begins - the night is all and only candleglow and sound.

    There is only this place, and those voices. It will last till dawn, and we will remain, without sleep, but not the least bit tired. And the light and song are no longer outside us, we are no longer curious observers. The ritual has entered into me, become me - and it has remained there ever since.

Tonight I will light orange tapers on my altar, and sing to my dead.                                                                            





Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Land of Chac Mool, the Rain God

         We have friends who travel the world looking for people who still follow the old ways, play ancient instruments, and dress in something handmaid, bright colored, patterned, beaded or embroidered. They have visited the Omo of Ethiopia who decorate their faces and bodies with minerals and plants and flowers every day, and the Tuareg of the Sahara, swathed in dyed blue cloth the color of parrots.                                       

Omo of Ethiopia
     You could call it voyeurism if they didn’t care so much about endangered cultures - which they all are. We’ve done some of that travel ourselves. I was able to go to Rajasthan because I promised my husband we would find the Rajput gypsies, whose music and dance he had fallen in love with in the film Lacho Drom. And we did.

      But after Christmas we will travel in our own hemisphere, to the places I first explored in 1963 as a student and volunteer - places where temples and pyramids, costumes, languages, song and dance are as unique, and “exotic” as anywhere I’ve been: the states of Yucatan and Chiapas in Mexico.
      In the fall of 1963, a friend and I traveled on third class buses, bush planes, and the “camioneta” - a  specially outfitted vehicle used by the planning dept of the museum of anthropology. We purchased embroidered ‘huipiles’ from Chamula women for their full value. We bounced down the dirt roads of Chiapas in ancient jeeps and pick-ups, and watched the Chamula men in their ribboned hats go off to town,
Chamula of Chiapa
while the women carried great loads of firewood back to the village.  We traveled with monks who had studied the Mayan codices in the Vatican library,  and were warned by Gertud Blom, the aging European “empress” of San Cristobal de las Casas, not to seduce them - her way of insulting our American youthfulness.
We saw the ruins of temples adjacent to waterfalls, and realized that acres of surrounding hills were unexcavated ruins. We were volunteers, and tried, unsuccessfully, to get the forest people to stop getting their water from the rivers infested with onchocerca volvulus, a nematode that causes blindness. We were unsuccessful because they laughed at our “scientific method”, which was  culturally inappropriate - and I still feel guilty about it.

     I couldn’t learn enough about the Yucatec Maya - their hieroglyphics, now deciphered, their architecture, art, religion - and their calendar, whose wrongful interpretation by Westerners has led to the belief in a 2012 apocalypse. The Mayans were one of the subjects of my graduate oral exams    - though a great deal of what I learned has been refuted, but I’ve managed to keep up.

Maya of Yucatan

      I so look forward to introducing Bill to “my” Mayan world  - and to explore with him. I hope to take the boat trip on the Usamacinta river to the ruins of Yaxchilan, which I did not see in 1963, and has been calling to me since. I don’t know what it is about that river and those ruins that I have to go to, but I will find out.

     Meanwhile, let me introduce you to a poem by a Quiché Mayan poet from Guatemala, Humberto Ak'abal.

The Grandmother

The night begins,

when the moon
—Grandmother of the villages—

comes out with her lime-white candle

to light up the silence.

The darkness

hides in the canyons,
the small birds

roll up their songs
and the trees

lie on their own shadows.
The grandmother

who hasn’t slept for centuries


into the eyes of the night.