It’s 10 p.m., and I am in the street dancing behind a raucous parade. The tuba is right in front of me–oompah, oompah! The man behind me is handing out tequila shots to one and all. Noise, laughter, celebration are everywhere. The rugged mountains around me ring with laughter and the explosions of homemade firecrackers (cohetes) that sound like artillery fire. I am in Mexico, and everyone in this small native town is in the streets or the cemetery, celebrating their dead.
The parade turns the corner and heads up the narrow street beside the ironwork gates of the ancient cemetery. Several of us move out of the line and through the cemetery gates. This ancient place is completely crowded. The graves with their stone slab tops and their statue guardians are placed so close together that I can’t walk between them. Most of them are freshly repainted and cared for, and each is beautifully decorated with coxcomb flowers (a type of red-flowering amaranth) and crosses of huge marigolds. Candlelight is everywhere, with wax candles burning on every grave. Some graves have images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, some have wooden crosses or religious amulets, and all are breathtaking. This place has been used for time out of mind by these people and their ancestors. It has been crowded for a century. When someone dies, they dig the grave on top of an already existing one, mingling the new bones with the bones of their great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers.
On this November second, the official Dia de los Muertos, the cemetery is not only filled with the dead, but with their sons and daughters, the ones still living. People fill the cemetery with laughter, celebration, and reverence. The townspeople sit on and around the graves, offering visitors tequila and chicken with rich, chocolatey mole sauce, pan de los muertos (bread of the dead), and sugary confections. They tell us about their aunts and grandfathers, their baby nephew lost in infancy. They paint a picture in your mind’s eye of their relatives by describing personality quirks and deep memories; it’s as if the people they’re discussing are right there. You can feel the spirits of the dead draw closer, listening to the stories about their lives, partaking in the food being offered to honor them. The stories are punctuated by deafening gunpowder shots of the local fireworks.
Two nights ago, on October 31, the festivities truly began as villagers set up altars inside their houses and children took to the streets in Halloween costumes, knocking on doors for candy. I opened the door of the posada where I was staying and invited the miniature demons, skeletons, and ballerinas in, and they rewarded my handful of treats with a series of beautiful songs, sung only on Day of the Dead. Yesterday (November 1) was Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), a celebration of the children who died in infancy and childhood. As I walked through the streets, I followed yellow trails of marigold petals through open doors to lovingly created altars sporting images of the dead, colorful decorations, candy skulls made of sugar and amaranth, and items dear to the ancestors being celebrated.
Throughout the days, I see parades of people carrying coxcomb and marigolds to decorate altars and graves. Throughout the nights, I lie awake, jolted by firework explosions and entertained by brass bands performing in top form until 4 a.m. I am struck with wonder at these people’s wisdom and balance. Materially, they have nothing, less than nothing compared to U.S. standards, yet they are filled with purpose and happiness. They smile shyly when you pass in the street; they open their homes and their hearts to you in celebration of their ancestors. They spend every minute of their time together, celebrating the life they’re given. They live in thankfulness and the beauty of traditional community. This is not to say that there are no problems here: poverty is rampant, the weather is harsh and arid, the work is very hard. Smog from the city and the slash and burn agriculture and bacteria-laden dust fills the lungs. But from what I can see, life is filled with celebration and gratefulness. They have something that we’re missing: their connection to the world around them is unbroken, as is their connection to each other and to their ancestors. They don’t have the privilege and curse of walls between people, between humans and nature. These people work the land, the land gives back to them, they are thankful and they celebrate! The land seems happy with this exchange.
My group of first world wanderers, most of us white folks from the U.S., put together our own altar. Since it was my first time in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos, I hadn’t known to bring items from home, but as I saw my fellows putting out framed photos of their loved ones, I was struck by the strangest mixture of emotions. I felt a deep grief that I had never permitted myself to feel about the elders in my life who had passed through the veil: my grandmothers, my aunts, my father, my grandfathers who I had never known. At the same time, I felt an inexplicable happiness, welling up from deep inside. It came from a feeling of permission, of purpose, of place. Here and now, I was allowed to grieve and celebrate these dear people in all their goodness and badness, their quirks and habits, their unachieved dreams, their life’s small successes. I went to the market and bought amaranth skulls and some candy and tobacco I knew my father would like and brought them back to place on our altar. I said a prayer and cried; later on, I danced my heart out with a tequila glass in my hand and laughter on my lips.
Late that evening of Dia de los Muertos, after the vigils at the cemetery are done and the living had returned to their homes or to the town center to enjoy the music, I return to the cemetery with my husband and a friend. We pick our way carefully among the crowded, lavishly decorated stones. The two-acre cemetery is bathed with candlelight and the only sound is the faint, magic noise of the candle flames flickering in the breeze. We pass a new grave, and a small dog is curled on it, sleeping, keeping her own vigil. The air around us is thick with listening, with reverent presence. The ancestors are all around us, and they are satisfied. They will rest well for another year until their day comes around again.
Erin Everett first published this article in her print magazine, New Life Journal. Each year, she goes to Mexico to learn and celebrate. For the rest of the year, she stays home near Asheville, NC, USA and counts her blessings. Contact Erin at email@example.com