As our neighbor, John, said in his blog (which is really worth reading-- www.vivaveracruz.com/blog --)Dia de los muertos is really Semana de los muertos. From Sunday to Thursday people in the Colonia were busy cleaning and cooking. Each night was a night to honor a particular group: children who had died after being born, children who died at birth, all too common, and so on. Starting Sunday, people worked on creating altars in their houses. The altars are tables with a frame on top which is covered with greens and big, fat velvety golden marigolds, here called flor de muerte. The altars are dedicated to specific people who have died. On the altars people put religious pictures and pictures of the people being honored if they have them. Here we realized people don't always have photos: Ave and Jero, for instance, don't. The altars are heaped with food, especially fruit and tamales. People put out things that the deceased were especially fond of: particular food and drink, perhaps, or a baseball uniform if they were on a team. All kinds of mementos and, of course, candles. On the streets of Xico and Coátepec vendors sold small, colorful baskets to put things for the altar in along with an enormous variety of miniatures made of marzipan so that if your beloved had been a cattle farmer, you could put candy cattle in a basket on the altar. Markets are filled with the marigolds, always slightly limp and luxurious at the same time. Our friend, Norma, the administrator of Pronatura Veracruz, came over Wednesday night right before Dia de los muertos for supper. She brought us two small plates of marzipan which included tiny tacos, a slice of watermelon, a slice of pizza, and indeterminate green mountain of something and gorditas. Norma grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Mexico City and she said during her childhood she was barely aware of these traditions which so absorb areas like ours. Instead, like American kids, she went trick or treating.
On Tuesday night, we went up to Jero's house. Their Dia de los Muertos altar is dedicated to their two children who died, a son at a month of age, a daughter at three years. The son was the second oldest after Laura, the daughter was between Victoria and the youngest, Jaqueline. There were candles, tiny marzipan toys and little baskets of candy and pictures of La Virgén y Jesús. There were bowls of fresh fruit, including some in the bowl Jim had given Jero for her birthday (I was in Massachusetts at the time). He felt honord that she had used it on the altar. On the floor of the altar, as is the custom, there was a crucifix made of marigold petals. Jero was still cooking tamales, all of which which would go onto the altar on Wednesday night. Jero's kitchen is at the back of the house, though the fridge is in the front room I think because that is where the electricity is. The kitchen is partly in a room that opens completely to the back yard. In this room are her propane-fired stove top (two burners), a table for preparation, wooden counters for storing things and a wall filled with an enormous variety of mugs. The kitchen opens to the backyard where Jero still cooks in great big clay pots and large steamers over a wood fire. Tuesday there was a huge pot of steaming tamales sitting over the coals.
We sat in the front room and had the traditional very sugary coffee which tastes like dessert and bean tamales and delicious and sweet strawberry tamales. Jero is a wonderful cook. We were to go Wednesday for the meat ones but we couldn't because Norma was coming.
The sun was setting as we left Jero's. On the way home we could see altars lit by candlelight in all the houses. People don't so much believe that the dead come to eat the food left at the altars, but rather the day and the altar and the rituals give a profound sense of connection with them, of remembering and honoring them. I think of how close I sometimes still find myself feeling to my grandmother -- a spiritual, mysterious feeling, but not superstitious: not like leaving cookies for Santa at all. After the Day of the Dead is over, family and friends partake of the food on the altar.
Thursday morning at 8:30 we picked up Jero, Ave (her esposo), Laura, Victoria and Jaqueline and drove to the Panteón, or cemetery, in Xico where Jero and Ave's kids are buried.
The route there from the main street of Xico is lined on both sides, curb and street, with marigold petals which you can get a glimpse of in this picture I took out the window of the car. You can click on any picture, by the way, to make it larger.
We parked some distance away and walked up and down the hills of the cobblestone street. The panteon itself was like a miraculous garden, overflowing with fresh flowers. People were still at work. In front of the headstones are usually rectangular areas bordered with brick or concrete and filled with earth. Members of the family plant cut flowers and rooted flowers and plastic flowers and statues and keepsakes in the soil and place them carefully on the borders and on the headstones. They scrub the headstones and sweep around the graves.
At nine, the misa started under the roof of the sheltered area. People sat on folding chairs, or stood outside, or rested on the gravesites. Here are some pictures of the misa. In one of them, you can see Pico de Orizaba in the background.
After the misa, people visited the graves of their loved ones and sprinkled holy water on them, blessing them. Jero and Ave and their daughters all sprinkled water on the simple white-flower-covered graves of their children. Ave also blessed the grave of a cousin who died during the past year...not just a cousin, but a close friend and age mate.
Below are some pictures of the street leading to the panteon with people coming and going. The street is lined with vendors selling all manner of things: socks, CDs, food, flowers for the graves, sunglasses and jewelry. It reminded me of the way up to the monastery and church on Mont San Michel in France where since the middle ages vendors have lined the streets to sell stuff to pilgrims. In one photo you can see Laura and Jaqueline in their pink Boston Red Sox hats -- I brought them back from Boston. The girls look gorgeous in them.
We headed for Doña Gloria's house after we left the panteón. We all had lots of tamales with her and Kaeko. In the midst of the meal, a candle caught the fringe on the altar table on fire -- very dramatic -- but Jim and Ave turned into bomberos and put it out quickly.
In his blog, John our Neighbor mentions how many tamales he ate and how he could continue eating them because he likes them so much. Friday, Jero brought us yet some more, and our friend Marie from up the street even more. Finally I had enough. If I had known how much John loved them, I wouldn't have done away indecorously with the final two.
Saturday I went to see Paul the English gardener to buy some jam and to talk to him about a web-site for small-scale agricultural stuff. He had, after many years in Mexico, finally put his own altar up to honor his father. It had a cup of tea and a glass of scotch among many other mementos .. an altar for an Englishman.
Day of the Dead is a wonderful day. Jim and I were deeply moved yet again by the faith of our community -- not so much in any orthodoxy but in the connectivity of family, the continuity of life and death. And by this yearly celebration of such great importance during which all generations feel close to their loved ones here and gone.