17 Mar About life and death – a Mexican story
“A society which is incapable of celebrating death will likewise be incapable of celebrating life’: with these words Octavio Paz described Mexican society and culture in his anthropological essay that has become an iconic work of Mexican literature and beyond.
One of the most evident aspects of Mexican society is its liveliness; in the streets of the gigantic Mexico City, as in those of the tiniest village of campesinos, it is easy to notice, wherever one directs one’s eyes, an active, pulsating, supportive community, always playful, noisy and swaggering; it is not difficult to feel involved walking down a Mexican street, because there will always be someone interested in what you are doing, where you are coming from or where you are going: and this does not only happen to us travelers, who naturally arouse the curiosity of those who meet us on the street, but to everyone, really everyone, because in Mexico there is always a reason to be interested in others, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes with slightly less noble intentions.
Societies like ours have slowly lost this existential vivacity, but on the other hand they have acquired many skills and qualities.
As soon as we get to Mexico, our objective was clear: getting to Patzcuaro Lake as soon as possible for the ‘Dia de los muertos’ celebrations; after much research, we were convinced to spend the festive days there, in the midst of a traditional and authentic community.
To be clear, the dia de muertos or dia de almas (depending on the region you are in) is a celebration that corresponds to our days between the first and second of November; Mexicans, who love the festivities, start a few days earlier and end a few days later to make sure they have celebrated enough and exhausted their supply of Tequila.
We are used, in our cemeteries, to see many people going in and out with a few flowers in their hands to remember their deceased loved ones and revive their memory. In Mexico, the belief is that on the night between the 1st and 2nd of November the dead make a journey from the afterlife to return to this earth to spend a few hours with their beloved relatives. Depending on the pueblo you are in, the tradition can change quite a bit; for some the dead return every year, for others they only show up the year they die and then remain forever in the afterlife. For this reason, the way of celebrating can vary greatly from village to village, depending on whether one believes he can see them every year or greet them one last time before they return, forever, to their new dimension.
By the time we arrive at the shores of the lake, preparations for the celebrations are already much more advanced than we thought; the streets are already full of stalls, traders from all over Mexico have arrived with an avalanche of traditional products on full display: fabrics and textiles, clothes, leather bags and backpacks, handmade shoes and hats, wooden and ceramic statues, celebratory masks, rings, jewelry, carpets and the list could go on and on; everywhere you turn your eyes you can spot a riot of colors. Then you move on to the food stalls and here the Mexican cuisine is as varied as it is good: tortillas, quesadillas, enchiladas, burritos, tacos and empanadas, of minced, grilled, chopped, shredded, pork, cow and sheep meat, meatballs with sauce, steamed, stuffed, soaked and pressed, cooked, salted and spiced corn, sauces scattered everywhere with different degrees of spiciness: vegetarianism seems not to have taken root here yet. Mexicans abound with aguacate, cilantro and onion and never finish a meal without something sweet and alcoholic in their bellies. Children scamper through the streets, chasing each other with streamers and spray cans, mamacitas on street corners shout out selling a little bit of everything: bread and homemade sweets. For every inhabitant, a stray dog roams the market hoping to get a piece of this traveling feast. The elderly sit outside their homes, now unable to teach their grandchildren much of anything because the latter are more interested in their cellphones.
In this cosmic marasmus we glide along the streets, intrigued and amused, looking for our place in such a heartfelt celebration; the night before the festivities, a caravan of cars winds its way through the village; the youngest have transformed their roaring cars into fake carnival floats with signs, illuminations, puppets: the theme is predominantly Halloween, so everyone is sporting devilish, bloody masks, severed heads or characters from the scariest sagas; the cars keep rolling for hours, with music blaring from the voluminous speakers mounted in the boots: at this point, the dia de muertos celebrations have not even begun. ..
In fact, what awaits us the next evening is difficult to put into writing: we arrive at the cemetery of Tzintzuntzan – one of the most characteristic villages on the lake – shortly after ten o’clock in the evening, when already a torrent of people has invaded the village streets; we walk with them down towards the main street of the village where a carpet of food stalls welcomes us with smells and scents from the most seductive to the most weird. Thousands of people move frantically in one direction or another trying to make room for themselves as if in a burning anthill. The closer we get to the cemetery, the more deafening the sound of music becomes; at one point, in the distance, a carpet of lights dazzles the sky amidst the tombs whose silhouettes we can only glimpse. Lost in the whirlwind of people, we finally manage to enter the cemetery and the spectacle is astonishing; dozens of lit candles have been placed around each tomb, families are gathered around their dead, altars laden with food have been positioned to welcome the well-beloved from their return from the afterlife. The general commotion is high; bands of fanfares, trumpets and drums circle the various tombs intoning celebratory songs; the noise at this point is beyond the acceptable limit.
Lots of people are singing, dancing: it is a shared chaos in which each clan celebrates their loved ones as they all take part in this collective catharsis. We leave a few minutes later and by now the streets of the village seem an oasis of calm compared to what is happening inside the cemetery.
Why is a society so festive and celebratory at such a delicate and sad time as the memory of the loss of a loved one can be? Why has this momentum towards death been largely lost in our society?
These are questions to which it is difficult to give a certain and definitive answer, but it is clear that a society (such as ours) that is hyper-organized and strongly focused on technological development and material well-being tends to develop various attitudes in its citizens: firstly, a widespread sense of omnipotence whereby everything is possible and attainable by science and technology that can hardly be nurtured when confronted with the inescapable fact of our fragility with respect to life; then, a widespread sense of immortality whereby everyone forgets their own end and loses perspective on what it is important to strive for and dedicate one’s short life to; finally, a widespread sense of fear on the basis of which everyone restricts themselves to carrying out the activities that society deems most important and satisfying, without ever addressing in depth the meaning of his own life (and, by extension, of his own death).
It is a fact that, with the exception of religion, in our secular society the task of confronting the uncertain, death, the unknown has been left unaddressed: at school it is rare for anyone to address these topics, in the family it is not talked much except when the tragedy of a deceased relative occurs, and government institutions are not interested in the subject, not even from the point of view of protecting those who are forced to face a terminal illness; just think of the fact that at least in some European countries there are already professional figures to accompany people with terminal illnesses in facing the last step of their lives. In Italy, the task has been voluntarily taken on by a few non-profit associations, but without a national initiative behind it, a collective spirit that should be part of an organized, compassionate and civilized nation.
In this as in many other cases, preparing oneself is always better than arriving at the end without any useful tools to deal with the situation; and those who, usually, listening to or reading these speeches, turn their noses up branding them pessimistic and insensitive, forget the fact that death is an integral part of our lives, a natural event like childbirth, usually a circumstance hailed as happy as promising.
Is there a way to deal with this subject, without making one’s life depressing? Certainly the celebration of the dia de muertos in Mexico has given us some fun and boisterous ideas. For those who would like to explore the subject on their own, I recommend reading the “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk who questions these topics with great depth, sensitivity and irony, offering a spiritual path for those who are willing to take it.
We wake up in our bed in Patzcuaro with the previous night’s din in our ears, but only because the Mexicans have not yet stopped celebrating: the bangs and fireworks are not in our imagination, but instead someone is shooting them off at this hour outside our room windows! We cannot say we are happy about this early morning wake-up call, but the experience of the previous night was magnetic and unforgettable. Que viva Mexico!