Tag Archives: religion

Chiapas Notebook: Maya Cemetery at Romerillo

The day is cloudy, overcast. A mist hangs on the hills like a coverlet. It’s late February, still chilly with winter in the Chiapas Highlands. Fuzzy wool cape weather, even in the early afternoon. After our visit to Tenejapa for the Thursday market, we make a stop at Romerillo before returning to San Cristobal de las Casas.

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From the road, the Romerillo Maya cemetery, majestic

Romerillo is a tiny hamlet with an impressive cemetery. The stand of turquoise blue Maya crosses carved with ancient symbols are sentries, erect on the crest of the hill. Tethered sheep graze at the base. We get out of the van and walk slowly to enter sacred space.

Pine planks cover the mounds so the dead stay where they belong

We moved in a matter of a few miles from textile sensory overload to quiet meditation. After our guide introduces us to the Maya world of death and life, we each walk silently, separating, alone, stepping across dried pine needles, around the mounds of earth designating grave sites. There are things to think about.

Four ancestors share this grave, each buried at ten-year intervals

One of us gets a call to come home to tend to her mother’s dying. Another suddenly loses a brother-in-law just days before. Most of us quietly mourn a parent, a husband, friend, perhaps a child, a relationship.

The cemetery site is rocky, uneven, steep, protected, festive

It’s months past the Day of the Dead season. There are remnants of marigolds, fresh fruit dried by the sun,  graves covered by wood planks to keep the dead secure in their underworld habitat until the next uncovering.

People drink fizzy Coca Cola at ceremonies. Burping is the voice of gods.

The mounded burial ground: scattered pine needles, dried pine boughs tied to the Maya crosses, toppled flower pots, an empty coke bottle, a tossed aside cigarette butt, an overturned flask once filled with pox (pronounced posh), a fresh grave.

(Mary Randall reminds me that the Romerillo hill was featured in the indie film, El Norte, a testimony to the Maya struggle for independent identity.)

Toppled urns of dried flowers. All disintegrates (except plastic).

How do I know of this recent burial? From the lingering aroma of copal incense, scattered green pine needles, flowers still too fragrant in their urns.

Grand vistas from 7,000 feet high, ethereal

Life and death blend together in Maya ritual. The mounds bridge the gap between heaven and earth. Fresh pine boughs are the portal to the other world. There is afterlife, often reincarnation depending on status. Memory must be kept, attended to. Here is ancestor worship — generations buried in the same space. The pine needles represent infinity, too numerous to count.

By February, pine boughs have dried crusty brown, stay until next year

The blue and green crosses are symbols, too, portals of entry for contact with the ancestors. Mayans believe the ancestors are guides and give them counsel in their problems when asked. Blue is significant throughout the Maya world.

Inscription at the base of a giant Maya cross

On November 1, Day of the Dead, family members lift off the wood planks. Sit around the grave sites of their loved ones, carry on a conversation. There are elaborate rituals here that bring people closer to the natural world.  The sun, moon, earth, stars are imbued with meaning, embedded in all that exists. Everything has a purpose, is connected.

Our groups hears the explanations, wants to disperse

Some of us sit. Others walk. The tall crosses guard the land. Small crosses guard each grave. Sometimes I see several crosses marking one grave site. I know from my experience in Oaxaca that each identifies one person in this resting place, that ten years must pass before another can be buried in the same space. There is continuity on this path.

Small crosses designate each grave site

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Good Friday in Oaxaca, Mexico: Procession of Silence

Holy Week or Semana Santa in Oaxaca, Mexico, is coming to a close for 2016. On Good Friday, the Procession of Silence that re-enacts the trial, crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus (14 Stations of the Cross) starts around sunset and winds through the main streets of the historic center.

Leading the procession is Archbishop Jose Luis Chavez Botello and other leaders of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Antequera, Oaxaca.

(FYI: Oaxaca was named Antequera in 1529. Later, it reverted to Oaxaca, adapted from the Nahuatl Huaxyacac, which was Hispanicized to Guajaca. The predominant tree of the region is the guaje, which produces an edible seed pod, the source of Oaxaca’s name.)

Spanish Catholicism came to Mexico with the conquest and many areas here observe Semana Santa with devotion that include influences from indigenous tradition. In Oaxaca city, the Procession of Silence is probably more akin to its Iberian Peninsula origins.

Solemn, spiritual, filled with the images of belief and sacrifice, the procession draws visitors from throughout the world. At its apogee, the crowd was at least 10 people deep.

 

The mystery is further heightened by the metered beat of a drummer, candlelight, rebozo draped women, hooded men, the eerie sound of crosses dragging on the cobbled streets, and the illumination of a full moon.

I usually spend Easter week in Teotitlan del Valle, so this was a new experience. What I heard about from friends beforehand was the description of men wearing pointy hats, a reminder of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. Let’s be clear. We don’t want to confuse the two!

 

The conical hood, called a capriote, hides the face of the person wearing the nazareño cloak. This is a garment of Medieval origin and associated with the Passion of Christ.

I am not Catholic nor am I religious, but I consider myself spiritual, observant and respectful, so understanding the rituals and traditions of Catholicism in Mexico, where I spend a good part of my life, is important to me.

We had a great perch on the rooftop patio at Mezzaluna, at the corner of Garcia Virgil and Allende, in clear view of Santo Domingo Church and the procession as it passed below. This is the corner where the procession began and ended.

Cost of admission was a delicious pear and gorgonzola pizza, sueros (I like mine plain, Victoria beer. fresh squeezed lime, and a salt-rimmed chilled glass) and mezcal. The house espadin mezcal was especially delicious, especially since it came in a double-shot tumbler size glass!

As the procession ended, the crowd dispersed to fill the walking street/andador Macedonio Alcala, the adjacent artisans markets, and restaurants open late to feed all the hungry visitors.

 

As I walked by Templo de Sangre de Cristo at the corner of Alcala and M. Bravo, I was moved to enter where I saw figures carried in the procession at rest inside the church. The altar was draped in red cloth as were all the saints in their wall niches. People sat in silent prayer.

Back on the street, I passed Ave. Morelos, where the full moon hung low in the sky, a backdrop to street lights and headlights. As I meandered back to where I stay in the city, it was a perfect ending to a great day and a reminder that life is in the beauty of each moment.

And, of course, there are the children, who hold all the promise of a future yet to unfold.

 

 

 

 

 

Semana Santa–Easter Holy Week in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

As I write, someone is in the bell tower pulling the rope that rings the campana — a clarion call to gathering. Today is El Lunes Santo in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.  You still have time to catch a taxi or colectivo from Oaxaca to arrive for the 9 a.m. mass in the Preciosa Sangre de Cristo church. Afterward, the procession will begin from the church courtyard and wind through the village, an all day event. Just listen for the music to find it!

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Teotitlan del Valle is divided into five different administrative units that are part of the Municipio, the volunteer usos y costumbres municipal governing body. Each of the five sections will host resting places along the route that symbolizes the Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross.

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On Good Friday, there will be two separate processions — one carrying the Christ and the other the figure of Mary. They will come together in the village municipal courtyard in front of the rug market where a mass will be celebrated before they are returned to the church.

Here are some links to posts, photos and videos about Semana Santa in Teotitlan del Valle:

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Easter Sunday is a quiet day here, celebrated in the home with an elaborate meal and gathering of extended family.

 

Traditional Altars: Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico

After a night spent in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan cemetery on October 31 for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico, I headed back to the Tlacolula Valley on Sunday morning. I was invited to San Pablo Villa de Mitla by friends Arturo Hernandez and Epifanio Ruiz Perez to visit for Day of the Dead. Here in Mitla it is always celebrated on November 1.

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Mitla, or originally Mictlan, is an ancient Zapotec town at the valley terminus with Mixtec influences carved into its archeological ruins. Mitla was just named a Pueblo Magico so it’s likely that in future years there will be many more tourists there for Muertos.

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Arturo took me to the cemetery with him to place flowers on his mother’s grave. The practice in Mitla is different from Teotitlan del Valle, and likely different for each of the Zapotec villages throughout Oaxaca.

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Here, he explained, the people come to the cemetery early in the morning, clean the sites of their loved ones, place fresh flowers, light copal incense and finish by noon. The firecrackers go off as the signal to finish.

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Then, they immediately return home to wait for the disfundos (the deceased) to return and join them for the afternoon meal. By one o’clock, the cemetery is empty. There is no sitting around the tombs here, like there is in other Oaxaca cemeteries.

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This is a family, home-based tradition, says Arturo. Everyone leaves their doors open so that the spirits of loved ones can find their way home, following the scent of marigold, copal incense and the lure of their favorite foods or even a cigarette and shot of mezcal.

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At the Mitla cemetery I met Gildardo Hernandez Quero who has a very traditional altar and is known for his in-depth historical knowledge of Mitla and the ways of practicing Day of the Dead from pre-Hispanic times. He invited us to visit.  With an offering of a loaf of Pan de Muertos and a bottle of mezcal for the altar, Arturo and I set out to pay our respects.

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This is a visiting day. Family and close friends go to each other’s home with flowers, a candle, perhaps bread and chocolate. There is always a candle burning in front of the altar and a fresh one guarantees the light will never extinguish during the 24-hour visit of the dead.

Visitors sit a while. They talk. They remember. No visit is shorter than an hour. You can’t be in a hurry here. You are offered hot chocolate and a piece of sweet egg bread. Perhaps you are invited to taste the mole negro with guajolote. You will always be offered mezcal.

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Gilardo’s altar is a ritual vision of serenity that combines pre- and post-Hispanic traditions. Photos of saints adorn the wall. A woven mat, the traditional sleeping mattress called a petate, is on the floor where the dead come to rest. Also on the floor is the candle, jug of mezcal, a squash gourd, beans, fruit and flowers — symbols of the harvest and bounty. Altars were always constructed on the ground before the conquest.

The concrete altar with its arch base is a colonial design imported along with bread, Gilardo says. He also points to the coarse traditional tortilla, black from the comal, that asks us to remember to honor indigenous corn that sustains the people.

We sit a while, talk about the politics of historic preservation and what it means for Mitla now that the town is a Pueblo Magico.

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I go back with Arturo to his house where I share a meal with his family and then make a visit to Epifanio Ruiz in the center of town. Epifanio has an antique business on Calle 5 de Mayo. Some of my vintage glass mezcal bottles come from him. He also is recognized by the town for his traditional altar.

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I have another mezcal, a hot chocolate and bread, and Epifanio brings me mole chichilo. This is a traditional savory mole that is made the same way as mole negro except without the chocolate, so it doesn’t have the thick chocolate sweetness. I only have room for a taste. It is very good.

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Then, I get back to Teotitlan, make a stop to visit Michelle. She has house guests visiting from the United States for the week, so she asked each of them to bring a family photo to add to the altar, which each of them participated in building.

Next, I visit to say hello to the Chavez Santiago family. They sit around the dining room table in their altar room, eating fruit and nuts, playing card games, sipping mezcal and keeping their dead loved ones company.

It’s after dark when I get to the casita.

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At home, I light the 24-hour candle on my own altar in honor of our dad, set the mezcal bottles and copal incense burner on the floor, get cozy in the easy chair and continue to remember.

Practices and traditions for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca vary from village to village, and are held on different days. Epifanio says that the remote village of San Lorenzo Albarradas holds the celebration for a week.

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The Teotitlan del Valle church bells are ringing. Someone is in the bell tower for 24-hours and the bells toll from 3 p.m. November 1 to 3 p.m. November 2. Today we will have a 3:00 p.m. meal with the disfundos and then guide them back to the tombs to rest for another year. We will sit with them at their tombs to ensure they rest easy and then return home.

Someone I knew once said, The dead don’t care.  I think he’s wrong. I think they do.

 

Death in the Family: Oaxaca, Mexico

It’s quiet. The sky is covered over with a blanket of thin clouds. Birdsong accentuates the space. Though it’s the end of June just before the solstice, the morning is chill. A breath of wind rustles the guaje tree branches outside the kitchen window. I need a wool wrap. Breakfast is hot oatmeal with goat yoghurt and fresh mango. I am conscious of each bite. Conscious of my mouth chewing, my tongue curling around my teeth, the swallow of sustenance. It is quiet. I feel the solitude. Perhaps this is the morning calm before the sky opens in an eruption of sun and heat, later to be soothed by afternoon rain.

She died yesterday. It’s as if she is waiting to take flight, her soul soaring skyward to the heavens, as her body is prepared by loved ones for burial before the procession to the cemetery. The street in front of her house is covered in a raised white tent, a shelter and a blessing on all who exit and enter. It is a sign to know she has passed to where the gods will take her. This is how it’s done here in the Zapotec village where I live in southern Mexico.

We know other life cycle events by the red and blue striped tents that cover patios and courtyards and streets. These are the happy times: baptisms, quinceaneras, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Life here is a constant celebration.

Early summer. Just plowed fields wait to receive indigenous seeds: corn, beans and squash. The earth is moist with rain, fertile volcanic soil is enriched with manure plowed under over centuries. Crops rotate. Fields go fallow. The dry season comes in winter to welcome snow birds. The rainy season cycles around again.

The band plays in her courtyard. It is a dirge. Familiar. Known to all. A call to the dead and those still living to pay attention, pay homage, give thanks, pause, embrace family and mourn. I climb the stairs to the rooftop to look out over the valley and the street where she lived. I didn’t know her well, only in passing. She was a slight woman, quiet, mother of eight, who battled diabetes for the past ten years and died well before sixty.LevineMuertos NormaBest11Xoxo10312013-6

Church bells ring. Sobering. Somber. Soon the procession will form, led by a drummer, followed by the band playing the dirges. Pallbearers will carry her casket, followed by women whose heads are covered in black rebozos. They holdy flowers and candles as they likely did centuries ago. They will walk slowly, thoughtfully, carefully, one foot before the other, through the cobbled streets to the cemetery where she is buried today.

The family will sit in mourning for a week, receive visitors who bring bread, chocolate, flowers, candles and condolences. A black bow will cover the doorway to the house. The bow will stay there forever, until it disintegrates in the wind, rain, sun, over time.

In nine months, her grave will be dedicated with a cross, placed in front of those who passed before her. Until then, it will be unmarked. When they put her to rest in the earth, they will move aside the bones of her ancestors to make a space for her. Her soul will return to visit loved ones during Day of the Dead each year following the scent of cempazuchitl and copal. May she rest in peace.

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