There is peace on the hilltop. Below muffled sounds of drums, bass, voice, amplify across the valley. A dog sleeps in the sun. The gringa healer brings sighs of relief to stressed clients. A breeze blows over the patio bordered by mature agave fifteen feet tall and equally as wide. A birdsong adds refrain. In the distance a cock crows and a dog barks. Dog barks are incessant here. Light filters softly through the bamboo wall surrounding the outdoor kitchen. Muertos ends for this year.
In the cemetery, women whose faces are deeply lined, creases like arroyos and canyons, wrap themselves in wool, polyester, once fine now frayed and discolored robozos. There is a chill in the air and a fine drizzle begins to fall accompanying the waning light of dusk. Geraniums planted years ago are now robust, growing over the mounds of dead loved ones, enveloping them like a warm blanket. Over there a family huddles beside the new concrete wall warming themselves by a small campfire. The cemetery is expanding, new earth ready to receive both its humble and prosperous. Death is the great equalizer, they say.
The gringos pass each other with meek smiles or nods, a silent signal to each other. Of what? Recognition as the “other”, in communion, in competition for ownership rights, the privilege of being the most connected or the one with the longest history here? They forget that gringos are visitors and Zapotecs are the rightful heirs of this village. This valley. The abuelos nod as we pass in recognition and greeting. Humanity is spoken through the eyes of women who speak only a few words of Spanish, if that, and in a silent instant tell the beauty and pain of their heritage. The cemetery reminds us of a temporal life, of hope for a better future, of the value of relationship and the meaninglessness of acquisition.
As dusk descends and rain falls in droplets, the assemblage endures, covers themselves with plastic or an umbrella while the gringos with the expensive cameras pack up and leave.
Only the hummmm of the refrigerator sings to me now as I sit at the top of the hill overlooking the valley below, church spires rising to god’s infinity. The refrigerator, an opening for abundance.
What surprised me was the abundance of flowers, the reverence for the dead, the celebratory acts of remembrance, the stylization of the calaveras (skeletons) — skulls, bones, skeletons in bread, candy, altar figures, candles, candles everywhere, tall, short, votives. The mythical combined with the religious. The blending of Catholic and indigenous practice, laughter and song, mucho mezcal, purple corn tamales, the sitting and visiting, how traditional Zapotec ceremonial practice takes priority over business and work. Time is for giving to others. Earl Shorris says that whomever controls time controls their destiny and the way of the world.
There is a rhythm and pace to Dia de los Muertos that goes beyond the parties, food and drink. It is the giving of bread, chocolate, fruit and candles from the heart, tribute paid and received, an ancient tradition. You bring six loaves of Pan Muertos. I give you three to eat. You bring chocolate, I give you hot chocolate to drink. Then, I give you a package of other bread, fruit and chocolate to take home with you, symbol of lasting respect and friendship. The ceremony is in the giving, the receiving, the memory, the tribute to the dead, the time honored traditions. All this takes time.