There were six of us trailing Magdalena into the village panteon at 5:30 p.m. for the annual ritual of sitting at the grave site to pay respects to loved ones gone. It was All Souls Day, November 2 in Teotitlan del Valle. The ritual in the village is an ancient one, predating the Spanish conquest of 1521. On November 2 the souls return to their graves for another year after having made a 24-hour visit that begins at 3 p.m. on November 1 and ending at 3 p.m. on November 2. The church bells toll for 24-hours marking the time and in the bell-tower you can see the men who have volunteered from each section of the village to pull the heavy bell chord day and night.
Earlier in the day after breakfast we had taken bundles of flowers to the graves of Magda’s son and husband, putting them in urns filled with water to keep them fresh. The tombs throughout the courtyard were covered with lilies, roses, and marigolds. Freshly quartered oranges, pecans, and peanuts were set in neat little piles to feed the souls before the returned to the earth. In the morning, the cemetery was quiet, reflective, reverent. It was empty except for a few men who were cleaning the dirt paths between the graves and keeping the urns filled with water so the flowers would stay fresh. We tip-toed gently to read the names of the dead on the elaborate crosses at the heads of each grave. Why, we asked, were there so many crosses on each grave site? Magda told us that a cross is put there when a person is first buried and then second one is added at the one-year anniversary when the family gathers for a memorial. Each family may have several plots in the cemetery, and after ten years a burial place can be re-used — a much different and more recycleable approach to burial than in the United States. Ten years is about the time it takes for the body and bones to decompose; new earth is added and the cycle begins again.
As we entered the cemetery at 5:30 p.m. we saw a large tour group of about 15-20 people with very serious cameras and flash equipment strolling the cemetery. They were part of a well-known U.S. organization that organizes adventure travel around the world in addition to publishing a monthly magazine that has been in existence for well over 100 years. The people were boisterous, took photos without asking permission, and invaded the tranquil ritual sanctuary of this small village cemetery. The use of flash was ubiquitous. I noticed the photographers just a few feet away from elderly couples sitting at the grave sites, their camera lenses pointed directly in their subjects faces, holding flash strobes, and taking photos repeatedly to get the best shot. They didn’t appear to have much awareness of their impact. We were uncomfortable. Our own small group gathered and decided that there was not enough ambient light by that time (there were few candles in this cemetery as compared to Xoxocotlan) to allow us to take reasonable photos without using flash and being invasive. So, we decided to leave after about a half hour.
We talked about this experience over dinner and then the next morning. It seemed to all of us that the well-known travel company had not prepared people for the cultural experience of going into a small village environment. It appeared that their approach was not as participants but as observers — there to capture an image and leave. We discussed the impact of being from the U.S. and how others’ behaviors from the same country can reflect on all of us. Each tourist has a responsibility to behave respectfully so that as a group we will be welcomed back. As Americans, it is easy for us to forget the historical experience of our indigenous hosts. We must own our own part in the history of colonizers. Americans and Europeans must be aware of our impact as we travel. The cemetery experience brought to light both the positive and negative aspects of what it means to participate in ancient rituals and the responsibilities that accompany that. Fortunately, we had the opportunity to be sharing the home of a local family and were invited by them to go to the cemetery. We were not convinced that the other group even engaged in any conversation in preparation for their visit.
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