Saturday, November 12, 2011


One of the things I like about Mexico is the altars.  Almost every restaurant has one; many businesses do, and every home I've been in has one.  Sometimes they are a simple picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe (in fact, even in the States, Bob looks around for the Virgin whenever we go to a Mexican restaurant to see if it is a "real" Mexican restaurant).  Sometimes there is an entire wall, or even a small room, dedicated to the altar.

Altars are especially important during the Days of the Dead, as they act as a gateway for the departed spirits to return.  Usually there is an arch of some sort (sugar can is popular for that), fruit, flowers, food (tamales,bread, chocolate)--there is a feeling of abundance.  The favorite food of the departed is placed on the altar (Coca Cola was popular) and there might be pictures or possessions.

We had collected items for our altar in the market, and gathered flowers in the field.  We all met in our room to arrange the things that reminded us of the ones we had lost--a paint pallet, a Cubs shirt, a picture of a favorite spot, tiny shoes, herbs, spices, a favorite drink.  We lit the candles and sat together and told the stories of the people we were remembering.  It was a sweet and comforting time, oddly close for people who had met only the day before, coming to this tiny rural village to remember.

Going out for the night, I leave the door slightly ajar, just for the welcoming beauty of the candles and the golden flowers.

After this, we walked through the village to visit other altars.  And, for this, Bob has stepped in to add his part to the story:

In the town of Quiotepec( in the valley of the Rio Grande de Oaxaca) night does not so much  falls as it comes into being. And on this night, the night before theReturn of the Souls, is when from home to home, house to house, the visiting occurs. We travelers, in the wake of Eric our guide and conductor to this world take to the rocky streets to see this celebration for ourselves.

There in the darkness ( for the town’s power grid has fallen victim the vagrancies of electrical conductivity) we slowly and quietly proceed.

In each humble home--for there are no McMansions in Quiotepec-- we reverently file in to visit and view the family altar to the departed. Each altar carefully, lovely constructed in the best room of the house and adorned with the traditional arch for the souls to return through, the  beyond brilliant marigolds and the fruits and foods of the valley, the loved one’s favorite food, drink or endeavor, the golden glow of many candles. And of course a photo of the loved one themselves, a departed Patriarch with fierce mustaches, Grandmothers with kind eyes, a beloved Grandson killed in a hail storm, a soldier brother lost in the narco-war only three days after his last home leave.

Some of the people talk brightly and happily of their lost ones, some stand quiet and still very much lost in their grief.

But they all share, a sip of mescal (tequila’s wild cousin), cane alcohol, or the ever present Mexican Coca-cola that is made with real sugar.

Sometimes some bread, a bowl of goat stew.

We gringos stand out in this world. Our world is far away, our ancestors and customs from even further. And in this world of small dark people I appear most ursine than human.

But we have come here to know, to understand. So later back in our cabin we too  build our own altar and talk of our loved ones, so that like the people of Quiotepec, of Oaxaca, of Mexico, so that maybe we too on this one night  may open a gate and create a path so that our lost ones can walk in more than our hearts and memories.

And I think they may be right. 

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