The days turn to ghosts before Day of the Dead. Wet fog low over the city, seeping into the pores of the bones. So you wrap yourself in smoke: the tart, narcotic swirl of copal incense, steam from pan de muertos and hot chocolate, paper streamers in warm tones of purple and orange.
Back in out of the cold, I watch my flatmate ready his altar – sugar models of tacos and mole, a band of skeleton mariachis, photos of his ex-boyfriend and grandmother – knowing that I’ll never arrive at his level of intimacy with the language of this festival.
“But you know it’s meaningless of course,” he tells me. “This is Pedro Infante Mexico, 1930s Mexico, fake Golden Age Mexico.” Even the ubiquitous orange cempasúchil flowers – native to Michoacán state – became part of the iconography because of a former president’s local pride.
Luis goes on. “It’s an 80-year-old festival they say is 3,000 years old. Stay home and watch Macario, then YouTube ads for Corona and Coca-Cola. Don’t waste your time traveling.”
“So why do you celebrate something fake?”
“I’m not saying it’s fake. It’s empty. Not fake.”
The ex-boyfriend in the altar photo died of AIDS, he tells me. “After everyone knew how to be safe. Living with him, knowing how he lived, this was like an interview with death. The symbols are empty. I fill them with the meaning I choose.”
Friday 30th October 30, traffic surging out of Mexico City’s wet streets, and you can’t help it, you think of salmon surging through sea, river, steam towards their homes. The air is pulsing, urgent. Horns pile note by note in a bad chord.
Inside the FYPSA terminal, near Metro Balbuena, towards the gritty sprawls north of the city, passengers buy tickets to places that look like the names of generic drugs to me: Xoxocotlan, Eloxochitlan, Tecomavaca. Their Spanish follows the contours of the 60-plus indigenous languages spoken in Mexico, dragging at the vowels, pulling away the s–sounds entirely, the old rhythms and cadences an underground river dragging down against received pronunciations.
My ticket reads Mazatlán, capital of the Mazateca indigenous zone in Oaxaca state’s mountainous north. I’m following Agustín, a 29-year-old sociology student from the city’s left-leaning Metropolitan University, whose family is from the Mazateca.
“I haven’t got a divided identity,” he tells me. “I have two: Mazateca and Chilango. I move between them.”
But that oscillation is not as easy as he makes it sound. Agustín lives in Chalco, one of Mexico City’s rougher, poorer neighborhoods. His parents formed part of the constant tide of migration that washes out of the impoverished Mazateca and into the slightly less impoverished colonias ringing the capital.
That wave of migration hasn’t stopped. Families are being scattered, traditions slowly eroded. Part of the passengers’ urgency, then, seems to come from the sense that they have to get home before home is rinsed from view.
I watch Agustín go down the bus rows, calling everyone he passes *tío*, *prima*, *tía*. “They’re not literally my cousins or uncles,” he tells me. His smile is shy. “We’re just that close in Mazatlán.”
I wonder how I’d handle that jerking back and forth between urban agoraphobia, small-town tightness, wonder if either could mean the word “home” to me.
“Do you not find it a bit suffocating, Gus?”
He frowns. “Why? They make me feel confident.”
The driver boards. Murmurs of approval. “Julio,” says Agustín. “He’s good. Fast.”
I’ve seen the map to Mazatlán, its *Crash Bandicoot* curves, its hills, its ravines, its distance from hospitals. *Fast* and *good* don’t strike me as synonyms.
But a warm, animal peace has settled on me, watching elvers of rain creep the glass. Kids and couples nuzzle in close to one another. I hear low, excited voices in a language I don’t understand. The bus’ suspension is like bedsprings. We rock and sway at every turn. I’m lulled by it all. I sleep.
In the Celtic tradition, the afterlife exists alongside this one. When you die, you go there. When you die there, you come back here. The oscillation is so usual that you can stumble across the lines by mistake, or even without noticing, especially in forests, or caves, or the ruins of old castles. Folk legends would have you believe that this happens a lot in November, when the mists draw in and blur the boundaries between here and there.
Mazatlán has that vibe when I arrive. Mist, tight alleys, the electric light like solder between lead-colored cobbles. The government buildings are hollowed out, broken-windowed. Files lie in a strew on the floor. The walls carry livid political slogans like blood scrawls. The locals kicked out the government in 2010 after federal money went missing. One of the protest leaders at the time died a mysterious car accident soon afterwards, at the bottom of a ravine.
We’re stumbling tired. We get lost. An old woman takes us into her kitchen, offers us pastries shaped like children. Her home’s cave darkness is sharp with the odour of burning sandalwood. We try to pay. She says no. “Les invito,” she says. “I have to feed whoever arrives on these days. You could be the holy dead.”
Then up out of the dark, blinking in the sheer blue morning air.
Agustín’s family take turns feeding us all day. Rotating shifts of aunts and uncles ply us with bean tamales. His uncle – his actual uncle – Raúl eyes me because I’m slow. “We have to get through them,” he says. “You can do it.” In his big, dry, coal-shovel-sized hand he’s carrying a six-week-old kitten. Outside, the night pulses with crickets. Inside, one of Agustín’s cousin is refusing to believe I’m 27. “You look too old,” she says. “It’s the skin. European skin – it’s like paper. It ages fast.”
Agustín’s shifting back and forth between Mazateca and Spanish from one sentence to the other. His smile isn’t shy anymore. He’s all fluent confidence, fending off jokes about how I’m here to replace the ex-girlfriend who was the last visitor he brought to town. Sometime he slips up, though, or loses faith in his own act, and his defense mechanisms come back: his shoulders curve in around him, he drops his eyes, his politeness gets all baroque, like he’s back behind the desk of his old job in the Indigenous Development Commission.
But usually it’s the other Agustín, the Mazatlán Agustín who’s on show. Earlier in the day I watched him bark orders at teenagers during an unexpectedly intense game of five-a-side. He is comfortable here: he just has trouble letting himself realize it.
The family altar stands in the corner. Under two arches made of flowers –for the souls to come in and out– stand bottles of beer and sodas, piled tamales, mandarins, more child-shaped sweetbreads.
“They say food and drink tastes different when you take it off the altar,” says Raúl, smoking in the doorway.
“This Coke’s just like the ones in the Oxxo, champ.”
“It’s because of the plastic seal,” says Raúl, flicking away his cigarette. Brief red comet-flash. Then nothing.
Katabasis: “down-going” in Ancient Greek. Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante all act out the trope, descending into the infra-world to talk to mothers, fathers, mentors, receiving maps and spirit-rations enough to complete their journeys.
My old therapist talked about the trope in our sessions, using it to explain those heavy down-phases that aren’t quite depressions but that are so heavy with reflection and analysis as to feel pretty much like being depressed.
Watching Agustín reminds me of all that. He’s back in his memories here. On the main square is Radio Nahndía, a community radio station that broadcasts in five languages: Spanish, Mixteco, Mazateco, Tzotzíl, and Nahuatl. “We get callers from the US – construction workers in North Carolina mostly – asking for songs in Mixteco,” says the station chief, Melquiades, who is portly, curly-haired, and speaks the kind of over-elaborate Spanish of a local politician. Until, of course, you get him onto the subject of the station’s financial struggles, which is when his politeness breaks down. “We’re hanging by a thread. We’re broadcasting out of this awful 300-watt transmitter. Costs us a grand a month to keep going, and if it dies we’re too broke to buy a replacement.”
Agustín worked with Radio Nahndía for three years, hosting a bilingual talkshow from Chalco. His silence at the breakfast table, he tells me afterwards, is because he was going back over the past.
“I used my student grants to keep the show going. I just wanted to serve the village or something. I ran out of money, though. Had to give up and get a job. I mean, I used to be petrified in front of the mic sometimes, but I had to do it. It made me stronger to do it. And I knew I did it well: I was too scared to prepare my first show, so I went on with nothing. So when they asked me to come back, I knew it was right to want to stay. It’s just sad I couldn’t stay.”
We’re eating soup with yerba santa at Celso Guzmán’s house, opposite the pharmacy he runs. He has to get up and interrupt the conversation to give impromptu consultations to people arriving at his door. He’s the closest thing to a doctor within four hours’ drive of Mazatlán. One patient arrives wearing a battered baseball caps, almost wringing his hands, face creased with embarrassment at having to say “diarrhoea” in front of a grown man.
Coming back inside, Celso points at the altar. The clusters of bananas below the flower-arches are swaying, but there’s no draught. “There you go,” he says. “The ghosts are having their lunch, too. I really do find it easy to believe these things at this time of year.”
He sits back down. “But of course Day of the Dead doesn’t exist,” he tells me. “It’s called Simikhen here. That word means ‘party’ or ‘hangout’, something like this, but that casualness is matched with connotations of reflection, memory, analysis. But look at the time of year. We’ve overlaid our harvest calendar with a Christian-style advent, ending with a Catholic festival. The preparations start in August, when we sow cempasúchil [known as the flower of the dead] and start to cut corn. That’s mapped out in details like an old ritual that starts on the 28th of October, when the mother or wife of the household brews atole [a traditional Mexican brew] from corn, and stirs the pot from right to left.” He points at the altar. “And if you look here, there’s two flower arches. Traditionally, the spirits come in through the right to eat, and exit through the left. That’s your syncretism right there – one symbolism pulsing under the other.” He shrugs. “I mean, all the Corona, the Coca-Cola, the other modern additions: they’re not necessarily bad. They’re just new. And that’s the thing about this festival: it’s got a basic structure, but that structure is there to register the changes in how we respond to the constant facts of life, and death, and family.”
Celso and Agustín chat away about town news, about Celso’s new book on the Mazateca cosmology, about Agustín’s impending thesis. It’s noon. Agustín’s father carries in a clay cup of smoking copal. He waves it before the altar. He’s crying, but quietly, without sobbing, for a son he lost before Celso was born. The banana clusters hanging over the altar are like big hands. They sway back and forth.
The climax for Mazatlán’s Day of the Dead begins at three in the morning. We’re two hours’ walk away, at the foot of the valley, so we start walking at one. Black-dark, over furrows, humpback paths, uphill all the way. The festival is tugging at me like magnetism, though. I don’t feel tired. I follow the pickups – standing-room only – and the walkers toting their bales of orange cempasúchil. I get lost in the spondee-rhythm of my steps. In this dark, you can’t see my European skin or my Irish passport. I think of a picture in the National Anthropology Museum that shows a spirit walking through Mictlán, the Mexica afterlife, shedding their clothes and skin until they are walking bones looking for a place to fall apart, resolve, be gone, at home in nowhere. I think about Justimiano Altos Betanzo, the village candlemaker, think about his meditative absorption while he trails long strings through a clay bowl of beeswax.
One last hill, one last corner, and there: the cemetery, an island of light floating in the ravine’s darkness. The line of people is urgent, uninterrupted, streaming endlessly out of the dark.
Agustín goes down among the tombs, as far as the group of relatives clustered around his grandfather’s tomb. The stone lid is carpeted with flowers. Lit beeswax candles poke up among the leaves and petals, flames fine as pen-nibs, trailing smoke cursive through the dark. People eat, drink, smoke near their dead loved ones. These aren’t tombs: they’re picnic tables. The soundtrack: brass bands by rich people’s tombs, animated conversation in two languages, the screech and burst of fireworks, the plosive sound of beer-caps being flicked off with Bowie knives. I pass a man in a cowboy hat, smoking, leant on a cross, his face a mask of tears. I pass him and he greets me in Mazateco, then goes back to staring out over the arms of the cross.
The darkness turns dilute, like water fading ink. Sunlight whitens the gauze of smoke from the candles and the fireworks. I stop in front of a black, clean, rectangular tomb, like the one my grandfather’s under in Carlow.
An old woman’s lighting a honey-coloured candle and placing it deep in a nest of orange flowers.
“Who have you got here?” I ask her.
“Here’s your father,” she tells me.
My breath catches. Then I bring myself back. “Oh! Yes! Your husband, then?”
“That’s right,” she says. Her voice sounds like something crumbling. “Here’s your father.” She points with an arthritis-kinked finger. I can’t help it, I think of the old birches in my garden at home. “And over there, in the valley, that’s your house.”
I get it. Mi casa es tu casa – my house is your house – reworked for Day of the Dead. My husband is your father. You’re welcome here. You’re at home here. You’re part of this.
I thank her. I lean on the tomb. I take a break. The sky is empty and clear, cirrus-wisps pressed fine as hair against the rim of the sky. The air tastes like home. The light makes me blink same as at home. My grandfather loved these days, these fresh mornings when he would walk for hours over the Blackstairs Mountains. I shut my eyes on his unstooped figure dipping and rising against the sky. For a moment, I’m lost in the happy, grateful nowhere of my own memories. It almost feels like home.
Words: Tim MacGabhann
Photos: Cecilia Rangel