Los Dias de los Muertos

Yesterday I dreamt that I was back in the village, visiting with my friends.  I was overjoyed to be back, though sad that more than a year had passed, and feeling the lost time.  Mariana’s* daughter did not remember me, and Ana’s baby was a toddler.  Mariana and I talked non-stop, trying to catch up with each other’s lives.  While we talked, streams of people came walking by, it was el dia de los muertos, and people were coming down from the cemetery, dressed in their finest.  It was such a vivid dream; I woke up quite disoriented, and aching for it to be real.

I have been thinking about the village a lot this week, so it makes sense that I would dream myself there.  And I have specifically been thinking about los dias de los muertos, and the fact that it has now been two years since I participated in the ceremonies for them in the village.  It was one of the most impressive and beautiful experiences of my time there.

Los dias de los muertos, November 1st and 2nd, were spent in the cemeteries, which are perched on the mountains above the village.  The brightly colored tombs are covered with pine-needles, their crosses decorated with expensive flowers, candles continually burning at the head of the grave. On the first day I went to the panteon arriba with Dona Juana’s family.  We brought food for the dead, placing it on the grave, eating some when we were hungry.  It was a day of remembrance, a time to be with family, and a day to socialize.  The clouds came down and encircled us, hiding the village from view.  The cemetery was filled with people wearing their trajes de fiesta, a beautiful mass of blue embroidered clothes adding to the color of the graves and flowers.  The mayordomos, religious leaders, moved through the cemetery, visiting each grave and praying over them, receiving a payment of candles.

Later, we walked down the mountain to find that the village was also completely wrapped in fog.  Walking the empty streets while the church bell continued its mournful ding-ding-dong was eery.  My friend Leticia told me it is dangerous to walk alone during these days because the dead are walking among us.  The bell rings to tell the spirits to return to their resting place once they are done visiting.   Villagers want their ancestors to visit; they show their respect by leaving food out on altars in their houses, and creating beautiful displays of flowers, but they do not want them to stay.

On the second day I went with Ana to the panteon abajo, to sit with her husband’s family.  It was a wet, rainy day, and the clouds descended upon us.  What does the inside of a cloud feel like? Wet.  One of Ana’s nephews, who was about 2, was terrified of me for a while, and cried every time he had to walk next to me to get around the grave.  But he began to accept me after a while, and was very excited to see a photo of himself that I took.  I wish I had two cameras at that moment, so I could have taken a picture of his face looking at his photo on the little screen.

Again, the mayordomos visited each grave, and there were musicians playing traditional string instruments.  This time the mayordomos collected food off the graves as payment.   At the end of the day, they brought all the food (platanos, oranges, sugarcane, corn) that they collected from the graves and danced their way into the church-yard.  Each of them received a payment of food, and then whatever was left was a free-for-all for the people who were watching.

The entire experience was breathtaking. I have been reflecting on these memories a lot the past few days, thinking about the traditions of remembering the dead, inviting them back into our homes.  In the evenings in Dona Juana’s house the small child-like chairs that we sat on were always stacked up, leaning against the walls.  In May I finally asked why this was.  She said it was so the ghosts did not sit in them and decide to stay.  She didn’t know if it was true, but her grandmother had always told her this, and she followed the tradition.

The boundaries between the living and the dead, the real world and that of the spirits seemed more flexible in the village, or at least they did to this western, white woman’s eyes.  The mountains, forests, and land were also considered spiritual places.  Throughout my stay there, at night when I brushed my teeth under the stars, I would often hear chanting up on the dark mountain behind me, and would go inside to sleep, still hearing those songs, mayordomos praying.

I miss the village, and am struggling with the feelings of loss from being away.  I am also missing, Fran.  I think it is really important to have a tradition like los dias de los muertos, which reminds us honor the ancestors, remember our loved ones, and celebrate their lives.  I am glad that I was able to participate in it and I certainly will never think about November 1st and 2nd the same again.

*As discussed previously on this blog.  All names have been changed.

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