Six years ago I experienced my first Dia de los Muertos in Queretaro, Mexico and even wrote about it back before I believed in paragraphs. Since then, I’ve been in Latin America for five of the last seven of these holidays and they’ve all proven a bit different, from the binge taco eating in Queretaro to the drunken horse races in Todos Santos, to the kites in Sumpango. In Mexico they celebrate more Dia de los Muertos and in Guatemala they celebrate more Dia de Todos Santos but in essence it’s the same holiday.
As with every holiday in the world, the anticipation precedes the single day by weeks: people start talking about how much fun it will be, making plans, inviting friends and family, stalking up on the necessities. One of my favorite things about meeting new people in new places isn’t so much seeing how we’re different, it’s seeing how we’re the same. I love the look on people’s faces when they talk about their favorite holiday and try to sell you on how much fun it’ll be. Their words often fail the task but their overwhelmed expressions never do. I can picture the same look on my face, with arms flailing unnecessarily, when I tell foreigners about Thanksgiving. It’s universal--everyone has holidays and everyone has a favorite holiday.
This year I was lucky enough to be living in a town that has a strong and lively tradition of celebrating those who have come and gone before us. As the market began to fill with brightly colored flowers, there was that familiar feeling that something was in the air, that something new, different and welcome was on the horizon.
My day started off by getting up before 5am to head up to the cemetery with my host family. Doña Yohanna’s father (unfortunately I can’t remember his name, he doesn’t speak much Spanish so our communication is limited) had a table of marigolds laid out when I arrived at their house and was cutting the stems as the sun was coming up. I bought a few bushels of flowers the day before to contribute and everyone grabbed as many flowers and wreaths as they could carry and we set off. I heard that some people are there as early as 3am so I wasn’t surprised to see a number of others making the pilgrimage with similar loads in their hands or strapped to their backs. On our way up we chatted about the differences between American cemeteries and Guatemalan cemeteries as we walked past a marimba band playing a pleasantly subdued tone in a field a few blocks from our destination.
For those of you that don’t know the differences between an American cemetery and a Guatemalan cemetery, well, I’m not even really sure where to begin. They’re very different. Our cemeteries are designed to induce and reflect our culture’s attitude towards death: sorrow, the daunting sense of inevitability, the uniformity of death in contrast to the individuality of life. Guatemalans, and by extension, Mexicans and other Latin American countries that celebrate this holiday, have a different take on it. People don’t stop being just because they died. They still are themselves, they still like the same food, the same colors, they just aren’t physically present to enjoy it. I think our emphasis on safety and modern medicine has taken our culture into a hubristic battle between death and Western medicine and technology. If someone dies in our culture, all too often it feels like there was some sort of failure in the system: the doctors should have caught it, the seatbelt should have been recalled, if only we’d known sooner.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should be passive in the face of often preventable tragedy but I can’t tell you how many times here I’ve heard people speak of a tragic death in this country by saying, “When God says it’s your time, then you go.” It’s not resignation to life’s tragedies as much as resignation to death itself.
In contrast to ours, Guatemalan cemeteries are garishly colored and so insanely disorganized it’s a challenge to walk from one end to the other while squeezing through the gravestones. (I’m calling them gravestones because I don’t know what the English equivalent would be but take a look at the pictures to see what I mean.) Yet somehow the cemetery is the one place where their complete lack of spacial planning and zoning laws actually makes the place more beautiful. Somehow it’s fitting that their cemeteries are chaotic and thrown together haphazardly yet somehow simultaneously done with the utmost care.
Because there is so little space left for new occupants, rebar, one of the most ubiquitous sights in much of the developing world takes on new meaning in the cemetery. Cinderblock is the material of choice for anyone with enough money to afford something other than adobe and since many people cannot afford the entire cost of a house at once, they often build it in phases as the money comes in. Cinderblock houses don’t need slanted roofs for rain runoff like adobe houses so you can always leave the rebar sticking out of the top for when you get enough money to build a second story or if your family grows and you need more space. (I’ve also been told it’s for tax reasons, if you’re house still has the rebar sticking out of it, it means it is still in construction and can’t be taxed. Seems like an easy loophole to close but that’s what people tell me.) Sure enough, the cemetery holds to the same pattern as Manhattan Island, if you can’t grow outwards you must grow upwards. Thus, many of the graves are built with level tops and rebar shooting out of the top. A different kind of growth in the family, but growth nonetheless.
I continued walking around to about 15-20 gravestone with Dona Yohanna’s family decorating each one with flowers and leaving candles burning in the small, candle-sized catacombs built into each gravestone. Very few of them have names or any sort of indication whatsoever of whose final resting place is being commemorated yet everyone seemed to know exactly where each of their family members were despite being scattered all over the place. I didn’t see anyone crying or really see anyone sad at all. Sure, people kneeled and prayed silently as they prepared to venerate the graves but it wasn’t somber. It was a day that combined elements that were distinctly Guatemalan--Mayan beliefs and ceremonies intricately interwoven with Catholicism, K’iche’, mariba--with elements that were distinctly Latin American--Dia de los Muertos/Todos Santos, marigolds, brightly colored cemeteries--with elements that are universal--family, community, death.
It seemed inevitable that during all of this I would think of Anne. November will always be a difficult month for those of us who owe so much of who we are to the simple fact that we were loved immensely by Anne Lebwohl. I tried my hardest to steer my thoughts from this since I knew very well that my reflections on life and death would conjure up contrasting emotions than those of my Guatemalan counterparts, but like I said, it was inevitable. I thought about the Guatemalan funeral I went to years ago around the same time Nanny passed away and how I never would have imagined that I’d be here a few short years later walking around another Guatemalan cemetery thinking of another Masterson/Lebwohl who made my life immeasurably better by being a part of it. Yet there I was, feeling as powerless to the forces that dictate the most important distinction in human existence as I was to the forces that placed me in that cemetery that morning.
Not knowing what else to do I decided to take a page from those around me. The Mayans will proudly tell you that they’re corn people. Their entire civilization and livelihood was made possible and sustained due to a single plant. Every year the previous crop dries up and dies, but not until it has allowed those who depend on it to thrive.