Isabelle Tree / Travel

Day of the Dead

Americans and Mexicans see death very differently. And as Isabelle Tree discovered when travelling Mexico, documented in her travel classic Sliced Iguana, the former choose not see it at all.

Day of the Dead

Pátzcuaro town, Mexico’s home for the Day of the Dead celebrations, was already packed when I arrived. Holiday houses down on the lakeside had been thrown open for the long weekend, the driveways jammed with sportscars and suburbans from Morelia and Mexico City. But most of the tourists in town were American. Every hotel was full, every table in every good restaurant was reservado. The Plaza Vasco de Quiroga was a caravanserai of canvas stalls. Local crafts – glazed pottery, woollen sarapes, incense burners, copper bowls, embroidered tablecloths, painted wooden furniture – were back to back with witches’ hats and plastic cats, devils’ horns and Dracula teeth, satin capes and rubber bats and tubes of squirty cobwebs. The stall next to the weavers’ cooperative was doing good business with rubber face-masks of Frankenstein, Quasimodo, President Nixon, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The Hallowe’en effect was in full cry.

It’s a comparatively recent phenomenon and one that reflects the not-so-subtle nationwide shift to the American way of doing things. Hollywood and US-style shopping malls have had a powerful impact, particularly on the middle classes. Films like The Addams Family, The Witches of Eastwick, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, The Blair Witch Project have all contributed to a growing taste among mestizos for horror and the trappings of Hallowe’en. Pumpkins have started appearing in graveyards. Children in the cities go trick-or-treating. Elementary schools have a hard job trying to convince pupils that blood-soaked bandages and meat cleavers through your head have nothing to do with the traditional Day of the Dead. Hallowe’en is big business. In the States it generates over $5 billionn a year. In Mexico it’s catching up.

I ordered a traditional Day of the Dead dish – chicken mole – at a popular restaurant on the second floor of a seventeenth-century mansion overlooking the square. The table next to me were asking if the kitchen could run to a couple of steaks, medium rare. The waiter shook his head regretfully and referred them back to the menu – an exotic array of Mexican specialities written in Spanish. The American lady with the salt and pepper bob peered through her steel-rimmed glasses and prodded the list, with a little trilling laugh. ‘I’ll have that one,’ she told the waiter, ‘though Heaven knows what’s in it.’

Her friend had assumed siege mentality. ‘I thought this was a no smoking restaurant – No fumar, no fumar!’ she wailed at the waiter, pointing at a young Mexican couple enjoying a post-prandial Marlboro. The waiter looked uncomprehending. The two large balcony windows were wide open and soft skeins of smoke were drifting straight out into the night. He turned up the background music instead – a compilation featuring ‘White Christmas’ and ‘As Time Goes By’ – perhaps hoping it might help the gringas relax.

I’d ordered some coffee and was considering lighting up, myself, for the fun of it, when an earnest-looking girl approached the table. ‘Mind if I join you?’ she asked, or rather demanded. ‘The restaurant seems to be full.’ Within minutes I’d had to withdraw my finger from the page of my book and give her my full attention. ‘My brother died six months ago,’ she was saying by way of introduction, ‘I’m here as part of the grief process. Some friends of mine said they thought it would be good therapy. They came to Pátzcuaro last year. My brother was HIV but he never told our parents. They didn’t find out till the very last few weeks. He didn’t want anyone to see him at the end. He just slipped away one night in the hospital when no one was there. I didn’t even get to say goodbye. It’s been very hard for me to come to terms with.’

It was ambiguous whether she meant the fact that her brother was gay, that he died, that he’d died alone, or that he’d deprived his nearest and dearest the drama of his final act. It was obviously a sad story but I was finding it hard to drum up a sympathetic ear. Anyone could have been on the receiving end of this dolorous, self-pitying steamroller; I just happened to be in the headlights. She began to talk about the funeral. I could see it now – a frosty, awkward affair characterised by euphemisms like ‘passing on’, ‘laid to rest’, ‘casket’, ‘garden of rest’.

We talked a little about the Mexican tradition but she winced visibly when I mentioned the words ‘death’, or ‘coffin’, or ‘graveyard’. I wasn’t sure she’d find much confort here. The Mexicans had a lifetime of preparation for this kind of thing. Sometimes it seemed they did nothing but toy with conceptions of death. Everywhere you go in Mexico, death stares you in the face. It’s in the Aztec skull racks in the Museo del Templo Mayor, receptacles for the beating hearts of sacrificial victims; it’s in Mayan hieroglyphs, and the recently mummified bodies on display in Guanajuato cemetery; it’s in the tortured self-portraits of Frida Kahlo; the funeral photographs of sombre fathers holding dead babies in their christening robes; it’s in the Indian dances of death, in death masks, in skeletons dangling from rear-view mirrors; in the graphic, bloody martyrs in every Catholic church; in living crucifixions during Semana Santa; it’s in pilgrims with grazed knees beating their breasts before the Virgin of Guadalupe, straining to catch a glimpse of heaven; it’s in jokes about the Grim Reaper, bull-fights, dead dogs by the road, open coffins. The intimacy with Santísima Muerte (Most Holy Death) seems sometimes shocking, sometimes perverse. Over the festival of the Day of the Dad it can be positively macabre. Death is entertained, given food and drink, invited into homes; He is teased, provoked and laughed about over a tequilito. However perverse, Death is always the brother of Life – the flip-side of the same coin. Only in Mexico, Death can be the easier to accept.

America sees death in a different way. It doesn’t see it at all. It’s hidden from view, nailed down, lid on a box. There are no bodies, no smells, no spirits, no humorous or cynical observations. Death happens remotely, behind hospital doors, in the papers, to strangers. The dead are cremated, in a sudden, electronic flash – not mummified, or left to rot. In England, I felt, we’re already beginning to think the same way. We, too, were coming to regard death as the humiliating failure of the body, the failure of modern medicine, of plastic surgery, the failure of one’s mind to overcome matter, a failure too painful to consider. Life, for us, is survival of the fittest. It’s an heroic, pathological denial of the one thing that happens irremediably to us all. The US/Mexican border is responsible for many divides, I thought, but this has to be one of the biggest.

A boy came up to our table and put a flyer under my glass advertising a Night of the Dead party, part-sponsored by a local travel agent. On it was a cartoon of a skeleton packing his suitcase. ‘Death is a larger kind of going abroad’ it said. I wondered if my companion, who was now leaning over and bending the ear of her compatriots, would think it appropriate – let alone funny. ■

Image courtesy of Juan Luis Garcia.
Sliced IguanaThe article above is an extract taken from Isabella Tree’s critically acclaimed Mexican travel memoir, Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico. Described by the Guardian as ‘excellent’ and The Sunday Times as ‘enormous fun’, Isabella Tree threads the brightly coloured history of Mexico through her narrative and tells the stories of the people that have defined its fractured past and will shape its future – kings and conquistadors, politicians and rebels, shamans and priests, mestizos and indigenous Indians. Simply put, a must read.
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