A Double Resource of Life
Marigolds and memories in Mexico.
Late in October, Judith and I went to Colonia Modelo, Mexico, to distribute food. Judith was occupied measuring out beans into little plastic bags with Oralia's mother, when the father motioned for me to follow him out behind the house.
I didn't know where he was going, but when we got closer I could see. It was a little garden of glowing flowers about four feet tall.
They were orange marigolds that he was growing for the Dia de los Muertos in a few days, Nov. 2. They were in a patch of ground about four by six feet. In the noon sunlight the flowers were incandescent, like lava, a fire consuming itself.
The flowers are known as cempasúchil in Mexico. The word means "20 flowers" in Nahuatl.
I'd never seen a stand of marigolds so tall and full. He said, yes, he used a lot of fertilizer for them. Many people prefer to grow their own so they can be sure to get the maximum growth from them. You could see a few more little patches throughout town.
I think for Mexicans they represent a brimming heart. Oralia's father said, "Tenemos tres muertos" (we have three dead people).
On Nov. 2, a Saturday, I arrived in Modelo at 10 a.m. I was told by a man in the street to follow a dirt road a little way east of the town to the cemetery. It was a very new cemetery with maybe 20 graves.
I saw a few graves close to each other with well-crafted wreathes made of marigolds, plus a few marigolds stuck into the mound of dirt above the grave. One of these graves belonged to the deceased husband of Romelia, a widow Judith and I were bringing food to. This was one of the "muertos" that Oralia's father was referring to. I never found out who the others were.
A priest came after about half an hour and gave a talk to the people standing around. (The people who weren't Catholic stayed away.) He said that to some people the Day of the Dead was just a time to redecorate the tombs of their family members, but to others it had a deeper meaning.
Driving back through Palomas, I looked over to the cemetery and saw little going on, because the view was mostly blocked by a flood-control dike that crossed the road.
Later I came back and drove over the dike to see what was happening. I was surprised to see a very different scene. There were at least a hundred people among the many graves. They were raking the dirt to even it out, attaching plastic or silk flowers to the plain crosses or elaborate tombs, or sitting in white plastic chairs at family reunions and eating from coolers.
You could hear a band playing from the other side of the cemetery, or panteón, as they call it. The atmosphere was not exactly festive, but it was engaging and cheerful. Sometimes you'd see a couple of people sitting with mournful faces, but most people just chatted quietly.
The band was made up of the street musicians you usually see in Palomas, with a few extra players. There was a saxophone, a snare drum, a guitar, a bass fiddle and an accordion. The music was languid and jazzy, compared to the stuff they usually played.
One of the phrases I caught was, "El dia que yo fallecí" (the day I died). There was a long grill next to them whose smoke permeated the air.
Someone nearby had his truck radio on. There were a few booths where women sold flowers or burritos and chimichangas. From there Palomas looked distant. Across the barbed-wire fence you could see the eternal trash typical of poor Mexican towns — the containers of the flowers and food that had been thrown away.
There are elaborate analyses of what death means to Mexicans, like that of Carlos Fuentes in A New Time for Mexico (University of California Press, 1997): "The so-called Mexican love of death is really a double resource of life. Death is the other half of life, completing life. But death is part of life only if it becomes a conscious part of life, a permanent companion, an object of celebration and tragic resistance."
I can't say what the celebration means to the people in Palomas, some of whom are Indians from the south, where the customs originated, and others who are not. It would be safe to say there is a homogenization of the meaning in Palomas.
But I know that my sense of the Dia de los Muertos changed after I experienced it. It seemed to me a loving thing, at least in part a stanching of the fear of being forgotten after death.
But some graves are pitifully forgotten. There are crosses with no names, others completely broken in the rubble of dust and stones, with a plastic soda bottle and a couple of silk flowers shredded by the wind. The deceased may have been an old drunk nobody knew, or the family may have moved away.
One especially touching one was a cross that had "Nino–Mayo 19" painted vertically, "Roberto Rodriguez" horizontally, and a small plastic stand saying "Dad" stuck into the ground. There was no year indicated.
But the norm was fake flowers and more flowers in competing color combinations. Light peach with yellow. Fuschia with dark purple. Deep blue, yellow and white. Dark green, red, deep purple, orange and yellow.
The arrangements are so creative and vivid they defy death.
If there is a Mexican love of death that dooms the country to violence, it hasn't subsided much, if at all, since Enrique Pena Nieto came into office. And he promised to reduce the killings right off.
In fact, Zeta magazine in Tijuana claims that in the first 11 months of Pena Nieto's term there have been more narco-related murders than in the last 11 months of the Calderón presidency. They counted 19,015 killings in Pena Nieto's months, against 17,068 in Calderón's months.
During his time in office Pena Nieto has claimed over and over that the crime rate is falling.
The violence has been shifting from place to place. Acapulco was the number-one city for violence in Mexico in 2012, with 835 killings. Mexico City, after being a haven from violence until recently, has zoomed to the number-two spot with 708 killings. Juarez, mercifully, slid down all the way to fifth place, with 363 killings.
Although to us on the border the drug war seems far away, it's clear it's far from over.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.