Looking to Put a Little Happy in Dead
Copyright ©2017 Jim Gabour
“Everyone knew that being dead could put you in a terrible mood.”
The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Luis Urrea 2006
In the Mexico City airport there swirls a giant chaotic storm combining electronic ultraswank and totally nonfunctional. A facsimile Parisian sidewalk cafe stands alone, waiters in white gloves and waistcoats, across from designer clothing stores and patrons with obvious money dripping from their fingertips. They pass down a carpeted ramp right next to Gate 28, initially my gate, but now loading central-casting gold-chained mobsters and overcoiffured mobettes headed for Miami. Having been shooed away from my original chic surroundings, I am told to relocate to the other end of the terminal. I walk. Forever. There, with an undetermined wait ahead and no food in the eight hours since a 4am wake-up alarm, I find a dim bar serving “national” food. I order a dish of five tiny, greasy tacos de cochinita pibil, traditional Yucatecan honeyed pork with salsa and pickled vegetables, and am rewarded with one of the best meals I have had in years. Less than $4 in pesos. In a major airport. The waitress wore no gloves.
A Winning “Catrina”, 2017 Pazcuardo Competition (Photo Courtesy of Robin Halvorsen)My own domestic flight is also revealed to be humble. Interjet 3753 to Zijuatanejo gets two changes of gate, then cancelled outright, reinstated, then delayed twice more. And yet, as I watch, none of the electronic airport signs ever waiver in indicating that my flight is anything but “On Time.” Even though we are already over an hour past our scheduled departure. Finally we are sent to a jam-packed low-ceilinged area, reminiscent of a bad grammar school cafeteria, serving five separate gates. No groups or boarding sections are to be utilized for the flights, no such niceties are to be arranged here. The loudspeaker is dead. No matter how many times our overwhelmed young gate attendant bangs the microphone on her desk, no sound is heard above the roar of frustrated voices. Any hope for order is futile, she realizes at length, and beckons the wheelchaired customers to move forward first. Then waves to let the mob on as it wishes. I closely follow the wheel chairs. But while possible progress awaits, I spot an incredibly beautiful and impossibly tiny 3-4 year-old female, at first seemingly walking alone, then noticeably closely trailed by a tall thin pressed-upon mother. Dressed loosely in white, as is the child, she sports short pale untamed hair, and is firmly entrenched in her mid-thirties. Mother and daughter make a circuit of the boarding area two to three times as I watch. I am sweating profusely. AC is also non-functional here. But this lively pair is quite a diversion. When I finally get on the airplane and secure my seat, I see them enter and move to the rear of the plane. They are also headed to Zihuatanejo. In the steamy, lush state of Guerrero. The plane is as wild as the boarding area. There are quite obviously a number of first-time flyers, obvious as when the plane speeds for take-off and half the passengers instantly wail, make the sign of the cross, and kiss their right hands. It is a bumpy ride. I carefully monitor the young man next to me as he turns a vivid green, and put my own seat’s airsickness bag in his immediate view. Later, safely but frustratingly awaiting a semi-expensive shuttle to my hotel — as always, the airport concession doubles both transportation prices and wait times for cheaper forms of transport — I find myself bundled
Mexico City on a Clear Day
Zihuatanejo from the Airinto a cab with the mother-daughter, and a hotel waiter. The woman speaks effortlessly perfect Spanish until, as the driver curses a motorcycle cart, she says loudly, in Jersey-inflected English: “Get over it.” Thus begins our conversation. I compliment her child’s beauty. She tells me she has lived in the City (referred to as only “Mexico” by residents), and yes, she and her daughter had been horribly upset by the earthquake. Continued to be. Thus, her trip to her brother’s condo at the beach. Would she return home for Dia de Muertos? “We must,” she says. It is our celebration of life. We need to think only of life now.”
“Almost everyone I know would agree,” I say as quietly as I can. “I’m from New Orleans, you see. We’ve been there, too.”
And thus begins my quest for the mutual connection of heart, Mexico and Mexico City to New Orleans. Tragedy and grief in each place only mitigated by the indigenous, deeply rooted celebration.
Day of the Dead in Mexico and Carnival in New Orleans, keeping their residents alive and full of joy in dark times.
Prepping for Dia de Muertos in Mexico City’s Plaza Municipal
Solidly in Zihuatanejo.
No dinner and two strong late-night margaritas with the congenial manager of Villa del Pescador – tequila was the only liquor he had in the house — mean I get up to walk to the bathroom for toothbrushing very slowly the next morning, my first in Zihuatanejo. Odd, though. I feel something strange on my leg, something scratchy. I look down and spy a four-inch-tall praying mantis attached to my left calf. I walk stiff- legged to the bathroom so as not to disturb it, and get tissue to facilitate removing the insect without getting bitten.
That is my plan. That, and not freaking out. But I pull the thing off my leg without much hassle, and take it out onto balcony to release. As I put it down, it produces human-like movements, using its arms to toss off the tissue. Good mantis, this, as it eats other nasty insects. It is safe during daylight hours outside, but bats and other wing-born predators come out to feast on such bugs at night. I wish him well and try to forget his existence. The first day is a blur as I try to adjust to the monstrous heat here at the end of the rainy season. On the positive side, the rain has restored the verdant, over-reaching plant life all around my remote hotel dug into the cliff face the western side of the bay. The ancient irregular cobblestone road that runs in front of the hotel is said to be the oldest in the ville, having been built to deter pirates by allowing placement
My Erstwhile Roommate of cannons atop the high point that guards the mouth of the bay. 3.
My second night’s attempt at sleep features strangely loud nocturnal chirps, five in a row. Then nothing. Five, then nothing. And two hours later, the same sound wakes me again from close by, probably on my balcony. Something may be after the mantis. I open the curtains, turn on the balcony light, but see nothing. The jungle, it seems, just demands attention at certain intervals. The five narrow stories of the Villa del Pescador are built right into the face of a green quartz cliff. The natural faceted crystalline structure is allowed to come through the walls at various points, especially in the stairwells. Which reinforces the feeling of living in a cave, quite securely. It is a place of character. A rather large and pampered cow is kept in a small yard behind the kitchen. This became apparent as it moos very loudly during prime breakfast. Families laugh. Cooks are embarrassed. Breakfast is good. I have a large orange-papaya juice. Freshly made by the manager. This plant-choked part of town is also full of cats, including a large family of orange tabbies across the street, four youngsters in their early cat-teens. All are feral but speak loudly and approach closely to look at passersby. Everyone feeds them, especially waiters from the restaurant next door.
Two Unworried Neighbors
The road by which one reaches the Villa is made of rough and irregular cobblestones, very little mortar, and a near wash-out at several dips. One steep section right before it reaches the port footbridge is especially slippery and hard to pass.
I go very very slowly and only watch my feet, as there is nothing waterside to prevent cars or people from falling off into the rocks far below. Excerpt a long drop cushioned with blue morning glories. I will be here eleven days. I must remember to watch my feet.
A quiet day. Tranquillo. Reading, writing, watching the boats pass under my balcony. It is quite hot outside, “mucho calor,” as the manager warned me. This time of year everyone here lives at night. School basketball games start in the Plaza Municipal at midnight.
Of all things, I am going to a large bimbamboom movie, “Geostorm,” at the Paraiso (Paradise) Cinema this eve, in honor of the last time my partner Faun and I did the same thing. “Mr & Mrs Smith” was the movie of the year then, arriving in Mexico on 8 June 2005. We saw it here In Zihuatanejo shortly after it opened. The world seemed so smooth-edged then. Until the Big K arrived shortly after we returned to NOLA. 29 August changed everything. The hurricane moved on, finally. The stars of the “Smith” movie, Brad and Angelina, moved in, to New Orleans, buying a mansion some six blocks from my own humble house. But the stars, they have also moved on now, recently divorced. The hurricane is sill married to all locals’ memory.
And we still live on the same street. This current end-of-the-world movie was also just premiering in NOLA right when I left home, in October 2017, as one of those simultaneous worldwide splashes created by West Coast film factories. The effects in the trailer looked pretty awesome, though derivative of so many of the “disasters to end the world” movies of the last decade. Turns out I had seen all the worthwhile parts of the movie in the three-minute preview.
Also interesting how it all translates. Late last night when the five odd noises woke me again I turned the TV in my room on, to clear my head. There it was: “El Svelte Detective en Hollywood“. AKA “Beverly Hills Cop”. “Geostorm” becomes “Geotormenta“. So I walk to the early feature at the Paraiso, figuring that the comfort of 90 minutes of AC alone is worth the price of admission. I buy my ticket, and between me and the entry hall there is a preacher with a stand of pamphlets, the primary purpose of which is to ask what the passersby would do in the event of one of the cataclysms.
He speaks to me through a megaphone, though there are less than six feet between his mouth and my ear. But I turn my head aside and enter the movie without even a nod in his direction, inconsiderately ignoring his insistent pleas for my salvation.
When I emerge, I notice that the main picture on the preacher’s display shows the exact same disasters in the exact same order from the movie. And I am not kidding. Exact. Earthquake (Hong Kong), tornados (India), tidal wave (Mumbai), and fire via lightning (Orlando). Some odd religious collaboration with Hollywood must exist in the disaster cosmos.
The preacher is still shouting loudly into a megaphone that we will neither survive nor achieve Paradise unless we repent.
I do not tell him that I had just achieved entry into Paradise, for a mere thirty pesos ($1.75), and the popcorn was good there, in spite of the disasters. And though the AC was not working (dammit), kids were running in the aisles, and bag ladies were panhandling, I had still enjoyed a “Svelte” movie in El Paraiso. Though the floor show was much better than the film. I don’t think any of the actors plan on moving to New Orleans. At least not after this “desastre” of a film.
The Preacher’s Packaged Disaster Message
The next day, passing theough the same street in the early morning, I notice abnother religion, somewhat more ancient, has taken up residence right next to the preacher’s pamplets, that display now bracketed by the movie house and a serious spread of drying flower petals intended for decorating graves on Dia del Muertos. Along with a word from their sponsor in a miniature coffin.
The shades of orange are marigolds, cempaschuchil, the predominant flower, used for centuries for this purpose. Cheering the dead. The pink/purple/red petals are terciopelo rojo, red coxcomb, only adopted after the arrival of the Spaniards. Who first moved the celebration to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day in the sixteenth century, then added the coxcomb petals to the decor, to signify the inclusion of the “blood of christ.”
Drying Marigold & Coxcomb Petals, and Driving off Preachers
The petal color remains in displays in more traditional Christian areas, but is hardly known among the indigenous tribes in the coutryside.
In any case, the disaster-doting minister was intimidated by the imagery and/or flower insertion, and by mid-day had moved away fom the movie house to the more tourist-laden Paseo se Pescatores. Where tidal waves seemed far less imminent.
At the evening screenings, I notice that “Geotormenta” attendance remains abysmal, in spite of dozens of bright new posters around the Central Market.
Maybe if they lowered the fee to enter Paradise things would perk up.
The Metro at a Quieter Hour
I had not expected the Number 1 Metro line to be so crowded when I boarded at Insurgentes. The progress of days was quickly approaching Halloween in Mexico City (Ciudad de Mexico, AKA CDMX), the first night of three in the Dia de Muertos celebration.
The train was headed east to Pino Suarez. There I would to transfer to the Number 2 and head north one stop to the historic Zocalo. This massive square serves as a principal focal point for the seemingly endless urban sprawl of over 21 million people. I had been told the Zocalo would already be full of the raw materials for offertas, small offering altars for the dead — candy skulls, the yellow marigolds, candles, skeletal statues — well in advance of All Souls Day, 2 November, the definitive and final Day.
The prospect of my final destination was exciting, but I could not help but be slightly claustrophobic in transit, crammed upright in close proximity amidst a lurching solid mass of people. 4.5 million people a day pay 5 pesos (30¢, 20p) to ride the Mexico City rails. But I was confident. I reminded myself that I had dealt with many such subways in Tokyo, New York, Seoul, London, Paris, all with massively intimidating rush hours. I survived those experiences, had learned my lessons, and now waited until late morning to travel, expecting to find loose, if not empty, trains at that hour.
This was one more major misconception on my part. The entire train was packed to the point of suffocation. So much for the benefits of travel experience.
Just a few minutes into the journey I suddenly heard a muffled though loud “WAOW WAOW WAOW WAOW!” and just as quickly saw everyone in the car stiffen, lose their composure and start yelling loudly. A woman screamed: “Alerta sismica! Alerta sismica!” She, like many others, was thinking
“earthquake warning.” People started pushing toward the doors, even though the train was still accelerating rapidly.
Then a deep, unruffled voice rose above the bedlam: “Cálmese, senora, cálmese. Es un telefono.” And it was. A telephone.
A very embarrassed teenaged girl was struggling to get her cell out of her clear plastic purse, and quiet the ringtone. If looks could kill, this unfortunate young woman would have disappeared off the planet in a puff of pre-pubesecent smoke, the express wish of dozens of sweating, panicked passengers in the car.
I had read that Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera himself said he deplored residents setting the audio of the city’s seismic alarm as a ringtone, and asked that they delete it, saying the sound provoked a nervous anxiety among the populace so soon after the disaster. “It causes great confusion,” he said. I can now personally verify this.
Quake Warnings Everywhere
Quake Warnings Everywhere
September 19, 2017, is still very much on people’s minds. That very morning of the 19th, to commemorate the horrific earthquake of September 19, 1985, which killed over 5,000 in the City, the government staged the first demonstration of the refined SARMEX system — Sistema de Alerta Sísmica Mexicano. For the first time, that alarm was broadcast loudly on 8,200 street megaphones, many sounding exactly like that which I heard replicated on the Metro: “WAOW WAOW WAOW WAOW!”
A Whole Damaged Block in La Zona Rosa, Mexico City’s Equivalent of the French Quarter, Still shut Down
As if called from the deep, just hours after these earthquake drills, an actual 7.1 magnitude quake hit the city. It was the second powerful quake to strike that month: an 8.1 magnitude tremor had panicked the city just twelve days earlier.
I flashed on my own experience with disaster timing in New Orleans, the demoness Katrina descending on 29 August 2005, to the day exactly forty years after Hurricane Betsy inflicted historic damage to the city.
In my reverie I also remembered a visit to the Golden City oriental supermarket back home, just a few weeks ago, being startled at the cash register as each of a dozen customer and employee phones, including mine, simultaneously started screaming “Hurricane alert! Hurricane alert!” It was clear, blue and cool outside, and the minimal hurricane Nate only showed up two days later as barely an inconvenience.
But Katrina had been real, almost 2,000 had died, and the closely-following wildness of Mardi Gras 2006 had proven necessary to the return of any sort of normal life. In 2017 I find myself again in another very-different-but-same city coming back to life amidst a massive celebration. In Mexico City.
This fiesta revolves around yet another different, but connected, Catrina.
Millennia in development, Dia de Muertos was dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead,” who evolved into the modern La Calavera Catrina, this brought to life in the skeletal engravings of José Guadalupe Posada.
José GuadalupePosada, La Calavera Catrina, circa 1910-13 Zinc Etching
A Catrina, Mexico City 2017
And then there is the corresponding phenomenon of the Mardi Gras Skull & Bone gangs in New Orleans. The comic enforcers of mortality who run on the holiday morning with the words “You next!” as a tribal call.
Skull and Bones Gang, Mardi Gras , 2003 Royce Osborn. Used by Permission
A DOTD tribute skull for filmmaker Royce Osborn, who passed last month, (courtesy Robyn Halvorsen)
There are, of course, many commercial exploitations of the Day of the Dead, underlined last year by the City’s use of left-over James Bond movie props to create a faux first-of-a-kind Day of the Dead parade. It was well-received by visitors, though thoroughly denigrated by purists. It returned this year as the “Day of the Dead Monumental Skull Parade,” traveling from the Angel de la Independencia Monument to the Zocalo. At first it was scheduled on All Souls Day, November 2, but then City government moved the event outside the actual Muertos celebration, to Saturday 28 October for a higher ROI, return on investment. They left the “bones” of the parade the floats in the city center, the Zocalo. No matter. I will attend. I have a parade reflex, inbred from my hometown.
Even though not as elaborate and culturally authentic as some rural celebrations, examples of real intent exist in Mexico City’s Panteon des Dolores graveyard with 700,000 graves, and over a million human remains. I was stunned when I arrived on All Souls Day at the thousands upon thousands of families walking in the gates with huge armloads of flowers and other gifts for the dead, along with cleaning pails and brushes for the site.
The Panteon stretches across more than a mile of the City, covered in ancient trees and flowering plants. At its heart is the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons, Two huge concentric circles containing the sculpture-augmented graves of 200 poets, painters, musicians, doctors. This day the painter Diego Rivera had the most elaborate altar at his gravesite.
The Entrance to the Panteon des Dolores
Just as profoundly, though, the Mexican Dia de Muertos is observed among the many and varied indigenous peoples, and is said to culminate around Patzcuaro, and the villages that surround its lake, some 200 miles due west, where a nest of New Orleanians have found a deep NOLA connection to the culture, and settled.
Like New Orleans realtor Robyn Halvorsen, who leads the Société de Sainte Anne Mardi Gras parade back home every year. She has spent the last decade of her non-Carnival time restoring an extraordinary hacienda in the town of Patzcuaro itself, and has witnessed those multiple years of Muerto revels:
One year the son of her former housekeeper was there drinking. There was a vase of feathery pampas stems. He got drunk and accidentally set them on fire. The entire gravesite was aflame. It was quite dramatic. We decided Judith would have enjoyed that much more than the flowers.
This season I experienced the Day itself in the nation’s capitol, connecting with the emotional process of the people as they once again find their way to make fun of death in perilous times.
They had skeletons dressed in rescue workers clothes highlighted in their All Souls Day celebration in the Zocalo. Everybody is a citizen of worth.
In that, I feel the bond, NOLA to CDMX. And always, always look forward to a parade.
It won’t be long now. Will it?