Día de Muertos: Day of the Dead in rural Mexico

Explore the tradition of Day of Dead as it’s celebrated in Jalpan de Sierra, a rural town in Mexico that’s doing its bit to save life on Earth

One leg is wedged inside the pick-up truck while the other swollen foot, clad in delicate silver sandals, rests awkwardly behind her on the dry, dirt road. Hampered by her short legs and arthritic hip, her son gives her a final shove from behind to end her struggle.

She lands in the seat beside me, readjusts her burnt-orange headscarf, pats down her green floral dress, and checks that no harm have come to her best shoes. She greets us with a toothless smile, a grin that gives her weathered face a girlish look, and I worry it’s an attempt to hide the embarrassment of her undignified scramble. But as the truck jolts over another pot hole and my knuckles whiten over the hand rest, I realise it’s a smile of relief and gratitude; we rescued her from a long hobble to the graveyard.

It’s the Day of the Dead – Día de Muertos; a great celebration throughout Latin America, but especially here in Mexico where it’s a national holiday and one of the biggest festivals of the year. From October 31 to November 3, families welcome back the visiting souls’ of their loved ones, who have just 24 hours to enjoy the pleasures they once knew in life.

There’s the belief that we die three times; first, when our soul leaves our body, then when our body is laid to rest, and finally when we are forgotten. It strikes me, as we stand in the graveyard awash with the brash colours of fake flowers that drape over every tombstone and crucified Christ, that Day of the Dead is a recognition that nobody wants to die the third way. We watch as the old woman and her son – our hitchhikers – delicately place bright, orange marigolds on a plain wooden cross: in silence, they decorate the grave.

Feeling like intruders, we leave them to prepare for the welcoming of the dead and end our morning tour of the graveyards. Its 11am and the sun is bright, but the mountain air is fresh and cool. As all Irish and Welsh friends will know, if you find yourselves together at this time of morning on a day of celebration, there’s only one thing to do: and that’s drink. Ruth and I are no exception.

We soon find ourselves sat on plastic crates outside a small breezeblock house; there’s no drinks menu, no tables, no chairs, no advertising, no promos, no customers. This is certainly no bar. The dry earth rolls down the hill below us and rises up as a sheer wall of forest. Our side of the valley is arid, almost a moonscape, littered with a handful of imposing columnar cacti. There are no other houses, no other living soul. But we’ve had a tip-off; rising from the reddish earth in front of the house are the huge, baby green tentacles of the agave plant – this is how we know we’re at the right place.

Let the celebrations begin

Our makeshift bartender, a dapper old man donning a spanking white cowboy hat, gives us a metallic grin as he places a litre Coca-Cola bottle on the ground between us, full of a milky white liquid. Ruth and I have worked alongside each other for over two years; as such, we’ve become seasoned drinking partners, but never have we tasted anything like this. Letting it flow over my tongue the delicate fizz gives the impression of Champaign, then the sour yeast-like smack at the back of the throat gives the sensation of vomit. It’s a mixture of pleasure and disgust; another swig is the only way to discover which will win out.

Half an hour into the tasting, we’ve run out of ways to describe our newly found tipple and have lapsed into silence. From the corner of my eye, I watch as a white plastic bag takes off from the ground and flits violently in the air. Slowly I realise that there is no breeze. And that’s when the screaming begins.

This is the effect of pulque. Locals described it to us as leaving you “half tipsy, half high.” It’s made from the fermented sap of the agave plant and is traditional to central Mexico, where it has been produced for millennia and was once revered as sacred. Despite its past importance and popularity, you’ll not find pulque in the bars and restaurants of Mexico City; it’s now solely the drink of the rural poor.

As to the screaming, it took me a while to realise it was coming from a pig tied-up inside the plastic bag, ready to be sacrificed for the night’s celebrations to create tomales. As we slowly drain the Coca-Cola bottle, my crate seems to soften under me and I sit back to enjoy the effects of pulque and my first experience of visiting Latin America, where nothing is quite as it seems.

A few miles from here, the nearest town of Jalpan de Sierra is gearing up for the night’s festivities. That evening, as we wander through the main square, a life-size skeleton – with long braided hair and a petty coat – swings from the largest tree in front of the ornately carved church of the Franciscan Mission. Her leering skull suggests that Mexicans would rather joke about death than fear it.

All across the square families are busily building ofrendas, or alters, full of faded black and white photos of their loved one’s and brimming with memorabilia commemorating their life. The pungent scent of incense, made from the resin of the copal tree, wafts through the air in a bid to attract the souls of the dead. Winding paths of marigold petals and a soft glow of candle light leads up to each ofrenda, where every spare space is filled with a small sugar skull and an array of different foodstuffs and drinks. The aim is to coax the souls’ of the dead back with all their favourite pleasures’ of life – cigarette packets and tequila bottles are firm favourites. After all, it’s a long journey from the afterword to their earthly homes and they only have 24 hours to enjoy it.

Day of the Dead began more than 3,000 years ago by the Aztec Indians who would spend four months each year honouring and tending to their dead with ceremonies and rituals. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, they tried to eradicate these ancient traditions by introducing practices associated with and condoned by the Roman Catholic Church. Over the centuries, the traditions became intermingled; today’s festivities combine aspects of the Catholic feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, with nature-based traditions from pre-Hispanic times. It seems to me though, that Day of the Dead is far removed from the solemnity that is embedded within Catholicism.

The beats of salsa, merengue and reggaeton pump out of the bars. Cleaned and polished, the pick-ups are prepared for the young men to replace the cattle as they crowed into the boot and spin around town – always at the ready with an extra special smile and wink for the new gringas in town. In the corner of the square, a trio of fiddlers – in matching red shirts, white cowboy hats and impressive moustaches – rouse the crowed into a chorus of “Jalpan de Sierra, Jalpan de Sierra!” Above, against the night’s sky, a flock of starlings circle in a black mass – their usual peaceful night’s resting place is disturbed by the returning dead.
There’s one thing for sure, when the souls arrive, they’ll be ready to party. It may seem strange to us that a holiday dedicated to remembering the departed should be a joyous occasion, but Day of the Dead is exactly that; it’s a lively party hosted by the living, with the dead as celebrated guests of honour. The festivities invite you to accept death, mock it, revel in it. And why not? There’s no escaping it.

Taking a different approach to life

As I look around at the revellers, I can’t stop smiling. Maybe it’s the first time experiencing death as a celebration. Maybe it’s the music and the dancing. Or the unrelenting attentions of Latin men. Or the effects of the pulque followed by tequila…

Or maybe it’s that this social gathering has reminded me that these people – a normal, rural community in Mexico – have decided to do something very special. They’ve turned their home into a one million acre biosphere reserve; the largest protected area in Mexico run in collaboration with local people.

They’ve collectively said no to unregulated development in their back gardens and have instead joined a grassroots movement to protect their forests, led by Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG). This is despite the fact that most people here are poor farmers, living on less than £4 a week, and are dependent on using the land for their livelihoods.

Since the advent of farming, globally we’ve taken over most tropical grasslands, cut down over half of the world’s temperate forests, and even converted more than a quarter of the deserts. Many would argue that this has been vital for us, and the cost – the destruction of innumerable species and the degradation of ecosystems – was unavoidable and worth it. Some farmers here though are bucking the trend; they’re prepared to accept that there may be another way – a better way, even. This knowledge is making me brim with a gleeful sense of hope…

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