Monday, November 06, 2006

El Pic-nic de Los Muertos

The day after our night visit to the local cemetery, we returned, this time in our van, to join our friends for a comida at gravesite. Like so many events, it was both festive and sad. A local woman had died two nights before, and the interment had just concluded as we entered the cemetary. There was a huge mound of earth over the grave, and her family and friends were pushing cut flowers into the earth.

In the daylight, the panteón was of course much less mysterious, but possibly sadder. There were tiny graves of infants. One grave consisted of twin mounds. In it were two sisters who had died at the age of two. Another, somewhat larger child's grave was aof a boy who had fallen off a roof. Life is fragile.
Our neighbor, Sr. Orozco, was there, and he kept urging us to have a seat. I looked around and replied, "
Gracias, pero por lo visto, vamos a tener mucho tiempo para descansar." "Thanks, but by the look of things, we'll have a lot of time to rest."

In the midst of all this, Rosa and María had set up a charcoal brazier and had been trying to get a fire going for over 3 hours. The excess of charcoal used was blocking the airflow. Some relatives came, and when the men removed the surplus, the fire caught hold.
Rosa seasoned a stack of thin cut
bisteces de res in a plastic bag, using only a generous handful of salt, while María first washed and diced a bag of tomatoes, then diced then over a pottery dish balanced on her lap. Aurora, Rosa's 25-year old daughter, diced onion, and when the tears started to flow, she placed a cut stem of onion atop her head. I remember that kitchen trick from opening scenes of the movie, Like Water For Chocolate. Aurora then cut up two chiles perón for the "salad", while María opened a can of chiles jalapeños, seasoning the salad-salsa with the juice from the can and a few chiles were slivered and tossed in as well. A pinch of salt, juice from one lime, and we tasted it. Mmmmm ¡picante!

Now the carne was on the asador, but as they had neglected to bring tongs or any kitchen implements other than a couple of knives, we resorted to flipping the steaks over with our seared fingers after loosening them from the grate with a knife.

Tortillas were then reheated over the fire and a few unfilled
gorditas. Precooked frijoles were in several glass jars.
I'd brought 3 loaves of warm garlic-parmesan bread, wrapped in foil. They served as our appetizer. The heavy-duty aluminum foil wrapping became plates for a lucky few. We ate with our hands, tearing the salty, smoky meat into shreds and putting it into toasted tortillas. For a beverage.we drank the limeade Susan had made, and when that ran out, the Coke was opened.
When we were finished, the fire was overturned, and the trash we had gathered was burned. One might say that the whole thing had been feast and sacrifice with ritual burning of the remains at the end, but I wouldn´t go that far. It was just a picnic amongst the graves.

In the course of conversation, María told us in hushed tones that another neighbor had died the night before, and we were invited to the
velatorio. I turned down that invitation, for the two days had been interesting, even comforting experiences, I wasn't quite ready to stare death in the face at a wake.
Aurora and Laura both wanted to come to our house on Sunday to practice English, and we told them they were welcome. I much prefer to feed the living.

Our First Noche de Muertos

Papel picado at Hornos Los Ortiz, Morelia 
Although we've lived in the Pátzcuaro area for over a year, we missed most of the observances of el Día de Los Muertos last year, as we were away at the time.
This year, two nearby señoras invited us to come to the small panteón, where one's husband is buried. The cemetery is a longish walk from our house, set in a grove in the valley that spans our area.

First, we went via a soggy wet path to Rosa's house, a humble building, yet scrubbed clean and neatly arranged inside. She was delighted to see us. Her 16 year old daughter Laura, came out and introductions were made. She is a beauty. Then, one by one, other daughters came, all very attractive, and our other acquaintance, María, who lives closer to the highway.

We had brought them some sewing notions, especially 3 pairs of scissors in 3 sizes, from Costco. It was like Christmas two months early. They lead a sewing club of local women, and we knew from our previous meeting that they lacked certain basics, like scissors and cloth!! So they divided up the goods, and we went on out to the cemetery. It was a pleasant night, not too cold, with a nearly full moon to illuminate the otherwise unlit roads.They carried a pail of hot tea and small, folding chairs. I helped with one of the chairs.

We arrived at the panteón after dark, but it was well illuminated by candles, small fires and even the headlights of some cars. The scene was vivid, with the smoke and flowers decorating the tombs and gravesites. There were sounds of laughter and children's merriment mingled with the chanting of prayers and sacred song.

From what I could see, the majority of those in attendance were women, but there were some men. Children were playing at some of the tombs. At our site, our amigas provided small folding chairs for us to sit on, and we drank hot, sweetened lemon tea that they'd carried in a cooking bucket from home. There was a lot of smoke in the air from the fires, but it wasn't unpleasant.

After cleaning the gravesite, the widow and her friends first made a cross from cempasuchil (orange marigold) blossoms, then arranged used cans and jars as candle holders to light the corners of the grave. The block wall of this humble but well-cared for grave was further illuminated by candles in glasses. (Reminding me of the yahrzeit candles my grandparents burned in their apartment in honor of their dead.)

More cempasuchil flowers were stripped of their petals and strewn over the bare earth of this grave to make a carpet. A few, simple offerings of the deceased's favorite foods were placed at the head of the cross. Paper napkins were found and included.
There were other flowers: crimson cockscombs, "flores de nubes" and lilies.

A group of women friends gathered, and a cycle of prayers and song began. (I am not very familiar with Catholic ritual, but I think it was the saying of the Rosary, although no beads were in evidence. One women took the lead in the prayers (in Spanish) and the group responded. They knew these prayers well, and only a few songs were written on notebook paper for occasional reference. It was quite a moving experience, yet no tears were visible. They were dressed in everday clothing, some with varying rebozos wrapped about their heads and shulders.

We did not stay for the prayers at another tomb, but our amigas escorted us to the cemetery gates, where we began to walk home. It's a bit circuitous, as some large corn fields lay between us and the highway. Although we could have done it on foot in about 30 minutes, we were grateful when a passing pickup truck paused and the couple inside offered us a lift. We jammed ourselves in, and I started to introduce myself, but the señora said we'd already met the day before. They live in the house in front of our other amigas.

From where they dropped us off, it was a quick walk up the deserted streets to our house, silent except for the barking of the watchdogs.

The next day, we reunited for a picnic amongst the graves. The only tears shed were those of Patti, who was chopping onions for the salsa to accompany the carne asada.

Graveside in another year