Celebrity status on Day of the Dead

Newsflash: despite my best integration efforts, I will never fully blend in with Mexicans. Depending on where I am, I range from a mere novelty to a shocking-yet-interesing alien. This weekend I ventured to one of the rural back-corners where tourism remains unknown, thus my celebrity status was elevated from eye-catching passerby to Meryl Streep in a mere six hour bus ride.

It was Dia de Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and I wanted to celebrate in traditional style; I sought to be among people speaking in indigenous languages who still practiced rituals that are more than 1,000 years old.

As it happens, one of my co-workers is from a place famous for celebrating the holiday. She suggested that a fellow volunteer and I stay with her family for the weekend so that we could dive into the festival called Xantolo, a precursor to the modern Dia de Muertos. It is considered one of the best preserved Aztec renditions in the country, resembling what the first Spanish encountered, then later adapted and embraced as a Catholic holiday. 

Graveyard scene on Day of the Dead

The scene I wanted to be a part of: the colorful graveyard on Day of the Dead

What an amazing opportunity to have an insider-invitation to the party. What a challenge, however, to visit a place where everyone treats you so differently. “¡Mira, turistas!” was a common refrain from the people on the street, who met us with wide-eyed stares and excited questions.

Where do you come from?
What do you think of the food here?
What do you think of the people?
What do you think of our celebrations and traditions?
When are you going to dance with the boys here?

Sometimes you just want to blend in, to feel part of the group. And this certainly was not possible in the region called the Huasteca, at least not at first.

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After a nice post-journey rest and refuel, we headed out to the town’s main plaza. The municipality had constructed a traditional village made in the style of their ancestors’ homes. Each house in the plaza was staffed by women making the signature food of the region by hand, over a fire. The food was not only amazing, it was also free!

As we snacked, we were met with a torrent of questions by those sitting nearby. The questions eventually devloved into the insistence that we learn the regional dance in front of anyone who happened to pass by. There was not really a choice, I was literally pulled by my arms with great urgency. Before I knew it, I was being traded to different dance partners; I was having a traditional scarf tied around my neck; and I was being filmed and photographed by the growing crowd. My celebrity was being realized rapidly.

I finally insisted on a water break that did not last near long enough. After only three minutes, I was being pulled by my arm again, out the door of the house and into the open plaza. I blinked my eyes to adjust my pupils to the bright sun. As they regulated, I saw that I was standing in front of a growing crowd, a man with a camera, and a woman with a microphone. It turns out, the people who had been filming were from the news and wanted an interview with both of the foreigners.

Second TV interview in Spanish, check.

Being shoved out for my TV interview while the crowd gathers to watch

Being shoved out for my TV interview while the crowd gathers to watch

After our interview, we headed to leave, seeking a bit of respite from all of the attention. But everyone insisted that we stay: the President of the municipality was coming just to meet us! After some handshakes and cheek-kisses, we finally escaped during the heat of the afternoon.

Little did we know, we were being lead from one celebrity experience right into another. We went to our co-worker’s family home.

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The home did not have indoor plumbing, and there was an ongoing cholera epidemic. And maybe the house had only two rooms and an outhouse, with beds separated by a sheet for privacy. But the family sure put us up! We were like royal guests of honor.

Anywhere we wanted to go, they insisted on serving as personal guides. Anytime we were awake, we were offered pastries, fresh-laid eggs, fresh-milled homemade Mexican chocolate, and ice cream that the dad made and sold each day. We had a hard time sneakily buying them more fruit and pastries in thanks.

Hugs, kisses, and laughs were plentiful. My co-worker has an amazingly generous and kind family.

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One of our definite to-do items on the itinerary was to head up to the cemetery for Dia de Muertos. The only problem: unseasonable and intense rain had been falling all night over the corrugated tin roof. We waited it out while reading and knitting, laughing, and eating.

Finally, it stopped at noon. Not 20 seconds later, the air filled with the sound of firecrackers. Not 20 minutes later, we were traipsing across a muddy graveyard, filled with scents of saltpeter and incense in an almost sensory-overloaded scene. And not 20 steps later, another TV camera was thrust in our faces.

“Can we interview you for TV?”

Families happily celebrate Day of the Dead in the cemetery

Families happily celebrate Day of the Dead in the cemetery: a lot to take in at a mere glance

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It took a while to drink it all in: the slurry, slippery feel of mud beneath our feet; the sounds of children laughing and nabbing candies from graves while their parents chatted in the foreign-sounding “tl”s and “shh”s common in Nahuatl; the sight of women about 4 and a half feet tall carrying large baskets on top of their colorfully braided hair. It was such a foreign, lovely scene.

Abuelita (grandmother) resting on a grave during Day of the Dead

Abuelita (grandmother) resting on a grave during Day of the Dead

Our ears led us to several bands of roving musicians who played a song or two of Huastecan banda music on brass and drums for each family. The uptempo and energetic dancing showed the spirits that they had come back to a happy place of celebration and family.

A brass band serenades a mourning family at the graveyard on Day of the Dead

A brass band serenades a mourning family at the graveyard on Day of the Dead

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While we were adjusting our eyes, ears, and noses to the scene, we had not noticed that we were unintentionally showing off our celebrity status. We looked like pale giants; we were observers and not a part of anyone’s family. This was just not going to fly with the Huastecans; outsiders were immediately made part of the family.

A man named Israel waited about 30 minutes before he could stand it no more. He walked down the muddy hill to insist that we celebrate with his family.

Before I could try to pronounce the name of the marigold flower in the Nahuatl language, zempoaxochil, I had a tamale in one hand and a beverage in the other. We were also reassured that we could take anything from the altars as long as we thank the dead for sharing. I was also taught to party and share with the dead by pouring a splash of any drink on nearby graves.

Day of the Dead flowers

Day of the Dead flowers: Marigolds and Lion’s paws (zempoaxochil and
pata de leon)

And just like that, I was less of a celebrity and more a part of the action. A participating member of the society. And although I never really blended in, it felt comforting to be treated as an equal.

On the long bus ride back home, I pondered my new-found celebrity. I was happy for the experience, but I was even more excited to return to anonymity in my city. Well, at least a little less celebrity. I still get the honks and stares on the daily, after all.

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Making me smile

  • Hearing Huapango music mixed in with laughs, shouts, and cries in disguised voices of the Danza de los Viejitos dancers. They also disguise their identities for the holiday by dressing like the opposite sex or as animals. Check out the video below to hear what I am talking about:
  • Bringing back locally grown coffee and chocolate
  • Returning home without having contracted cholera, typhoid, or dengue, all of which are found in the region
  • Conversing with a woman in Spanish who translated for her grandparents into Nahuatl
  • Conversing with an extremely polite little girl in English and seeing the beaming pride on heir parent’s face in a small cafe while eating bocolitas, corn patties with beans and cilantro mixed in, hot off the comal
  • Seeing where my amazing co-worker is from, and how lovely the view is from her front door (photo below)
  • Having taken so many cool photos, I could not narrow them down for this post, so I included a gallery below for your enjoyment. If you click on the photos, you can see them larger and with captions. Enjoy!
View of the Sierra from my co-worker's family home

View of the Sierra from my co-worker’s family home

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2 responses to “Celebrity status on Day of the Dead

  1. What an amazing and traditional event. Your pictures say so much, thanks for sharing! Wow! Take good care..

  2. You are killing me here. What an amazing experience. I love the color in the photos you took. Spending the Day of the Dead in Mexico is on my bucket list. I miss Mexico so much.

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