Friday, December 16, 2011

Dia de Todos los Santos

Throughout Central America, people commemorate and celebrate their loved ones who have departed this life over the course of several days at the end of October and the beginning of November, in a celebration called All Saint's Day, or the Día de Todos los Santos. It has become mixed, in recent years, with Halloween, but the holiday in itself retains much of its "original" (we anthropologists are a little resistant to words like "authentic", "original" and "tradition" since all cultural practices are in states of evolution, change, adaptation, constantly) flavor.

The actual day is November 1, but the preparations begin several days earlier. Cemeteries in Guatemala are generally full of brightly colored tombs, especially those in rural communities and those belonging to people of modest means. Many graves are only marked with wooden crosses, if a family cannot afford more, and occasionally graves go without markers until the family can afford some kind of marker. The tombs and crosses are painted with bright and pastel colors -- turquoise, gold, bright pink, purple. This might seem a little jarring to those of us accustomed to the somber and muted tones in most U.S. cemeteries, where grave markers are more sedate, and most are marble or granite, in shades of ivory, gray and black, for the most part. So cemeteries here seem to be a riot of color by comparison, and especially in small towns and rural areas, there is nothing like a neatly ordered set of rows, where you can find a grave by going to Row X, plot Y.
Cemetery, Todos Santos
Graves are just a great jumble, and it is impossible to walk through a cemetery in any kind of straight line. You have to pick your way around graves, step over them, and sometimes it is impossible to avoid stepping on them, especially in very crowded sections where there are no markers, and it is not clear what is a grave and what is just a patch of ground between graves.
People visit cemeteries fairly regularly -- judging by the offerings I saw on graves at the two I visited earlier this year, in Sumpango and in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, and the cemetery in Todos Santos was especially interesting as the town has had a substantial migration to the U.S. and several of the tombs bore images of American flags in one form or another.  When someone in the migrant community dies, the family always wants to have the body flown back to Guatemala, and I have seen collection jars in the offices of the community organizations in New Bedford several times taking up a collection for that cause.

I had originally planned to go to Todos Santos Cuchumatán for the Día de Todos Los Santos, since it coincides with the fiesta titular (the patron saint feast) of the town, but since I was traveling to the U.S. at the end of that week for a conference, and had just been to the U.S. the previous week to visit Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, I decided that I would stay closer to home; it was just too much traveling in too short a time (Todos Santos Cuchumatán is about 3 to 3-1/2 hours' drive.

For several days before the festivity started, the local markets were bursting to the seams with flowers. Large clusters of yellow chrysanthemums, other flowers in a profusion of pinks and purple, some willowy, delicate white baby's breath... in some cases spilling on top of the vegetables that were also laid out for sale. I would see women and men walking with their arms full of flowers and also pine branches (pine needles are used in nearly every Maya spiritual and life-cycle event).  I asked about the colors, and someone told me that they correspond to the four basic colors in the Maya cosmovision which are the same as the four colors of corn and the four colors of human beings: red, white, yellow and black (except that since there are not any black flowers available around here -- I guess they haven't found those fancy hybrid roses that one sees at botanical gardens -- purple is the closest substitute). There were also candles and ocote -- the heavily resinous heart of pine, that is used to start fires -- for the offerings that would be made on graves.

On the 30th, my friend Caterino invited me to go to the town cemetery in Chinique with him and his family. I drove to this store to meet up with him, and there was another car there belonging to another relative, and we loaded people and a few armloads, bags and baskets of things into the two pick ups and set off. I had never been to the cemetery before; it is actually not visible from the highway, but you have to make a turn at the bridge at the bottom of the hill leading up into town,  and go up a few hundred yards. When we got to the cemetery, there were a few dozen other people there. Most seemed in a pretty jovial mood. We set off to find graves and see what needed to be done. Caterino was looking for his sister's grave, which was not marked, but we eventually found it. It had already been covered with some pine needles (a key element in Maya spiritual practices). This seems to be a common element regardless of whether a family is Catholic, nominally Catholic (i.e. in name only), Evangelical, or like a few families and individuals I know, does not identify as Christian at all but only practices Maya spirituality.  This has been adopted into mainstream Catholic practice: during Semana Santa, the shrines in front of the homes of Ladino families here and in Chichi also featured carpets of pine needles.

We went to look at other graves, Caterino and his wife commenting about what still remained to be done, with the kids scampering around the graves and having a great time chasing after each other and running in the bright autumn sunlight.  There were about five or six children -- Caterino and Sandra's two kids, Veronica and Brandon, who are six and three respectively, and then Sandra's youngest siblings and then another few who might have been their nieces and nephews.  Sandra's parents were there, and we congregated by the grave of Sandra's grandfather, and arranged flowers on top of the pine needles, and Sandra's mother placed a candle on the ground near the head of the grave (well, the end a turquoise cross had been planted), cupping her hand so it would catch flame since there was a bit of wind. We then sat down (the kids sat down for brief intervals but kept running around and playing) and refreshments were served (I don't like using the passive voice much but I don't remember who it was who served the refreshments) -- a cola beverage and some sugar-wafer cookies in individual packages.

Other families were snacking as well, and many were making additional arrangements on the graves. I didn't see anyone eating a full meal, at least not that night and at that cemetery.  We stayed by the grave for a while, and then I took off with the children in tow to explore the rest of the cemetery.  Brandon and Veronica are very attached to me -- every time he sees me Brandon gleefully calls out my name (he can't quite pronounce it so he calls me "Tita", pronounced Tee-ta), then runs and grabs me around the legs --usually around the knees. So when I said I wanted to go walk around all the children came with me; I tried to hold Brandon by the hand as best I could since the ground is pretty uneven.

Nearly every grave had some kind of adornment on it. Many had placed flowers in make-shift vases -- plastic beverage bottles or metal cans that had been cut in half, or recycled glass jars. As the sun went down in the direction of Santa Cruz (the cemetery is just to the west of the town), the rays came in at an acute angle and cast strong shadows on the ground and the graves: the light is so amazing at this time of year and everything was bathed in a lovely rich tone.

The kids -- not just the ones with whom I was wandering but many other children as well -- uninhibitedly raced around the cemetery, clambered on top of graves, and invented games. They frequently ran back to check in with me, to see where I was going and what I was doing. No one seemed disturbed or to find this disrespectful of the dead; it is hard to imagine this scene at a cemetery in the U.S.

Death is part of life; the dead are part of the same family as those who are still alive -- they do not stop being part of the family simply because they have left this life -- and so the cemetery is treated like a natural extension of the community, or rather an integral part of the community.

The woman in the photo to the left was visiting her sister's grave, along with her daughter, and when I walked past she was sweeping the dirt, arranging the pine needles to her satisfaction and fastening bunches of marigolds and other flowers. She saw me taking photos and asked me to take a photo of herself and her daughter by the sister's grave.

After running around (well, I wasn't exactly running. I was scrambling around the graves) we went back to the adults and helped clean up and then got ready to leave.  The sun was dipping lower and looking east from the cemetery you could see into the town -- the city of the living and the city of the dead, intimately intertwined.


  1. Thanks, DeeDee. I put more photos on Facebook in albums... it takes longer for them to load on Blogger and then I feel obliged to write more commentary so that the blog and the photos match up... But I will get around to a part 2 and 3 of this entry.