Friday, November 2, 2012

Dia de Los Muertos

Hoy es Dia del los Muertos.  We call it All Souls Day in English.

In Latin America, this is the day to visit cemeteries where loved ones are buried.  Family and friends bring flowers, food, cigarettes, booze, anything the dearly departed may have cherished while here on this earth.

My first experience with this tradition was being dragooned into hauling my girlfriend, her aunts, mother and bratty little nephew all over Panama City one torridly humid November 2nd many years ago.  I barely spoke Spanish and they were all shouting directions at me as I gripped the wheel and swerved down narrow passageways past the rusted gates and wrought iron fences of Panama's Baroque boneyards.

Every time I made a wrong turn or passed by an entrance, they would shout louder in the vain hope that volume would overcome the language barrier.  All the while little Ray, the pampered brat, was crawling over my seat back, grabbing grimy fistfuls of my hair and hanging from the rear view mirror like a little spider monkey. It was hot, no air conditioning, I was nervous and sweaty because traffic was chaotic and most of the cemeteries were in really bad neighborhoods.  My love for Mari was all that kept me from  abandoning them car and all.

I was a rat, scurrying through a cobblestone maze to a chorus of incomprehensible babble.  This rolling tumult culminated in them accidentally directing me down an extremely narrow dead end street.  Panamanians are terrible at directions.

"Turn around!" they cried in a Spanish.

I was in despair of ever getting out. I really would have escaped at that point, but I couldn't get my door open without bumping the house my car was now nuzzled up next to.  I backed into a cinderblock house trying to turn around, the whole damned neighborhood was out now, goggling at the crazy, sweaty gringo with a carload of clamorous women and the monkey plastered to the windshield.

"Go forward!  Go backwards!  Turn the wheel!"

A torrent of perspiration was cascading down my brow, my neck was exhausted from turning this way and that, the steering wheel slippery in my sweaty hands.

Luckily, Panamanians are good-humored people.  With the assistance of a crowd of men swarming the car and happily bellowing instructions at the top of their lungs and providing me copious and contradictory hand signals, I somehow managed to turn the old Buick Regal around.  No blood no foul on the house I bumped.  It looked like it had seen better days anyway.

As I crept back up the narrow street past the wall of bemused faces just inches from my car, a shirtless man standing next to a tin shack looked at me knowingly and handed me a beer through the drivers side window.  I thanked him for his sympathy and chugged it down as I made a left turn out of the neighborhood, with Mari, her mama and aunts assailing me with a chorus of "Turn right!  Turn right!"

I don't have any pictures of that fateful day, but here are a few of Dia de los Muertos from Otavalo, Ecuador.


Always On Watch said...

It's a strange custom. In fact, many customs related to death are strange. Embalming itself are considered both strange and useless by some people. The trocar is brutal and smacks of defiling the body of the deceased.

However, I guess that most cultures have certain ways that seem strange to other customs so as to memorialize and honor the dead. The quest for a type of immortality? I think so.

Teresa said...

It is good to remember the dead. Interesting custom. Thanks for sharing Silverfiddle.

conservativesonfire said...

My experience witj "Dia de Los Muertos" is that the old women take it serious; but for everybody else it is an excuse for a fiesta.

FreeThinke said...

Great writing!

The sentiments behind it remind me of the opening number from Guys & Dolls.

"When you meet a gent paying all kinds of rent, you can bet that he's doin' it for some doll ..." ;-)

That bit about the guy handing you a beer put it all into focus beautifully.

Share more of these anecdotes, please. A nice relief from the migraine headache of politics and disaster.

~ FT

Silverfiddle said...

Thank you, FreeThinke.

Believe me, this style of writing is much more rewarding personally.

Leticia said...

Mexico celebrates it as well. Glad my family never embraced it! Yikes!

However, in Mexico, you could go to the Panaderias aka bakeries and find their baked goods baked into shaped of faces. And the dressing up as skeletons, etc. It's almost like Halloween, but this is a very important holiday in Mexico and should not be mocked. They take it very seriously.

Silver, God bless you for not losing your temper. I always find it hilarious that people tend to raise their voices to get understood. You almost want to say, I'm not DEAF! I just don't understand what you are saying.

Finntann said...

What is amazing is that so many widely disparate cultures have such remarkably similar holidays.

FreeThinke said...

That's because all peoples and cultures deal with the same issues of life, death, illness, hunger, sexual desire, children, and mankind's unique need for something more than mere "bread."

We're all the same under the different veneers of taste and style we derive on order to adapt ourselves to Nature's challenges in many places with widely differing topography and climate.

Jersey McJones said...

I've heard and read quite a bit about the various Day of the Dead ceremonies around the world, but I sure would like to experience it. I envy you, Silver.

I've experienced many ceremonies and various odd holidays just by the luck of spending much of my life in major metropolitan areas, and associating myself with interesting characters, but I've heard of quite a few I'd to see for myself.

I knew a guy from India who told me of a holiday celebrated in his village, and apparently in quite a few others.

Once a year, all the gay guys would dress up in fantastically over-the-top drag, and parade down the streets, visiting each home they came upon. Sorta like the all out fun of the Halloween parade in the Village in NY, but much more personal and rural.

Each house they visited is enchanted by humor and fun and celebration, and the homeowners give gifts to the paraders for their company and thereby bless their home with good luck that year.

When you open your mind, it's amazing how much more you can appreciate each other.

Your story, Silver, also reminds me of the death of the great Matriarch of my family. There was a parade, and then the processionals, but then the celebration. An all-night-into-the-next-day celebration of a great human being to all we many people she affected.

To some people a celebration of death seems odd... well, they're right, but confused. No one celebrates death (save for sociopaths and your Local 512 Grim Reapers). We're celebrating to remember, to hold in our collective hearts and minds and culture, the lessons people taught us. We all teach each other. That is the stream of consciousness. We are social animals. In a sense, we become each other.

Great piece. Thanks for the great reading and (hopefully more) conversation.


FreeThinke said...

Well, approximately half the country will BE effectively "dead" next Wednesday (at least we HOPE it will be that soon!)

In THIS country every four years the day after election day should be officially declared THE DAY of the DEAD.

The trouble is that THIS time ALL of us will be "dead" if Barack Ogodno manages to get reelected.

It will usher in America's version of Goetterdaemmerung -- "The Twilight of the Gods." A hideous prospect.

That, of course, is the Tragic Flaw in "Democracy" that a majority of fools, deaf, dumb, blind to reality, and uncaring of anything but securing their own immediate gratification, may VOLUNTARILY ELECT to KILL OFF not only THEMSELVES, but all the OTHERS as well.

That's why the Founders did NOT want "the vulgar populace" to vote.

How RIGHT they were!

Silverfiddle said...

@ FT: It will usher in America's version of Goetterdaemmerung -- "The Twilight of the Gods." A hideous prospect.

More like Goetterdammitall...

Silverfiddle said...

Thanks Jersey.

I have noticed that funerals are trending more towards the 'celebration of life' instead of wailing sadness. The funeral of a dear friend across the street was like that, as was my own dear granny's one year ago.

My granny was a Christian woman who grew up in the depression, and she saw all preachers as Elmer Gantrys.

The preacher, who knew her, opened up his remarks at the funeral by smiling and remarking that "We all know how she felt about preachers," and that really cracked everybody up.

That day and the visitation the night before were hours of laughter and tears, and that is how it should be when someone beloved, like my granny or the matriarch of your family passes on.

Fredd said...


Hispanics and Anglo-Saxons are not from different cultures: we are the same - Western.

Our common culture goes way back in European history, way way back.

Most of us still celebrate Christmas, BTW.

Stogie said...

Silver, I love great prose and it's obvious that you have writing skill. I am studying Spanish (I'm in my second semester), and find such customs fascinating.

Stogie said...

I really loved this phrase:

"I was a rat, scurrying through a cobblestone maze to a chorus of incomprehensible babble."

Great metaphors.

Thersites said...

I'm beginning to prefer certain "foreign" funeral customs to our own.

Silverfiddle said...

Stogie: Thanks! My dream is to rise up out of this dump and get published someday.

Spanish is a wonderful language with great classical literature as well.

I'm pretty fluent and routinely speak it, I used to do Spanish linguist duty, so if you need any help with anything let me know.

Stogie said...

Silver, thanks for the offer! I love learning Spanish and my goal is to be able to speak it fluently.

Bunkerville said...

The visual was priceless. Thanks for a great read, as always.

FreeThinke said...

'Hispanics and Anglo-Saxons are not from different cultures: we are the same - Western.'

I'll have to tell that to my friends in Great Britain. I know they'll be immensely reassured.