Hello Mexico City, where the Day of the Dead has a special meaning in a city built on the remains of a series of mighty indigenous civilizations. This celebration of life amid death is a time to dress up, enjoy good food and drink, and call the spirits of the departed to visit again, so that their memory will never be forgotten.
After three days in Mexico City, Tacubaya already feels like home. I have a room in an apartment whose owner, an architect named Gaby, has wonderfully quirky taste. On her work table she keeps a framed photograph of a desert landscape; a matchbook from a restaurant in Berlin; a collection of shells; an assortment of pens; pencils and utility knives in brightly colored cups; a plastic calculator such as a child might use; a takeout menu for a Cantonese restaurant; a color photograph of a deserted laundromat (unframed); a fantastic illustrated bestiary whose crosshatched pen-and-ink drawings form a flip-calendar triptych, so that you can mix and match head, hindquarters and torso to create entertaining grotesques like a tiger-flea-elephant; and her Mexican passport. A nameless plant grows out of an antique glass mezcal bottle. There is a starfish in the window. In the sitting room there are books by Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Georges Bataille, also the Oaxaca Journal of Oliver Sacks, while in the kitchen there is a bowl of ripe green prickly pears.
Gaby lends me a book by Daniel Hernandez, a Mexican-American journalist who grew up in Los Angeles and relocated as a young adult to Mexico City. During my time here I turn to it often for explanation. Down & Delirious in Mexico City confirms even the smallest matters, for instance, my experience that cab drivers in Mexico City will feign ignorance of a destination in order to drive a passenger around in circles, boosting the fare. I feel somewhat better knowing they do this to locals as well as foreigners.
I am 27, the same age as Hernandez was when he moved here and, by a twist of fate, I am staying in the same building where he first lived. In his book, I come across the following passage: “Historians often categorize Mexico into three major periods: its pre-Hispanic, its colonial, and its modern. During all three, the society’s center is Mexico City, and in all of them, the city is driven by a culture of violence.” The underlining is Gaby’s.
I go running in nearby Parque Lira, a cool dream of stone and Spanish moss somehow existing hard by an autobody shop and lanes of killer traffic. The park has palms, fountains and ferns. In a large concrete basin like a drained swimming pool, teenagers in skinny jeans perform rail slides and ramp tricks on skateboards; others hang out on the rim of the pool, their sneakers dangling in empty space, eating, smoking pot. The smell of marijuana carries on the breeze. Their pit bull barks.
Where can I find a bottle?
Soon I reach the end of my stamina. It is a nice day, but the altitude and pollution are getting to me. What to do? I recall a poster in Gaby’s apartment printed with a famous Oaxacan saying: “Para todo mal, mezcal; para todo bien, también.” (“For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same.”) Where, I ask myself, can I find a bottle?
At a bar, I meet Paco and his American girlfriend. Paco is a life-long chilango, or resident of Mexico City, while Kelly is a teacher from South Carolina who has worked in Mexico for the past six years and is now applying for permanent residency. She is wearing the full costume of La Calavera Catrina, one of José Guadalupe Posada’s creations. Her face is painted to look like a skull, and she wears a bonnet along with a dress and stockings. Originally intended to satirize Mexican women who had adopted European fashions, the figure of a rail-thin skeleton woman in Victorian fancy dress has become an iconic image of death in Mexico.
“I always tell Kelly I’m proud of my culture and my history and my people, but there are many problems here. We are no longer self-sufficient,” says Paco. “Maybe 70 per cent of us are poor. Another 20 per cent are middle class. And the other ten per cent are rich. The rich use their power to keep the people down.” I recall a billboard above a wastescape of trash and decrepit buildings that advertised the latest iPhone.
Music is playing in the bar: “Ice, Ice Baby” and “Billie Jean.” Kelly moves to the beat. She is happy-go-lucky, boisterous, upbeat. “I need more juice!” she shouts when she finishes her drink. Paco, who is 32, works in finance. He wants to leave Mexico as soon as he can afford to. Once you start making a certain amount of money in Mexico, you draw the attention of organized crime. “They ask you for money or else they will kill your family, things like that,” he says matter-of-factly. Kelly is not listening. She is gyrating in her seat. Her body knows how to move. After a few American hits, they start playing cumbia songs. Kelly likes them and can dance very well. Paco demurs. He can’t dance. He sits and drinks with me and talks.
We drink late into the night
I am eating entire bowls full of hulled pepitas – toasted and salted pumpkin seeds which serve in place of peanuts as a bar snack. We down tall shot glasses of small-batch mezcal, after licking off our hands sal de gusano, rock salt mixed with chili powder and ground-up agave worms, before biting down on juicy orange slices. This is how one drinks good mezcal in Mexico. And what mezcal! Smoky and smooth, it is dispensed from huge plastic bottles shelved above our heads. Each is the result of slow-roasting mature hearts of the agave plant over wood fires, sometimes for days, then crushing the cooked agave, fermenting the juice in great vats, and distilling the resulting liquid in wood-heated stills of copper or clay to produce a colorless, fiery libation of great alcoholic potency and complexity of flavor. I savor the lingering smoke as we drink late into the night.
Mexico City “has the special chaos of a dream,” William S. Burroughs said, and this is never more evident, never more true than on the Day of the Dead. The three-day holiday begins on October 31. The first of November is the day for children, when little vampires, witches, skeletons and devils run around with painted faces. That night I take a taxi to the Zócalo, the immense plaza in the city’s historic center, where an outdoor celebration is taking place. Elaborate altars and dioramas – part sculpture, part landscape architecture, part freeze-frame cartoon – have been set up, one with skeletons riding bicycles, another with skeletons in a bus, another that is a lucha libre ring full of potted marigolds and containing two dummy fighters with skull faces.
Crowds of parents with children holding little plastic pumpkin buckets of candy, just as they do in cities all over the western hemisphere, are milling excitedly. The doors of the Metropolitan Cathedral stand open onto the plaza for a holy service, its baroque altars to Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe and other saints well attended and with votive candles burning all through the loud night. This is a holiday both sacred and secular, death as parti-colored peyote-trip wonderland.
The weirdness is everywhere, infects everyone. My driver, Miguel, moonlights as a luchador, or Mexican wrestler: his alter ego is Expriser, the intergalactic robot. He shows me on his mobile phone a wrestling practice routine performed to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing. It seems a strange choice for a wrestler. “Why this song?” I ask. “It’s for the ladies,” he tells me, grinning. “They go crazy for it.”
A city in whom the living are foreigners
In Chapultepec Park is the Panteón Civil de Dolores, the largest cemetery in Latin America and a self-contained city of the dead within the larger metropolis. Established in 1875, it contains some 700,000 graves. It is so vast that its forking paths are marked by street signs, exactly as if it were a city in whom the living are foreigners; chilangos warn visitors that it is all too easy to get lost among the graves.
Christopher Wren, the British architect of London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral among many other great buildings there, once proposed that burials should take place neither in churches nor in churchyards, but rather in walled cemeteries “decently planted with yew trees” on the outskirts of the city. These cemeteries encircling London would, in Wren’s conception, “bound the excessive growth of the city with a graceful border.” It may say something about the Mexican attitude toward death that here the deceased have not been banished to the outskirts but rather, in the Panteón de Dolores, have been taken into the city’s inmost heart.
These are my thoughts as I enter the cemetery on the Day of the Dead. Dusk is approaching. Heavy gray clouds all afternoon have blotted out the sky. “It looks like it’s about to dump buckets,” said a friend earlier. But the rain is staying away for now.
Trumpets are blaring somewhere nearby and fireworks are exploding. An old woman hands me a piece of pan de muerto, the sweet holiday bread whose round loaves are decorated with pieces of dough that look like bones. Around my neck are two saints: Saint Christopher, patron of travelers, and Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, an icon of Mexican folk religion. The noises gradually fade as I wander the byways of the burial ground, leaving the entrance far behind. The houses of the dead, many with doors and windows, glow in the blue dusk, their white stone remaining luminous even as darkness descends.
Vigil all night in the graveyard
As twilight deepens, night birds begin calling to one another from the trees. I come upon a small campfire amid the crypts around which ten people are gathered. Some families, I have heard, will hold vigil all night in the graveyard. I want very much to take their photo but it does not seem right to disturb them. To participate in the Day of the Dead as a foreigner is to confront one’s own massive irrelevance; the holiday would go on just as it is without me. And so much the better.
There is in Chapultepec Park another place eminently suited for communing with the dead: the National Museum of Anthropology. On another day of low gray clouds, I wander the museum for hours, gorging with my eyes on pre-Columbian civilizations: Olmec, Toltec, Mixteca, Aztec… Yet in truth what I see are only the survivors of those great peoples who long ago vanished, leaving left behind a few statues, bits of pottery, masks, weapons and oddments of jewelry as a receding tide leaves shells upon the beach. Great feasts of civilization, I think to myself, have been swallowed by the earth. These are the bones and rinds.
The flow of tourists thins as I make my way deeper into the museum, until at last I am nearly alone in the room that holds the relics of Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs, it is said, built their capital on a site where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus and devouring a snake. From that auspicious beginning, the Aztec Empire spread throughout central and southern Mexico, dominating and subjugating all the peoples it encountered. By the early 16th century, when the Spanish arrived, its might was unparalleled.
What I have come to see above all else is a dark stone statue, more than two and a half meters tall, of the goddess Coatlicue, mother of Aztec gods. This terrifying figure has a skirt of snakes, the face of a fanged serpent with forked tongue, and is bedecked with skulls and human hands. To stand before her is to go beyond art appreciation into something like holy terror and awe.
It’s not like the works of Michelangelo
A dapper man of late middle age, Ecuardo, is explaining Coatlicue to his American friend. He says that Coatlicue is a mother goddess. “A virgin mother?” I volunteer. “Virgin mother, that’s right exactly,” he says. We look again at the towering figure in dark stone, an impossible vision of power and horror. The Spaniards in whose hearts the Virgin Mary arrived in Mexico like a stowaway could not have known that this land already housed a virgin far more terrible.
Ecuardo asks how I know about Coatlicue. I have been dreaming of coming to this museum for years, I say. In Ecuardo, lover of history, I sense a peculiar lightness when discussing the artifacts, for living as he does at the vanguard of time past, as do we all, he is able to weigh more optimistically than could his distant ancestors the burden of the Old World’s equivocal blessing.
“Can you imagine using tools at that time to create this?” I ask him as we study the Stone of the Sun. “Even now, with all our technology, we’d find it difficult to accomplish.” “I believe it was accomplished by a team of sculptors,” Ecuardo says. “And yet we don’t know who created it. It’s not like the works of Michelangelo.”
No artist has left an identifying mark on any piece and, indeed, the namelessness of the sculptors forces us to confront the work alone. It is difficult now, at a remove of more than 500 years, to imagine what craftsmen dared give form to the goddess, the men at whose touch the dark stone blossomed so savagely. These almost superhuman sculptors have left no trace of themselves, are irretrievably beyond history. Yet the statue remains, immovable, inescapable, gawked-at, endlessly photographed, and still terrifying, after all these centuries still the heart of Mexico.
Foreign elements have encroached far upon ancient Mexico. Standing atop the Pyramid of the Sun at the ancient city of Teotihuacan, an hour’s bus ride outside Mexico City, I can see latticed steel telecommunications towers grouped in the distance like alien life forms against the green mountains to the south. They remind me of the gray, fortress-like Telmex building visible from the window of Gaby’s apartment in Tacubaya.
A fundamental truth of high places.
And yet it is impossible not to feel something extraordinary atop the Pyramid of the Sun. Panting and gasping, some visitors climb the steep pyramid and, upon reaching the top and regaining their wind, look around briefly and then descend gingerly, clutching the rubber-coated guide-cables for balance. They seem eager to let the horizon glide up the sky and return to its proper place as they go earthward, shielding from their view the all-too-vastness of the planet they momentarily surveyed like gods. They never take the time to understand a fundamental truth of high places.
The moment of summit is not the crucial moment. The crucial moment comes perhaps five or ten or 20 minutes later, when the surrounding landscape in all its astonishing detail is no longer wondrous, no longer breath-taking, when it simply is. In this moment, having seen the miracle of the world in a fresh light, I now simply exist, inhabiting the space of that vision, as its rich and strange perspective assumes an aspect of normalcy. I am here on this rocky height, resting my dusty boots on the throne and grave of an extinct religion, of a vanished people whose bloodlines are diffused in Mexico’s mestizo dream. It is natural to be here, writing in my notebook. Nothing could be simpler. The crucial moment occurs when the mundane and the miraculous are one.
Walking back along the path that leads to the Pyramid of the Sun, I pass a middle-aged British couple who are also returning. “How was it?” I ask. The woman turns and gives me a look. “Excellent!” she says. There are certain experiences of which anything one could possibly say would fall short, and in these cases “excellent” is as good as anything else.