Death Be­comes Them

Bert Archer ex­plores two Latin American cul­tures that revel in the af­ter­life and lives to tell the tale

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the spir­i­tual in Mex­ico and Peru

LIKE MUCH OF HER writ­ing, Mary El­iz­a­beth Wil­liams’ re­cent piece in Salon about hav­ing your fu­neral be­fore you die was clear-eyed, well-writ­ten and sur­pris­ing. In the short es­say about her friend, she made it seem per­fectly rea­son­able that a wake be held, when­ever pos­si­ble, while the sub­ject’s still around to ap­pre­ci­ate all the praise and warm feel­ing. Some of us live fully ac­knowl­edged lives – I imag­ine Malala al­ready has a pretty good idea of the sorts of stuff that’ll be said in her obit­u­ar­ies – but most of us don’t, and hear­ing the good things peo­ple think about us would, you’d think, be the best pos­si­ble send-off – ex­cept that would in­volve ac­knowl­edg­ing we’re go­ing to die. And we’re bad at that.

Like Johnny Car­son mess­ing up his oth­er­wise lovely farewell speech by say­ing he might show up in our liv­ing rooms again some­time soon, we have trou­ble let­ting go, even when the lights are dim­ming, the room’s gone quiet and there’s a big exit light flash­ing stage left.

It doesn’t make much sense and, though there have been plays and po­ems and nov­els writ­ten about our fu­tile at­tempts to evade death for mil­len­nia, it’s ac­tu­ally only re­cently that the av­er­age per­son seems to have started hav­ing so much trou­ble with the ba­sic con­cept that their own lives are go­ing to end.

Jes­sica Mit­ford charted what turned out to be only the be­gin­nings of our thanato­pho­bia in her still shock­ing (and also hi­lar­i­ous) book, The American Way of Death, first pub­lished in 1963, at the time con­trast­ing it with the more rea­son­able ap­proach taken across the pond. But it’s the American way of death that’s be­come the norm, metas­ta­siz­ing back across Europe as many of the old cus­toms in­volv­ing dy­ing at home and hav­ing the re­cently de­ceased at­tend their wake in state gave way to American-style out­sourc­ing be­gin­ning in the 1970s.

There are other far-flung cul­tures that have dif­fer­ent ap­proaches. Ti­betan Bud­dhism springs im­me­di­ately to mind. But there are other ways of see­ing death, more clear-eyed than ours, and much closer to home.

NIGHT’S JUST FALLEN on the Malecón in Puerto Val­larta, the waves an au­di­ble ru­mour in the black be­yond the seawall, and two teenagers dressed in black with faces painted white to re­sem­ble styl­ized skele­tons are mak­ing out in front of an elab­o­rate al­tar set up to at­tract the spirit of a re­cently de­ceased 65-year-old man named Juan. It’s the Day of the Dead. Cana­di­ans have a ten­dency to think of Mex­ico as a place of win­ter refuge, a land of beaches, tequila and tacos where north­ern cares can be thrown to the gen­tle coastal zephyrs. And Puerto Val­larta is a fine place for all that. The golden sands of Bahía de Ban­deras mix well with the cerulean sea and corn­flower skies and, when the palms start to sway, well, it’s what In­sta­gram sto­ries were made for. But com­ing down at the be­gin­ning of Novem­ber for the Day of the Dead of­fers a glimpse of a Mex­ico that’s been un­der­sold. Come for the tacos! Stay for the sub­tly sub­ver­sive re­cal­i­bra­tion of life’s most fun­da­men­tal ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions! With a side of tacos!

The streets are packed, and the teens are not the only ones be­hav­ing in a way that in much of the rest of the world would be con­strued as dis­re­spect­ful of the dead. Kids are run­ning and play­ing amid the dozens of ofren­das, the al­tars an in­creas­ing num­ber of Mex­i­cans erect each year to their de­ceased loved ones. Oth­ers are eat­ing, drink­ing, laugh­ing, tak­ing self­ies. Though roughly a third of the throng are made up in some rel­a­tively ghoul­ish way or other, this is not a som­bre event.

Though peo­ple of Euro­pean de­scent, like the folks who make James Bond movies en­joy mak­ing it seem creepy as in Spec­tre, the Day of the Dead – Día de Muer­tos in Span­ish and Sha­hala in Zapotec, the lan­guage of the Oax­a­cans in the south­west of the coun­try from whom th­ese tra­di­tions have largely flowed – is es­sen­tially and pro­foundly pre-Columbian and very much a pub­lic cel­e­bra­tion. Those kids play­ing around and not be­ing shushed or told to hang their heads in mem­ory of their dead el­ders are be­ing in­tro­duced early to the fact that death is a part of life and not nec­es­sar­ily some­thing to be scared or even es­pe­cially in awe of.

Euro­peans in­vari­ably see death as ei­ther hor­ror-movie scary, Jodi Pi­coult-dev­as­tat­ing or cat-fu­neral maudlin. But Día de Muer­tos works from a dif­fer­ent script, leans more to­ward the jazz fu­ner­als of New Or­leans, Haitian Vodou and Asian an­ces­tor ven­er­a­tion. The Day of the Dead is of­ten re­ferred to as Mex­i­can Hal­loween, but there are more dif­fer­ences than sim­i­lar­i­ties, start­ing with the fact that the spir­its that are meant to come back on the Day of the Dead are friendly, and the act of erect­ing ofren­das or tend­ing the grave of a loved one is seen as keep­ing the dead alive from one gen­er­a­tion to the next, as broadly but beau­ti­fully in­ter­preted by Pixar’s Coco.

And like Coco, Día de Muer­tos is also re­ally colourful. Where Hal­loween is all about the black and or­ange, the streets of Puerto Val­larta on the days lead­ing up to Nov. 2 are an ex­plo­sion of colours, ev­ery favourite colour of ev­ery per­son be­ing cel­e­brated and ca­joled back from

the dead. The Malecón is lined with gar­gan­tuan skele­tons gaily dressed in bon­nets and top hats, all a ref­er­ence to a rel­a­tively re­cent ad­di­tion to the tra­di­tion, La Calav­era Ca­t­rina.

Though the Malecón Ca­tri­nas are im­pres­sive, you get a bet­ter sense of them a few streets up, among the many art gal­leries in the old town. The Mex­i­can re­sort town art walk has be­come a cliché, of­ten just an­other way to sep­a­rate tourists from their money in ex­change for work that’s ei­ther medi­ocre, de­riv­a­tive or both. There are some gal­leries like that in Puerto Val­larta, too, but there’s also a large num­ber of them with wholly re­mark­able stuff.

The Ga­le­ria de Ol­las has man­aged to find some very good Mata Or­tiz pot­tery, pots and vases that com­bine el­e­gantly con­tem­po­rary shapes with exquisitely intricate tra­di­tional etch­ing and en­grav­ing by artists like Olivia Dominguez, Jé­sus Lozano and Efrén Quezada Jr. There’s an es­pe­cially well-ex­e­cuted dead Fred and Gin­ger danc­ing in happy pas­tels down the street at The Loft gallery, but it’s a few steps away at Colec­tika where you’ll get your tu­to­rial on Ca­t­rina and the muer­tos.

Owned by a Mex­i­can wife and Cana­dian hus­band and based on their per­sonal collection, the gallery fea­tures beaded skulls, fan­tas­ti­cally de­tailed painted wooden sculp­tures by Ja­cobo An­ge­les Ojeda and man­i­cally over­wrought ce­ramic skulls by Al­fonso Castillo.

But it’s Sabino Ar­royo’s Ca­tri­nas and their beaus that get at the oxy­moronic heart of the Day of the Dead. Like the Ca­tri­nas on the Malecón, Ar­royo’s are dressed to kill. (As Colec­tika co-owner Beatriz Simp­son puts it, Ca­t­rina’s fun­da­men­tal mes­sage is “Don’t mat­ter how fancy you are, you still gonna die.”)

Though she’s re­lated to an­cient Aztec Micte­caci­hu­atl, or Lady of the Dead, the char­ac­ter of Ca­t­rina was in­tro­duced by an il­lus­tra­tor from Aguas­calientes named José Posada just be­fore the First World War as a dark satire of up­per-class Mex­i­cans tak­ing on Euro­pean airs. So not only does the Day of the Dead chal­lenge West­ern no­tions of death, by in­cor­po­rat­ing Ca­t­rina, it’s mak­ing sure Mex­i­cans don’t for­get what makes them so dif­fer­ent.

But th­ese ones are also preg­nant.

The collection of 40-cen­time­tre-high preg­nant skele­tons would have been more shock­ing had I not al­ready seen the dead na­tiv­ity scene in an­other of the gallery’s rooms, com­plete with skele­tal Vir­gin Mary, skele­tal Baby Je­sus and ad­mir­ing skele­tal don­key by Oax­a­can ce­ram­i­cist Demetrio Aguilar. But it’s a per­fect sum­ma­tion of the char­ac­ter and the day. I’ve never seen a clearer, fun­nier, more glam­orous de­pic­tion of life’s role in death and death’s role in life.

At the base of most of the ofren­das on the Malecón, there are intricate fres­coes made with coloured saw­dust. That one celebrating 65-year-old Juan’s is yel­low and red, with metic­u­lous de­pic­tions of mu­si­cal notes and in­stru­ments and styl­ized cock­tail glasses. As the teenagers get more into each other, they inch back­wards, sweep­ing aside the edges of the Mex­i­can man­dala. At first, I’m out­raged on Juan’s be­half. But youth, care­lessly, lust­fully eras­ing the old? That’s pretty much right. I leave them to each other and dis­ap­pear into the throng.

Though this par­tic­u­lar, and par­tic­u­larly healthy, take on death is specif­i­cally Mex­i­can, not get­ting too flus­tered by the whole af­fair is com­mon to many In­dige­nous American peo­ples and has been for a long time.

IN KUéLAP, FOR IN­STANCE, for rea­sons of spir­i­tu­al­ity and ur­ban den­sity, peo­ple lived with their dead. It’s only one rea­son of many to visit this re­mark­ably Peru­vian moun­tain top, roughly as far north of Lima as Machu Pic­chu is south, but it’s a per­va­sive one. Kuélap, as I was to see, is lit­er­ally in­fused with its dead. Kuélap is older (by about 1,000 years), big­ger and higher up than that other moun­tain at­trac­tion roughly 1,500 kilo­me­tres to the south and gets about two mil­lion fewer vis­i­tors a

The au­thor took to a Día de Muer­tos cus­tom with calav­era, or sugar skull, face­paint, done at the lo­cal mall

year, for rea­sons that pre­sum­ably have a lot to do with In­sta­gramma­bil­ity.

In Kuélap, you have to be there and walk around it, to get a sense of the place. It’s been stud­ied and sur­veyed a lot since it was re­dis­cov­ered in 1843, though it and the peo­ple who built it are still mostly a mys­tery. Like the tile work, for ex­am­ple, elon­gated cat’s-eye pat­terns that trim many of the build­ings up here. Though it’s fa­mil­iar to any­one who’s trav­elled around the re­gion, where it also wraps around build­ings and works it­self into the stonework of nearby towns and vil­lages, no one knows for sure what they may mean.

It was only in the 1980s that peo­ple started to visit. And it was much more re­cently that the govern­ment that has seen its tourism cof­fers filled to over­flow­ing with Machu Pic­chu money de­cided to make an ef­fort to nudge some of those mil­lions of tourists north­wards.

Get­ting to Kuélap is pretty much a mir­ror im­age of how you get to Machu Pic­chu. You fly into Jaén, take a four-hour drive to one of the still rel­a­tively few ho­tels in the area – like Gocta Natura, where I stayed, about an hour’s drive from the tiny town of Tingo Nuevo (Tingo Viejo hav­ing been de­stroyed by a flood in 1993). From there, it’s a three-kilo­me­tre shut­tle bus and a four-kilo­me­tre gon­dola, which opened in spring 2017. Ac­cord­ing to my ticket, I was the 11,163rd per­son to have taken the 20-minute ride up, down and across to the cloud city, the gon­dola high enough at some points to al­low us to look down on a flock of green Ama­zon par­rots as they flapped past be­neath us.

A lot of work has gone into Kuélap in the last while. Its outer walls are be­ing shored up, wooden board­walks have been in­stalled to let tourists hover slightly above the valu­able and still mostly un­stud­ied site, and there are signs ev­ery­where spell­ing out much of what’s known of the peo­ple the In­cas rev­er­en­tially called “the cloud war­riors.”

My guide told me the tourists were al­most ex­clu­sively Peru­vian, ei­ther lo­cal or from Lima, judg­ing by the ac­cents the day we were there. Carlo Magno Inga was his name, from the nearby town of Chachapoya, named for the peo­ple who built Kuélap. He said this was pretty much stan­dard, Kuélap be­ing on the bucket lists of a lot of Peru­vians who want to learn more about their own his­tory. Though they’re ob­vi­ously plan­ning for an international au­di­ence, they’re cater­ing to their own for the mo­ment: most of those signs are still Span­ish-only.

The Chachapoyas were al­ways a se­cluded peo­ple, rarely ven­tur­ing from their tri­an­gu­lar patch of moun­tain­ous turf, cor­doned off by three rivers. Their po­si­tion was ad­mirably de­fen­si­ble, which is one of the rea­sons they held out against the im­pe­rial In­cas as long as they did, only suc­cumb­ing about 60 years be­fore the Span­ish got there and com­mit­ted their own series of cas­cad­ing dis­as­ters, in­clud­ing burn­ing Kuélap out from un­der the In­cas in 1570 un­der the pre­tence of win­ning it back for the Chachapoyas, whom they’d briefly signed up as al­lies be­fore aban­don­ing and/or slaugh­ter­ing them.

They did make a come­back of sorts, though. Re­mem­ber the open­ing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy is try­ing to steal that golden statue, mis­cal­cu­lates the weight of his lit­tle sack of sand and has to race the world’s big­gest bowl­ing ball out of the tomb? Though it bore lit­tle re­sem­blance to any­thing real, that was meant to be a Chachapoya statue and a Chachapoya tomb.

IN REAL LIFE, how­ever, at least in Kuélap, ev­ery house was its own tomb. The Chachapoyas seemed to like to keep their dead nearby and dug big cel­lars with lit­tle trap doors where they de­posited their dearly de­parted. If you look closely as you wan­der around the grounds and peek in­be­tween the stones that make up the houses and the walls, ev­ery once in a while, you’ll see a fe­mur or a tibia or a skull. Kuélap was in­hab­ited for nearly a mil­len­nium, and it seems they started run­ning out of space. The place is built out of its dead, forc­ing you to look more closely at ev­ery rock to see whether it’s a bone. Other cul­tures talk about stand­ing on the shoul­ders of their an­ces­tors. In Kuélap, it’s lit­er­ally true. The thing is, it’s no more creepy than the Ca­tri­nas clack­ing down the Malecón in Puerto Val­larta. The dead are al­ways with us, spir­i­tu­ally, as Día de Muer­tos tells us, and phys­i­cally, as we see in Kuélap. Toronto’s Yonge and Bloor, one of Canada’s big­gest in­ter­sec­tions, is built on an old grave­yard. And there are bones much older than that within 100 me­tres of you right now. Why do we spend so much time try­ing to keep it all at bay? Think of it in the right way, the way the Mex­i­cans do, the way the Chachapoyas did, as a slowly in­creas­ing num­ber of West­ern writ­ers and thinkers like Mary El­iz­a­beth Wil­liams are, and be­ing en­veloped in ev­ery­one who has come be­fore us is ac­tu­ally pretty com­fort­ing. IF YOU GO Mex­ico: vis­it­puer­to­val­; Peru:­cient-peru/kue­la­parchae­o­log­i­cal-com­plex.aspx

Day of the Dead-in­spired art­work by Paul Hu­ber at the Loft Ga­le­ria in Puerta Val­larta

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