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A Village's Rite Blends the Joyous and the Grave

October 07, 1990|BILL BEGALKE | Begalke is a Denver free-lance writer/photographer .

NOPALA, Mexico — The old taxi struggled up the rock-strewn road, tires spinning, stones clattering against its metal belly. Our journey into the mountains south of Oaxaca was proving to be a noisy one.

The rainy season had just ended, and the humidity turned the car into a mobile sauna.

In my worst nightmare, I had imagined traveling in a bus full of passengers, sliding and bouncing down a mountain road on bald tires.

Now, quite unexpectedly, a bus appeared on the road ahead, bearing down on our battered taxi. What incredible timing, I thought. It was Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

It seemed entirely possible that the bus, a gaudy, chrome monstrosity, would force the tin-metal taxi right over the edge. Nameless faces pressed against the dirty, half-opened windows, wide-eyed, anticipating the worst.

Envision yourself careening up this poor excuse for a road in a relic of a car, destined for some ominous mountaintop village to witness the Day of the Dead celebration, only to meet a bus head on. Such madness may only make sense in the state of Oaxaca, where the strangest journey in the lifelong race with death is on the way to the cemetery.

At the same time other North Americans celebrate Halloween with costumes and candy, tradition in Mexico calls for family reunions with the dead. For three days, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, specific rites are faithfully observed. They occur in the home and in the cemetery amid bouquets of flowers, banquets of bread and ghostly candies decorated with skulls.

These candies, called muertos, and are given out much the same as parents dispense candy bars and chewing gum to costumed children demanding trick or treat.

In Mexico, the dead are considered supernatural guardians. Not only do they visit during this time, but they enjoy their favorite food and drink, lavishly laid out on home altars and shrines.

Each village observes the holiday in a distinctive way. Beginning weeks in advance, dishes and various treats are collected: the best chocolate for mole; fresh eggs and flour for the bread, pan de muertos; fruits and vegetables, even cigarettes and mescal.

Candles burn day and night, illuminating the decorative wild marigold, flor de muertos, that adorns the altars and graves.

And everywhere, la calaca, the skeleton, carved from wood and dressed for a party, watches with amusement.

Less amusing, at the moment, was the oncoming bus, but somehow it squeezed past us and disaster was averted.

My destination was Nopala, high in the mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur. There, I believed, I would be able to witness Day of the Dead ceremonies that would blend colonial Catholicism with ancient Indian beliefs.

But getting to Nopala was no easy matter.

Leaving the outskirts of Puerto Escondido, the paved highway gave way to a dusty, rock-strewn road, barely wide enough for one vehicle. At the tiny pueblo of San Gabriel Mixtepec, a red-dirt side road twists and climbs to the mountaintop village that is Nopala.

Carved from the rock peak, Nopala's crowning architectural achievement is its baroque municipal building, a glorious quasi-colonial structure, with plaster walls painted a brilliant white and wrought-iron balustrades that are rusting away.

A melancholy sound fills the empty square. Unearthly music played on a discordant collection of instruments, with only the tuba and trombone identifiable.

Slowly, as if by magic, the villagers appear, making their way to the plaza over cobblestones worn smooth by weather and the footfalls of generations.

The women arrive first, from the side streets, dressed in black, yet brilliant with color. Clutched to their breasts are marigolds. Slowly, the people form small groups, then merge into larger congregations until they converge as one processional in the stone square surrounding the crumbling church.

High in the tower above the crowd, a solitary bell chimes, the sound reverberating against the white-washed walls, rolling over the stones, tumbling down the mountaintop, into the river valley below.

Soon, as the music from the instruments fades, a chorus of voices rises from the church sanctuary.

From the plaza's edge, foot paths lead down and away, like spokes of a wheel. One spoke leads to the cemetery.

The air is heavy with the midday heat. This is the last day, the final visit to the grave site by the families.

From the dark recesses of the church, the procession begins its solemn journey. A cleric leads, the village follows.

Down the cobblestones, with the steady oompah of the tuba setting the pace, the people slowly wind their way to the graveyard.

The dead are regarded as protectors of the living, and so their counsel is sought in all family matters. The dead demand good behavior of the living, and they have within their power the ability to reward or punish. That is the belief.

At the cemetery, the people gather at the graves of relatives and loved ones. Bright marigolds decorate the tombs. A trail of golden petals leads back on the path to the village.

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