The dead-quiet aftermath

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All that remains of the artisan market on Monday was the canvas roof circling the plaza.

I WAS A FAN of the Day of the Dead long before I moved to Mexico.

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Catrina

There was a ceramic Catrina that stood on the bathroom counter in my Houston condo on Braes Bayou. I had purchased it at a Mexican artisan shop in a trendy area called The Heights. The place was owned by a real Mexican who charged me $200 for it.

When I moved down here, I discovered the same thing was easily available for the peso equivalent of $20 U.S., so I wuz robbed.

It was sheer coincidence that I moved to what is likely the most famous Day of the Dead town in Mexico. Oaxaca gives us competition. Never been there.

When I moved here 19 Days of the Dead ago, there was, and still is, an artisan market on our big plaza. It was haphazard, poorly organized, and many of the offerings were sheer crap that you might find in a Five & Dime.

Things have really changed. The artisan market years back was open to the vagaries of the weather, i.e. rain. Now the whole shebang sports a canvas roof. And the offerings have improved 100 percent. The junk is gone, and spectacular, high-quality goods are on sale. You should see it.

It lasts a week, going up the weekend before the Day of the Dead and coming down the weekend after.

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Two ways to do it.

We have two ways to experience Los Muertos, as the Day of the Dead is called in Spanish: the traditional and the carnival, what I call Party Hearty. The latter appears to be the more popular option, which is unfortunate.

To experience the traditional, visitors have many options. There are numerous small towns and villages in the area where residents do what’s long been done. They clean up the cemetery, decorate the graves with flowers, mostly marigolds, light candles and sit through the night, the theory being that the spirits of the departed return to visit.

What this produces is an eerie, incredibly beautiful, silent scene. It’s what takes place in my neighborhood cemetery, which we’ve visited on the Big Night a number of times, but not the last two years out of laziness. It’s walking distance from the Hacienda, which is great since traffic in the area all week, and especially on the Big Night, is beyond belief.

The second way to experience Los Muertos is Party Hearty, and it goes like this: You go to the island of Janitzio, which floats out in our large lake. The only way to get there is via motor launch. For some reason, Janizio is incredibly famous throughout Mexico and beyond for Los Muertos, even though their cemetery is like other cemeteries, and the locals do what locals do at other cemeteries.

I think it’s the novelty of the boat ride and the fact that it’s an island that’s given Janizio its celebrity. But whatever it is, tourists flock there is droves, mobs, hordes, incredible quantities of people. And they visit the Janitzio cemetery and more. There is music, dancing, food! And all is experienced while rubbing elbows with swarms of other sightseers.

It is not an “authentic” representation of the Night of the Dead. It’s a party. If you want a party, go to Janitzio. If you want to have a more traditional experience, go to one of the other villages. There are quite a few. But traffic will be bad wherever you go on the Big Night.

The artisan market on the big plaza of my mountaintop town lasted till Sunday. The next day, I drove downtown. Most of the tourists had fled. The vendors on the plaza had packed up and gone. It was peaceful again, as I prefer it.

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The aftermath

I sat with a café negro Americano and a sugar donut, looked toward the plaza and shot the photo at the top. The only thing remaining of the jam-packed artisan market was the canvas roof that will come down this week.

Later I walked to my car, which was parked just two blocks away on the street you see below, drove home and breathed a sigh of relief that peace has returned till next year. The market will appear again on Easter Week. The crowds will be big, but not quite so big as Los Muertos, and there will not be two ways to do it.

Just one. It involves Jesus.

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Walking back to my car, two blocks from the plaza, amid the sounds of silence.

The dead are coming

Muertos

WALKING AROUND the downtown plaza on a lovely, cool, October afternoon today, I noticed these windows across the street and their Day of the Dead banners.

Yes, the Day of the Dead approaches. It’s when we celebrate dead people, most of whom hereabouts are found in cemeteries, just like where you live.

This will be my 15th Day of the Dead, or Los Muertos as the natives call it, and it’s changed quite a bit in that time, mostly for the better. Every year a tianguis, which is a street market, comes to the downtown plaza. My first year, in 2000, it was poorly organized, butt ugly, and included lots of five-and-dime junk. That’s changed.

Now it’s nicely organized, covered by a uniform tent all around, and most of the junk is gone. Artisans from all over our state — and beyond — come to sell stuff, and lots of that stuff is creative and beautiful.

The primary draw, of course, is not the tianguis but the eerie, candlelit night in the cemeteries, which can be quite moving and incredible if there aren’t too many tourists underfoot. Best to choose your cemetery with care.

Our town is one of Mexico’s primary tourist destinations for Los Muertos. With luck, it will be a raging success this year because the merchants need that. We’ve had a bad rep for years, due to the dumb U.S. media* bludgeoning us on a regular basis because of “narco violence,” most of which does not affect tourists in the slightest.

But it’s hit tourism hard.

Narco violence, such as it ever was, has pretty much vanished. The touchiest times occurred about five years ago hereabouts, and a year or two ago there were problems in remote, rural areas of the state, but that’s blown over too. You’re safer here than in most of the United States today. Believe it.

But our reputation lives on, sadly. And the U.S. media continue to misrepresent and harm us.

Yes, most of the dead are in the cemeteries, and you will not be among them. Not horizontally, at least.

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* The U.S. State Department is no better with its warnings issued by clueless officials who’ve obviously never set foot in our tranquil, picturesque area.