Bert Archer explores two Latin American cultures that revel in the afterlife — and lives to tell the tale.
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 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 in-between 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.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2018 issue with the headline, “Death Becomes Them,” p. 72-77.