by Joe Palmer
[ places - january 70 ]
The first day of November is a special day in Mexico, a day when the dead are remembered and honored, the families of the defunct gathering in the cemeteries to have parties, to hold celebrations on the graves, with eating and drinking and singing. The day of the dead is a sort of Hallowe'en without jack-o'-lanterns or witches.
Mexicans decorate their homes on All Saints Day with skeletons and skulls. Mementos of the dead, little statues, half flesh and half bone, are displayed everywhere. The spirits of the "angelitos," dead babies, return to commemorate life and to share family stories and night-time picnics at the altars erected on the cleaned and decorated grave sites. If they are rich, families hire bands of musicians called "mariachis" so that guitars and booze and singing enliven the parties in the cemeteries. Skeleton figures represent the living spirits of the dead.
In the shops and streets, wherever you go you see edible replicas of human skulls made of moulded sugar, from life size to thumb size, decorated and embellished with shiny metal foil discs stuck in the eye sockets. Kids devour these reminders of mortality like Christmas candy.
Lorca wrote a verse I've kept imperfectly in mind for years that reminds me of the Day of the Dead:
¿Que sientes en la boca
Roja y sedienta?
Es el sabor de mi gran calavera.
(What do you feel in your mouth
All red and anxious?
It's the taste of my big skull)
Or something like that. When I first saw the sugar skulls in Mexico, I thought of Lorca, murdered for being original and politically incorrect.
Back in the Eighties I found myself in Mexico City waiting for a flight to Oaxaca de Juarez where I was supposed to give a talk at a convention of English teachers. I was looking forward to meeting my old friend Ruth Crymes, the president of the American English teachers' group, who was taking the night flight, the "tecalote," the Night Owl, from Los Angeles to Ciudad de Mexico in order to catch the local flight down to Oaxaca the next morning. I checked into a little hotel in the Zona Rosa, and walked around enjoying the sights and the omnipresent music. I went into a Spanish restaurant where I ate some paella and drank some wine. My waitress was very attentive, all pleasant smiles and suggestions.
You must remember that I'm kind of shy because of one bad eye that was taken from me when I was a young fellow. I wish people wouldn't stare. I know they can't help it. I do the same when I see a disfigured person. It's the continual double take, the swiveling head when they look again to check, that gets to me, like a slap or nudge. One-eyed Jack, louche, suspicious, yeah, I see.
At the end of my dinner in that happy restaurant, in the spirit of the season my solicitous waitress brought me a sugar skull wrapped in a lace-paper doily. She showed it to me, holding it in her left hand. Then with her right index finger she carefully plucked out the right eye from the skull, and frowned as she handed it to me, getting sweet and surely temporary pleasure from my discomfort.
Next morning I took a taxi to the airport, arriving just as a fireball rose with the sounds of a plane crashing. It was the "tecalote" from LA. At the Aeromexico counter Gringo teachers were wailing "Was Ruth Crymes on the plane for sure?"
I went to the American Airlines counter and demanded the passenger list. I couldn't find her name. There was hopeful relief and no way to find out for sure.
After a couple of hours, flights resumed. We boarded a DC-10 whose smiling captain assured us that we should have no fear. He opened the throttles and we buzzed over the volcano Popocatepetel in a horizontal loop so that we could look down in the crater in macho defiance.
The newspaper headline in Oaxaca read:
NO HAY LA PISTA
DIGA EL COPILOTO
(That's not the right runway)
The plane had collided with a post office truck.
We also learned that Ruth had been flying under her husband's name.
Communists took over the convention and so I, as an American, was not allowed to speak.
They threw a Hell of a party for us, though, in recompense, a "guelaguetza" under the full November moon beside a swimming pool with mariachis, much food and dancing, and pitchers of mescal, a southern kind of tequila, a party with old friends one saw only at meetings. I regretfully remember discouraging the drunken advances of a nubile Mexican fellow traveler by telling her that I was studying to become a priest. O Mexico Lindo!