Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Naolinco, Veracruz - 10/31-11/2 '09

In all my trips to Mexico these past 55 years, I’ve never managed to be here during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the holiday remembering, honoring and celebrating los difuntos, the departed souls of people’s loved ones.
In planning this trip to Veracruz, I realized that, at last, my timing would coincide with this remarkable blend of pre- Hispanic and Catholic traditions. Not to mention that this year the holiday falls on the day of the full moon!


Day of the Dead is less about mourning the dead than it is about celebrating life. It’s a big party by the living in which the spirits of their loved ones are welcomed, embraced and, in some ways, entertained. Each family— and many businesses— begin the elaborate preparations far in advance of the November 1-2 duration of the holiday. They include the construction of an altar, a sort of shrine to the difuntos.

Altars almost always comprise ancient symbols like arches, candles, incense-burners and, of course, lots of flowers. No array is complete without the age- old zempasuchitl, a type of marigold, and a deep- fuchsia flower with a fuzzy, brain- like texture (similar to our cockscomb), which together are referred to as la flor de muertos. And petals of the zempasuchitl are often formed into a cross on the floor in front of the altar and/or strewn in a path from the altar out the door (showing the difuntos the way home).
Other items commonly found on the ascending levels of the altar include photos of the departed loved one(s), representations of saints, copies of ancient sculpture or pottery, items representing the deceased’s accomplishments, and various kinds of foods, drinks and other things for which he or she had a special yen— often including (most often for the men) bottles of tequila and packs of cigarettes.

Rounding out the display are lots of fruit and, perhaps the most important of all offerings, el pan de muertos. The loaves of sweet bread come in many sizes, usually round or broadly oval. The surface of each loaf is crafted, as if by a sculptor, into elaborate designs, and then the loaf is baked until it reaches somewhere from a golden brown to a deep mahogany color.

Communities as a whole also seize on other carry-overs from the pre-conquest times, including the ubiquitous catrina (life- size figures of skeletons elaborately dressed and posed in any conceivable role, from babies, to business men; from elegant damas to couples in love, and displayed in stores, public spaces and the streets. Even pets can be represented as catrinas).


Naolinco de Victoria (Naolinco for short) is known for two things: The fact that 80 percent of the population (of, I’d guess, 2,000- 3,000 souls) make their living from the crafting, distribution and sale of shoes; and its annual Dia de los Muertos festivities.
Saturday, November first at 9AM I headed for the huge Veracruz bus station and boarded AU’s direct service to Xalapa, a city of about half a million population and the state capital of Veracruz. The relaxing two- hour ride took us northwest through sugar cane fields, some cattle country, and then increasingly hilly, forested terrain broken by rock cliffs and canyons (and an impressive bamboo forest). As we neared the city, I felt the cooler air, smelled wood smoke and noticed moss on many horizontal surfaces—all indications of Xalapa’s famously damp, cool, drizzly climate. With the higher elevation, we’d definitely left the warm, wet sponge of Veracruz’s southern Gulf weather behind.

From the main station, I took a cab for Central Bandilleros, the obscure little bus station that provides the only bus link with Naolinco. There I grabbed the next “semi- direct” bus (one of a slightly lesser class than my first leg) for the hour-long, climbing, tortuous ride to my destination.

As we pulled into Naolinco, we passed its famous statue of a giant cobbler hammering on a shoe, representing the town’s stock in trade and, a few blocks later, pulled into the tiny, inconspicuous bus terminal. Outside, the refreshing 45- 50- degree air felt wonderful to this norteño. Judging from the fierce wind, I figured the norte we’d been feeling for several days was still kicking and wasn’t sparing Naolinco. I soon noticed with a chuckle to myself that most of the locals were wearing parkas, scarves and wool stocking caps. A few blocks more and I found the zocalo, with its several mammoth Norfolk Island pines, and the presentable little Hotel del Parque.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around and just getting the lay of the land— not very hard when you can only walk about ten blocks in any direction until you’re out in the country. Already, the townsfolk and business proprietors were preparing for Dia de los Muertos, setting up their catrina figures, strings of cheery, pastel- colored papel picado (perforated paper) and altars honoring departed family members and business founders.

Here and there, burros and their handlers were delivering ten- gallon jugs of water to homes along the hilly streets.

I spent a restless night in my ground- floor, eight- by ten- foot room separated from the busy lobby by just— get this— a large, double, swinging- door type of window with frosted glass panes secured by a dime-store latch. And no curtain of any kind to block the bright lights just outside from pouring into my room. Not to mention the noise. My door might as well have been propped wide open!

Sunday morning, after a satisfying breakfast of huevos a la Mexicana, frijoles and tortillas at the next- door restaurant, I started a long day of trying to immerse myself in this charming, friendly little town. Within two blocks along Avenida de la Revolución I spotted a large doorway and a sign reading “Casa de la Cultura”. Inside I could see a catrina on display, so I went in. Turns out this was the town’s pride and joy, a fabulous exhibition of the finest catrinas, altars and other Day of the Dead decorations.

Nearly all the businesses (that would be a couple of hotels, about three full- service restaurants and over 200 shoe shops) were getting ready for the expected rush of Mexican and international tourists who descend on Naolinco every November first and second.

I looked up a cobbler named Gilberto Fernandez Mora about whom I’d read a glowing report on line from a customer who’d ordered five pairs of made- to- measure shoes from him when visiting the town (at a price of about $25 US a pair). Señor Fernandez Mora grinned from ear to ear when I suggested that, by this one mention in cyberspace, his fame was spreading worldwide. (The next day, on the other side of town, a young man and woman approached me excitedly on the street. They explained that she’s Fernandez Mora’s daughter and he works for him. She told me her father had forgotten to ask me how they could find the website mentioning him and his shop.)

The town was really coming to life. As the day went on, the streets began filling with people— clearly a mix of locals and visitors. Vendors of flowers, candles, pan de muertos, sweets and gifts surrounded the park with their stalls. And along the side streets it seemed nearly every other doorway hosted a tiny table arrayed with recycled wine and tequila bottles, now filled with delicious home- made wines— wild grape and six or seven other fruits I’ve never heard of. Each vendor offered liberal tastes, served in little plastic pill cups.

I stopped to take a photo of a big rack of pan de muertos in a store window. Before I’d gotten the lens cap off, the door opened and a young man motioned me in. Inside he and four or five others were working and shaping the dough for yet more loaves. Turns out I was in the manufacturing part of the panadería, with the actual shop next door. As I was asking the guys a few questions, one handed me a fresh, fragrant tamal, still steaming inside its little corn- leaf packet. Another handed me some Coke in a big styrofoam cup. This moment captured very well, I think, one facet of my impression of this special place: the generosity of both spirit and substance of the residents. (Of course I had to go next door and buy a couple of small loaves.)

Avenida de la Revolución led me uphill, past some pretty fancy, free- standing homes with lawns and driveways, to a decent overlook of the town. There in the mist, practically in the clouds, I stopped to remember my wife’s mother, who’d passed away at 91 just last week. At that very moment, a flock of 50 or so big, snow- white birds flew across the horizon accentuated against the dark hilltops.

Eventually I worked my way over to the south end of town and el Panteon. I could see right away that this cemetery is different from others I’ve seen elsewhere in Mexico. The graves are marked, not by the usual gaudy profusion of religious statues and plastic flowers, but by substantial little houses, their elaborate appointments of flowers, photos and memorabilia of the departed well protected inside. Most even have electric lights.

Among the neat rows, people were scrubbing, painting, repairing and decorating their family’s grave sites. Here and there a little
ranchero or son jarocho music from a radio would further enliven the busy sounds of hammering and sawing.

In one home, the altar for their departed and the World Series on TV seemed a telling contrast.

As night poured in from the surrounding hills, the town’s busy- ness turned to magic. Their busy preparations over, the residents turned to the more respectful— but by no means somber nor sad— business of welcoming home their departed spirits. Some homes opened their doors to welcome in neighbors and visitors alike to marvel at their altars and perhaps pay respects with a small gift of flowers, a candle or some pan de muerto. A few even handed out tamales, another of the special foods marking particularly this holiday. In a tradition called La Cantada, groups of mostly young men wandered from home to home and, when invited, surrounded the altar to sing a simple, haunting Rosary. There were many stanzas and I could understand very little except for something about “los cinco misterios”, the five mysteries.

Small groups of young people, elaborately decked out as living catrinas, roamed the streets, posing in mute deadpan for photos with jolly visitors. As I passed the Casa de Cultura again, a troop of cub scouts, their faces half painted in black and white, waited in line to see the exhibition.

On my way back to the cemetery, I bought a dozen big yellow flowers and tried to think of a way to symbolically honor the memory of Sally’s mother. When I got there, Naolinqueños and visitors alike were streaming in along the single, narrow main pathway. Some carried candles or flowers.

As I worked my way toward the quieter back of the cemetery, with its plainer, less- cared- for graves, it dawned on me what to do with my flowers. I picked out the most forlorn, forgotten markers and placed a single bright stem on each one. I think Sally’s mom would have liked that.

I felt an incredibly warm and peaceful vibe in that cemetery. The silence was brushed only by soft choruses of the same rosary I’d heard before in the Cantada, this time sung by family groups, some of them accompanied by a guitar. The smell of flowers and incense warmed the brisk air. The full moon was directly overhead and, just above the horizon, Orion's Belt stood on end, exactly in the center of a near- perfect rectangle formed by the four brightest stars in the area. I’ve never seen anything like it, and wondered what it should mean for me.

I stayed, just strolling around, until midnight. I prayed for Sally’s mom, my parents and sweet little Abby, our mini Schnauzer who died just a few weeks ago. I could feel their spirits and had lucid images of their faces, of my father's hands and of Abby running toward me in the park where we used to take her on our walks.

Monday morning, I returned to Veracruz and school, full of impressions and tender feelings about Naolinco, its traditions and its people. I know I won’t soon forget them.


Hubbs Center said...

Perla says she celebrated Day of the Dead here in St. Paul. She had the same decorations, food and flowers you had there.

murciélago said...

Hi Perla -- Thanks for your comment. That must have been muy bonito. Did your family also build an altar?