Postcard from Romerillo, Chiapas, Mexico: Day of the Dead Mudfest

As the cab climbed higher into the towering pines lining the uncomfortably curvaceous road, the sides of which plunged into deep valleys below, the climate changed. Suddenly we were in a world shrouded by clouds spitting mist. And they must have done a lot more than spit last night because the unpaved area we reached was oozing mud.

Romerillo only has about 1,300 residents, and they seemingly all have family visiting for their Day of the Dead festivities this weekend because Chamulans were everywhere.

While some indigenous communities of Mexico lay out family feasts on the graves of their departed relatives, the residents of Romerillo lay out a whole fiesta. A Ferris wheel, merry-go-rounds, typical carnival games, food booths. They all crowd right up next to the outermost graves. Perfect bait for enticing ninos lost back for a family reunion.

And, plenty of locals crowding amongst the plots to offer you fruit, pan de muerto, flowers and posh – a potent cane version of moonshine that will have incapacitated many before day’s end – if you arrive ill-prepared to honor the dead. And, of course, Coca-Cola. A colorful band marched through the mud out into the midst of the cemetery as arriving families removed the boards to allow those underneath to escape and join the fiesta.

We arrived guideless and standing a head or two taller than anyone else around. Call us quite conspicuous as we were jostled by the crowds trying to maintain balance on the slip-and-slide grounds. Not another tourist was spotted during our visit. Given the Chamulans’ known antipathy for photographers, we were rather camera-timid. Plus, the clouds touching the ground limited visibility. But there are plenty of other photographs available on the internet of sunnier events.

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Chamulan men and women wear black or white garments made of long, combed sheep wool. Unprepared for the drop in temperature, I found myself envious of that wool until I looked down at their feet. The women had on warm, wooly skirts, but generally were wearing open sandals. Their wet toes with mud packed in between them must have been freezing.

As it was, the mud sucked on my slip-ons with every step, as though trying to consume them. But we were able to lift our lodo-laden shoes into the poor driver’s cab and head back down to a toastier casa. No posh to warm or obliterate our innards, but a nice bottle of red wine in a restaurant awaited.

My shoes are drying in the sun, while my toes are tucked warmly into comfy slippers.

Postcard from San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico: Grooming Graves to Welcome Back the Dead

Hallowmas, or All Saints Day, is such a convenient make-up day for Catholics. There are so many saints, some have been forgotten. November 1 represents a time to remember all of them in one powerful group prayer.

The following day, All Souls Day, is ideal for praying for all the departed, particularly those who escaped hell but were not quite good enough to have Saint Peter throw out the welcome mat – those poor souls stuck in limbo or purgatory.

For many of the indigenous people of Mexico, Catholicism is but a recent thin veneer topping centuries of ancient Mayan beliefs. We are in the heart of that land. November 1 is celebrated as Dia de los Inocentes, a time to communicate with all the small children your family might have lost. November 2 is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

While a small number of Americans hold séances to try to entice loved ones back for a visit, most Americans shrink away from the thought of inviting ghosts back to be part of our lives. But here, families devote much time and energy to cleaning their ancestors’ graves in preparation for decorating them with items to entice the departed back to earth.

This past Sunday, we viewed some of these efforts outside a church that burned long ago. A band played spirited music outside the front of the ruins to entertain those hard at work and those lying underground.

Please excuse the quality of these photographs, but San Juan Chamula operates under its own set of laws. And one of these is you are not allowed to take photographs in its churches or close-ups of any people without permission, rarely extended by the city’s elders (more later). Violators will have cameras confiscated, or worse.

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Throughout San Juan’s valley, patches of marigolds are squeezed tightly amongst rows of corn. The marigolds will be harvested for the graves to help guide the dead to earth.

The sincerity of all the preparations is critical because one would not want the dead to feel inadequately welcomed, particularly because they can impact one’s prosperity throughout the coming year.