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Death and the Virgin at Tepeyac

My host’s mother Maria, aged eighty-nine, casually brings up death with her son while the three of us sit at her dinner table. “Carlos,” she says, passing me a covered dish of steaming tortillas, “do not forget to bring my golden flower brooch to pin on my gown when they prepare me for burial.”

“Si, mama,” he dutifully replies, unfazed. My ears burn in embarrassment at the turn of conversation. I’m wondering if I should excuse myself when just as nonchalantly she moves onto the topic of resuscitating the faulty bathroom plumbing. It takes getting used to — this blithe relationship with Santa Muerte, this acceptance.

“Does your mother often remind you about her funeral arrangements?” I ask later as Carlos and I share coffee together.

“Of course, she wants to ensure that her wishes will be carried out after she can no longer direct things.” I marvel at their mutual open admittance of her decline. It isn’t that they do not value life, rather that they are matter-of-fact about the inexorable. For Maria’s household, her passing will be sad not tragic. Her departure will be a transfiguration not a disappearance. This is an unaccustomed paradigm for me. Death is a topic I avoid, pretending that by evasion I can stave off its inevitability. I wrestle with my impending mortality, fearful of its spectral presence. Although I understand the idea of death as our logical end, its actuality is like rain spatter on a windshield: too certain for comfort, too close for comprehension. How do I achieve meaning without succumbing to the panic of evaporating time? What do I prioritize in the Grim Reaper’s lengthening shadow?

Death is a companion in Mexico. Whereas I ignore it, shun it, feign ambivalence towards it, here death is caressed, embraced; it even has a festival dedicated to it. Death in Mexico has always been viewed as transcendence to another state as opposed to a conclusion. Carlos and Maria’s philosophic attitude about death stems from a cultural history entangled in votive sacrifice, pre-Columbian concepts of immortality, and their immense faith in uncertainty. The same erratic fate which fills me with dread bestows them motivation.

These two exist upon the fringes of poverty, precariously balanced on the edge of a city ill-equipped to support them. Yet, they cultivate fortitude within their fluctuating circumstances. I observe in them an absence of pessimism, an overflow of generosity, an eagerness to participate. “Eat more,” Maria admonishes, ladling heaps of rice and bean upon my plate. Hearing I am fond of chocolate, Carlos bicycles a mile out of his work route to purchase cocoa tabletas. An endless array of relative’s babies and neighbor’s cats are succored in spare moments. Vagaries, misfortunes are equably handled without resentment or bitterness. It is when I accompany Maria to Our Lady of Guadeloupe, Mexico’s most venerated basilica, that I learn how her espousal of uncertainty is the basis for her acknowledgement of death.

Situated at the base of Tepeyac hill to honor Juan Diego’s vision of the Madonna, the church is the recipient of abject pleas, heartbreaks, and confessions. We enter its round edifice, seating ourselves as close to the altar as possible. From our vantage the framed Marian image is indecipherable. The devotion is indisputable, however, as pilgrims invoke her benediction upon their troubles — their eyes glued to the tableau in a thousand undertones of desire. Maria pays quick homage but we do not linger. Out in the plaza she and Carlos open up a cooler, handing out free tortas to departing worshipers.

“They arrive from many miles on foot,” Maria explains when I ask her the reason for this charitable monthly expedition. “They show up to ask for miracles, to give thanks for intercessions. Most have no money to eat. The Virgin gives their souls conviction. I would like to give their stomachs the confidence to approach her.”

“It’s a courageous thing you do,” I say to her, “feeding others from your sparse kitchen.”

“I have hope,” she replies. At first I am bewildered by her statement, wondering if I have translated her Spanish correctly in my head.

“You trust that you will be provided for? That everything will turn out for the best?”

Maria laughs. “No, I am not naïve! I believe, though, that what I do matters…I believe in the power of the unknown.” Old, young, couples, and children grab a torta from Maria; some look her in the eye and smile, some thank her, some clutch it furtively with averted gaze. In spite of their varied reactions, they all yearn for the pledge of protection against loss and unpredictability. A promise assured them in large letters by the shrine, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” In contrast, Maria’s concrete ministry arises from her ability to seize opportunity regardless of its outcome. Will her manna have an eternal affect on these souls, on her family, on her neighbors, on me? She is content not knowing. In the meantime, there are empty stomachs to be fed.

As we head back to Maria and Carlos’ abode, minus two hundred flatbreads, I realize I have mistaken hope as waiting, as a reason not to act. Too often, in my fascination with history, I focus on its repetitive failure to raise the human spirit. I grow disheartened by our refusal to absorb the past’s lessons. Paralyzed by my own inadequacies, I dwell upon monumental achievements during my tenuous span. I give too much import to legacies. How narrow my visions have been when there are infinite possibilities in the crux of what frightens me! The freedom to operate within death’s grasp is a momentous adjustment, an organic tremor in my outlook. It is by shining a light along the margins of darkness, by performing concrete meaningful deeds — however small or forgotten — that I can reconcile with death.


TRAVEL NOTE:

Mexican artists have long tangled with their culture’s complicated relationship to death. “Pedro Páramo,” a seminal novel by author Juan Rulfo explores this theme as well as the tragedy of violence, and the meaning of hope. An inspiration to Gabriel García Márquez, the book recounts Juan Preciado’s surreal experiences in the unusual hometown of his influential and formidable father.


What is your definition of hope? Has being hopeful hindered you or helped you? Share your stories in the comments below.

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67 replies »

  1. A wonderfully written post which is absolutely fascinating. How different an attitude to death in Mexico from the one in the western world where talk about it is shunned, hidden…there it seems as much part of life as life itself…and I sense Maria’s inner peace and acceptance – as well as an inner journey of yourself. Your final sentence is beautiful … words I savour and find reconciliation within that thought as well.

    • Thank you. My time in Mexico City was one of the most powerful and profound, and I am grateful to Maria and Carlos for sharing their lives with me in such a generous way. Even as a slow traveler who tries to immerse into each destination, I do not often get the opportunity to experience local culture and philosophy the way I did in Mexico.

    • I know! From a modern perspective, I find some of their ideas difficult to understand or appreciate. What I loved about visiting Mexico City and its surroundings was how the locals have managed to incorporate their ancient culture with a contemporary sensibility. Thank you for reading and sharing your perspective on this post.

  2. This is such as fascinating glimpse into Mexican culture. I’d love to visit this cathedral, too. But more than that. I’d love to talk to people like Maria and Carlos, or just listen in on their conversations. Thanks for letting us do that vicariously through you.

    • I was happy to have been their guest, to be allowed to listen to their views and interact with them. I was honored that they allowed me to share some of those thoughts in this post. Discovering new ideas, new ways of living is one of the best things about traveling for me. Hopefully at some point you too will get the chance to experience Mexico City and its people.

  3. Really great article. Really great writing.

    However, I just want to mention this because I thought this was funny: the following paragraph reads exactly like Anthony Bourdain.

    “Death is a companion in Mexico. Whereas I ignore it, shun it, feign ambivalence towards it, here death is caressed, embraced; it even has a festival dedicated to it. Death in Mexico has always been viewed as transcendence to another state as opposed to a conclusion. Carlos and Maria’s philosophic attitude about death stems from a cultural history entangled in votive sacrifice, pre-Columbian concepts of immortality, and their immense faith in uncertainty. The same erratic fate which fills me with dread bestows them motivation.”

    Death is a companion in Mexico
    – Short introductory statement with philosophical undertones utilizing a heavy generality to describe a specific place

    Whereas I ignore it, shun it, feign ambivalence towards it, here death is caressed, embraced; it even has a festival dedicated to it.
    – Second statement, very Anthony Bordain, begins with a personal aperture describing his own perception of it, but then solidifies the previous statement to show some sort of acceptance, and finally he tacks on a sentence, typically accompanied by higher pitch tones, basically saying, but ‘look at the bright side.’

    Death in Mexico has always been viewed as transcendence to another state as opposed to a conclusion
    – Return to an extensive and extreme generality of the place

    Carlos and Maria’s philosophic attitude about death stems from a cultural history entangled in votive sacrifice,
    – Then from the extreme, the monologue usually moves away from the extreme and into the more intimate subject matter, usually a family that he’s interviewing.

    • I admire Bourdain’s videos so I am honored to discover I have been emulating his formula for crafting a travel essay. I had not realized how much of a subconscious influence he was to my writing. Thanks for the dissection and the compliment.

  4. What we do does matter. Wonderful to be reminded to keep hoping and acting in the face of the unknown. To love others believing our actions can make a difference. Thank you for the post.

  5. I have thought about your post since I read it the first time a few weeks back, and having reread it, I am still left with a problem. While I think that it’s much healthier to talk about the inevitable, to plan for it, and to share one’s wishes with one’s close friends or family, I still find it difficult to live in the present AND to be mindful of my impending demise, whenever it might come. Many people feel that way which is why many of us we seem to live in denial most of the time. And in some ways, this might not be a bad survival mechanism. If one does not believe in a hereafter, being constantly aware of our finite existence can be very depressing.

    • I understand your perspective. Death for me was a taboo topic and avoiding it made me wasteful of the time I had left to me with those I loved. While I don’t think about it on a daily basis, when I do I try to not allow death to overwhelm me into depression but to provide me with hope. In the space it leaves me I have the ability to attempt, whatever the outcome. Thank you so much for this other insight to the topic.

  6. From the first photo through the last, you drew me into the fascinating post. Death can be such an emotional thought, one most never want to discuss or think about ~ but here you make it almost soothing. Wonderful shots and I especially like the last paragraph and photo which blend so well together “It is by shining a light along the margins of darkness, by performing concrete meaningful deeds — however small or forgotten — that I can reconcile with death” Your photo supports and matches this thought as well. 🙂

    • Thank you. I agree, in so many cultures death is a taboo subject. I wanted to share how differently it was viewed by my hosts in a way that would not appear “morbid” or grotesque. I’m always thrilled to hear from you which of my photos captured your fancy. Have a wonderful week!

  7. Interesting blog and beautiful pictures! You write the story so well about Maria and her son, as if we are also to involved in the story.
    Hope is the expectation(s) we cherish in life. How often do we say “I hope …” !? Hope makes us live … (that’s also an expression). As for death, I do not fear death, I fear the way death will happen! Many fear death out of ignorance! Because we do not know what’s after death? We all have our ideas about it but no certainty. I also belief in a higher power without knowing what that power is! But that’s not my concern. I just live my life and live day by day… Seize the day!
    Best regards, Heidi

  8. In the past, people would die at home surrounded for days by family. For many cultures attitudes to death have changed. I would love to experience the Día de Muertos festival/holiday in Mexico one day.

    • An article I read talked about how Victorian era English parents often took family photographs with their recently deceased children as a way to visually remember them. Several generations later, such an idea would be met with horror and sensational news articles.

  9. What a beautiful post! We should all be spending more time thinking about death instead of avoiding the subject or turning the other way. As if it’s not going to happen to us.

  10. I’ve recently experienced a sudden death of a friend, I met Garry through my blog, he was my Grandads age and seemed very fit and active, he came to watch several performances when I moved to London and as Chairman of the Mahler Society asked me to do an hour long recital. Completely out of the blue, literally the weekend I announced the concert he died, he was buried very quickly and I couldn’t attend as I would have liked to, I’m looking forward to singing his Mahler choices at his memorial and hopefully his favourite music will always have a place in my life. I’m a bit of a fatalist but hope good things happen for people I love. I hope you find the answers you’re looking for 🙋🏼😊.

    • What a lovely way to remember your friend Garry and to honor him. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and for your encouragement. A huge part of the process for me has been simply being able to acknowledge that death exists and that it is not a great evil to be avoided at any cost. There will always be sadness involved with loss, I think that is human nature…but I’m choosing to embrace that as a necessary part of life. By keeping the end in mind, I am also hoping to live more purposefully.

  11. We’ve been talking to our parents lately about all sorts of end-of-life topics, and far from being morbid or awkward, we are actually injecting some pretty good humor into it! What scares me is death before one’s time – accidents, premature illnesses, etc. Beautifully done post.

    • 🙂 It’s all in how you approach a topic. Humor is such a wonderful way to be able to open up about death…it’s advice I shall practice too. As another reader said, ignoring it doesn’t make death go away!

  12. Wow! The story is breathtaking and very inspirational. Travelling for you is not about about seeing places, but getting acquainted, sometimes very close to very interesting people, their believes and culture. It’s difficult to comprehend Maria’s and Carlos’ attitudes towards death. Her deeds will be remembered and it will makes her immortal.

    • Thank you, I feel so humbled by your words. One of my favorite things about visiting a place is getting to know some of the locals there and discovering how they think about life etc. It’s interesting to find common ground and be intrigued or inspired by their different perspectives. Maria and her son are one of so many unrecognized, “everyday” people helping to make a difference.

  13. What a beautifully written piece. Not only do I share Maria’s belief in the power of the unknown but am also naïve (or lucky) enough to believe that everything will turn out for the best. Hope gets me through everything.

  14. I find their concept of death as a transcendence much healthier than ours. If we don’t talk about it, maybe it won’t happen! I was raised in family that didn’t shy away from the subject of death. Maria reminds me of my grandmother who has been preparing for her death for 25 years. Giving stuff away, making arrangements. My father was 43 when he died, and when he found out he was terminal, he set about preparing himself on all levels without self-pity. My mother and all of my siblings like to wander around cemeteries. My husband finds it morbid. Disturbing. Meanwhile, his parents grow old and death is still shoved away like a dirty secret. And then there are the scientists working so frantically on immortality… Love the photos. The corridor, especially.

    • Thank you my friend. Do you know I was thinking about your Prague photos when I saw that corridor?

      “And then there are the scientists working so frantically on immortality…” Yes! I just finished reading several articles about various institutions experimenting on how to stop aging and death. The mind reels….

  15. Wonderful piece – moving and powerful… vivid and beautifully written… I agree with your wonderful Mexican Mama, and your lovely words… transcendence to another state…now I’m in my eightieth year, I look forward to the time, when that transcendence becomes the next adventure, a flight into the unknown, even a journey home, and in the meantime, I enjoy the dance of life…and revel in new love and old and new friendships….

    • Thank you. What a lovely compliment coming from you. I so admire those who “enjoy the dance” while accepting the inevitable with grace and serenity. I find it such a tricky balance to achieve.

  16. Wow – what an experience! This is an interesting question because I’ve always thought hope was a personal thing, which can get you down. Often, putting your hope or too much hope, if that’s possible, into something can ultimately stifle you. As you say, the waiting for something to happen, which has definitely not worked for me. Your friend exhibited a completely unselfish form of hope. She gave hope to others, and in a way embodied hope herself. She was proactive – a great lesson. Thank you for this post – and gorgeous pictures, too!

    • Maria’s view on life, death, and hope was so different from what I grew up understanding it took me a long time just to grasp. She was certainly puzzled as to why I kept asking so many questions about things she felt were self-explanatory to everyone. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to her level of acceptance about death, but I am hoping I will be able to embrace her more proactive view of hope.

      Glad you liked the photos! I was nervous they might be a bit morbid for some.

  17. Despite its certainty, death is indeed a topic often shunned in many cultures. But there are also communities where death is of utmost importance — their lives revolve around death to be precise. On the other hand, many past rulers made sure they would forever be remembered even long after their death by building grand monuments. By the way, I really love the interior of that basilica. I’m not sure what style that is, but it certainly looks grand!

    • It is interesting that those with a lot of wealth and power are always seeking to find ways to overcome and defy death. What is the correlation there? I recently read of several billionaires funding scientific research into eradicating death and aging.

      As to the basilica interior whose style you love, that was built between 1974-1976! The exterior is constructed to look like a giant tent. As you say it is grand, but also strangely welcoming and airy.

  18. Your post reminds me of my grandma. She’d always talk about her funeral arrangements or how she’d not like to die. As a young girl, I never took her words seriously. I guess, as a child you tend to trivialise death. As an adult, it becomes a reality and had she still be around, it would have been very difficult for me to hear her talk about death. I wonder what scares us about death? The pain before or the fact that we experience alone and never come back to speak about it. Thanks for such a wonderful post. Your posts never disappoint and I always get to learn something new.

    • I’m honored by your sweet compliment. I think death is frightening to certain cultures (and people who grow up in those cultural boundaries) for different reasons: the pain of loss, the end of life as they know of it, and as you say the solitude of the experience. The thing that scares me about death is that it is the ultimate irreversible, change — not only for the departing but also for those left behind. As I get older this motivates me to live a certain sort of life. I would not want to live as an immortal, but I do struggle to live within that hope which death provides each of us.

  19. It does confound you how people with the bare essentials reach out with such generosity. And don’t bemoan their lot! Us spoilt westerners are so good at bemoaning. Hope is an elusive for me, unlike death.

    • “To be confident that what you do matters seems to be a good state to face the world in.” Indeed! I find it so difficult to believe that, since I am incredibly results oriented. So much to chew on…but so happy that you enjoyed the piece.

    • Thanks Agness. The basilica is actually one of the most popular destinations to visit in Mexico, so don’t let my photos fool you…there are tour buses and visitors and pilgrims crowding the place even on a regular basis. 😉

  20. Thank you for sharing your thoughts & Maria’s & Carlos. “Hope in uncertainty” is poignant & profound, the photos of the cathedral inside & out are magnificent, it’s one of those places in my bucket list.

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