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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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71 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

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