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  • As I have described before: Mexico is the land of fiestas.

    Drug dealers and corrupt politicans as well as criminal Indigenous leaders tear the country from all sides and the inside out apart, or so it seems, but when people are called to dress up as Michael Jackson and breakdance in the streets of Mexico - City, thousands appear and create a wonderful spectacle. That also happens when someone wants to dress people up as characters from STAR WARS, or it is asked for the longest taco in the world. The photographer Tunik undressed many more people than anywhere else for his famous nude photographs in Mexico! When it comes to fiestas of a modern or ancient kind Mexico often enters the Guinness Book Of Records ( It did for all the above mentioned).

    I love Mexico for this.

    One of the most vibrant fiestas of the year is el Dia de los Muertos - the Day of the Dead - with its roots in pre-Columbian cultures. It intrigues me that it falls so very close to Halloween with its roots in pre-Christian rites. With both holidays death, dying and the dead are noted and honored just before winter’s arrival.

    Throughout Mexico, the Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 2nd, but the Mayans in Chiapas start festivities on the 1st of November – el día de los innocents (the Day of the Innocents).

    For the occasion, local bakers prepare el pan de muerto (the Bread of the Dead). It is a round, sweet yeast bread sprinkled with sugar and decorated with bones made out of dough! Another holiday specialty is small skulls sculpted from sugar. Each skull has a common first name written on its front. Celebrants buy skulls labeled with their friends’ and lovers’ name and present them as gifts — a truly sweet memento mori!

    In those Mexican states where the traditional Indian culture is still strong, most families erect an altar in their house for the occasion. Photographs of the family’s deceased are set out on a table. Beans and corn are decoratively placed around them. Usually, the dead person’s favorite food is prepared and offered on the altar, as is the essential bottle of tequila or mezcal. Adornments include el pan de muerto, sugar skulls, colorful paper decorations and many candles. The floor in front of the altar is covered with aromatic pine needles.

    The altar’s empty spaces are filled in with oranges, tangerines and xempaxochil (the Flower of the Dead which is the marigold). In autumn, all over Mexico, fields of the xempaxochil’s bright orange glow in the sun. These blooms are of utmost importance for any altar honoring the dead. I have read that the marigolds are used on altars because ancient Mexican cultures believed yellow was the only color that could be perceived by dead souls. The vivid altar of xempaxochil cast a beacon to the deceased’s house on the eve of the Day of the Dead. Arriving, souls may delight once again in their favorite food and enjoy a shot of tequila! Every year many of my Mexican friends swear that the morning after having set out the feast they have found less food on the plate than on the evening before. I can easily believe that in every house there is a restless soul ready to enjoy the offerings along with some mezcal or tequila.

    For many years now I have erected an altar for our family’s departed in the restaurant. Over the years this has ceased to be my nod to local tradition. Rather, it has become a yearly ritual that holds great personal significance. I cover the huge mirror in the entranceway with a thick blanket of black felt. On it I hang photographs of my beloved dead ones. My niece Katharina is there, who died at six of leukemia. My grandparents accompany her and they are joined by my father and several other dear friends. I invite our employees and friends to add photographs of their dead loved ones as well. Putting up each photograph creates a treasured moment for me to pause and meditate on what each life meant and continues to mean. Although there are many honored on our restaurant altar, it is always dedicated to my father. We prepare his favorite food and put it in front of his photograph. This act of love and remembrance brings me a deep calm.

    Every year there are more photographs. Every year my own death comes closer. I am aware that undoubtedly one day, somebody will hang my photograph on an altar.

    On November 1st, the Maya Indians visit the cemeteries. It is easy for a visitor to mingle with the crowds. The sights are extraordinary, colorful and varied. Crying women sit in the dirt in front of graves covered in mountains of xempaxochil; around them children play hide and seek. Stray dogs are everywhere, sometimes fighting fiercely for a discarded piece of tortilla. Mashes (musicians) circulate playing music. They are dressed in fantastic uniforms inspired by the French soldiers who invaded Mexico in the nineteenth century. These musicians play indigenous versions of the harp, violin, harmonica and guitar. Their tune, the bolonchon, is the same, day and night. The musicians walk from one end of the cemetery to the other playing the melancholic bolonchon. Their pauses are brief, only stopping long enough for a fortifying swallow of pox. The lovely, but monotonic, bolonchon carries the listeners slowly, but surely, into a trance.

    The Mexican way of remembering the dead moves me deeply. I do remember, though, that my father was very shocked when I brought my mother and him to the Chamulan cemetery of Romerillo on the Day of the Dead for the first time. He felt the many dogs hanging about everywhere were offending the dead in their graves. Later I read that the dog, even though often treated quite badly, is a very important animal to the Mayans. They believe that it is a dog that leads departed souls across the river to the world beyond.

    The Indian procession to visit their dead on the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro, in the state of Michoacan, is world-famous. On the eve of the Day of the Dead the natives row across the dark lake to visit their departed. Every person carries a lit candle. The entire night is spent graveside.

    In the state of Campeche on the Yucatan peninsula there is a village where every year the families dig up the bones of their loved ones on the Day of the Dead. Then they enjoy a festive picnic, accompanied by the remains. I can only guess this is so the departed will not miss one word of all the news of the past year. At the end of the celebration, the bones are reburied.

    On November 2nd, the non-Indian population of Mexico visits their departeds’ gravesites. I have joined in activities at San Cristobal’s cemetery. There is the atmosphere of a huge fair — Mariachis play and sing haunting love songs and everybody is dressed in his or her finest. Bags and baskets contain tortillas, tamales and other picnic delights. Children laugh and play. Vendors offering sweets and toys make their rounds. Everyone has a wonderful time.

    After I had published my first children’s book, I carried a copy to my father’s grave in Germany. My youngest sister and I buried it in the earth above my father’s remains. Then we poured a bottle of tequila over his resting place. My mother, nervous, kept looking around anxiously and hoping no one was watching what she thought was our strange, and probably illegal, behavior. Nobody watched. And I was carefree. For me, any hint of strangeness in thus honoring my beloved father had long passed. Among the many lessons Mayan Mexico has offered me is how closely life and death are interwoven. They belong together as do two sides of a coin.

    __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________Photography by Kiki : this is the altar for the Dead in our restaurant....

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