A return trip to welcome the arrival of the dead

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SANTIAGO MATATLAN, Mexico – On the eve of the Day of the Dead, Maria Santiago stood in the back of a moving van, hair in the air, heading towards the fields of agaves her father owned in this little one. city ​​outside of Oaxaca City.

She meandered through the plantation with her mother and her brother-in-law, avoiding the thorny plants, to collect small yellow flowers for their altar.

Santiago, a 25-year-old caregiver in Los Angeles, had traveled to her hometown to celebrate her first Day of the Dead without her father, a construction worker who died last January of COVID-19. In Santiago Matatlan, where locals will keep their doors and windows open to invite the spirits of their ancestors, Santiago’s grandmother had taught him that it was especially important to honor the recently deceased.

“If my dad comes, I want to give him a really good welcome,” Santiago said. “This is our first year without him. We want Father to enjoy the day as when he was alive.

Tourists have long flocked to Mexico for the Day of the Dead, a celebration in which families build elaborate ofrendas, or altars, laden with fruit, bread, and hot chocolate, and visit the graves of loved ones in the cemeteries.

But in parts of the country with indigenous communities, the Day of the Dead, which stems from pre-Hispanic traditions, is considered so sacred that it brings home those who have left Mexico.

Immigrants from states like Oaxaca, Michoacan, Guerrero and Puebla can return if they can afford it – a particularly poignant journey this year for those who were unable to travel in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions.

It is not known exactly how many are turning back, but experts say some small villages are getting bigger. Immigrants who can’t travel often send money to those planning the festivities, said Xochitl Flores-Marcial, Zapotec historian at Cal State Northridge, who compared the season to the Thanksgiving trip.

People can also come back to conform to their cargo, a term used by indigenous peoples that refers to the economic, political or cultural support that one must offer their community to remain a member. Bonnie Bade, an anthropologist at Cal State San Marcos, said Mexicans in the United States could be appointed to a committee to prepare for the celebration.

“If the house is not open, if there are no altars, our ancestors feel sad – they come back and no one cares about them,” said Santiago Ventura, a resident of northern. California who said dozens of immigrants were returning to San Miguel Cuevas, his hometown in the state of Oaxaca. “We want to be there because of our love for our ancestors, and people are working all year to save money to come back that day.”

In a bakery in Mitla, a town about 45 minutes from Oaxaca town known for its ancient ruins, Areida Mateo and her husband, Romayro Sosa, worked through the night in the days leading up to the holidays, breaking thousands of eggs. to make pan de muerto, or bread for the dead.

With an assistant, they baked about 12,000 loaves of bread, many of which are painted with white sugar paste and decorated with edible skeletal figurines. Mateo, a fifth generation baker, said she has cousins ​​in the United States who travel to Mitla.

“It’s not celebrated in other places like it is here,” she said. “They prefer to be in their city to experience the party.”

After authorities canceled the festivities last year, Mexico is celebrating a boisterous holiday.

In Xochimilco, a neighborhood in southern Mexico where the iconic party marigolds grow, trucks have delivered loads of orange blossoms to the markets. In Mexico City, officials said more than a million people lined the elegant Paseo de la Reforma and other boulevards to applaud a lively procession of dancing skeletons, floating skulls and other whimsical creations in homage to the fallen. and in Hollywood. The annual parade, canceled last year, was inspired by a scene from the 2015 James Bond thriller “Specter”.

The holidays are still overshadowed by the loss of the pandemic, which has claimed more than 288,000 lives in Mexico. During a service on November 2, a cathedral in Xochimilco will burn several dozen letters that residents have left throughout the year with messages to those who have died.

“We are going to cremate them as an ofrenda,” said Horacio Jimenez, who helps maintain the church.

The pandemic – in different ways – has caused some to return this year.

For 38 years, Gaudencio Velez, who lives in Riverside, never visited his hometown in Guerrero state for Day of the Dead, instead deciding to create a small altar.

But after nearly two weeks on a ventilator in the summer of 2020, Velez has booked a ticket to return to Jaleaca de Catalan. He planned to help prepare an altar to honor his deceased brother, grandparents and aunts. In his town, many placed a bottle of Coca-Cola, a common drink with meals, on the altar.

“Back when I was sick, I was close to my loved ones who have already passed away,” said Velez, president of the Binational Guerrero Federation based in Santa Ana. “To be alive now … I think that’s a reason to celebrate life.”

Immigrants also return to Santiago Matatlan, a Zapotec town near Mitla in Oaxaca where motorcycle taxis abound and the air carries a smoky tint of the many mezcal distilleries.

Preparations for the Day of the Dead begin weeks in advance, with residents bringing cocoa and chili peppers to a local store where they are hand-ground into chocolate and mole paste.

Juanita Ruiz Gutierrez, her 22 year old son, her husband and a friend all returned from LA on Saturday, they drove to a family distillery in a truck that climbed a mountain road overlooking a panoramic view of the agave fields . .

Along with other relatives, the family made a special mezcal, where a turkey breast hung in the still steamed to add flavor. Ruiz Gutierrez signed a small cross before adding a cart of pineapple, apples, prunes, cinnamon and bananas to boil with the mezcal and said a blessing to Zapoteco.

The family then drove to the house where she grew up, now occupied by her brother’s family. The smell of fresh marigolds mixed with the bread of the dead as Gutierrez’s sister-in-law, a baker, rushed to fill orders.

Ruiz Gutierrez cut some marigold stems and handed them to a nephew and his son, who glued them to an arch made of cane stalks. Below, the family placed bread, bananas, nuts and other fruit on the altar, which displayed a photo of the parents of Ruiz Gutierrez, who died four months apart 13 years ago.

A skeleton, made by his nephew to represent his grandmother, stood to the side.

“In this city, everything is done very differently, the traditions are very deep,” said Ruiz Gutierrez. “It is a feeling that reaches your soul.”

The mood was a bit darker in Santiago’s mother’s house one block away, where a bare bone altar awaiting decorations carried a picture of her father, Pedro Santiago, and her late sister.

Santiago’s eyes started to cry when she said she thought her father had been infected on his way back from his hometown. He had looked confused during his last days, telling her, “Let’s go home, let’s go to Mexico.

His 89-year-old mother, Epifania Hernandez, placed a hand to her face as she began to talk about her son, who has left six daughters behind.

“Every day I miss my son and every day I remember him,” she told Zapoteco, when asked how she would honor him during the holidays.

Pedro Santiago is buried in LA County, but after picking flowers from the agave fields, Santiago and his mother, Maria Hernandez, traveled to the city cemetery to clean the graves of seven other relatives.

They poured buckets of water over each grave and mopped the area with a broom before leaving behind pots of fresh flowers, along with mugs of beer and mezcal.

The next few hours would continue with the ritual. Santiago’s sister was slaughtering a turkey bought a year earlier to eat it with mole. Her mother would wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. on Mondays to open the door for visitors who came with offerings.

But the moment that brought Santiago home will come at noon, when the ringing of a church bell will signal the arrival of dead souls.

Among them, she thinks, will be her father.

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(Los Angeles Times writer Patrick J. McDonnell and Special Envoy Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.)

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