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Letter from Margaret Tilden

I have been in Mexico for many Day of the Dead celebrations. The first was in Oaxaca in 2006, the rest in Pátzcuaro, Michoacan, where I have been living much of the time since then.

The first, in Oaxaca, was especially lovely. That year, the teachers’ unions were having troubles and the plaza was filled with police. There were almost no tourists in town. On the night of November first, I went with a group of about six or so ex-pats to a cemetery in a small village. I was told that usually there were busloads of tourists pretty much invading the place with their cameras, sometimes even strobe lights. This time we were the only outsiders.

There was a grave of an American who had died there. Members of our small group, some of whom had known him, decorated it with marigolds and spoke a bit about him. Then I wandered off by myself among the graves and the people.

The graveyard was filled with candles, the graves ornately decorated with flowers, mostly marigolds. Relatives were gathered around the graves, visiting with each other, talking about their loved ones, and waiting for their return visit later that night in the wee hours of the morning of November second.

I was able to ask a few people about their loved ones. Their responses were friendly. It felt warm and gentle and spiritual. I fell in love with Day of the Dead!

Since then I have visited various graveyards at night in small Purépecha (the indigenous people of Michoacán) villages around Pátzcuaro. It is always absolutely beautiful and moving, though never quite the same as that first time in Oaxaca, as tourists often flock there. I try to go where and when there are fewer tourists, and always go alone or with only one or two others at most, trying not to interfere.

Now I know some of the people who visit those graves, and a few who are in them.

The year after my good friend, Ebarista, died I visited her family in Ihuatzio. I took photos as my doll “daughters,” Alejandra and Luisa, “helped” decorate the ofrendas (wooden structures decorated with flowers) that would adorn Ebarista’s grave.

That night I went to her grave before the family arrived. (It turns out they don’t go until well after midnight.) I stood alone in front of her grave and thought about how much I loved her, and remembered some lovely times we had had together. It seemed like she was almost there with me.

A couple of days later, I went back during the day as the family had a goodbye party around the grave, saying farewell to Ebarista for that year. Then they gave us fruit and bread that had been on the gave. 

This is my friend, Graciela, Ebarista’s daughter.

I also love to visit the cemeteries on the days before, when people are decorating, and on the days following Day of the Dead.  Tzintzuntzan is one of my favorite places to go. The graves are covered in flowers, candles, creative structures and figures, and things the dead loved to eat, or drink or smoke during their lives.

You can see some Purépeche ruins in the background.

Seeing people’s pictures on the graves is very moving, especially when they are babies’ or children’s.

Children are very much a part of things. Death is not hidden from them, but becomes a part of life.

One of the things I love about Day of the Dead in Pátzcuaro and nearby, is the combination of humor, love, and reverence. You can buy one of these sugar skulls, and get someone’s name written on it in icing. When you give it to them, they can “eat their own death”.

There is a bakery in Morelia, the nearby city, where they display skeleton figures they have sculpted from bread dough and baked. There is an occasional nativity scene, or some people at the cemetery, but there is also a lot of humor. The man scratching his head is the owner, the sculptor’s father. The figures are maybe three inches tall.

Another way that people honor their loved ones is by creating altars. Of all the altars I’ve ever seen, my favorite is in Pátzcuaro, in the home of my friend, Gloria.

Graciela, Ebarista’s daughter, introduced me to Gloria in 2014. Gloria’s family is close friends with Ebarista’s. You can see Ebarista’s husband, who died in 2013, in the middle of the altar, under the Virgin of Guadalupe. Ebarista is to the left.

The focus of the room, the altar, was lovely. Friends came and went, sitting in chairs around the front of the room, having warm fruit punch and sweet breads. Gloria was happy for me to take pictures of Alejandra and Luisa all around the room. It was a warm and welcoming atmosphere, as well as reverent and loving.

The surprise was in the rest of the room. It turns out that the dad liked to go to the cantinas to drink with his friends! The whole rest of the room was set up like a cantina.

Each paper mache skeleton is the representation of an actual deceased friend of the father. The woman in the picture, Ana Maria, is their creator. You can see her putting Alejandra up next to Ebarista’s picture so I could take a photo. The skeleton in the entry hall is Ebarista making tortillas.

Each year the theme is different. One year Alejandra and Luisa wore skeleton masks.

Last year they wore Covid Masks.

The Day of the Dead in Pátzcuaro is so many things. There are flowers everywhere, in the streets for sale, in the Plaza Grande, and in the cemeteries.

Day of the Dead brings death closer and yet not so scary. It is something that can be talked about, even laughed about. There is time to mourn, to remember and to appreciate those who have gone before us and to better accept that we, too, will die. For me, it is the most beautiful of all the traditions I know in Mexico.

I make an altar each year now, and there are more people to remember each year. Here is my altar from 2020. I look at these people I loved; I light candles and, although I don’t actually believe in an afterlife, I feel them near me.

“Alejandra” wrote a bi-lingual book, with photos by me, about Day of the Dead in Pátzcuaro:

Thank you, John Johnson, for encouraging me to look at my pictures again, think about Day of the Dead, and write about it.

Margaret Tilden (Mago) September 2021 yellowkayak@me.com

Remembering Beatrice Lagos

Beatrice Lagos 1931 – 2019

Our literary community lost an accomplished poet, memoirist, and novelist, and one of the most important bilingual poets writing in California. Beatriz Lagos was born in Argentina during the years of successive military dictatorships. She moved to Petaluma in 1976, and lived here till her death on September 5, 2019. She was a Professor of Spanish Literature and Argentine Literature and History, who taught at Santa Rosa JC and Sonoma State University.

Beatriz was devoted to the literary community, giving readings throughout the county, helping with the Bilingual Poetry on the Bus Program, Petaluma Poetry Walk, and Art after Dark Evenings; organizing and emceeing the Poetry of Remembrance Community Reading; and coordinating the Poem in Your Pocket events for National Poetry Month. For her extraordinary passion and talent, she was twice nominated for Sonoma County Poet Laureate. But less widely known are Beatriz’s publications and work as a literary ambassador beyond our local community. In the years I came to know Beatriz, she spoke with great pleasure about living in Spain from 1990-1997, where her “House of the Poets” in Hita became a mecca for visiting poets from all over the world. She was proud to have been invited by The World Congress of Poets to attend the congresses in San Francisco, Madrid, Florence, and Greece with Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Nicanor Parra, and many others. You may know her two collections in English, The Great Petaluma Mill and Love and Wine Poems (both now out of print), but she also published three historical novels, her memoirs, and six collections of poetry in Spain and Mexico. In 2009, AACHE published Beatriz´s Selected Poems in English and her Poemas Selectos en español. —Terry Ehret (This remembrance first appeared in Sonoma County Literary Update, October 2019.)

Sonoma County Poet Laureate (2020-2022) Phyllis Meshulam and student poet Daniel Orozco at Poetry of Remembrance/Poesía del Recuerdo in the Connie Mahoney Reading Room at Santa Rosa Junior College Library, Petaluma Campus, 2019

Sonoma County Poet Laureate Emerita Terry Ehret at Poetry of Remembrance/Poesía del Recuerdo in the Connie Mahoney Reading Room at Santa Rosa Junior College Library, Petaluma Campus, 2019

Jabez Churchill at Poetry of Remembrance/Poesía del Recuerdo in the Connie Mahoney Reading Room at Santa Rosa Junior College Library, Petaluma Campus, 2019

Forrest Gander at Poetry of Remembrance/Poesía del Recuerdo in the Connie Mahoney Reading Room at Santa Rosa Junior College Library, Petaluma Campus, 2019

Irma Vega Bijou beside her altars at Poetry of Remembrance/Poesía del Recuerdo in the Connie Mahoney Reading Room at Santa Rosa Junior College Library, Petaluma Campus, 2019

MÉXICO LEVANTA LA OFRENDA DE MUERTOS “UNA FLOR PARA CADA ALMA” [2020]

DEDICADA A LAS MÁS DE 91 MIL 700 PERSONAS QUE HAN MUERTO POR COVID EN ESTA TIERRA AZTECA

Veinte pueblos indígenas mexicanos honraron en el patio central, de Palacio Nacional, a los muertos por COVID, dentro de la celebración de origen prehispánico del Día de Muertos.

“Los pueblos indígenas están vivos y mantienen sus valores culturales y espirituales, que representan la riqueza y la abundancia: la vida al nacer, al recorrer y morir”, afirmó la representante del pueblo mazateco de Oaxaca.

En esta ofrenda se colocaron altares tradicionales y se dio inicio a tres días de luto nacional, dedicados a recordar a quienes han perdido la vida a causa de la pandemia de COVID-19.

La ofrenda se centró en pueblos representativos de las cuatro regiones del país: oriente y costa del Golfo de México, norte y centro-norte, occidente y sur, y sur sureste. Además, se colocaron tapetes de aserrín y un altar donde convergen los elementos tradicionales de los altares: cempasúchil, maíz y ceras.

Este domingo 1 de noviembre, a las 18:00 horas, se llevará a cabo el encendido de velas en patio central de Palacio Nacional, así como una ceremonia del pueblo nahua de Puebla. Mientras que para el lunes 2 de noviembre, a las 12:00 horas, tendrá lugar la ceremonia tradicional wixárika.

Información y fotografía Secretaría de Cultura.

–CONTRIBUTED BY EVELYN ARON, CUERNAVACA, MEXICO

I have been in Mexico for many Day of the Dead celebrations. The first was in Oaxaca in 2006, the rest in Pátzcuaro, Michoacan where I have been living much of the time since then.

The first, in Oaxaca, was especially lovely. That year they were having troubles with the teacher’s unions and the plaza was filled with police. There were almost no tourists in town. On the night of Nov. 1, I went with a group of about 6 or so ex-pats to a cemetery in small village nearby. I was told that usually there were busloads of tourists pretty much invading the place with their cameras, sometimes even strobe lights. This time we were the only outsiders.

In the cemetery there was a grave of an American who had died there. Our small group decorated the grave with marigolds and spoke a bit about him. I did not know him. Then I wandered off by myself among the graves and the people. The graveyard was filled with candles, the graves ornately decorated with flowers, mostly marigolds. Relatives were gathered around the graves, visiting with each other, talking about their love ones, and waiting for their return visit later that night in the wee hours of the morning of November 2.

I was able to ask a few people about their loved ones. Their responses were friendly. It felt warm and gentle and spiritual. I fell in love with Day of the Dead!

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