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DAY OF THE DEAD



Top left, Enrique and granddaughter, Aurora; center top, decorated cemetery; top right, Concepcion; lower left, Enrique’s fields; lower right, decorated altar called an ofrenda.


Every year during the month of October my thoughts turn to the profound experience that I had during Day of the Dead honoring in a little Zapotec village outside of Oaxaca, Mexico in 1993. I made a promise to Enrique to tell his story to the world. Once again, here is his story.


During a 10-day Jungian retreat in 1993 titled "Faith and Dreams: The Archetype of Healing", our group was divided into smaller groups of three so that we could participate in an intimate way during Day of the Dead celebrations with families in the village of Macuilxochitl de Artigas Carranza. My group was placed in the household of Enrique and Concepcion for three full days. The experience was so rich that I have thought of them every single Day of the Dead ever since. Memories of the meaningful time spent with this poor-by-Western standards family flooded my mind. I can still see clearly the small-statured Enrique in his dirt-stained worn out blue and white jacket and blue jeans, and Concepcion, dressed with an ochre head wrap, long colorful skirt and blouse. Their smiles, oh I can still see their smiles. And feel their beautiful hearts.


Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, is an indigenous custom that honors deceased loved ones. Preparations begin during the month of October. November 1st, Dia de los Inocentes, is the day for honoring the spirits of the children who have died. November 2nd is a full day of remembrance for all family members who have departed the physical world. During this time when communication is more fluid between the spirit and physical realms, the deceased are welcomed back into the world of the living. It is a time of remembrance, a time of laughter, delicious food and joy.


On the third day of Day of the Dead, we visitors were sent on a long hike with Enrique while the women prepared food in their earthen floored kitchen. Cooking pots sat on top of burning embers in long ago hollowed out ground. Having witnessed, with great laughter, our feeble attempts the day before to grind hard dry ears of corn on a stone metate, I think the women thought it better that we not be in the kitchen. They didn’t need any more bloodied fingers. We didn’t mind being sent on a trek. A beautiful blue-skied chilly day, it was a perfect day to be outdoors.


Enrique talked as we walked his fields. When he was a young boy, first his mother died. Then, his father. The land was to be passed down to him. Unfortunately a greedy uncle denied Enrique’s claim. Eight years old, fleeing his family’s historical land, he traveled to a nearby city where he lived on the streets for several years. At the age of fourteen, Enrique returned to claim rightful ownership of the land and the two bulls without whom he could not till the land. Before running away, he had buried legal documents which he found again easily. Initially a court magistrate stood with his greedy relatives to deny his claim. Enrique persisted until his true ownership was recognized. He next sought to reclaim his two bulls. The uncle told him the bulls had wandered off into the desert and most likely had died. Enrique searched several days and nights to no avail. He did not believe his uncle. Eventually, his aunt took pity on him, told him where the bulls were to be found. Enrique was then able to continue in his family’s tradition of farming.


His heart had been broken by so much loss and betrayal. Nonetheless he prevailed, married Concepcion, had two children who now have their own children. Enrique’s fields appeared lush and green. His crops were healthy and tall. Corn, beans and squash, the traditional indigenous crops, were obviously thriving under his care. The fields next to his were quite the opposite-they were dry with withered corn stalks. Those were the fields of the uncle who had betrayed him. The moral of the story was obvious.


I commented on how many grasshoppers-millions of them-jumped in his cornfields. When asked if he used pesticides to get rid of them, Enrique responded with horror: “Oh no, I could not do that! There’s enough food for all of us. That would hurt the earth.” He went on to state his clear understanding that he and his family are only stewards of the land, that they are to respect, honor and protect the earth. Later, during a visit to a nearby outdoor market, I learned that roasted grasshoppers were eaten like popcorn.


Enrique continued to talk as we looped back towards his home. He took us to the cemetery. It was gaily adorned with brilliant orange, yellow and red marigolds set atop the scrubbed-clean markers. Music blared from boom boxes. People cried, laughed, prayed and danced among the gravestones of their deceased relatives. He cried tears of sadness. Illiterate, Enrique was unable to identify his mother’s memorial marker. Searching, we eventually found her resting place. This brought peace to his sorrowful heart. We moved from the cemetery so that he could show us the church where he had been chosen to be a deacon because of his integrity and devotion.


We learned that his son, a lawyer in Mexico City, had built a modern home for Enrique and Concepcion that included indoor plumbing and tiled floors. This old-ways couple chose to remain in their earthy humble residence. They were accustomed to the outdoor privy and earthen floored kitchen. The dining room in their home was the center of activity during Day of the Dead. The altar was resplendently decorated with candles, special breads, white sugar skulls, candies, nuts, religious icons, burning incense called copal, and photos of departed family members. It was beautiful. Family members tended the altar throughout the day to make certain that their ancestors and departed loved ones felt respected while visiting during this time when the veils between worlds is so thin.


After a most delicious feast of chicken mole, we gathered on low stools in a small room beside the kitchen to review our time together. Enrique asked pointed questions. The one that most stood out for me was this: “Which way is better? Yours or ours?” And then he turned to me with this request: “Have you heard everything that I have had to say? You are to carry my message to other people in the world.”


Of course, I said yes. And so again, for you, dear readers, I share Enrique’s saga of loss, betrayal, determination, integrity, persistence, earth-based values and morals. Rather a timely remembrance, don’t you think?


© Barbara J. Woolley, author, October 31, 2023.

Please share but do so in full and with appropriate acknowledgment. Thank you.







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