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Nite Owl: Noche de Muertos In the Foothills

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The weather has been indecisive since the day I arrived and today is no different. Heavy oversaturated thunderheads lean on the craggy edges of El Mordor: Mexico City. I’m not sure if it’s lightning I see in the corner of my eye, or my espantos arriving uncharacteristically early. Still, no rain today, so far.

We’ve just had tea and trifle at an Indo-English joint in Roma called Brit Majal in honour of my maternal grandparents, but my tea had a strange gardenia quality to it. Gardenia- the signature fragrance of my larger than life paternal grandmother.  As in life, she expects full attention, and waits for no one. I’ve known a lot like her over the years.

Tanya and I are walking back to our apartment, and are recounting the night before spent at an amazing Hallowe’en party thrown by Anal Magazine.  Amazing mostly because it was a legit Hallowe’en party. Costumes, scary stuff, sexy stuff, queer stuff. It was as if the nightlife San Francisco’s yesteryear had been crammed into the Auditorio Blackberry for one night. At any rate, we’re both a little cruda, but I know she’s feeling it more.   We pick up provisions along the way home: an unreal pan de muerto rammed full of nata from Pastelería Suiza and booze. In a few hours we, along with our company of chums, will be ascending the forested crags that rim Mexico City to spend this Noche de Muertos in the mountain town of San Andrés Mixquic.

I feel like the weather in November here is reflective of the holiday. The greening rains ebb and soon the dry cold of winter will be here, sealed in by the smog, unhindered by Tlaloc ‘til late spring. There’s supposed to be a downpour later, which sounds nightmarishly like Poltergeist in cemeteries that are primarily composed of dirt unlike their unsustainably verdant cousins back home. The clouds pass to the north altiplano, however, and by the time we meet at our friend Leslie’s, the air is crisp and pleasant.

Around eight, our driver for the next ten hours, Tanya’s trusted friend and former father-in-law of sorts, Don Jorge, arrives in his taxi and our party is assembled: Tanya, Leslie, our good friend Lalo, myself and two little dogs named Eli and Pepe. A few false starts, last minute provisions, and we are on our way south. My comrades are taking pulls off of Centenario and Victorias, while the well-versed Don Jorge, long since having given up the sauce, instructs me on the proper way to make a perfect cuba for a long taxi ride.

Most of the viaductos and calzadas we transverse are quiet and easy sailing. In addition to being a four day weekend, it’s also the quincena (payday) and a lot of chilangos have made tracks for the beach while foreigners have come in their place, in search of the spiritual enchantment they have heard tale of or seen in the movies (thanks SPECTRE!).

Don Jorge like many taxi drivers likes to chat and laments the effects of Uber, speaks to the structural integrity of various overpasses I ask about, and comments on how built up things have become while little by little the roads get narrower and less lit as we approach the delegation of Xochimilco and the borderlands of the federal district.

As parkways acquiesce to windy roads, Don Jorge require a navigator and I’m entrusted with the map app on Tanya’s phone. I wish I had a Guía Roji, but do my best and dictate our direction in between profuse apologies for my pocho delivery unaided by an already perceptible Bacardi buzz.

As we go through towns on the lee side of the mountains, we pass by dozens of kids dressed as witches, princesses and skeletons, knocking on doors as they have since at least the 25th and will continue to do so well past the 2nd. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, however, Mexican children have employed a far more industrious tack to trick or treating. When, they greet you with the ubiquitous “¡Queremos Haloween!” (Fuck “trick or treat”- “WE WANT HALOWEEN!” is much more to the point) don’t try to beg off with a Carlos V, Bubu Lubu or even an exotic Reese’s. These kids work their biceps every year by pulling in hauls of cold, hard pesos, which if you have ever encountered said currency, is not unlike, in appearance and heft, to carrying around a sack of doubloons. The older ones don’t waste time on knocking on doors, and indeed it isn’t police checkpoints we encounter as we ascend through each town, but ghosts, clowns and skeletons chanting, “QUEREMOS HALOWEEN!!” as we pass through their auto version of limbo and clean up. American children are fat idiots.

As Mixquic get’s closer, so do the bottlenecks become more frequent. We pass through various towns and barrios along the way: San Juan Ixtayopan, San Antonio Tecómitl, Tempantitlamilco- and all along the road each house has a bonfire lit, the families waiting outside, holding vigil with snacks and drinks, all the while watching car load after car load of chilangos and foreigners alike rattle on cobblestones toward Mixquic. The fragrance of the burning wood fills the car as the streets fill with smoke and more kids with toll ribbons, and I breathe in deeply as this is the smell I’ve been waiting for.

We finally arrive at the barricade that stops traffic from getting into San Andres Mixquic proper. We park, gather ourselves and dive into the chaos. The colonial town is exploding at the seams full of nationals, but most strikingly, foreigners, dolled up in the co-opted greasepaint they adore. Thankful we left the pups in the car, we press on, getting squeezed and funneled from one callejón to another before being spewed out on to the main entrance to the panteón and the old convent of San Andrés Apostolo. What is immediately apparent is that the graves are not decorated and there are art installations, musical performances and dramatic lighting all about the church.

San Andrés Apostol

San Andrés Apostol

In Mixquic, November 1st belongs to the youth. The souls of passed children having come and gone from the 31st and the atmosphere is festive and giddy, but unfortunately, also overrun. Like the statue of Morelos on Janitzio in Michoacán, tonight, here, it’s more a party.

We briefly flirt with the idea of taking a trajinera out on the remnant canals of the old Lago de Chalco, but an ominous cloud of mosquitos buzzing with anticipation above the succulent crowd of the drunken living, changes our minds.

Back at the crossroads in San Antonio Tecómitl we regroup over tacos de papa and look at the various art installations in the Plaza de Corregidora. I see a skeleton instructing a class in guitar and think of a friend who passed some years ago, and whose guitar pick I found in my luggage the other day. These little signs and such don’t raise my hairs or have me searching for rational explanations so much anymore, but just take passively now. There are too many things in life my pea brain can’t wrap its head around, and find more enjoyable to wash over me and accept anyway.

I had read somewhere that an alternative to Mixquic is in an outskirt pueblo of Xochimilco called San Gregorio Atlapulco on the other side of the Volcán Teuhtli. We pile in with our blankets, canastas, and dogs and drive on into the night and highway 113 coming in from the State of Morelos. Mini mansions and two-house towns blink in the distance as we ascend through pine trees and chaparral. Slowly we descend and I wonder if the jaguars they say are re-integrating back into central Mexico are out there in the scrub. Maybe they’ll keep the monster, DF, at bay.

After the usual asks for directions, we finally come to the Panteón San Gregorio ablaze with light. Vendors are selling flowers, food and drinks outside the gates and there are vespers being said inside the entramada just inside.

Every grave is decorated in petals of various designs and intricacies and families and friends are cleaning, eating, and drinking. I’m fairly certain that of the several hundred people in the graveyard, we are the only ones not from here.

We organically split apart and walk amongst the rows stopping occasionally and processing as people of today are want to do. By now the alcohol is in full effect and the crummy year and personal loss I’ve encountered wells up so I can bury it out here, in these chinampas I was just at in January. I stupidly call my mother, who reasonably concerned that her son is calling her at midnight in tears, won’t let me go until she gets confirmation from Tanya that I’m just the usual emotional wreck I always am on such occasions. A role not unfamiliar to my old friend, but one that she, thankfully, takes with good humour and patience nonetheless,

As naturally as we split, we gather back together. It’s not all that unusual as that we stick out here rather conspicuously. Lalo has been taking some pictures and Leslie and I search out some cigarettes and commiserate over family stories. We settle in a corner near some unclaimed graves and chat over drinks and cigarettes. Don Jorge, who we have finally convinced to join us, chats with Tanya and says how many years its been since he has done this and how long it’s been since he has thought of those whom have gone.

El Panteón de San Gregorio. Photo by Eduardo X. García

El Panteón de San Gregorio. Photo by Eduardo X. García

In San Francisco, I imagine, the streets are quiet. Like in Mixquic, the main main event is tomorrow. In Mixquic, it will be cleaning graves and lighting candles, in San Francisco, the remnants of an erstwhile Latino neighbourhood will try to commune with the past, while trying to hold onto the present. -both of them trampled by tourists and thrill seekers.

In the years since I was twelve and first realized this holiday existed, it has taken on so many different forms. Originally my nascent interest was met with blank stares and bemusement by a generation that had long since stored such traditions away in Lincoln Heights. With the exception of my grandfather who kept his calacas hanging in a small corner of his garage, the relationship with death had been converted into an American one: quickly dealt with, but with irrevocable long term damage as a result of burying it inside oneself.

I look at the stoic women gazing into the flames surrounding the graves of relations, years or decades gone and think of how different it is compared to the politically and culturally rooted procession and faux panteón in Garfield Square. This evening’s pageantry in Mixquic has more in common with the procession in San Francisco (glut of culture vultures included), and even the Zócalo in Mexico City is crammed with kids in elaborate calavera make-up and impressive audio visuals that would not be unusual in Mexico’s former farthest north port city.

skull rack

A tzompantli in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, México DF.

A colleague recently wrote a well-intentioned advice post on the Day of the Dead. In a suggestion of damage control, she advised the Posada-esque garb of the raza-based processions of years past in lieu of the dead Frito Bandito/waitress at El Torito look, plus some loose facts and figures about the origins of the holiday.

She was summarily eviscerated and assumed white (she is Mexican- American) and read hard for her costume suggestions and lack of accuracy in her facts. To me it was a post written from one Bay Area Latina’s perspective who sees a neighbourhood going down in flames and offered some triage. The criticism on some counts was reminiscent of that all-too-familiar “you’re not Mexican enough” narrative and obnoxious non-Latino moral outrage on the other.  Her facts were off and her costume commentary fell flat, but who among us Mexican-Americans has that not happened to?

In San Pancho this holiday was re-ignited decades ago as a very Bay Area re-exploration of our roots and strengthening our voice through art, replete with painted faces, art installations and a narrative that many Mexican nationals might not recognize. In San Gregorio this would seem completely out of place and almost sacrilegious. In Mixquic not so much. In DF or San Miguel de Allende, definitely not. Like in the U.S., activists have recognized the platform this holiday provides. Whereas it is the eradication of a neighbourhood, visible in so many mellow-harshing protests in SF, it is the eradication of the voices of dissent that might be remembered here on a tzompantli in the centro.

Memorial to the 43.

Memorial to the 43.

Hallowe’en, albeit, in its strangest incarnation, is insanely popular in just about very town here. And, likewise, is the invasion of tourists looking for a cultural release valve or excuse to party- I suppose, the only difference being that some got on a plane and others hopped on the 14-Mission outbound.

It’s now 5 a.m., and the sky is still black. Our buzzes have segued into shivering and we smell like fire. We have saturated our shoes with tears and mud over family, friends and lovers no longer with us and our bodies have fused into crouching positions. The night is far from over and the old woman next to me, who is the last one left in this pueblo that has been consumed by the monster, will greet the dawn here, with the only family she has left.

The wise Don Jorge suggests it’s time, and after some WC stops and quesadillas, that we make the long journey back to the Roma. We pile in and everyone passes out in the back seat. I stay up with Don Jorge as multiple overpasses, all night restaurants and shuttered businesses wiz by. Eli sits in my lap eyes darting into the shadows and street lights, unable to rest like our buddy Pepe snoozing with Lalo. All the way home, as we drive towards the lightening sky, she stares straight ahead, making sure the living get home, while seeing off the dead.

Pocho Pantera y Eli. Photo by Leslie Moody Castro.

Pocho Pantera y Eli. Photo by Leslie Moody Castro.


You can see more work by Eduardo X. García here.

You can follow Leslie Moody Castro here.

And you can follow the further adventures of Tanya and Leslie as they navigate the DF contemporary art scene at  Curated tours also available.


Ex-Convento de San Andres Mixquic y el Panteón
Avenida Indepedencia (@Popocatepetl)
San Andres de Mixquic
Estado de México

El Panteón de San Gregorio Atlapulco
Avenida México Oriente (@ Altavista)
San Gregorio Atlapulco
México, D.F.


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Stephen Torres - Threadbare-Fact Finder (Editor, San Francisco)

Stephen Torres - Threadbare-Fact Finder (Editor, San Francisco)

Stephen's early years were spent in a boxcar overlooking downtown Los Angeles. From there he moved around the state with his family before settling under the warm blanket of smog that covers suburban Southern California. Moving around led to his inability to stay in one place for very long, but San Francisco has been reeling him back in with its siren song since 1999.
By trade he pours booze, but likes to think he can write and does so occasionally for the SF Bay Guardian, Bold Italic and 7x7. He also likes to enjoy time spent in old eateries, bars and businesses that, by most standards, would have been condemned a long time ago.