Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dia de los Santos

Last year I spent the night of October 31 sitting at the window of my rented room on the outskirts of town, watching as orange pinpricks of candlelight multiplied in the far-off darkness of the municipal cemetery. Curious. I painted a face onto a squash, wondering with muted hope what significance those pinpricks might have for us. Self-congratulatory as I was at the preparations I'd made for that little squash, I felt an acute emptiness where Halloween should have been. And by Halloween, I mean, my friends and family.

The next day I headed off to a nearby city with my mother-in-law, to pay respects at her husband's tomb. That was when I understood more clearly what Dia de los Santos really is about. Not everyone - perhaps not even a majority - strictly believes that their loved ones' spirits return to the earth around midnight on November 1. Even so, in the majority of Guatemalan towns relatives still visit their loved ones' tombs, decorating with flowers and wreaths, leaving candles and trinkets. Some hire bands to serenade their loved ones' tombs. Others bring offerings of alcohol and food, while street vendors dedicate themselves to feeding the living. It's pretty much a carnival in the cemetery.

In the weeks before the celebration, the rain more or less stops, and children go out in full force every afternoon to lift their kites on the fall winds, inviting the spirits of their ancestors to return to Earth for a brief and sacred window of time.

In my town almost everyone decorates and spends the night of October 31 accompanying their relatives' tombs, staying until 7 or 8 am on the 1st. By mid-day the place is deserted. Maybe folks figure that by then the ancestors either will have made it back, or given up trying. It's also darn tiring accompanying the dead all night.

Last year I didn't go. My host family is Adventist, and they don't believe in spirits. You bury your loved ones, you miss them awhile, and that's it. The leftover bones aren't important. The important part was the reconciling your loved ones did while alive. And no quantity of cut flowers on a tomb will do anything for anyone's soul at that point. Or so they say.

(Oddly enough, Adventist children still fly kites. I guess it's not completely lost on them that some rituals are secretly just for the living.)

This year I did go to our local cemetery in the night - invited by a good friend, whose father insists grandpa and grandma be serenaded yearly with the traditional Mayan music they so loved. At 3 am I pulled myself out of bed, and by the time we got to her great-grandparents' tomb, the trio of hired musicians had already been playing 3 hours, a little bonfire keeping them warm in our tucked-away corner of the cemetery.

Words cannot describe the eternal feeling of those moments, the music and smoke and candlelight weaving us all into some enormous tapestry whose existence I've never doubted, even when I could not touch or feel or see it. Although that night, let me tell you, it was palpable.

At 7 am, on the heels of daybreak, they served hot tamales and tea to everyone assembled, and later on I traveled to that same nearby city, to help arrange flowers once again on my father-in-law's family tomb, to revel in the massive crowds gathered in observance of a common denominator.

I'm not sure why, but I adore Dia de los Santos in Guatemala. I adore the communal ritual of the cemetery, the flowers, the street food. Maybe it's because it serves as a reminder that while it's true we're alone in death, we needn't be alone beforehand.

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