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Dancing with La Muerta

It’s hard to believe the concrete chaos of Mexico City was once a large system of lakes and canals. At Xochimilco, it’s possible to get a taste of what things once were. Trajineras, boats reminiscent of Venetian gondolas, line the docks, waiting to take tourists out to see the floating gardens that lounge throughout the canal system.

Lara, Anita, Emma and I arrived too late to get a daylight view of the gardens, but we did have time to wander around and watch tourist-packed trajineras drift in to the embarcaderos (docks). We were there for something slightly different.

Performance artist Klaudia Vidal had arranged to take two of the trajineras out for a nighttime performance commemorating Dia de Los Muertos. We listened to the musicians play Son Jarocho music dockside for a while and then boarded a pair of trajineras that had been lashed together. Klaudia and the band took up most of one boat while the audience watched from the other.

The boatman used a long pole to propel us through the blackness while Klaudia and the musicians gave a frenzied performance. ¡Qué increíble! My Spanish sucks (i.e. I’m limited to present and present-progressive tenses and have a vocabulary of a few hundred words), but I was able to glean that La Muerta was warning us life is short and to make sure we enjoy it while we can. It was a wonderful mix of music, poetry and performance art.

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Dia de Los Muertos

Scene at San Gregorio Cemetery near Mexico City

“Only against death does man cry out in vain.” 
— Malcolm Lowry

Anita seemed perplexed.

Lara, Emma and I were all standing in the middle of San Gregorio Cemetery with tears streaming down our cheeks. It was all so beautiful. So sad. So poignant.

We were surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexican families who had flocked to the cemetery on Nov. 1 to remember the dead. Mariachis played. Candles flickered. A glowing orange snowfall of marigold petals covered everything. Incense drifted through the air, kindling pungent memories of my altar boy days at St. Anselm Catholic church.

It had taken us three tedious hours to reach this graveyard on the southern edge of Mexico City. The traffic was insane. Everyone was out celebrating the dead. I wondered if we should just give up and turn back. I’m glad we didn’t.

I’d been playing hide and seek with the dead since we landed in Mexico City. Every time I saw a stunningly cool post card, I thought of my recently departed friend Barb Page. If only I could send her one more card, one more random reminder that I was thinking of her.

The frenzied subsonic celebrations of Aztec drummers and dancers near the Zocalo conjured memories of Phil Pollard, who I was shocked to learn had died suddenly while we were in Mexico. Phil was one of those defining personalities of our years in Knoxville, keeping the beat for Sara Schwabe’s Yankee Jass Band and numerous other musical endeavors, including his eclectic, electrifying Band of Humans.

“We’re all having a little funeral in our souls right now, too,” Knoxville’s Matt Morelock wrote on his Facebook page after Phil died. “He’d reject the mourning and admonish us to celebrate and get off the damned computer and do somethin’ freaky! I think it’s our duty now. I’m going skinny dipping in broad daylight.”

Yes. Exactly. Mexico City was my skinny dipping in broad daylight. The flamboyant colors. The persistent DayGlo presence of the deceased. No time for a funereal remembrance of things past. This was a rave.

The entire trip had somehow seemed fated. Lara and I discussed it jokingly over a few glasses of wine several months ago. We realized it had been a long time since we took a vacation. We should do something, anything, to get away.

Another trip to Jamaica? Not quite right.

“How about Mexico City?’ I asked. Our friend Anita and her daughter, Emma, had recently moved there, so we’d visit with an insider’s perspective. And Dia de los Muertos was coming. We’ve collected Latin American art for a long time, including a fair amount of works celebrating the Day of the Dead. But we’d never actually visited during the holiday itself.

The next morning, when the wine had worn off, the idea hadn’t. We cleared the dates with Anita, booked the trip and were on our way. Looking back, I realize it was inevitable. Irresistible.

Standing in San Gregorio Cemetery, watching Mexicans embrace death in the flickering light as something familiar and unavoidable, the tears came. Not mournful tears. Sweet tears spiced with the memory of lives lived fully.

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Monster cars in Mexico City

Monster Cars in Mexico CityAt first I thought it was my imagination. Too much Day of the Dead. A car swirling around El Ángel on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma had a distinctly dead look.

Then another one. A VW Bug this time.

And another.

As a guide explained the significance of this angel erected to commemorate Mexico’s War of Independence, a pack of Monster Cars roared through the roundabout with reckless abandon. And they were gone.

I was still pondering the odd vision of those ghostly autos later as we walked up Paseo de la Reforma. After walking several blocks, we came upon them, idling at the curb, honking, hooting, bringing traffic to a rubbernecking standstill. What an amazing, random Mexico City moment.

Sadly, the photos just don’t do it justice.