A few days before the actual Day of the Dead, I picked up my son from his Montessori school and we strolled together down Morelia’s Calzada, a ficus-lined cobblestone pedestrian avenue that stretches from the colonial city’s pink stone aqueduct to San Nicolás, the university where more than two centuries ago Mexico’s revolutionary priest, Father Hidalgo, was teacher to the city’s namesake, José María Morales. As we left his less famous school and strolled towards the aqueduct, my son and I noticed that a crowd was gathering, and to the best of our collective ability, we hurried to find out what Morelia had in store for us this day.
In the months we had roamed our temporary city together, me pregnant and waddling, my son only two and toddling, we had happened upon the sorts of spectacles that made living in Michoacán’s capital just a little bit magical. Since Michoacán was stewing in the heat of Mexico’s escalating drug, this magic helped. A few weeks earlier, we’d watched a crew filming a telenovela, while off-camera cast members dressed as revolutionary soldiers hoisted passing children onto their half-sleeping horses and women in petticoats sat on the old stone benches sending texts. And once, for reasons we never quite discerned, we came upon the Calzada to find it had been carpeted end to end in a mural made entirely of flower petals, grains, dried leaves, and pine needles. Now, on this late October day, we joined the milling crowd and found that the attraction was the girls from the Catholic high school standing still as statues in little sets they had made to represent an old family portrait, or a garden party, a wake or a wedding. The girls in their tableaux were dressed in gowns and veiled hats or cross-dressed in suits, but their faces were painted black and white and ash gray, and on bare arms were painted bones. They were “elegant skeletons”—calaveras de la Catrina, or simply “Catrinas”—like the delicate ceramic figurines of skeletons in media res made in the campo outside Morelia. They were the living, living dead of Mexico.
In time for the Day of the Dead festivities for which Michoacán is famous, my son happened to be just entering the incessant-question stage of toddlerhood
“Who made this?” he asked three hundred times a day.
“Who made this book?”
“Who made this food?”
“Your daddy made your omelet from eggs that a chicken made and calabacitas that a farmer grew in a field from a seed.”
But so far, in situations like this one in which I now found myself, I’d been lucky: 1) who made this was the extent of his interrogative repertoire, and 2) he had not yet learned to ask why.
My son had no idea what a skeleton was. He didn’t even know the word “dead” pertained to anything beyond the grasshoppers he’d left locked in the driver’s seats of toy cars on the roof of our apartment or the desiccated scorpion we’d saved to show him. Death was not yet a bewilderment: it was an all-but blank space in his conception of the world.
This isn’t to say that I minced words when I explained to him the finite mortality of grasshoppers and other victims of his rooftop play.
“He’s dead, honey,” I told my son when he tried to goad his latest, legless victim back into action. Or, when he was served roasted chapulines in lime and chile in a restaurant: “That’s a grasshopper, like the grasshopper you play with on the roof.” And, as he examined the scorpion carcass, “This alacrán is dead. Your daddy squashed it with a shoe so it cannot pinch you with those pincers or sting you with its tail. But remember what it looks like, and if you ever see another one, back away, call a grown-up.”
I would not lie and say they were sleeping, I would not disappear a corpse, and I would not get metaphysical. But the pedagogy of bugs only went so far in Mexico.
Read the rest of this essay (and view slideshow) at its source: http://velamag.com/who-made-this-grave/