Lamentation in Chiapas
Death in Mexico (to be continued)
I was visiting a friend in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, in the part of Mexico known by Americans when it is known at all as the organizational center of the Zapatista uprising that began in the 1990s, when I attended his cousin’s wake and funeral.
The house of the tía of my friend was a simple two story dwelling with a plain-looking gate in front protecting a small patio and walkway from the street. There were folding and plastic chairs all over in front of the house and alongside it. Perhaps thirty or forty people were there when we arrived. Many were eating and drinking, and as soon as we came in the door, someone had given me a plate of chicken mole and a cup filled with agua fresca. As I tried to begin eating and drinking, I was quickly introduced to a few people in the house as a friend of the deceased’s cousin (as the only obvious gringo there, such an introduction was essentially a necessity), then escorted to a chair in the room adjoining the room wherein lay the deceased man’s body.
A half-dozen curious children came over to see who the tall, pale newcomer was and I showed them my considerable dexterity at flipping and catching coins, a skill that fascinated them. They demanded I continue to do it with cries of "Otra vez!" until finally I managed to teach one of them the skill, and he took over as the center of their attention. I drank a little of my fruit punch while I watched them.
As the coins flipped, I peered around the wall into the front room, in which the cousin, a young man of perhaps 20, rested quietly in his coffin. He looked like he was merely sleeping, his face peaceful and a slight smile on his lips. He seemed to be enjoying the situation: “The joke's on you, you all have to continue living! I'm done with that nonsense!”
My friend had done little to contextualize his death for me, except for one small but powerful descriptive term: he had been involved with the narcotraficantes, had apparently suddenly started making much more money than previously, then just as suddenly turned up stabbed to death.
Women and girls ringed the casket and the wreathes protecting it. Some of the wreathes carried messages. Querido hermano. Que Dios te bendiga. A very slight breeze wafted in through the open window.
The air in the front room was different than the room in which I sat, I realized as I leaned further in. The overpowering smell of flowers, and the heat generated by the concentration of living bodies around the dead one, but not just that. There was a low, barely detectable murmuring from the women, a mixture of whispered prayers and quiet sobbing. And something else. A gravity in the air, a heaviness, something physically present but invisible in the room. Something that I am almost certain could be measured with objective instruments.
I think it was in some sense the residue produced by the heavy despondency and dread felt by every one of the fifteen or so people crowded into that room. That much sadness becomes a physical force detectable even by those who do not feel it internally. It even then becomes something one can directly sense on the skin, such as wind or rain, if it is thick and heavy enough. I began to enter into that sadness, that seriousness as I sat there and the ponderous weight of their emotion pressed down into my body.
Death is not just something that happens to us individually, at some particular time, in some particular place. It is not just the fact that an individual body stops moving, a heart stops beating.
It is in human collectivities a palpable almost physical force that can be detected in the air as surely as one can detect sudden and radical temperature or air pressure changes. It can be felt as a presence even by the not yet dead. It is a visitor that comes uninvited, insists on entering the house although it is not welcome, and which then will not leave until all in the house feel the weight of its malignant, powerful energy. It is sensed physically, as we sense the presence of a person near us in the dark, even if he does not speak and guards his breath, from his body heat and the aura of life around him. There is an aura of death too.
It is present, especially, where death is faced seriously, as it is here. Mexicans are the children of two death-fascinated cultures. Theirs is the anguished, heroic, tragic Spanish Catholicism of Unamuno, the corrida and El Cid and the Carlists, the love of the magic violence of death captured in that amazing photo I once saw of the soldier of the Republic at the exact moment that a fascist bullet killed him—his body jerked into the air by the force of the bullet and captured there forever by the photographer’s art—during that rehearsal for Armageddon the Spanish called their civil war. Beneath that runs another cultural spirit: the pessimistic, nihilist Aztec view of a Heraclitean universe in which nothing endures and which can only be kept in tenuous existence at all by constantly feeding the sun living human hearts newly ripped from human chests, a worldview dominated by the mighty war god Huitzilopochtli who demands of his followers fanatical pursuit of death in war as the only path to a desirable afterlife.
These people around me, it seemed to me as I observed and participated in their mourning, lived death daily, breathed it, swallowed it, looked into its face constantly and unswervingly, recognized its voice and its approach and its manner and accepted it all.
My friend’s mother, a large, sullen woman with dark skin and startlingly green eyes, had arrived a little before us with a little girl, the daughter of one of her own daughters, the latter of whom, my friend relayed to me, was off in one of the large border cities working in the sex industry to make money for the destitute family. I was introduced to the little girl, whose name was Lupe, and we instantly hit it off. She wore a clean pair of jeans and a little black vinyl jacket with a pair of shiny black shoes that were several sizes too big for her. She had that look that children who have slept through a trip sometimes have, sheepish and confused to be where she was, wondering what happened to the place in which she had fallen asleep.
They had just spent about seven hours in a crowded, sweltering bus from their tiny home village somewhere in Oaxaca to the big city of Tuxtla. Lupe had huge brown eyes, very high cheekbones and a smile that sometimes looked like it was too big for her thin little body. In that moment, I wished that this little girl could be spared the tragedy of her mother's life, of her grandmother's life, of the lives of all the women in her family who had been subjected to the whims of fate and of undependable men and of poverty. Her big eyes looked eagerly up into mine and for a second I believed she could read my thoughts.
People continued to crowd into the little house. There were now perhaps 40 or 50 people milling about or sitting in one room or another or in the yard or street out front. Suddenly, from the front room, loud wailing pierced through the low murmur of voices. I looked to see several of the elder female members of the family, minutes ago quietly sitting around the boy, now releasing their anguish with a sound the likes of which I had never heard before in my life.
It is said with some accuracy that certain expressive things are common to all peoples. All people laugh, all people cry, all people shout their anger and frustration. This may be so, but there are ways of doing these things so different as to be almost entirely different activities.
I am convinced that the way in which women cry tells you much about their lives and their capacity to feel. When these women cried, they mourned with intensity. They did not choke back sobs and barely wet their faces with crocodile tears, concerned with decorum and appearance. They ululated, nearly shouting out their cries of anguish. The cries of the women in that house during those few days will be with me forever. Long chains of wails and inarticulate sobs punctuated at the end of the breath with a loud 'Ayyy!' then the drawing of a new breath and another peal of wailing.
I could not help but compare this to the emotional restraint one generally sees on display at a typical middle class American funeral—some crying, to be sure, but everyone under control, no one making too much of a scene or a fuss, some set of well-understood rules seemingly at work to keep behavior in a managed state. These women were completely present in that crying, utterly lacking in any self-consciousness of what others might think of their total emotional release. They wept and wailed horribly as this fearful thing came and lay there in the room with them in the form of this boy they had once known but knew no longer, but they did so as a strange form of greeting, acknowledgement, acquiescence, full not of fear, or not only that, but of the same passionate spirit that animates them in other things too. “We are here with you,” they wanted the dead boy to know, and that message must be delivered with force given his condition. “We cry for your loss, and we cry in your place as you cannot cry any more, poor dear one, you who will never cry again.”
I wish I had been able to record the sound of their lamentation, that I might listen to it from time to time and recall the visceral intensity of that moment of life they gifted me there in the midst of a vigil for a boy who was making his way out of this life and into something the living cannot know.