Saturday, October 17, 2020

Dia de los Muertos and the Covid 19 Pandemic

                                                        Market selling items for ofrendas, Oaxaca MX
Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican icon.  The official dates are November 1 and 2, although preparations for the holiday begin earlier in October and in some places, there are observances as late as November 4 or 5. Often, influenced by Halloween, on October 31, people costume and parade publicly and children beg for money and candy.  

The holiday is a blend of pre-hispanic and Roman Catholic beliefs and customs.   Dia de los Muertos is a time when the curtain between the worlds of the living and the dead opens and dead relatives can return to spend time with the living loved ones they left behind. This year, Dia de los Muertos will have a special importance, in view Covid-19 pandemic and the huge number of deaths in Mexico,  As of this writing, over 86,000 people have died from the disease in Mexico.                                         

If Mexico ever needed the comfort that Dia de los Muertos can bring to the bereaved, it is now.Yet, there will be many constraints on observance of the holiday and the normal rituals because of the pandemic.

Typically, there are three levels of observance of Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.  In the home, altars (ofrendas) are made for the dead, with the foods enjoyed by the deceased.  There are also more ofrendas in places like businesses, churches and other public venues. 

                                                            Ofrenda, Oaxaca MX

                                                      Decorated Gravesite, Oaxaca MX 

Then, there is the custom of beautifully decorating graves with traditional flowers such as marigolds, foods and candles.  Families gather in cemeteries to decorate the graves and spend time remembering and mourning the deceased. 

Observances in Cemeteries (Pantéons)

 The most beautiful observances of Dia de los Muertos are found in the cemeteries, or pantéons, in Spanish.  Oaxaca is famous for beautiful and moving night-time Dia de los Muertos celebrations.  In these photos, families gathering to grieve together, and spend time with deceased members. These cemeteries have become popular tourist attractions.

Dia de los Muertos, cemetery of Xoxotlan, Oaxaca

Dia de los Muertos, cemetery of Xoxotlan, Oaxaca

                                                         Dia de los Muertos, Oaxaca

Dia de los Muertos, Oaxaca

Oaxaca has officially cancelled all public Dia de los Muertos events. 
This is a tremendous loss to the Oaxaca's tourism as well as its people.  As you can see in the photos, flowers, marigolds in particular, play an important role in decorating for Dia de los Muertos; sales of these flowers are down 50% this year in Mexico.  There is no online information about any virtual activities as there are in other places such as Mexico City.

Will Public Observances of Dia de los Muertos be allowed?

The very thing that makes Dia de los Muertos special, is the gathering of people in cemeteries to spend time with their beloved dead, as in the photos above.  This gathering of people in collective grief, is important to people, but is complicated by the health risks of public gatherings because of the pandemic.

The Mexican government has come up with measures to try and deal with this difficult situation. In many places, cemeteries will simply be locked November 1 and 2 to prevent the traditional gatherings. In Mexico City, the cemeteries will definitely be closed.  By some reports,  authorities have decided is to make decisions about cemeteries closures based on the covid situation from area to area.  Where the pandemic is more under control, cemeteries will be allowed to open with strict health measures in place.  In other places, with a higher active covid case count such as Mexico City cemeteries will remain closed. Since the covid situation in Mexico is fluid, some decisions likely won't be made until closer to the holiday.  If you read Spanish, here is article describing the details:

In some places, time-honored traditions are being adapted to the needs of the pandemic, as in this Dia de los Muertos candy market in Toluca MX.

Mexico City has adapted a number of it's traditional Dia de los Muertos events in inventive ways. One event, its parade, will be purely virtual, but other events will be held but include safety measures like social distancing and reservations.

A contact in Chiapas has told me that most celebrations will be private and that most of the cemeteries will remain closed except in very small towns.

Often, on the holiday,  people being painted  to resemble skeletons (Catarinas).  There is a long tradition of doing this and one Mexican artist who specializes in this activity plans to keep the tradition this year with some modifications.

Virtual Dia de los Muertos:

In view of the pandemic, many areas are creating virtual celebrations, just as they did with Semana Santa events.  

Mexico City plans to do its annual  Dia de los Muertos Procession as a virtual event.

Here is a video of a virtual celebration taking place in the Xochimilco area of Mexico City. tl-dia-de-muertos-de-mexico-se-adapta-a-la-pandemia/

There are two types of altars created for Dia de los Muertos.  There are those that are made within the home for a family and those that are in public spaces.  This year, in Mexico City there will be no public altars around which crowds would be sure to gather, but altars will be virtual. 

I will be adding information about virtual celebrations as it becomes available.

A Look at Traditional Dia de los Muertos:

For a look at traditional Dia de los Muertos celebrations, I invite you to click on this link, which leads to an article showing pre-pandemic celebrations from different areas of Mexico.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Covid19 Update

Covid Case Map as of July 17, 2020 /Mexico News Daily
The Covid-19 epidemic has been difficult to get under control throughout Mexico, although some areas are more hard-hit than others.    Tourist areas such as Quintana Roo's Rivera Maya say they are safe for tourism, with special readiness certification available to businesses. However this area, among others, has just been returned to the highest level of Covid alert (red).

In some locales where tourism is again permitted, authorities are enforcing compliance with safety guidelines. Recently, in San Miguel d'Allende two tourists were arrested and fined for not wearing masks.

There are online resources available to people seriously interested in Mexican travel.
Mexico News Daily is an online daily newspaper that is available for a very low subscription fee and offers detailed information about the covid situation in Mexico.

Another good source is the English language Yucatan Times, which seems to offer a fair perspective on the Covid situation as reflected in the following article-  But, any one periodical does not have the entire story and in contrast to this, is another article about a creative solution to in-person worship.

 Mexico is a wonderful country, but right now travel there is uncertain and definitely at your own risk. The situation there is fluid.  For instance, in the state of Oaxaca, the governor has just asked citizens to undertake a ten day voluntary confinement. In Juchitán in the south of the Oaxaca, there has been a mandatory five day shut-down of businesses which may be extended .   Using online resources to assess the situation on the ground is a good way of watching and waiting until the situation seems improved. It's a good idea to check the US Embassy's website for travel restrictions before booking a flight.


Monday, June 1, 2020

Is It Safe to Go to Mexico? Covid19

Covid-19 Map of Mexico as of 5/27/20

There is so much to see and experience in Mexico, but right now this wonderful country is off-limits for tourism.  Quintana Roo's beautiful Caribbean beaches are empty, markets are shut down, indigenous villages have blocked themselves off from the outside world for self-preservation and many, many other changes.

Akumal, Quintana Roo, MX

Othón P. Blanco, Quintana Roo MX
Crafts from Coba, Quintana Roo

Health-care in Mexico is much more limited than in the US and Western Europe.
In places like Mexico City there are first-rate doctors and medical facilities, but these are limited in number and many hospitals are over-crowded and not able to care for the volume of covid-19 cases they have been seeing. 

The situation is worst in rural areas, where the nearest health-care facility may be many miles away.  Some small communities have taken this situation in hand and, literally, sealed themselves off from the outer world.  This article tells of many small Maya communities in the Mexican states of Campeche have managed the pandemic.

Throughout Mexico, many small communities have sealed themselves off with roadblocks.

Urban centers such as Mexico City have very high rates of the infection and even though first-rate hospitals do exist there, there is not enough quality treatment to go around. 

There are some plans to re-open, at least part of the country.  Here is a brief overview-
There will be a phased re-opening as in the US, with resorts/beach areas among the first to open.  June 8-10 is a target date for the state of Quintana Roo, home to Mexico's Caribbean beaches.  However, this is just a target and it could change with conditions.  The June 8 date is just the beginning of the process of reopening. But on June 8, it will not be business as usual.

When you read Mexico's re-opening plan it is a very cautious one.  Moving from one phase to another will take time.

When you get there, do not expect the free-wheeling Mexico you once knew.  This article lays out opening steps in San Miguel de Allende, a wonderful art-filled colonial city and popular spot for tourists.  San Miguel has done well in the pandemic with low cases and deaths and hopes to keep it that way.  Their timetable for fully opening to tourism show that it will take a while.

The US is not permitting travel for tourism until June 22, so even if some beaches might technically be "open", they are not open for US citizens. This article from Forbes has a clear analysis of the situation-

Even when the country is more fully open, it is best not to rush into a Mexican vacation unless you are the type who can roll with the punches and are not on a strict time table.  The situation is fluid and it's hard to say when there might be a quarantine or something like that imposed.  During the pandemic flights from Mexico to the US have been subject to change and cancellation and you don't want to be delayed if you have important business to return to in the US.  If you have your heart set on visiting Mexico, keep doing your research and you will find guidelines that will make your vacation a great one. 

This blog will publish major milestones in Mexico's re-opening. 

Friday, May 1, 2020

Epidemics in Colonial Mexico

Portrayal of Epidemic Colonial Mexico

Although feels like it, Covid19 is not the first pandemic the world has ever known. Everyone has heard of the Black Death and Spanish Flu of 1917-8, but there were also major epidemics in the New World, far before any of us were born.

Epidemics and Population Collapse in Colonial Mexico

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1619, its population is estimated to have been between 15-30 million.  One hundred years later, in 1620, it was less than two million.  The indigenous population had the Spanish to thank for this huge reduction in population.  The Spanish had superior firepower, but it was the smallpox that they had brought with them that facilitated their conquest of the native peoples.  It is estimated that 5-8 million people died in the smallpox epidemic.

Depiction of Smallpox Epidemic in Colonial Mexico

Smallpox was what is know as a Virgin Soil epidemic, referring to an imported pathogen to which a population has no natural immunity.  The indigenous people were devastated by smallpox, a disease to which the Spanish largely had immunity.  

Depiction of Cocoliztli Epidemic

Smallpox was not the only disease decimating the indigenous population in the early 
years.  A completely new disease appeared seemingly from nowhere mid-16th century. From 1545-76, there were a series of epidemics of a hemorrhagic fever that took 7-17 million lives. This disease was characterized by a high fever, headache and bleeding from the nose. Victims turned yellow from jaundice, and blood ran from their ears and noses. They had hallucinations and agonizing convulsions. They died in days. Aztecs called it the cocoliztli, meaning pestilence in the local Nahuatl language.

Colonial writers mention rodents and rodent-borne disease in relation to this epidemic.  But, a recent DNA study of victims' teeth suggest that a bacteria, salmonella enterica, (not the everyday kind of salmonella that causes food poisoning) may possibly have been the culprit.  

There is no certainty about where this pathogen originated. Some scientists judge it must have sprung up on its own in Mexico because the epidemics began in the highlands, away from the coastal areas with the greatest Spanish presence.  Others suggest that this bacteria was brought by the settlers or their livestock.  It is not possible, as with Smallpox, to absolutely implicate the Spanish in cocoliztli, although the possibility cannot be ruled-out. 

The most devastating years of the Cocoliztli epidemic were 1567-8 when more than two million people died.  The Spanish viceroy was forced to write off taxes and duties which were not possible to collect.  I rather doubt that this type of thing will be a part of the covid19 pandemic.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Video of a Very Mexican Holy Saturday Vigil: Merida, Yucatan

Cristo Resucitado (Resurrected Christ),  Merida MX
Cristo Resucitado (Resurrected Christ), Merida MX
The biblical narrative does not have much to say about what went on inside of Jesus' tomb; by the next morning he simply reappears in his resurrected state,.  In Latin America, much is made over the transition of Jesus from death to resurrected life and there is often a service late Holy Saturday night that celebrates this event.  Here is a link to a video of one such service.  It was shot in Merida MX and what happens in the vigil service will surprise you as much as it did me.

Video of Holy Saturday Procession: San Felipe de Jesus, Antigua, Guatemala

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The Semana Santa processions of Antigua, Guatemala are world-famous and rival those of Seville.  In the progression of Holy Week, by Saturday Jesus has been crucified and his mother and disciples are grieving their loss.  In this Holy Saturday procession, shot on location in Antigua, the focus is on the Virgen de Dolores (Virgin of Sorrows), the grieving Mary, who is clad in the colors of mourning.  Here is a link to the video.

Virtual Semana Santa 2020

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In this time of the Covid19 pandemic, many, if not most,  Latin American Catholic archdioceses have cancelled the traditional processions and activities.  A glance at the internet reveals a multitude of virtual offerings, showing the capacity of spiritual institutions to adapt to the necessities of the times. 

The Church in Merida, Yucatan MX has assembled a phenomenal website with offerings from the cofradias (religious organizations) that normally have processions during Semana Santa. It is comprehensive and, although it is in Spanish, will give you a sense of this unique week.

I came across another comprehensive website offering virtual tours of the churches of Peru.
It's worth a look.