Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Eternal Gardens: Hoctún, Yucatan

This November second I drove to the Yucatan from Quintana Roo looking for observances of Dia de los Muertos.  I headed to Izamal, the site of the famed  Franciscan monastery of San Antonio de Padua which in colonial times had been "the Vatican of the Yucatan".   That day nothing much was going on in Izamal because,  as someone explained,  November 3 is the big celebration there due to the fact that during the usual Dias de los Muertos (November 1-2), everyone  makes the hour-long trip to Merida, the Yucatan's capital, where celebrations are typically elaborate.

Having previously read that the cemetery in nearby Hoctún, a town whose roots go back to 1722 is unique, I drove the 23.3 kilometers anticipating graves festooned with flowers and perhaps food, as is typical throughout Mexico during this holiday. I did not find these, but did find something very different and very beautiful. The cemetery dates back to the mid-19th century.

(Please note that all photos will enlarge when clicked)

Entrance to Cemetery, Hoctún, Yucatan

Cemetery, Hoctún, Yucatan
Cemetery, Hoctún Yucatan

Cemetery, Hoctún, Yucatan

Grave Painters, Hoctún Yucatan

In the Hoctún cemetery flowers are painted on the graves themselves and the paintings are done by a group of professional artists in the community.  One explained to me that a family will send them to the cemetery with specific instructions on what they want painted on a family member's tomb. This happens throughout the year and not only on Dia de los Muertos and their working on that day had nothing specific to do with the holiday.  

Some of the tombs are small

and some large enough to contain the remains of an entire family

But all are beautiful and suffused with spirituality of the place

Tombstone, Hoctún Yucatan
The translation of the tombstone is roughly this:  
"Daddy you are in a a very special place where you can look after us from the beautiful blue sky, many times we feel you around us and know that you didn't die only are just sleeping and wake with God always alive in our hearts."

Hoctún, Yucatan

Hoctún, Yucatan

Hoctún, Yucatan
In Hoctún the main Dia de los Muertos celebration is the Mass that takes place in the cemetery at 5 p.m.  At this time when dusk is settling-in, I am sure that it is a candle-lit and moving observance of the Dia de los Muertos.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dia de los Muertos: Hospitality for the Dead

Dia de los Muertos Altar;  San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, MX
(click to enlarge photos)

Mexican altars for Dia de los Muertos range from the very simple to to the elaborate. Yet, they all share a single purpose: offering hospitality to the dead and including them, for a brief period of time in the world of the living as not just memories but really present.  This unique outlook on death forms a sharp contrast to attitudes to the dead outside of the Latin American world where the dead are remembered with respect and their memories treasured, but where the prospect of the dead actually being present makes people uncomfortable. 

For the Days of the Dead, November 1 (children) and 2 (adults) in Mexico everything is done to entice the dead back to their former homes on earth and a big part of the effort is food.The living strive to throw a great party for the dead with the things that they used to enjoy eating and drinking in life.

Altar at Los Arcos Restaurant, Izamal, MX

The altars, altares in Spanish, regardless of how elaborate they may be are all just tables as can be seen in the photos below; we tend to lose sight of the fact that all altars in all religions are  tables meant to serve sacrifices to the gods.  The altars for Dia de los Muertos serve food that the living sacrifice for the comfort of the dead, who although they are not gods, are the honorees of these days. In fact, in the language of the Yucatec Maya, the name for Dia de los Muertos, is Hanal Pixam which translates in Spanish as Comida de las Animas, or food for the souls.

Small Table Altar, Izamal, MX

Decorative for Dia de los Muertos in form of a table altar, Playa del Carmen, MX

The observance of Dia de los Muertos varies throughout Mexico from the very traditional as documented in my video shot in Chamula Chiapas  to more typical observations of the holiday as seen in this video from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas  Over the years, the Oct. 31st celebration of Halloween has come to be included in the holiday.


In each area of Mexico, the holiday takes on characteristics of the specific locale. These palm-leaf covered palapa altars are typical in the Yucatan, where the palapa is a basic unit of architecture.  The altars are placed within the palapa rather than being out in the open air.  The one below is from the cemetery in Playa del Carmen in the state of Quintana Roo, which is located in the eastern part of the Yucatan peninsula.

Playa del Carmen, MX
Each year a traditional altar like the one in the photo above is built in Playa's cemetery and is the only one there.  

Dia de los Muertos altar inside the above palapa

Palapa altar for Dia de los Muertos, Cozumel, MX

Yet, among all of the different twists on observing the Days of the Dead, usually Oct. 31-Nov. 2,  and in some places such as the traditional Mayan communities of Quintana Roo for the week following Nov.1, there is one thing they share in common: food. Dead souls are believed to enjoy food and drink as much as the living, although they partake of it in a different way, through inhaling its essence.  In fact, Hanal Pixam, the Yucatec Maya name for Dias de los Muertos, translates as Comida de las Animas or food of the souls.

In mid-October throughout Mexico begin offering the special foods associated with the holiday. One is  pan de muertos, bread of the dead, and these are sold throughout Mexico.

Pan de Muertos

If you look closely you can see the cut-out pieces of dough that resemble bones.
Along these lines, other foods typically seen during this holiday are skull-shaped
candies made of sugar. Sugar skulls, inscribed with the names of the deceased on the forehead, are often eaten by a relative or friend.

Sugar Skull, Playa del Carmen, MX

Sugar Skulls, Playa del Carmen, MX

Various sorts of other sweets are put on the altars for the enjoyment of the deceased, such as the preserved pumpkins seen in the photo below.

Preserved pumpkins in Playa del Carmen store

The dead have to be properly enticed back to the world of the living or they may not show up.  Engaging the dead person's  sense of smell is critical in guiding them back to the world of the living and in assuring that they will come to the altars to partake of the feasts offered.  Copal incense is burned in containers and sweet-smelling wood is put out as well to help them find their way.

Coal incense in Playa del Carmen store

Items for Dia de los Muertos in Playa del Carmen, MX

By far, the most unique food for Dia de los Muertos comes from the Yucatan and is know as  pibes or mucbil pollo.  This is a kind of tamale that is wrapped in banana leaves and roasted underground, the domain of the dead. I was told that the delicious-smelling steam coming from the hot food is what entices the dead.  

Pibes on altar in Restaurante Los Arcos, Izamal, Yucatan, MX

But, the good news is that you don't have to wait until you are dead to enjoy pibes.  Although it is placed on altars as an offering, as on the above altar from Izamal, it is a delicious food for the living and happens to be one of my favorite Yucatan foods. Personally, I look forward to Dia de los Muertos for my annual helping.

Pibes from Restaurante Los Arcos, Izamal, Yucatan

Not only food, but alcohol is included on altars as offerings to the dead (and the living).
In Chiapas, for instance, it is customary that the living drink the very high-proof local alcohol called pox, (pronounced "posh") that is also offered to the dead and it is an insult to refuse a glass of pox.

Beer for Day of the Dead in grocery store, Playa del Carmen, MX

Altar, Chiapas

The result is a party-like atmosphere in the graveyard, a place most of us would see as
a solemn venue.  Not, the case in Mexico, where the dead are welcomed with music, joy, food and drink.

Dia de los Muertos, San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

  The result is a party-like celebration in the grave-yard, a place that most of us would see as a very solemn venue.  Not the case in Mexico, where the dead are welcomed with music, joy and of course, food.  In some places the holiday is observed in a more sedate way, as it was in this lovely celebration in the cemetery of Playa de Carmen, MX this year.  There, I was fortunate enough to be invited into a family plot by the family's gracious matriarch who had a group of musicians serenade the tombs of two of her children.  The peace the celebration gave to her and the rest of her family was evident; everyone in the family, living and dead, was together again. 

Dia de los Muertos Celebration, Playa de Carmen, MX

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dia de los Muertos: Two Videos

Romerillo, Chiapas

If you have not already seen these videos take a look.  Both are of rarely-filmed celebrations of Dia de los Muertos in small Mayan communities in Chiapas.   Here are the links to them:

I hope that you enjoy them.  I shortly will be writing about the celebration of Dia de los Muertos in the Yucatan.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Chimayó: "The Lourdes of America"

Chapel of the Lord of Esquipulas, Chimayó NM

 New Mexico's  license plates proclaim bear the slogan "Land of Enchantment" and this is an apt description of the state in so many ways;  the land itself is beautiful and the culture is suffused with spirituality of both indigenous and Christian.  New Mexico has unique churches with religious art that is not like anything you will see anywhere else.  Among these is the Shrine of Chimayó with it's Chapel of the Lord of Esquipulas tucked back in the hills about 28 miles outside of Santa Fe.  It is a very peaceful, quiet, meditative place but it is also sometimes called the "Lourdes of North America" after the France's famous healing center because it is also a place where many come seeking miraculous healing. 

Chimayó is among the top eight Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites in North America
and receives about 300,000 visitors a year; during Holy Week Chimayó is visited by some 30,000 pilgrims.  In 1970 Chimayó was declared a National HIstoric Landmark.
(Please note that all photos can be enlarged by clicking on them).

Chapel of the Lord of Esquipulas, Chimayó, New Mexico

The Chimayó complex spreads over several acres and includes meditation gardens, two chapels  and  an outdoor altar for masses.  The chapel shown in the photograph 
is the heart of the shrine.  Originally, it was a private chapel built between 1813-1816 by Bernardo Abeyta, a leader of the Penitentes, a group of devout laymen devoted to the Passion of Christ and to helping their communities.  The Penitentes grew up  during the time in New Mexican history when there were few priests in the area, filling the void left by the absence of clergy and keeping the Catholic faith alive for the people.  Abeyta commissioned the now-famous santeros Antonio Molleno, José Aragon and José Rafael Aragon to create the four altar screens (reredos) along the sides of the nave of the chapel. 

Christ of Esquipulas, Chimayó, NM

The photo above show the Christ of Esquipulas for whom the chapel was founded. There are differing stories about the origins of this very important crucifix.  One relates a miraculous finding of this cross by Bernardo Abeyta on Good Friday in 1810 while other sources claim that Abeyta had the santero Antonio Molleno carve it.  Abeyta himself was reported to have had an interest in the worship of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas from Esquipulas, Guatemala, a devotion which is associated with the eating of a fine sand-like clay believed to have healing powers.  Chimayó similarly has "holy dirt" believed by many to have healing powers.  

"Pocito" with Chimayó's Holy Dirt


The chapel is a holy space for those who come there to worship.  Worshippers are surrounded by images of the saints and holy figures that form the center of their spiritual lives. These painted santos and statues (bultos) for them connect heaven and earth and through them there is access to the heavenly realm. The altarpieces  of Chimayó are classic examples of New Mexican santero art executed by masters of the trade. 

 The altars display two different kinds of santos:  flat-painted pictures (retablos) and three-dimensional statues (bultos). Although the santo is not the saint it represents it takes on in its holiness and functions as a kind of go-between the earthly and heavenly realms. 

Main Altar, Chimayó

Historically, It was their relationship with these santos  that gave the people of  New Mexico  a sense of control and security in their perilous environment. They turned to these retablos and bultos  in times of danger or need.  Scholar Thomas J. Steele describes the santos as "the parts of a power system that reached from heaven to earth and controlled hell" and listed 143 saints  prayed to by the New Mexican people. The relationship that people had with their santos was very personal. When a santo answered prayers they were rewarded (a fiesta or new dress for a statue) and when petitions were not fulfilled, a santo might be punished by being turned to face the wall.

 In the above main altar,  clockwise from the top left the symbols are: Cross with the lance and rod with the sponge, a heart and the four wounds (all symbols of Christ's Passion), Franciscan emblem- crossed arms of Christ and St. Francis, crown of thorns and three nails, symbolic representation of Psalm 22,Virgin Mary, grapes, a symbol of Christs' blood, Crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas, two angels, St. John, stalk of wheat symbolizing Bread of Life. You will also notice geometric designs on the sides of the altarpiece.

Entering the chapel the first altarpiece you come to on your left was probably executed 
by the santero José Aragon of Chamisal, NM.   

Altar by José Aragon, Chimayo, NM

The bulto, the carved figure behind the glass at the bottom center is the
 Archangel Raphael. Beginning clockwise to his left:  Archangel Gabriedl, St. Francis of Assisi, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of the Lakes, St. Anthony of Padua and in the middle center is St. Jerome.  At the very top of the altar there is a painting of God the Father, as seen in the photo below.

God the Father, Chimayó, NM

The second altarpiece you come to on the left was probably painted by José Aragon. At its top is an image of the Holy Trinity shown as three men that was very typical of the iconography of the time.  In the row below the top from left to right are Archangel Raphael, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Archangel Michael.  In the second row (left to right) are San Juan Nepomuceno, a large bulto of Jesus Nazareno and St. Joseph with the Christ Child. At bottom left is St. Anthony of Padua painted by Enrique Rendon and at the bottom right is St. Francis of Assisi by Horacio Valdez.

Altar, Chimayó, NM

Bulto of Jesus Nazareno, Chimayó, NM

At the top of this altarpiece is a representation of the Trinity as it is often and uniquely painted in Latin American, as three men.  This way of showing the Trinity had been outlawed by the Church but was nevertheless used throughout colonial Latin America.

Trinity detail at top of altarpiece, Chimayó, NM

Entering the chapel this is the first altarpiece you will see on your right was painted by
Antonio Molleno.  It is topped by the shell design characteristic of this artist.  In the top row from left to right on the top row are St. Dominic, the Cross of Esquipulas, and Our Lady of Sorrows.  I the bottom row are St. Cajetan, a bulto of St. Cajetan by Alex Ortiz and St. Francis Xavier.

Altarpiece, Chimayó, NM

The chapel's final altarpiece, which is the second on your right as you enter was painted by the School of José Rafael Aragon.  At the top there is a dove that represents the Holy Spirit.  In the top row from left to right are St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Joseph with Jesus as a child, St. Gertrude the Great.  In the bottom row, left to right, are St. Rosalie of Palermo, a bulto whose identity can be changed by changing the dress and St. Clare of Assisi.

Altarpiece, Chimayó, NM
Holy Spirit in the for of a Dove, Chimayó, NM

Jesus and the Penitentes:

Contemporary statue of Christ in Penitente Style
The Passion of Christ was the focus of the Penitentes and it is this striking statue of Jesus greets visitors as they enter the chapel.  The statues favored by the Penitentes were characterized by large hands as this statue very clearly displays.  The location of this statue directly after the entrance is more or less a mark of identity of the chapel as a Penitente locale.  This group was often at odds with the Catholic Church and in the latter part of the 19th century, the Church attempted to suppress them but in 1947, they were reconciled with and recognized by the Church.

Santo Entierro, Christ in the Tomb, is not unique to the Penitentes, and is a representation found in almost all Latin American Churches. 
Santo Entierro, Chimayó, NM

However, representations of Santo Entierro in New Mexico are very unique, because they portray Jesus waking up in the tomb.  His arm has moved from it's side and if you look closely, you can see his mouth opening.  This is not found elsewhere in Latin America.

Pocito:  Holy Dirt Room:

Sign inside the Pocito, Chimayô, NM
Inside a room to the side of the main chapel, there is a very small circular pit of sand-like dirt that is said to have healing capacities.  Visitors put quantities of this dirt in paper bags or other containers to put on ailing body parts.

Holy Dirt, Chimayô, NM
The room is quite small and only a few people can fit in at one time.  On the shelves that line the room are objects that pilgrims have brought as gifts.

Inside the Pocito, Chimayô,NM

Santo Niño Chapel:

The Santo Niño chapel is adjacent to the Pocito and it is where people post photos and bring gifts to express gratitude for hearings or hoped-for healings.

Photos of Pilgrims, Chimayó NM

Santo Niño Chapel, Chimayô, NM

Santo Niño de Atocha is a devotion that came from Spain in the 12th century.
Very briefly, there was a child who repeatedly showed up in a prison bringing food and water for the prisoners.  This child had not been sent by the families of the men and the belief came to be that this unknown child was the child Jesus. There is also a legend that there was a statue of Mary with young Jesus and that the child would repeatedly go missing and this was incorporated into the Santo Niño de Atocha legend. 

Santo Niño de Atocha, Chimayó, NM

Small Shrine that contains the Santo Niño in the photo above, Chimayo, NM

Chimayó is a place that is beloved by many, many people. Generally, photography is not permitted, but through an application process it is possible to get permission, as I was able to do recently.  The administration wants to make sure that the photos will be used in a way that respects the beliefs of the faith and treats the shrine with respect.

The Shrine of Chimayó is a beautiful, peaceful place that can be taken on many levels by visitors.  For some it is simply a peaceful, beautiful place, for others, an opportunity to see  important pieces of New Mexican santo art,  for the devout it is a place to pray surrounded by the saints to whom they are devoted and for those needing healing it is a place to come hoping for a miracle.    

There will always be skepticism about miracles, but we need to remember that the place where miracles happen is within people.  As a professor of mine who is also a Catholic priest once said about the Virgin of Guadalupe, the real miracle is what she does for the people who believe in her, for the hope she gives to them.  The same can be said of Chimayó.