Friday, December 2, 2016

A Dia De Los Muertos You Won't Forget: Pomuch, Campeche

Open grave readied for Dia de los Muertos, Pomuch Campeche, MX
If one of the psychological purposes of Dia de los Muertos is to bring you face to face with death, there is no better place to do it than Pomuch.  The event in Pomuch, a small town in the Mexican state of Campeche, lacks the sugar-coating of the gorgeous festivities of Oaxaca's famed celebration, but it is a stark reminder of what will eventually happen to all of us.  The Mexican state of Campeche is on the west coast of the Yucatan peninsula and Pomuch is a small town about 50 minutes outside of San Francisco de Campeche, the state's capital.  The uniqueness of its Dia de los Muertos celebration is rooted in the burial practices of the town.

Burial Practices:

 The claim is made that Pomuch has burial practices that are unique in all the world.  

Sign at gate of Pomuch cemetery, Pomuch Campeche, MX

As in many places in Mexico and elsewhere, Pomuch's cemetery is small and burial space is at a premium.  Bodies are, initially, buried in full-size tombs, as below.

Full-length grave in Pouch's cemetery, Pomuch Campeche MX

They are left there for a minimum of three years until they, hopefully, decompose;  sometimes they do not fully decompose, which is strange to see.  After this process, if the space is needed, the bones are consolidated into a small ossuary and put into a smaller tomb.  Some of these smaller spaces are completely closed-in. 

Closed grave in Pomuch's cemetery, Pomuch Campeche, MX

This type of ossuary burial can be seen in many places in Mexico where space is limited. However in Pomuch there is the unique twist that many tombs are open-fronted so that the bones and sometimes hair of the deceased are in plain view. 

Group of open graves in Pomuch's cemetery, Pomuch, Campeche MX
Cemetery, Pomuch Campeche MX


Open grave, Pomuch, Campeche MZ

Grave with new embroidered cloth for Dia de los Muertos, Pomuch, Campeche MX

Open grave, Pomuch Campeche MX
Once in a while, for various reasons, a body does not fully-decomposed and when it is disinterred looks more like a mummy than a skeleton. A man working in the cemetery told me that this is due to medications that the deceased had been taking at the time of death; I could not verify this.

Incompletely decompsed skeleton, Pomuch, Campeche, MX

Origins of these Practices:

There is nothing written that I have been able to find about Pomuch's burial practices, apart from fairly sketchy tourism pieces on the internet.  These claim that it is a Mayan custom, which seemed somewhat questionable since the people of the most of the small towns in Campeche are largely of Mayan descent and none of them have this practice of open caskets and the below-described "bone washing"  on Dia de los Muertos.  

There is some interesting and, perhaps, relevant information in a very old book by Fr. Diego de Landa, the 17th century grand-inquisitor of the Yucatan who was responsible for the burning of the Yucatec Mayan Codices in Mani.  Perhaps to make amends for his near-annihilation of written Mayan cultural heritage (just two of these books remain), he wrote a book describing various aspects of the Yucatec Mayan culture at the time of the Conquest.  In it he discussed a certain post-mortem practice in which the bones of the skull were cleaned and the cranium kept on display on a kind of altar.  This would seem relevant to the practices observed in Pomuch, but there is no proof that there is a connection between the two customs.  No one in Pomuch seems to how their burial and Dia de los Muertos "bone-washing" evolved.

Celebrating Dia de los Muertos:

The fact that the ossuaries are open and bones visible is not the crux of Dia de los Muertos in Pomuch- these bones are visible all year round and, contrary to mistaken internet reports, the cemetery in Pomuch is open and accessible 365 days a year, according to the keeper of the town's blog.  What makes it Dia de los Muertos is what is done with these bones.

As you can see, bones are laid in an open box lined with an embroidered cloth.  In October, before the days of the holiday, November 1 and 2, the cloths are changed for new ones and the bones themselves are cleaned.  Again, the internet has it wrong, there is no "bone-washing" as is typically claimed in Pomuch, but a careful brushing of bones by family members.

Woman cleaning grandmother's bones in preparation of Dia de los Muertos, Pomuch, Campeche MX

The woman in the photo was brushing-off the bones of her grandmother.  This cleaning is said to be done to preserve the bones.  It is done matter-of-factly with a kind of intimacy.

Apart from bone-brushing, as throughout Mexico, the graves themselves receive special treatment; the exterior painting is freshened, and flowers placed around and inside the tombs. The cloths that line the caskets are changed for new ones.

Grave readied for Dia de los Muertos, Pomuch, Campeche MX

Grave readied for Dia de los Muertos, Pomuch, Campeche, MX


Grave readied for Dia de los Muertos, Pomuch, Campeche, MX

Open grave, readied for Dia de los Muertos, Campeche MZ

A rattle had been touchingly placed in this baby's casket.

Baby's grave, Pomuch, Campeche, MX

As is customary throughout Mexico, candles are also placed on graves, here among the several caskets in the open tomb.

Open grave, Pomuch, Campeche, MX

Relationship with the Dead:

Gate of Pomuch's Cemetery, Pomuch, Campeche

Throughout Mexico, the spirits are believed to return to visit the earthly realm on the Dias de los Muertos, November 1 for children and November 2 for adults.  Although, on the surface, the holiday is the same in Pomuch as in the rest of Mexico, there seems to be a different kind of relationship to the dead.

Man holding grandmother's bones, Pomuch, Campeche, MX

The man in the photo above is holding the bones of his grandmother and for him, these bones are his grandmother.  As a child, he said that when he was upset he would come to the cemetery and talk to her (her bones).  

The man below, holding his grandfather's skull,  mirrored these same sentiments. There was no sense of these bones really being dead; they were a part of a once-living and beloved family member.
Man holding grandfather's skull, Pomuch, Campeche, MX

A very old, fragile woman wearing a traditional loose white embroidered dress was walking through the cemetery surrounded and supported by family members. She, apparently had been a teacher and one of her group cheerfully pointed to a casket of bones saying, " He was one of your students."  This is the outlook of people there and there is not a firm line between living person and dead bone, they are both bear the identity of the person to whom they belonged and this does not stop with death.

The people of Pomuch are not death-obsessed.  The town's blog-keeper with whom I corresponded wrote that the cemetery is typically visited primarily in October prior to Dia de los Muertos and on these holidays.  Yet, for some of them, the dead seem closer, more a part of everyday life, than in other locales.   In Pomuch, the graves are open all year long, not just on Dia de los Muertos, and so, in some way, the dead are always there
not just for an annual visit on November 1 or 2.    

Dia de los Muertos and the Human Psyche:

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday with deep psychological significance, in addition to it's ritual and social meaning.  Collectively it is a way for the dead to remain a part of the community of the living and has historical precedents both within Christianity and indigenous beliefs.  Individually, it also has the purpose of helping individuals face and cope with the idea of death, something that is a 100% sure event for all human beings.

In the typical Dia de los Muertos celebration there are pervasive symbols of death.  Altars are built to honor the dead and people paint themselves to look skeletons.

Halloween Night Celebration, Campeche, MX

But there is great deal of difference between looking at someone painted like a skeleton and looking at a real one.

Skeleton, Pomuch Campeche, MX

The people of Pomuch who choose to have open graves seem very comfortable with the situation and are very matter-of-fact about dealing with the bones of deceased family members.  I asked a few people about their feelings and all of them indicated that they did not see any difference between the bones of a person and the person him or herself.  For the man holding the bones of his grandmother, the bones were his grandmother and everyone questioned answered along the same lines.                                         

Monday, November 21, 2016

Rethinking Thanksgiving


On November 24 of this year millions of people in the US will sit down to the feast of Thanksgiving.  Seemingly there is nothing more all- American than this holiday which has its roots in the Pilgrims' harvest celebration.   Yet, we owe a debt  to Colonial Mexico for this celebration and for the Pilgrims' very survival in their new land.

I wrote about this topic last year, so if you missed it and would like to learn about Colonial Mexico's very serendipitous role in the first Thanksgiving, please click on this link:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Dia de los Muertos Retrospective

Everyone in the US seems to have been more than ready for Halloween for quite a while.  Although Dia de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead, in Mexico and other Latin American countries are technically November 1 and 2, the holiday has extended itself to incorporate Halloween complete with trick or treating the night of October 31.

Market, Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo MX
Halloween Night, San Cristobal de las Casas Chiapas

Dia de los Muertos is one of the most dramatic and beautiful times in Latin America and I am re-posting a number of pieces and videos I have done over the past few years as an opportunity for those who have not seen them to see the poignant beauty of this holiday.

This video that I shot in San Juan Chamula is one of a kind, since videos are not normally permitted in this locale :  A second video shot in the cemetery of Cristobal de las Casas Chiapas shows a typical celebration of the day in the city's Pantéon: A third took place in the magnificent cemetery of Romerillo Chiapas:

Please also take a look at previous posts of this blog:  
November 12, 2013, November 18, 2014, November 27, 2015.
You can easily access them in the blog archive on the Home page.

Personally, I can never get enough of this dramatic holiday and, of course, when I return from Mexico in November will be writing about it, once again.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Chinese Madonna in a Portuguese Colonial Church: Macau

St. Francis Church in Macau was built in the early 20th century in the baroque style typical of Portuguese Colonial architecture. Macau, on the southern coast of China was a Portuguese possession from the mid-16th century until 1999 when it was turned over to China, It still maintains characteristics of its Iberian heritage but is very Chinese, as well.  In the main city of Macau, there are other colonial-era churches, including St. Dominic's whose construction, completed in 1587, was overseen by three Dominicans from Acapulco, Mexico. At that time there was still a strong connection between the Spanish kingdoms and that of Portugal.  

Words like "quirky" have been used in tourist materials to describe this small church located in a small fishing village on the south coast of Macau and its' interior is not what one would expect from the polished Baroque exterior.  Instead of the elaborate altar-pieces typical of Iberian colonial churches, the altars are hand-painted in a way that is local and reveals the profound devotion of the place.

(Please note that all photos enlarge when clicked).

Nave and Front Altar, St. Francis Church, Coloane Macau

Side Altar, St. Francis Church, Coloane Macau

Side Altar, St. Francis Church, Coloane Macua

St. Francis Church is small but very classic in it's design with a choir loft running the width of the church.  The staircase and back door are quite decorative being painted the bright  yellow and green that are primary colors of the Portuguese flag, as well as having significance within Chinese culture.  In this cultural context, yellow is considered the most beautiful and prestigious color and is the center of everything.  It also signifies good luck, as well as having been the emperor's color in Imperial China. In Buddhism, yellow signifies freedom from worldly cares. Red symbolizes good fortune and joy and green is associated with harmony and health.  Certainly all of these elements go into the prevalent use of these colors here in St. Francis at Coloane and in other Macau churches.

Choir Loft and Nave rear, St. Francis Church, Coloane Macau

Church rear interior door, St. Francis Church, Coloane Macau

A small room adjacent to the church is filled with photos and images of importance to the congregation.

Room adjacent to Church,  St. Francis, Coloane Macau

Among these is a unique Madonna and Child that is quite unlike anything seen anywhere else.  Although the subject matter is Christian, the iconography links this Madonna to the larger Buddhist cultural context.  Researchers have said that the Chinese Mary is often connected, in worshippers minds, to the Chinese bodhisattva Guanyin. Bodhisattvas, in Mahayana Buddhism, are people who have achieved spiritual perfection and could get off the wheel of reincarnation, but go on to choose to remain on earth to save others.  In effect, they are gods and goddesses and the term goddess is often used with Guanyin.  In fact, Guanyin is the beloved Goddess of Mercy of China and other south-east Asian lands both within the Buddhist tradition and Taoism, which considers her an Immortal. 

Madonna and Child, St. Francis Church, Coloane Macau

The Guanyin below, is from  the Shuanglin Monastery in Quiatou Village near Pingyao, China.  The monastery itself dates from before the 6th century and the figures in it are very old and fragile, which is why they are protected by bars.  Guanyin, here, is seated but like the Virgin floats in the celestial realm and wears a flowing scarf, that is typical of her iconography, as well as that of other divine Buddhist figures.

Guanyin, Shuanglin Temple, Quiaton Village, China

 The three Arhats below, guardians of the Buddhist faith, also wear the flowing scarves worn by many divine figures in Chinese Buddhism.

Arhats, Huayan Monastery, Datong China
Virgin Mary, throughout the colonial world, was a figure who, in different ways, became associated with local older dieties in the process of evangelization and adaptation.  Mexico's Guadalupe was fused with indigenous elements as were the Peruvian Virgins of the Andes, who bore a connection to sacred mountains. In the Macau church, we see a Mary connected with an earlier Buddhist goddess who was and still is at the heart of peoples' worship.







Monday, August 8, 2016

Video of Holy Wednesday in Nandaime, Nicaragua

Holy Wednesday, Nandaime Nicaragua
Holy Wednesday, Nandaime, Nicaragua
On Wednesday of Holy Week in Nandaime, a small town outside of Granada Nicaragua, an ancient Lenten penitential ritual is, more or less, stood on its head and turned into a half-hour of fun, controlled chaos.  It begins and ends with the sounding of church bells and despite appearances, is a religious event. Experience this lively and fascinating celebration in my video:


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Ruta Dominica (Dominican Route) of Oaxaca: San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula

San Pedro y San Pablo, Teposcolula Oaxaca

This is the third post in a series about the grand 16 th century Dominican Monasteries of Oaxaca's Mixteca Alta, the mountainous area lying to the northwest of Oaxaca City.  The other two that have been covered are San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca (June 8, 2016) and San Juan Yanhuitlan (May 20, 2013).  The car ride to the area is fairly long (11/2 to 2 hours), but the mountainous scenery along the route is striking and the trip can be done in one day.  

The Dominicans arrived in Teposculala from Yanhuitlan in 1538 introducing industries which led to a rapid development of the area, although after 1576 there was a decline in the area due to, among other things, an large epidemic among the indigenous inhabitants.

Monastery Plan:


All monasteries in the New world followed the same basic plan.  Each was located on a large plot of land surrounded by a wall, the atrium, which typically had a cross in the middle of it. Until a monastery's buildings were built, religious services were held in open air in the atrium; the indigenous peoples were accustomed to outdoor worship.

Teposcolula: Atrial Cross

Teposcolula, Wall enclosing Atrium

Open Chapel:

In all new world monasteries, the first structure to go up was the open chapel, built to  evangelize the indigenous peoples who did not have a concept of indoor worship. Scholars believe that open chapels were intentionally built to evoke the prehispanic teocalli, the ancient temples built on top of pyramids, found in prehispanic Mesoamerican cultures. 

 The Teposcolula open chapel, dedicated to John the Baptist, is considered one of the masterpieces of Colonial Spanish architecture.  Likely, modeled on the one in the monastery in Coixtliahuaca,  it was built on a grand scale with a second story and all of it, including its Gothic star vault, has been restored.

Teposcolula, Open Chapel

Teposcolula, Open Chapel

Teposcolula, Open Chapel Dome
Teposcolula, Open Chapel Dome

Teposcolula, Open Chapel altar

Teposcolula, Open Chapel, showing upper story

              The Church:

Teposcolula, Church Façade

The church was largely rebuilt in the 18th century due to earthquake damage. Although Teposcolula was a Dominican monastery, The façade has representations of both Franciscan and Dominican personages.

Teposcolula Church Façade, Dominican Saint
Teposcolula Church Façade, St. Clare (Franciscan Nun)

The original altar, dating grin 1581 disappeared and was replaced with a neoclassical altarpiece.

Teposcolula, Church Interior

Teposcolula, Front Altarpiece
The church has numerous other side altars in styles ranging from neoclassical to baroque.

Teposcolula, Side Altar

Teposcolula, Side Altar

Teposcolula, Side Altar

Teposcolula, Side Altar

Teposcolula, Side Altar

Teposcolula, Side Altar
The church's organ is located high on a side wall of the church toward the rear, an unusual placement for a church organ.  Conceivably, it could be related to the lofts in the open chapel.

Teposcolula, Church Organ

Teposcolula, Church Interior showing placement of Organ

As in most churches in Oaxaca, there is a characteristic statue of Jesus riding on a donkey, an image derived from Palm Sunday.  

Teposcolula, Church-Image of Jesus on Donkey

In contrast to the ornamental ceiling in the Coixtlahuaca monastery with its ribbed and painted ceiling, Teposcolula's vaulted ceiling is quite plain, as seen below

Teposcolula, Church Ceiling

 Representations of the four Evangelists next to the altar dome are a notable for their style. The indigenous hand in their painting is clear and forms a contrast to the European sophistication of the rest of the architecture and decoration.

Teposcolula, Altar Dome

Teposcolula, Image of San Juan (St. John)


Teposcolula, Image of San Marcos (St. Mark)

The Convento:

The monks' living quarters, the convento, is located adjacent to the church to its right in the photo above, where part of it's entrance can be seen.
Teposcolula church

Teposcolula, Convento Entrance

Teposcolula, Church seen from Convento Courtyard

Teposcolula, Convento Courtyard

Teposcolula, Exterior Passageway and Convento Courtyard

There has been considerable restoration of the convento's interior.  Originally, the interior was ornamentally painted and some of this has been put back into its original condition, which was not the case in Coixtlihuaca.  
Teposcolula, Convento Staircase
Teposcolula, Convento Interior Decorative Painting

Teposcolula, Convento Interior Decorative Painting

Teposcolula, Convento Interior Decorative Painting

The Saint Gertrude Chapel is located in the front of the convento and is said to have been the place where the friars were buried.  

Teposcolula, St. Gertrude Chapel

Tecpan/ Casa de la Cacica:

Built in the 1560's, this casa de la cacica, house of the indigenous nobility, is the most complete one surviving in Oaxaca and is undergoing restoration at the present time. These palaces for indigenous nobility were built on monastery grounds as a part of the evangelization process.  Typically, local nobility would be the first to convert to Christianity and their presence on monastery grounds was an encouragement for their subjects to follow suit and become Christians. 

Teposcolula, Tecpan

Teposcolula, Tecpan with Disc Frieze

The disc frieze on the tecpan is in the pre-hispanic style and what it represents has been a source of speculation; some scholars have suggested that it depicts hallucinogenic datura or morning-glory flowers.  Such flowers are found in indigenous-related artwork throughout Mexico. 

San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula is best visited in conjunction with the monasteries of Yanhuitlan and Coixtlihuaca. Although the three share many architectural features each has a distinct personality and features.  Both Teposcolula and Yanhuitlan have undergone extensive restoration being returned to a pristine state;  Coixtlihuaca has not been restored and retains more of a feeling of authenticity.