When a person you know dies, a part of you must go too, like a thread being cut and a part of yourself unraveling. We are a weave of such threads, we two-leggeds, and our knits are a biochemical, emotional, electrical and microbial gestalt. We interweave with each other in ways that are seen and unseen, forming a fabric that we call, for lack of precision, "community."
We have been spending some winter months in recent years in a small village on the North coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. When we first arrived it was a not atypical coastal town with dirt streets and thatched or tin roofs. It is secure within one of Mexico's largest nature preserves, and it is here because the village pre-existed the reserve, so it was allowed to remain as long as it behaved, and then even when it didn't. Development has been very cruel to this region in recent years, has made it socially, economically and ecologically more fragile, and has set it up for a big fall in the not very distant future.
We are much more comfortable wintering here than in the cold north, in Tennessee, or in touristy trendy spots like Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas or Playa del Carmen. Here we can find the quiet time we need to gather and sort our lost or jumbled thoughts, recover from our summer labors and travels and prepare for the work to come. We have written 5 books here and substantially contributed to at least twice that many more.
Before there was Cancún or the state of Quintana Roo, this had been just one more fishing village — a few hundred souls. It was known mainly for the quality of its hammocks and the beautiful seashells that washed up on its beaches. Because of its position along Cabo Catoche and the Straits of Cuba, it receives annual migrations of fish, birds, sea turtles and marine mammals and the biodiversity runs deep. The name of a nearby town is the Mayan word for manatee. The name for this place in Mayan is "black hole," a reference perhaps to the freshwater Yalahau cenote that for more than five centuries attracted whalers, pirates and explorers to refill their water casks. Among the older family lines you can recognize Russian, Nordic, Moorish, Maori and Portuguese lineages in facial hair, skin complexion, physical build and other features that are neither Yucatec nor Mestizo.
Here, where it is so full of life, is a strange place to think of death, but there come times when everyone needs to. Mexico has very different customs regarding death than its neighboring countries to the North. As Octavio Paz wrote in Labyrinth of Solitude:
"The Mexican ... is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony."
When Hernan Cortes conquered the region that is now Mexico City, his conquistadors noticed a local ritual of making offerings to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen regnant of Mictlan, the underworld, ruling over the afterlife. In the Aztec codices, Mictecacihuatl is represented with a defleshed body, jaw agape to swallow the stars during the day. Cortes' priests were quick to link the Aztec rituals to the Catholic observances of All Hallows Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, just as they brilliantly connected the dark-skinned indigenous Madonna, the Virgin of Guadalupe, to the corn goddess, Chicomecoatl. Unlike the masses for the dead celebrated elsewhere, however, Dia de los Muertos is a happy occasion, with a carnivalesque atmosphere.
For the south of Mexico and in rural areas, death holds far greater social and cultural significance than in the north and large cities; families and communities may spend large parts of the year in smaller rituals and processions and it is not uncommon to find an altar in every home with images of the departed. The pre-Columbian concept of life and death was as part of a broader, never-ending cycle of existence, which dovetailed neatly with Christian and Asian traditions of veneration of the deceased, afterlife and reincarnation. In places and periods where unnatural death is a regular feature, as it was in much of Turtle Island after European contact and for 500 years, death becomes engrained as a cultural expression. As the artist Diego Rivera said in 1920: "If you look around my studio, you will see Deaths everywhere, Deaths of every size and color."
Our neighbor across the way on Calle Gonzalo Guerrero is Capitán Carmelo, a fisherman and whale shark diving guide. He is part of an old family in the town and an "abuelo" now, with grandchildren in their teens. A day ago his wife, Maria Coral de Sabatini, died and today the community laid her to rest. We are going to spend a few moments now describing that process, because it has a lot to say about the power of community, how it is built, how it is held, and how it passes between generations.
We started noticing Maria's cough a few years ago. She sort of shrugged it off, sitting as she did in her chair in front of her home every day, but we couldn't help but notice as it became deeper, more throaty and more painful. We suspected that because she and Carmelo neither drink nor smoke and neither does anyone else in their house, that it was not likely lung cancer but more probably tuberculosis. Her family simply called it las garras (the claws, or what we might call the grip). When we returned last year it had gotten so severe that she had lost a lot of weight and could not sit outside on dusty days. When we returned this year she was gone. We asked after her and Carmelo said she was in the hospital.
Then on Christmas she returned home. We asked her about her health and she said she lived day to day, “poca a poca,” little by little. We understood her to be dying. She had come to do that at home, among friends.
The knowledge that a person will die, combined with the uncertainty of not knowing when the event will happen, can be very stressful for family members and we witnessed this as the family drew together over the holidays. Then she seemed to recover, was up and about, and we were happy to see her walking to the corner store for eggs or fruit again, frail but smiling. The family dispersed again, the kids back to school, Carmelo and his son-in-law to fish each morning before sunrise.
A few days ago Maria's condition worsened and the family was pulled back together. Then one morning she suffered an arrest and the paramedics were summoned, followed by the police with the village pickup truck that doubles as an ambulance. We watched from our home and after an hour or so, the medics and police left and soon the village priest arrived.
Maria was given last rites by the priest and anointed with holy oil. If she was able, the priest heard her final confession, provided communion and offered absolution. Then began the vigil.
The vigil was attended mostly by immediate family, close neighbors and friends and lasted a day and a night, until Maria passed, peacefully, in her sleep. In the morning the family closed off the street and erected a tent. Chairs were brought and placed in a circle. A white coffin arrived, and Maria was bathed, dressed, and placed in it, on a pedestal in the front room of her home. For the next 24 hours, everyone who knew her came to pay their respects and say goodbye. They filed into the home and then out to the tent, where they sat, told stories, ate, sang. Musicians — different ones, separately and in groups — came with instruments, some several times. Choirs appeared and serenaded. Prayers were recited. Children came and sat with their elders or wandered in to stare at the body in the open coffin. Candles were lit. Elders were helped in, touched her, held her hand, said a prayer and were helped back out to the street. More candles were lit. More hymns, more prayers.
The wake continued through the night. A heavy rain fell, the heaviest of the winter so far. The songs got louder to drown the rain. Because Carmelo and Maria were teetotalers, there was no alcohol. This was a time for friends and family members to share memories of the past, to speak of their concerns for their own families, the village, the future. It is a moment when the fabric of the tribe is being woven. Lost threads are recovered. Wrongs are forgiven. Apologies are made. Expressions of friendship, kinship and love patch tears in the fabric. The children witness it all. This is part of their formative experience.
Maria was royalty. She bears the family name of José María Sabatini, for whom the annual fishing tournament is named. Her family, and the family of Carmelo, go back to the group that endured the great hurricane that swept away the original village on the Southwest point of the peninsula and made new islands there. They migrated their ejido southeast and built the village that is here now. There are a few names that appear most often in the cemetery that mark these families: Moguel, Ancona, Betancort, Avila, Nuñez, Rosado, Coral, Sabatini. Notice that these are not Mayan names and some are also not Spanish.
At sunrise a pickup truck fords the deep puddles and backs up to the house. The coffin and flowers are raised into the truck bed and the procession of mourners follows it at a walking pace to the church. There the coffin is unloaded, brought to the front of the nave and opened for viewing again. It is 8 am. Now the village gathers.
Capitan Carmelo is a vicar in the church and normally it would be his duty to prepare the way, usher the family to seats, read part of the scripture, and make the collection. Instead, he takes his position in the front row with his family while his fellow deacons, dressed in white, perform those functions. A choir forms at the vestry door and sings energetically at various points in the service. Loudspeakers in the nave make their small number seem larger than it is, but they sing in a style that is definitely homespun and authentic, not canned.
|The cement angel motions the dead to hush up and sleep|
After communion, the pallbearers return to stand beside the coffin and Carmelo leans in to plant one last kiss on Maria before the lid comes down. It is a touching moment.
Then the coffin and flowers are carried back onto the bed of the pickup, which gets stuck turning around in the mud, and once unstuck, the long procession passes slowly through town and out to the cemetery in a light rain.
In Mexico it is said the dead return on certain days of the year. Those days they are remembered through special ceremonies. The body must be buried, not cremated, for their return to occur. Because we are on the sandy coast, the cemetery consists of aboveground vaults, cemented and tiled to protect from the sea. During Hurricane Wilma, the entire cemetery, and the town, went a meter or more under the waves and although the cemetery wall had to be repaired, relatively few of the vaults were badly damaged. Maria's family names, Coral and Sabatini, are on several of headstones.
Afterward, the mourners gather back in our street for a meal and reception. This is a time for levity, good food, and comforting those who are still dealing with their grief. Then, after two or more days awake, the family gets to sleep a short while and Maria Coral de Sabatini is gone but not forgotten.
The tent remains for the next 8 days, and each day there are visitors. Twice each day the front room of the house is filled with voices raised in hymn and the recitation of the rosary. On the final day, it is an all-night ceremony.
The cemetery is particularly poignant because this is a town that is built on the coral sand of a barrier island. The highest point of land is no more than 3 meters above the sea. Wetlands approach the edge of the cemetery and trash is being dumped there to fill the sinkholes. Some of that trash includes old monuments and broken crypts of the departed whose names have been forgotten, the marks on their stones and crosses rubbed out by time and salt air.
It might be denied by the government or wishful thinkers, but this is an entire town on death watch. The vigil begins every June, when it enters hurricane season, because one more Wilma could erase everything but the memories. Already regular tides that coincide with the moon are bringing seawater inland to places it has not reached in the memory of the elders. Many seawalls that were constructed after Wilma are now nearly obsolete. The population here continues to grow on the strength of tourism and Catholic fecundity, but where it will go when the town vanishes is anyone's guess. It is likely that many of these families could break apart. This is a community of place.
How long does it have? That's anyone's guess too. It could be a decade. Maybe two. Three seems unlikely, because both the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico are warming dramatically and molecular thermal expansion of the water, combined with the westerly currents at this latitude which dictate that sea level rise here will be stronger and faster than most other parts of the Earth. Southeastern Mexico, Galveston, New Orleans and Miami are on the front lines of climate change. Miami Beach, like here, has been sinking one inch each year, one foot every 12 years, and that is accelerating.
Some here believe that some supernatural event will spare this place its preordained fate. Denial is common among our kind of sapient apes and faith in the supernatural — angels, aliens, and economists — exposes our deeper fear of overdue reckonings. Still, not even the most hopeful provisions of The Paris Agreement can alter the fate of coastal cities and low islands now.
In the not-too-distant future the only way to visit Maria will be with a mask and snorkel. Unless the government decides to relocate everything, an unlikely prospect, she will still be here, and probably alongside Carmelo, when the rest of us have moved to higher ground.