” The Mexican … is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favourite toys and his most steadfast love.” — Octavio Paz
There are skulls in the presidential palace. They belong to country’s founding fathers and have been moved here from la Columna de la Independencia, where they usually reside in a mausoleum at the structure’s base, for the last couple of months of the year. It takes me a moment to realise what I’m looking at or, rather, looking into: Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s head is two hundred and fifty-seven years old and its eye sockets are enormous. It is sitting in a mahogany box, which is dark and varnished and behind glass, atop of a couple of other random pieces of the so-called father of the nation’s remains. I think one of the pieces is a femur or something. The wooden box is accompanied by three others. These contain what’s left of the skulls of Ignacio Allende, José María Morelos y Pavón and Juan Aldama. One of them is little more than a skullcap-shaped piece of crown—forgive the pun—and a sliver of lower jaw. Other glass cabinets line the walls, all of them containing perfectly preserved fragments of centuries-old bone. All in all, I figure I am surrounded by the mortal remains of maybe fourteen or fifteen independence leaders and revolutionaries. The base, material nature of these calcium deposits seems to fly in the face of the near-religious veneration of the national icons they once belonged to, proving that these figures were made of the same stuff as the rest of us. Not that I’m thinking about this right now, of course. I’m too busy staring into the holes where somebody’s eyes used to be and now aren’t. People move about around me as though there is nothing unusual about any of this. But then, of course, in Mexico there isn’t. Death, here, is stock-standard stuff: it is familiar, it is everyday, and it is everywhere.
Words by Matthew Clayfield / Photos by Austin Andrews
In Guanajuato, one can visit the Museo de Momia, where the mummified remains of hundreds of people dug up from the local cemetery—including babies—are on display. (The relatives of the cadavers were unable to pay rent on the graves.) We have visited more places where people were killed in this country than we have places where people achieved great things: Trotsky’s study, where he received an ice axe to the head; Hacienda Chinameca, where Zapata was shot; the railway tracks near San Miguel de Allende, where Neal Cassady is said to have died one drunken evening while counting sleepers on his way out of town. (According to local and literary legend, his last words were: “Sixty-four thousand nine-hundred and twenty-eight.”) Death is splashed across the headlines here and not only because of the cartels up north: every local rag sports a weekly lift-out of police stories, with every instance of death from car accident to cardiac arrest depicted in close-up photographic detail. And then there is el Día de los Muertos, the night when families stake out the graves of loved ones whose spirits are said to come back to remember what it felt like to be alive and to live, summoned, like those restless souls in Fantasia‘s famous final sequence, back from the other side.
If this seems at all morbid to certain tastes, it is perhaps worth remembering that taste is cultural. In fact, after a few months in this country, one might be forgiven for feeling that there’s actually something much healthier about the Mexican’s relationship with death—or at least, with certain aspects of it—than there is about the Anglo-American’s. Pretending that death doesn’t exist in order that one might avoid thinking or talking about it merely affords it unwarranted power: that of the taboo. The Mexican, by contrast, refuses to be owned by death, refuses to be consumed by it: rather, he raises himself up to its level, looks it directly in the eye, and, finding he is no longer afraid, is able to do the same with life.