Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Original Villages | Tláhuac: San Andrés Mixquic - Preparing for Day of the Dead in a Rural Pueblo

The Delegacion (Borough) de Tláhuac, in the southeast of Mexico City has lain at the outer limits of our range of Ambles. Finally, in June of this year, we made it to one of its seven original pueblos, San Pedro Tláhuac, for its annual patron saint fiesta honoring St. Peter. The new Line 12 of the Metro ends there, so although it is a rather long trip, it is quite doable. The taxi driver who took us back from the church to the Metro station at the end of our visit told us it was no problema to drive to the other pueblos, further south and east of San Pedro, although it would take some time because of traffic on the narrow, two-lane roads.

Delegaciones of Mexico City
Delegación Tláhuac is the chocolate brown area in the southeast.

Coyoacán, our base, is the purple in the middle.

Seeking a Traditional Day of the Dead

Our next opportunity to visit Tláhuac was presented at the end of October, with the approach of  Día de Muertos, Day of the Dead, celebrated on November 1 and 2, All Saints Day and All Souls Day on the Catholic calendar. We had read multiple times that the Pueblo San Andrés Mixquic (Meesh-Keek), at the far southeast corner of the delegación, bordering the State of Mexico, held the most traditionally authentic celebration of Día de Muertos, so we very much wanted to get to Mixquic to experience its interpretation of this day. We did not know whether we had the energy to be up to the challenge of the distance and time involved in traveling there, as well as mastering the "unknown-ness" of this "outer borough", to which many chilangos, residents of Mexico City, particularly those of the central boroughs, won't go.

Pueblos and Barrios of Delegación Tláhuac

San Andrés Mixquic lies in the southeastern corner,
surrounded on three sides by the State of Mexico.
It is marked by blue/red star.

In Coyoacán, where we live, and other delegaciones more toward Centro, in the north of the City, Día de Muertos is more one of artistic displays on the theme of Death and the party atmosphere of a U.S. Halloween. Now there is even a gigantic parade in Centro, actually initiated in 2015 by the James Bond movie, Spectre, which features such a parade that had never really been held before. Now it has become an annual event, drawing millions of onlookers. It is a clear mixture of Mexican Day of the Dead imagery with U.S. Halloween and the gigantic figures and floats of the Macy´s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Having lived in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, and experienced Day of the Dead in the indigenous Purépecha pueblos around Lake Pátzcuaro, with their quiet seriousness and simple but mystical beauty of the candle lit, cempasuchil (marigold) covered tombs in the panteones (cemeteries), these celebrations in Mexico City, while visually interesting, are not our idea of authentic tradition.

So the end of this October, having made it into the middle of Tláhuac in June, we decided to undertake the trip to Mixquic for Day of the Dead. However, because it was beyond the limits of our previous Ambles and its reputation for "strangeness" from the point of view of the rest of the City, our attendant anxiety led us to decide to visit on October 31, one day before Day of the Dead. We thought it would be a good idea to check out how much of a challenge it would be to get to Mixquic and to familiarize ourself with the layout of the pueblo. We would then return on November 1 or 2 to witness the festival.

The Way to Mixquic

The taxi ride from Coyoacán to Culhuacán, in Iztapalapa, is relatively short and now very familiar from our several visits there—the latest for a parade that took place just a few weeks earlier. From there the Metro trip to Tláhuac is twenty minutes or so. Exiting at the Tláhuac station, we walk down the stairs from the elevated platform to a taxi stand. Somewhat nervously, we tell the young lady dispatching the taxis that we want to go to Mixquic. Matter-of-factly, she informs us that they offer a choice: either a metered ride via the road through the other pueblos, or the more round about but faster trip via "Las Lagunas" for a flat rate of 120 pesos, about US$6.00. The taxi driver we met in June had also told us that this back way to Mixquic was faster, so we choose it.

Entering the Ancient World of Lakes and Chinampas

Getting into the front taxi in line, the driver takes us through the streets of tiny San Pedro and soon we are in a different, rural world of fields. These are the ancient chinampas of Lake Chalco, man-made fields created in the lake, like those in neighboring Xochimilco. Then, suddenly, we are on a narrow road lined only by a row of trees. Beyond them, on both sides, we can glimps a lake. I realize it is what remains of Lake Chalco, the only surviving lake of the five that originally filled the center of what the indigenous peoples called the Valley of Anahuac! We are on the Tláhuac-Chalco Causeway. (See map of the delegación above. The causeway is the gray, east-west line across the lake.)

These are Las Lagunas spoken of by the taxi dispatcher. Stunned, we ask the driver if he could stop so we could take a photo. Reluctantly, he agrees. Since there is no berm to pull over onto, stopping blocks the road. We jump out, take the photo and climb back into the cab as the driver of the jitney bus behind us is already blowing its horn. These ubiquitous, local route, gray and green jitney buses stop for no one except for passengers getting on or off.

The Tláhuac-Chalco Causeway.
A jitney bus can be seen ahead of us.
Lake Chalco, looking north

As we travel along, we take photos out of the side windows, and even through the front windshield—not exactly the best of photographic conditions, but the only one possible, given our restrictions traveling through this amazing landscape. The experience is much more one of being in the original indigenous lacustrine world of the Valley of Anahuac than when we are on the canals of Xochimilco, with their tourist-filled trajineras (flat-bottomed boats), as fun and enchanting as that can be.

At some point on the causeway, we cross the invisible political line between the City of Mexico and the State of Mexico, but there is no change in the world around us. Soon we reach the end of the causeway. Turning south, we travel along a narrow dirt road through more chinampas, which now are large fields, full of vegetable crops and criss-crossed with irrigation canals fed by the lake. The driver tells us that because of the lake waters, crops can be grown year-round. In much of Mexico, even though the climate is mild, only one crop can be grown each year, since the crop relies on water that falls during the rainy season from May through September. 

Dirt road from Lake Chalco to Mixquic,
taking us from the State of Mexico, back into Mexico City.

Field of cabbage and other crops.

Canals feed the fields with water.

Volcano in the distance is Teuhtli (Teh-OOT-lee),
which lies at the intersection of the Delegaciones of
Xochimilco, Tláhuac and Milpa Alta.
(See lower left quadrant of delegación map above;
Teuhtli is marked by a green icon.

As we pass a small pond, another remnant of Lake Chalco,
the driver tells us we are entering Mixquic.


Entering Pueblo Mixquicwe find it hard to believe we are in Mexico City. We feel like we are back in one of the indigenous Purépecha pueblos of Michoacán. It is a simple, rural village of small, one and two story, cinder-block buildings. 

The driver soon stops at the intersection of two narrow streets and tells us this is the farthest he can take us towards the Church and panteón of San Andrés, since the street to our left is closed for the fiesta. To the right, he points down a short block and says that the center of town is at the other end, where we can find a taxi-stand to get a ride back to the Metro. That relieves one of our anxieties: how will we get back home from this place that is so enchanting but so culturally distant from our familiar world in modern Mexico City?

Preparing for Day of the Dead

Walking up the street towards where the driver says we will find the church, we soon reach an open-air tianguis (street market). It is clear that preparations for Day of the Dead are underway.

Calle Independencia,
street leading to the Church of San Andrés,
is closed to traffic for the fiesta,
announced by colorful papel picado,
designs cut from papel china, tissue paper.
(See our post:
Fiestas as Creative Acts of Cultural Transformation and Continuity
for a description of the many standard components
of traditional fiestas, such as papel picado.)

Campesinas, women farmers, with wheelbarrows full of cempasuchil,
the native marigolds essential to Day of the Dead.
We feel like we are back in Tzurumútaro, the Purépecha pueblo near our house,
on the outskirts of Pátzcuaro, Michoacán.

There can never be too much cempasuchil for Day of the Dead.
We remember in Tzurumútaro seeing trucks full of its blossoms

While we are adjusting our camera setting in order to try to photograph a campesina selling cempasuchil from under a tarp that shades her from the sun, we hear a voice behind us laughingly say, "Nunca sonríen." "They never smile." Turning around, we see three women, leaning on a railing at the top of a few steps leading into a building. They are laughing in an amable (amiable, kind) manner at our photographic effort. We acknowledge the truth of what they have said, "¡Sí, nunca sonríen!"). 

With this exchange, they ask us the usual questions about why we are here, taking photos. We tell them about Paseos por la Ciudad de México, Mexico City Ambles, and give each of them our card, which presents our activity as a more professional one than mere tourism and shows the seriousness with which we take our endeavor to get to know and share with our audience Mexico City's original pueblos.

Duly impressed, they invite us into the building, which turns out to be the Library and Museum of Mixquic. We had read about this local museum, which displays pre-hispanic artifacts found in the pueblo. Since it was on our list of places to see, we climb the few steps, thank them profusely and enter. 

Mixquic´s Past Unearthed

In the entrance is an
Estrella por los difuntos,
a star to light the way
for the spirits of the dead
to find their way back to Mixquic.
It is a unique Mixquic tradition.

The Library is on the first floor of the modest, modern building. At the rear, a person is giving a slide show about the Day of the Dead to a small audience. A sign points upstairs to the Museum, where we head. At the rear end of the space is an array of several large, glass display cases containing stone sculptures from the pre-conquest indigenous civilization, all found here in Mixquic.

Chalchiuhtlicue (Chal-chee-ut-LEE-quay)
"Lady of the Precious Green Jade Skirt."
Goddess of running water and springs, rivers and lakes,
who brings fertility to crops.
Wife of Tlaloc, God of All Waters.

The first piece in the display,
she speaks to the centrality of the waters
of Lake Chalco (jade green), to the people of Mixquic.

Tlaloc, God of All Waters,
One of the primary gods of indigenous peoples
of the Valley of Mexico,
identifiable by his large, circular eyes.

often related to themes of water.
Signs indicate that all the objects are from the period
between 1200 and 1500 CE. 

The tiny museo del sitio, musem displaying objects from the immediate area, piques our interest in the history of the original settlement of Mixquic. It was most likely founded around the 11th century by people who migrated here from Xochimilco, like those who settled the island of Cuitláhuac (San Pedro Tláhuac). At the time, Mixquic was also a small island in Lake Chalco, around which the inhabitants created chinampas. (Wikipedia)

Old Belltower and a Patio Full of Indigenous History

Leaving the museum, we continue on up the street and quickly encounter an aged stone church steeple, standing all by itself, but embedded in an equally old wall. 

Bell tower of the original Church of San Andrés.
The church was built by Augustian Friars
Jorge de Avila and Geronimo de San Esteban,
between 1536 and 1563.
For some reason, the original church was destroyed
and a new one, which still stands, was constructed in 1600.

The wall encloses the patio of the original convent or monastery. Entering, we find we are in a courtyard nicely landscaped in traditional Spanish/Moorish (Islamic) style, with a central fountain and boxwood hedges. But different from most convent patios, it prominently displays several obviously ancient stone sculptures. Like those in the museum, all were found at this site, the teocalli, house of the god of the pre-Conquest people of Mixquic. The Augustians replaced the indigenous temple with their church and convent, another act of the Spiritual Conquest, whose trail we have been following for the past year and a half.

Mictlāntēcutli, Lord of Mictlan,
the Underworld of the Dead,
We think it noteworthy that he occupies the center of the courtyard,
while a Christian cross stands to one side.

Figure now called a Chac-mool (Mayan),
related to human sacrifice.

Stone scoring ring from a sacred ball court,
The piece of sloping wall behind it reminds us of the sloped walls of such courts,
designed to ricochet the ball.

The ball game, ubiquitous throughout Mesoamerica,
was not played for fun (although bets were evidently laid),
but rather was a symbolic battle between
the forces of life and death.
The losers were likely sacrificed. 

We leave the courtyard sobered by the dominant theme of Death that reinforces the fact that we are visiting during preparations for Day of the Dead, an indigenous tradition married to the Catholic All Saints and All Souls Days. Here in Mixquic, the indigenous origins certainly predominate!

Church and Panteón of San Andrés Mixquic

A few steps beyond the courtyard and the original bell tower, we come to the entrance to the atrio (atrium) of the Church of San Andrés.

The large atrio serves as the panteón, cemetery, for the parish.
This was the traditonal use of atrios until the period of the Reform (1855-72),
when the liberal government of Benito Juárez
declared that all cemeteries should be secular and placed outside the city for health reasons.
The panteón of San Andrés was one of the few that survived this revolution in cultural practice.

Parish Church of San Andrés Mixquic

We guess that the red temporary fencing
is placed to guide visitors in and out of the atrio
during the Day (and night) of the Dead

Inside, we are awed by the ornate gold-guilt Baroque altar and ceiling.
evidently from a restoration done in the 18th century.
We have not seen this style of elaborate ceiling before.
A statue of San Andrés, the Apostle St. Andrew,
stands in the center of the retablo (reredos).

The priest is giving a talk to a few parishioners. 

A side altar. dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe,
is almost as ornate as the main altar.
And this is the church of a small, rural pueblo!

In the Panteón, Decoration of the Tombs Has Begun


Life and Death in Mixquic

After walking alongside the tombs, tired, we go to sit down on the low wall enclosing the panteón, near the door to the church. A señor, older man, is also sitting on the wall, looking rather somber. Not knowing whether he will want to talk with us, we give the usual greeting, "Buenas tardes." "Good afternoon." He immediately responds in kind, as all Mexicans do, following la courtesia, the standard, expected show of courtesy.

Mixquic caballero, gentleman

We should not have been surprised, given Mexican amabilidad, amiability, consideration, but he immediately engages us in conversation, with the usual questions as to why we are here in Mixquic and where we are from. We reply and share our card. He then tells us he is a life-long resident of Mixquic, which he says, is still a farming community, with over 60% of its people involved in farming. The continued existence of Lake Chalco makes this possible. 

He also clarifies a matter about which we were unsure regarding Day of the Dead in Mixquic. The main decoration of the tombs takes place on November 2, and the alumbrada, lighting of candles, in the panteón happens that night at 8:00PM. In Pátzcuaro, candles are lit on November 1 to assure the safe arrival of the spirits of the deceased. In Mixquic the candles are lit at the end of All Souls Day, the night of November 2 when the spirits depart once again for Mictlan. Pátzcuaro's ceremony thus marks the arrival of the spirits, and Mixquic´s ceremony marks their departure.

Standing up, the gentleman excuses himself by explaining that a friend has recently died, and the funeral procession is approaching. We are a bit taken aback by this rather abrupt but totally normal entrance of Death into our day.

Funeral procession, accompanied by a mariachi band, arrives at the church door.
The mariachis sing a most appropriate, melancholy song of departure.

Un abrazo fuerte,
A strong embrace.
"Te doy pésame."
"I give you my condolences."
El luto,

Every Day is Day of the Dead

A priest, dressed in the purple robes of mourning, comes to the church door, blesses the coffin and the people attending it, and the funeral entourage enters the church. We do not follow, but remain sitting on the panteón wall, in the company of the tombs. We wonder whether we will have the energy to return to Mixquic in two days. It has been a long trip for un viejo, an old man, one who knows that death is the ever closer final event in his own life. Today is day of the dead for the person just carried into the church and for his family and friends.

Two days later, November 2nd, we find ourselves still tired out from our trip to Mixquic. We regret that we will not get to see the decorating of the tombs. We know that we would not be able to stay until 8PM for the alumbrada; it would be too late for us to make the trip back to our bed in Coyoacán. We would have to have found a hotel or posada (inn) where we could stay the night.

So, ojalá que sí, God willing that it may be possible, we may return next year. One thing is certain: Day of the Dead will continue to be honored in Mixquic.
Here is a link to a video of the flower-covered tombs on November 2, posted on the Facebook page of San Andrés Mixquic

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