Last Saturday night, a group of friends and I ventured from the downtown area of Puebla, Mexico, to the outer edges of the city to visit the Panteon Municipal – the municipal cemetery.
As part of the city’s Dia de los Muertos festivities, the cemetery was going to be the center stage for some sort of event. Details were scant, but not wanting to miss out on a potentially amazing blog post, we went, via taxi, to the Panteon.
The four of us piled out of the taxi and onto the front steps of the cemetery, which had a grand columned entrance like a Greek ruin. At the top of the stairs was a group of hard-core bicyclists clad in bike pants, tight shirts, and fancy shoes, posing in front of their expensive looking bicycles.
They were also covered in make-up to make them look dead. They soon spotted us. “OOOHHHH” one of them said in a spooky pretend ghost-voice “GUEEERRRRROOSSS!” Gueros: white people. The true ghosts of the party had arrived.
Undeterred, and in fact, by now, quite used to be calling gueros, we headed into the cemetery proper. A long central walking path divided the huge cemetery, and all the graves were above-ground, like a mauseolem. The oldest and first graves, closest to the entrance, were the most grand, almost like small houses. In places, the ground had shifted, making some of the graves off-kilter, as if they were riding on a wave, or, more likely, had survived hundreds of years of seismic shifts we call earthquakes.
We continued down the long path. I, of course, immediately whipped out my camera and tried to take photos: I am walking in a cemetery in Mexico on Day of the Dead and therefore I must immediately visually document this experience! Was my basic train of thought.
Alas, as soon as my flash went off, a security guard told me: no photos, por favor. Damnit.
After a long walk, we reached the back of the cemetery, where a stage and tent had been erected. All the rows of seats were full of families, and so we stood in the back, perched upon an unmarked grave. Yeah, true story.
What unfolded was a three-act performance, first led by a Catrina, then a mariachi in scary skeleton makeup and lastly, Death himself.
Prior to Death’s debut on stage, I had unknowingly already been watching him. While Catrina performed I noticed a lanky grim reaper slowly wobbling way back, behind the stage. Back and forth, back and forth, the reaper swayed endlessly. I assumed he was some sort of “live” decoration.
But, after the mariachi wrapped up, death stopped wobbling, and started walking around and in front of the stage. On stilts. Ah, the wobbling was making sense now.
He was nearly twice as tall as all the standing audience members (us), and his long black robe covered the stilts. He wobbled, slowly and ominously, among the crowd, pointing and poking at little kids, which, in a country that has such a different relationship with death than my own, only elicited giggles. Had I been a child witnessing this, I very likely would have wet my pants and had nightmares for years.
Death, after a long, dramatic entrance (and funny, too: he pretended to trip on some kids at one point) walked in front of the first rows, and started lifting up his black robe. Slowly.
I suddenly wondered if the actor playing Death might be insane, and suddenly about to flash the entire audience. But no one seemed alarmed, and he performed a little strip tease, removing his robe, gyrating his torso, and revealing that he had on only small black bike pants, and stilts. The audience started catcalling him. I was suddenly experiencing one of my most surreal moments in my many surreal moments in Mexico.
The more naked he got, the more vulnerable he got, too — and it hit me: Death is vulnerable, death is not something be feared, it’s something to laugh at. A very Mexican moment indeed.
He took off the stilts and climbed on stage, pulling a random man from the audience. He then forced the young man to mimic whatever he did. Of course, Death was a gymnast, a pantomime and a comedian all in one. The random dude could only haplessly perform cartwheels, or backflips, or advanced yoga poses, mimicking death as best he could, but failing, making the audience roar with laughter, as Death stood near by, enjoying his superiority.