The smells of bread from the old clay ovens, of freshly-made tamales, and steaming hot chocolate are flooding the streets and can all be sensed several blocks round. The entire village is lighting up, bursting with colors and textures. Children help their fathers build the altars as the mothers are setting up the offerings. Some of them paint signs with bible verses. Romans 12:19, Deuteronomy 32:35 seem to be favorites. A Mile-long row of floral arrangements, mainly of the traditional Cempasuchil, covers the way to the main kiosk and the church in front, where Father Matías addresses a group of middle-aged women. I do not speak Tojolabal, the local branch of the ancient Mayan language, but from the few words I can pick up from years of living nearby, he talks about gratitude, even in rough times.
Unlike last year’s celebration of the Day of the Dead, the proceedings have started earlier, the altars are larger, the food is more abundant, and virtually everybody is outside, even the elderly. Every community in this region has its own way to honor their dearly departed, some of them have a lively music spectacle, others a sober church Mass. Generally, Santa Margarita has a silent procession that takes place at night, but this time you could hear the brass ensembles and the guitar groups from before dawn. This time, people from other villages have arrived, some in a bus, others on carriages. There are some that come from other states. There are even a couple of German visitors. This time, a group of men prepared a stage in the middle of the square. I sense two big patterns: There are a lot of pictures of the same 12 young men, from photographs to paintings, and their faces and names appear in the huge mural placed in the main street. I also hear that they’re still waiting for “the main event.” I wish I could speak Tojolabal.
We’re having the party of our lives. We’ve sung and danced since the first rays of sunlight, but nobody is a bit tired. We’ve feasted on pan de muerto, pork and beans, tamales and mole of all shades and flavors, and sunflower seed quesadillas made from the most delicious home-made tortillas I’ve ever tried. We’ve graced our eyes with lush, carefully elaborated altars. They display pictures of ancestors, chrysanthemums, candles, all sorts of beautiful adornments. Most importantly, everybody is united. This is a village of 1,400 people, but there are 3,000 of us here.
During Mass, Father Matías spoke in both Tojolabal and Spanish. He wanted to remind everyone why we’re all here. In Santa Margarita, Día de Muertos is taken seriously. Not only is their most sacred festivity, since it connects the spiritual traditions of the indigenous forebears with the Catholic faith of the nation, but it is central to their identity. This is a culture of honor and acknowledgement. It maintains its essence, and keeps its head up high, even in the face of centuries of oppression, racism and abandonment. It still has hope for a better time. It loves its young. Even when they have suffered the hardest of blows. He continues talking about grief, but also about justice. Tonight, we’ll be visited by the Governor himself, and he urges us to remind him of the kindness and the resilience of Margariteños.
Once we exit God’s house, the entire village starts chanting:
On October 4th, there was a checkpoint on the road to the State capital. A small bus that was destined for Santa Margarita was stopped, and a few men in military clothing were browsing the passengers for papers. One of them asked if there was a problem. Another noted they were not wearing a badge. None of them returned. After 16 days, the bus was found in an abandoned parking lot in the capital. The luggage was intact. The gas tank was completely empty. The day after, 332 miles away, a pile of ashes was discovered in a warehouse. It reeked of industrial-strength acid, and they found a few traces of clothing, leather, and plastic. Then they found bones.
The State refused to investigate further. That day was the Governor’s birthday. He was on a trip, and no one could explain where.
The inhabitants of Santa Margarita gathered in the square, in typical procession fashion. Holding signs. Holding images of saints. Holding pictures of their dearly departed. Lighting up torches. But chanting. Shouting. Shouting in a language of their own, but in a way we can all understand. A day of frenzy, of celebrations never experienced before, was ending. The expressions on their faces changed. The shouting was louder. The torches held higher.
The Governor arrived at the square in a white car. Sharply dressed and surrounded by three members of State Congress, he reached out to offer condolences. He turned on the microphone, as the crowd was closing in on them. Mid-speech, two men went back to the church and took Father Matías back home, apparently in a hurry. Church door stayed open.
Governor Hernández went to Santa Margarita without his security staff.
That was his second mistake that month.