Death and Mexico

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Do you remember the game Packman? Ghosts used to appear to chase you around a maze. You didn't want to rub up against one of those ghosts. It was the end of the line if that happened. Well, the game was a pretty good allegory for the way we live our lives. We are perpetually running away from a phantom --the phantom of Death. Because if we stopped to confront it, that would be the end of the line, right? At least we think it would be, because that's what we've been told all our lives.

The great world cultures treat death in different ways. Yet all of them believe in something that continues after death, either to physically reincarnate or continue in a some kind of spirit form. It is this something that is the virtual or symbolic reminder that we ourselves will die. Cultures create forms for these reminders, these packman ghosts, and then spend every waking hour running from them.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross suggested that, at least from a Western perspective, there are five stages a person goes through when faced with the immediacy of their own death. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When death is not imminent, it would seem peoples' lives are pretty much consumed by the first stage. That first stage is when we show our heels to the chasing packman ghosts. The last four stages are something we leave for the final few hours of our life.

It's generally accepted that Mexicans accept death as something inevitable and they show a lot of public bravado or machismo in the presence of it. They make fun of Death. It's very common to see young Mexican males wearing T-shirts that sport the phrase NO FEAR. There's a social publishing of a stoic, fatalistic attitude toward death that isn't seen privately, except as an automated knee-jerk reaction. At the private individual level, the average Mexican is no different from any other set of heels running from the packman ghosts. Someone who feels the need to proclaim his condition of NO FEAR obviously has an abiding interest in fear and spends a lot of time thinking about it.

A San Felipe Tale of DeathI once talked to a Mexican mechanic who nurtured a strong cocaine habit. Certain cocaine addicts are easily identified. They allow a single fingernail (usually on the right hand little finger) to grow abnormally long as a kind of ready, at-your-fingertip coke spoon, convenient and not easily misplaced. The mechanic told me about the death of an acquaintance of his. The police were called to collect the body. He laughed as he described how the police were terrified to enter the house of the dead man. They didn't want to touch him, much less have to carry him out. So they each stood on the stoop, drinking from a bottle to screw up the courage to go inside.

I also experienced first hand the deep and troubling presence of this fear in a young Mexican girl who was asked by her employer to remain in the small apartment adjoining the restaurant where she worked. The owner had to leave town for a day and because of a rash of break-ins in the neighborhood, asked the waitress to stay the night. The owner's husband had recently died and his ashes were in an urn behind the counter. The waitress readily agreed but when the proprietor was out of earshot, she pleaded with me to take her place. She was genuinely mortified at having to stay in a building that contained the ashes of the owner's husband, a man whom she had known. When I tried to get a rational reason for her fear, she was unable to explain. The fear was entirely visceral and unfocused. She was simply terrified, despite what any T-shirt said. I agreed to take her place and saw profound relief flood her face.

Mexico's modern attitude toward death does not reflect her history. In pre-Columbian times the Aztecs, like the Christians, had a dualistic perception of death. Unlike the Christians, who saw death as the beginning of an eternal paradise or torment, the Aztecs saw their lives as being . They did not fear death as the harbinger of judgment, resulting in condemnation or reward. They believed they were collaborators of the gods, chosen to support and nourish the gods, who were crucial for the survival of the world in general, and for the flourishing of the Aztec people in particular. It was thought the food eaten by mortals was too coarse for the gods. It was the energy seated in the heart and blood, known as teyolia, that could strengthen and sustain the gods. The Aztecs likened teyolia to a divine fire. It animated the human being, giving shape to their sensibilities and thinking patterns. So toward this end, the Aztecs created the ritual of the human sacrifice. Among rival groups, the Aztecs participated in exchanges called flowery wars. Unlike wars of conquest, the sole purpose of the squirmishes was to take captives for human sacrifice to the gods. The wars were more like sporting events, competitions to gather food for the gods. Captives from neighboring city states were usually sacrificed by the Aztecs to their sun god, Huitzilopochtli, who had chosen the Aztec nation above all others. Aztec warriors were in turn sacrificed to the reining deity of the city who captured them.

I, Nezahualcoyot, ask this:
By any chance is it true that one
lives rooted in the earth?

Not always in the earth:
Here for only just a while;
Though it be made of jade, it breaks;
Though it be made of gold, it breaks;
Though it be made of quetzal plummage,
it shreds apart.
Not forever here on earth:
Here for only just a while.

The entire sacrificial event was conducted in a ceremonious manner and it was not shameful but almost a great privilege for a warrior to become captive. This attitude was a reflection of what Aztecs believed regarding the role a sacrificial victim played before and after his death.

When a person died, his or her teyolia traveled to the world of the dead, known as the sky of the sun, where it was transformed into birds (Carrasco, 68). When a warrior was sacrificed to the sun, it was believed that by extracting the heart his teyolia was released and received by Huitzilopochtli as energy. In this manner, the human body was considered to be a container of cosmic power which could be used to replenish the gods. This use of one's teyolia was considered to be a huge honor and a person destined for sacrifice was held in the highest esteem and admiration. The people thought that the victim's teyolia also served as a messenger carrying their own pleas to the gods, and as a result, treated the captured warrior as a beloved guest as they housed and prepared him for the ceremony. The responsibility of catering to the captured warrior's needs fell to his captor, and it was a duty that was not taken lightly. This Day of the Dead in San Felipeadmiration and royal treatment was not what lured men into participating in the "flowery war" however. Their true reward was thought to exist in the afterlife. According to the Aztecs, the place a person's soul went after death was not determined by his or her conduct in life, "but rather by the manner of his [or her] death and his [or her] occupation in life (Caso, 58)". In the Aztec afterlife the highest level of paradise was called Tonatiuhican, or "the house of the sun," and this was where "the souls of warriors who fell in combat or who died victims on the sacrificial stone" resided (Caso, 58). "In gardens filled with flowers they [were] the daily companions of the sun, they [fought] sham battles, and when the sun [rose] in the East, they greet[ed] him with shouts of joy and beat their shields loudly. When they return[ed] to earth after four years, they [were] transformed into hummingbirds and other birds with exotic plumage and [fed] upon the nectar of flowers. They [were] the privileged ones whom the sun [had] chosen for his retinue and [lived] a life of pure delight (Caso, 58)." Assured of this sort of afterlife, it is little wonder that so many warriors willingly participated in the "flowery war" and did nothing to resist being sacrificed upon their capture.

When Cortez arrived, however, things changed. The Conquistadores were amazed to find that part of Aztec beliefs included an incarnate God named Quetzalcoatl who had died, was resurrected and had promised to return. So similar were some of the Toltec and Aztec Indian myths to Christianity that the Jesuits, in order to avoid the inevitable doubts and questions from their own missionaries, invented the explanation the similarities were the works of the devil, created to confuse missionary work. Of course when the new religion of Christianity was forced on the Aztecs, the similarities made it easier for the locals to live with it, in their own way.