One day, in late October, my son and I left his Mexican preschool and wandered up the Calzada toward Morelia’s pink stone aqueduct. He was collecting sticks snarled with epiphytes and I was walking backwards so I could watch him—his red plaid uniform, his white-blonde hair—and yet lure him homeward. Behind him, I could see, through the ficus that lined the old cobblestone pedestrian avenue, the façade of San Nicolás, the university where Mexico’s revolutionary priest, Father Hidalgo, was teacher to Morelia’s namesake, José María Morelos. It was 2010. My son was two; the independent Mexico of Hidalgo and Morelos, two hundred. I found the contrast alternately fascinating and terrifying.
Since I was looking backwards, it Avery who noticed the crowd gathering up ahead.
“Look, Mama!” he cried out as he threw down his sticks and began, at last, to walk with purpose.
In the months we had roamed our temporary city together, me pregnant and waddling, Avery barely done toddling, we had happened upon the sorts of spectacles that made living in Michoacán’s capital just a little bit magical. With Michoacán stewing in the heat of Mexico’s escalating drug war, this magic helped. A few weeks earlier, we’d watched a crew filming a telenovela, while off-camera cast members dressed as revolutionary soldiers hoisted passing children onto their half-sleeping horses and women in petticoats sat on the old stone benches sending texts. And once, for reasons we never quite discerned, we came upon the Calzada to find it had been carpeted end to end in a mural made entirely of flower petals, grains, dried leaves, and pine needles.
This day, we joined the milling crowd and found that the attraction was a group of girls from the Catholic high school standing still as statues in little sets they had made to represent an old family portrait, or a garden party, a wake or a wedding. The girls in their tableaux were dressed in gowns and veiled hats or cross-dressed in suits, but their faces were made up black and white and ash gray, and their bare arms were painted with bones. They were “elegant skeletons”—calaveras de la Catrina, or simply “Catrinas”—like the delicate ceramic figurines of skeletons made in the campo outside Morelia. They were the living, living dead of Mexico.
Just in time for the Day of the Dead festivities for which Michoacán is famous, Avery happened to be entering the incessant-question stage.
“Who made this?” he asked three hundred times a day.
“Who made this book?”
“Who made this food?”
“Your daddy made your omelet from eggs that a chicken made and calabacitas that a farmer grew in a field from a seed.”
But so far, in situations like the one in which I now found myself, I’d been lucky: 1) who made this was the extent of his interrogative repertoire, and 2) he had not yet learned to ask why.
Avery had no idea what a skeleton was. He didn’t even know the word “dead” could pertain to anything beyond the grasshoppers he’d left locked in the driver’s seats of toy cars on the roof of our apartment or the desiccated scorpion we’d saved to show him. Death was not yet a bewilderment: it was an all but blank space in his conception of the world.
This isn’t to say that I minced words when explaining to him the finite mortality of grasshoppers.
“He’s dead, honey,” I told him when he tried to goad his latest, legless victim back into action. Or when he was served roasted chapulines in lime and chile in a restaurant: “That’s a grasshopper, like the grasshopper you play with on the roof.” And, as he examined the scorpion carcass, “This alacrán is dead. Your daddy squashed it with a shoe so it cannot pinch you with those pincers or sting you with its tail. But remember what it looks like, and if you ever see another one, back away and call a grown-up.”
I would not lie and say they were sleeping, I would not disappear a corpse, and I would not get metaphysical. But the pedagogy of bugs only went so far in Mexico.
As he hadn’t done with the dead scorpion, in spite of my fear tactics, Avery sensed there was something fearful about the Catrinas. He didn’t even ask who made them—a good thing, since I had no answer planned for him.
“Uppy,” whined my child, who was ordinarily bold with strangers.
He pawed at my hip until I hoisted him and, by maternal reflex, told him everything was okay, although it occurred to me as I said it that I didn’t really know. By “everything,” in the case of Day of the Dead, didn’t I mean mortality and death and grief? In Mexico, all of the above were exposed, stripped bare and apparent. But so, in contrast, was joy. Newlyweds posed in the park as security convoys rolled past. Quinceañera girls waved from their pink limousines while the headlines of La Jornada Michoacán tallied the newly dead.
But we were in Mexico, and just as Mexico teaches its children to eat fiery food by feeding them chile candies, it coats its day of remembrance with sugar (candy skulls, sweet breads, and fruit ates set out on altars). And it is a simple inevitability—however much a mother chafes at the fact—that one raises a child in the context of culture.
Mexican culture, I knew and yet kept relearning, is very interested in the raising of children. Even these elegant skeletons, realizing they had scared Avery with their painted faces, were ready to guide me.
The girls already knew Avery from our afternoon walks down the Calzada where they loitered in the afternoons. At the start of the school year, they’d been fascinated by his hair—stuff so fine and pale that it had compelled more than one passerby in Mexico to cross a busy street just to touch it—but soon the novelty wore off. In the afternoons, when we strolled past, they had begun to tease him. “¡Que ojos!” they’d gush as they flocked around him, quickly drawing their cell phones to snap his picture (or just get his goat). Some afternoons, like a celebrity dodging paparazzi, he walked past them with his hands over his blue eyes, just in case they were looking at him—so they oohed and ahhed even louder.
Now, seeing he was nervous, a girl in one tableau whispered “Avery!” through her teeth, until he figured out where the sound was coming from. Then, keeping the rest of her body still, she held out to him a plate of sugar-coated guava ate. Soon he was shaking hands with each of the Catrinas, his pink cheeks bulging with sweets.
In 2010, as Avery and I wandered around Morelia, the country was commemorating even more dead than usual. Twice in September, on the anniversary of Hidalgo’s Grito de Dolores that, two hundred years earlier, had heralded the war for Mexico’s independence, and then again on Morelos’s birthday, Morelia had shut down its main thoroughfare for grand desfiles replete with marching columns of men and women in period dress, prancing horses sat by proud charros, and cruising low-rider classic cars upon whose sides ghost flames consumed skeleton beauties. There were also jet fly-bys and marching troops and slow-rolling tanks and, if President Calderón (a native of Morelia) happened to be in the audience, metal detectors at the cross streets. And there was more to come in November, when Pancho Villa, leader of Mexico’s 1910 revolution, would take over from Hidalgo and Morelos as the hero of the parade.
There were no scheduled events to honor the current war—the drug war that was “Mexico’s” or “Calderón’s” or “the U.S.’s,” depending on one’s politics—but every so often a column of dark blue military trucks would roll down Avenida Francisco Madero, each with a masked soldier standing face to the wind in the back, clutching the mounted machine gun. There was no honoring of this war, but there was no ignoring it either. Two Septembers earlier a grenade had been tossed into the crowd during the governor’s vivas, and, lest history repeat itself, turnout was low at the 200th Grito in Morelia’s plaza. Or so I heard; on the advice of the one-legged man who shined shoes in the park near my house, I had skipped the celebration.
Throughout these displays of military might, nostalgic or otherwise, Avery kept up his questions.
Who made this cathedral? Who made this mango? Who made these streets?
I wasn’t even tripped up by the slippery ones:
“Who made this elephant?”
“The elephant’s mama and daddy made him.”
“Who made the elephant’s mama and daddy?”
“Their mamas and daddies made them.”
I had a few rules for my answers. First and foremost, I always answered as fully and truthfully as I knew how to do within the range of a two-year-old’s vocabulary. Second, I steered clear of my mother’s rebuttal for when things crossed into the ridiculous: “That’s a God question.” As in, How could I possibly know who made an elephant? By extension, I never defaulted to God as the grand maker—as in, “God made the elephant.” I knew the inevitable next question would trap me indefinitely in tautological loops too tangled for a mind addled by pregnancy and sleep deprivation made worse by the all-night Mexican karaoke reverberating from every cobblestone and pink stonework wall. Who made God? I couldn’t handle, not so close to so human a problem. God didn’t make or consume Mexican meth. God didn’t make or sell or run or fire American guns. And the cynical side of me couldn’t help but think humans had made God so they could blame someone else. The way Mexico blamed the U.S.; the way the U.S. blamed Mexico.
I admit, however honest I pretended to be as a parent, I consciously withheld key vocabulary. Before Day of the Dead, my son hadn’t known the word “skeleton,” or the full meaning of the word “dead,” and he still didn’t know the words “gun” or “war.” Without the words, there were questions he simply could not ask and I therefore would not have to answer.
“Who made this?” he would ask about the dancing plastic skeleton bride in the café and the giant paper mâché skeleton lady towering over the crowds in Morelia’s plaza on Day of the Dead.
“Who made this?” he would ask about the sugar skulls and the shimmering funeral wreaths for sale in the market.
Even without God, who made this was downright easy next to why. I was terrified that why would come while we were living in Mexico.
Why were there soldiers standing over there? Why was that altar covered with toys and teddy bears?
“It’s the soldiers’ job to keep everybody safe,” I explained preemptively whenever trucks of masked federales sped past us. Of course, this was only a benign, arguably untrue half of the answer to the question he hadn’t asked: I never attempted to explain why or from what we needed to be kept safe.
Because my son didn’t know the questions or the words, he didn’t know there was a war. Because he did not know there was a war, he did not ask who made it. But people in Morelia told us all the time: the U.S. made it. The U.S. and its wildly out-of-control drug addiction. Why, just that month Mexican authorities had torched 134 tons of U.S.-bound marijuana in Tijuana—about three ounces of pot per adult resident of my entire home state.
Drug addiction or no, if we still lived in the U.S., I might have avoided talking to Avery about guns for another year or two or three. He would have play-dated other kids raised on free-range, whole-grain organic innocence. I liked to think that if he lived in the U.S.—where it was easy to see no evil if you just turned off the TV—he would not already be pointing sticks at everything around him and shouting pppppchu! I liked to think that, given the good health of his dogs and grandparents, I might have avoided the subject of death for even longer. Especially if we followed our own precedent: when our dog killed his chicken, we got a new one pronto, so what if it was a different color. But in Mexico, the chicken meat was sold with feet attached. There was less glossing over of life’s messier facts.
In the four years leading up to that Day of the Dead, thirty thousand Mexicans had died as a result of the drug war, whomever’s it was. This messy fact didn’t put Mexico’s murder rate above Washington D.C.’s, but as a mother of small children living in a city that was not beyond the fray, it certainly had my attention.
Like all parents, in the U.S. and in Mexico and everywhere else on this planet, my husband and I want to protect our children from any and all things that might hurt them physically or psychically. This does not mean we wall ourselves in, but it does mean we take reasonable precautions. But what constitutes “reasonable,” I was learning that year in Mexico, is highly dependent upon where one lives.
In Mexico, when I was warned against going to the Grito, I skipped it. When we passed policia or federales patrolling the street, if we could not cross over, I would position my own body between my son’s and their downward-turned rifles or holstered handguns (both of whose muzzles were at the level of a child’s head, but usually below a pregnant woman’s belly). And I heeded the advice I’d been given to stay away from soldiers and police, particularly during public events: if anything went down, the logic went, law enforcement would be shooting, or being shot at, or both.
But then something happened that’s hard for me to explain. It isn’t that I got inured or numb to the guns, but rather that I began to feel compelled to shelter my son not from the guns, but from the fear that necessitated them.
“Let’s go say hola to the policia,” I suggested one day, out of the blue, as if it were the polite thing to do, like saying gracias to the waiters and cooks in restaurants, like telling his teachers hasta mañana after school or waving each morning to the elderly lady who lived around the corner and sometimes gave Avery old tortillas to feed to the pigeons. I hadn’t thought it up beforehand, hadn’t planned to send my son up to a group of men with guns. It just came out of my mouth.
Avery, a natural glad-hander anyway (albeit not with oohing, cellphone-wielding teenaged girls), promptly trotted over to the cluster of soldiers with the wrong little hand thrust out. Each soldier in turn leaned down to shake it.
In that act, and its subsequent repetition, I learned that in Mexico traffic cops, federales, state police, and pretty much everyone else would reciprocate my son’s advances. They shook his hand. They spoke to him in whatever words of English they knew. Once a pair of soldiers hoisted him up on the tank they were guarding so he could pretend to drive it. And each time this strange scene happened, I watched an armed man’s face change from the frozen expression of an officer on duty, of a man with a gun, into something soft and human.
It was a logic I learned in and from Mexico, a logic that underpins the celebration of Day of the Dead.
Before moving to Morelia, I hadn’t visited a graveyard—a place I connote with riderless horses, bagpipes played lowly on a hillside, the hollow thud of dirt falling on wood—for over a decade. My son most certainly had never been to one. But when, beginning with the day of the Catrinas on the Calzada and in the days that followed, our adopted city bedecked itself in a heady profusion of orange marigolds and purple cockscombs, I learned a less passive approach to the subject of death.
Morelia’s Day of the Dead festivities began with altars set up around the city, in businesses and lining the Calzada. Most altars were built to commemorate Mexican historic figures—Pancho Villa, Hidalgo and Morelos, Frida Kahlo. Others were not so romantic: one altar commemorated women who had been the victims of domestic violence and, another, unborn babies.
“Who made this?” Avery asked incessantly. Usually, the creator of a particular altar was right there, ready to shake his hand and reward his interest with sweetbread or dulces.
Altars were one thing. But I didn’t intend to visit any of the cemeteries in the hills around Morelia, even though many tourists do. It seemed invasive, voyeuristic, disrespectful—at least to my more somber sensibilities. My conception of mourning is intimate and inexpressible, not public and celebratory. But this, of course, is cultural.
In spite of my reservations, driving through the countryside in the afternoon, we happened to pass under a pedestrian bridge crowded with people carrying armloads of calla lilies and cockscombs. I couldn’t resist stopping. In the graveyard these people were walking to, the smell of marigolds mixed with that of freshly turned earth and incense. Rather than the hush I associate with holy grounds, there was a clamor of several hundred people chatting with one another, of children hollering and ice cream hawkers calling out their flavors: ¡de coco de coco de coco de coco! No one seemed surprised that foreigners would visit the bones of other people’s dead. No one seemed upset about much at all as they shoveled fresh dirt on their loved ones’ graves, set out teddy bears and photographs, placed wreaths, and sprinkled the ground with sunny, pungent petals. Avery perched on my shoulders, begging for a wedge of sandia or to be set free to play with the kids in the reeds around a pond below the cemetery.
Too soon, I knew, why would come. And when it did, my little boy would learn that soldiers fight wars, that he was born in a time of global war, that in Mexico he was cradled in the very middle of one. He would know what pppppchu! means and why his mother doesn’t like it. He would come to know in the most concrete terms that the dead do not come back. And I know, as Mexico well knows, that however many sweets and flower petals are strewn about, there is no way to keep a child from knowing sadness.
But I hope that, in part due to his time in Mexico, he will always be able to reach past fear and shake hands with the human on its other side.