I am currently preparing for a trip to San Jose de la Pazza in Baja for Dia de los Muertos. The people of this village belong to the Native Population, the Kumeyaay/Kumiai, whose tribe was separated when the border was established between Mexico and the US. Nearly half of the population extends into Mexico going as far south as Ensenada.
It is possible to research the Kumeyaay people extensively at a website called www.Kumeyaay.info. There you will find a wealth of photos, archived documents, historical clippings, and information about the tribe today in both the United States and Mexico.
The Kumeyaay are well-known for their tightly coiled basketweaving techniques the indigenous California peoples have used for thousands of years for storage, winnowing, cooking, and serving food.
My photo documentary work for the last 5 years has been centered around Semana Santa in Guatemala, and Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a celebration dedicated to honoring those who have passed on. It is believed, once a year, the spirits of antepasados return for a special night of celebration. Those still living prepare special feasts, create altars which incorporate the 4 elements as well as items special to the departed, and clean and prepare the cemeteries for their loved one’s return.
The sights and sounds of Dia de los Muertos are like none other experienced in the United States. Plumes of copal incense smoke fill the air, the smells of mole, hot chocolate, tomales, and more linger in the streets as families spend hours and hours preparing for this special observance. Papel Picado (Special cut paper banners) twist and turn in a parade of multi-colored extravagance, and candles light the way so the souls of those returning might find their way home.
Having spent Dia de los Muertos in different parts of Mexico over the past 5 years, I wanted to experience how the Hispanic populations in the United States celebrate Day of the Dead. For the past 10 years, Tyler Cassidy, the owner of Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, Ca, has presented LA Day of the Dead Festival. It is strangely reminiscent of the Oaxacan experience with ghosts and ghouls walking the streets of the cemetery.
While the gradual integration of Halloween and Dia de los Muertos is apparent, the traditional aspects are profound. Each year 50 plus altars are created, colorful and grand; each full of symbolism and personal significance. Each of the altars represent an individual, group of family members, or political event that has greatly affected the population. A lot of thought and energy is placed into the creation of these altars, and the work pays off. The experience is authentic, and the greatest benefit is that Dia de los Muertos is shared with the non-Hispanic population as well – imparting the importance of this ancient ceremony with an unfamiliar audience.
For more information about the LA Day of the Dead Festival, Click Here.
After four months in Guatemala I am returning to Portland. The time I have spent in Guatemala interviewing, meeting new friends, and continued Spanish studies has been amazing.
My continued work with Fredy Perez Hernandez of San Juan La Laguna will include further development of our website and oral history project. For more information about our Mayan Oral History project, Misterios: La Casa de la Mente, check out this website.
(The photo I have posted was taken in the back of a pickup as we were traveling from the San Pablo Fiesta, back to San Pedro. Appearing in the photo with me is Concepcion Gonzalez, a Spanish Language instructor at Casa Rosario in San Pedro)
A friend of mine was encountering some personal issues and sought the help of a local Mayan Shaman to help rid his surrounding environment of the negative energy. The ceremony the Shaman performed involved the sacrifice of a chicken.
Shamanic ceremonies in Mayan Tradition range from blessing houses, to treating illnesses and calling souls, to appeasing angry spirchickens are sacrificed because their souls have wings and can therefore fly and search for and awaken the soul. Chicken sacrifice is very common.
Several days after this ceremony, I experienced a ceremony with the same Shaman, who asked for blessing and health as I prepared to return to the United States. It was a very colorful ceremony including chanting, many colorful candles, colored sugars each representing a specific request, as well as alcohol.
One of the sights and smells that is so prevalent in Mexico and Latin America is that of Copal Incense. I love the smell, and the white smoke that drifts through the landscape during important rituals and ceremonies.Copal incense is a golden, black, or white resin whose sacred smoke carries messages to the spirit world. The spirit of this plant and its medicine allows us to see life more clearly and inspires divine insights.
This month I had a great opportunity to listen to a speech by Senora Colom, the First Lady of Guatemala. She visited San Juan la Laguna for the grand opening of a community center and park. She and her husband are very busy making public appearances the last several months due to the infancy of Senor Colon’s presidency. He took office in January of this year.
I have a slide show presentation of the photos I took during her speech, and time in San Juan. Please view my Youtube.com page to check it out.
The community center, park, and new mercado in San Juan are really an amazing accomplishment for such a small community. The mercado, especially, was greatly needed by the people because they were doing all of their vending in the street. The mercado is really above and beyond what anyone would expect for such a remote location.
Semana Santa is finally here and my work is just beginning. There are over 50 processions this week that wind through every stretch of street in the city. It is amazing how they organize this network of processions that twist and turn through the city, sometimes intersecting with one another. And the sea of purple robes is an amazing sight, as both children and adults participate in the celebrations.
I wish I could somehow share the smells of Semana Santa with you. The copal incense that creates great white clouds in the streets, and lingers on well into the night. And the food that is being prepared in the streets for the 48,000 visitors that are expected this week; can you hear my stomach growling?
I will post more videos of the processions this week as I have time, but for now take a moment to view this slide show of my photos from last year if you haven’t already. And Happy Easter to everyone!
Everywhere you go in Guatemala, it is possible to hear the sound of hands clapping together as women prepare tortillas three times a day. The more time one spends in Guatemala, the more comforting the sound becomes.
One recent afternoon, I was invited to learn the art of tortillas, Guatemalan style. (Guatemalan tortillas are better than Mexican tortillas I am told)
Elena K’oche invited us into her home for a lesson and snack of rolled tortillas with salt. In her family this is a favorite treat. While it was a fun experience, it was sad to hear many poverty-stricken families in the rural areas of Guatemala have only rolled tortillas with salt to eat most days.
Check out this video with Elena as your guide on a tortilla making adventure!
As the former mayor of San Juan (1940-1944), Teko has collected a tremendous amount of historical documents pertaining to the city and region surrounding Lago de Atitlan.
During my interview with Teko, he broke into song several times, demonstrated a local style of dance, and read his favorite verses from his 1816 printing of the bible in Tz’utujil. For more information about Teko, please visit the MisteriosTzutujil.com website. Also, photos are available at Flickr.com.
And as an additional note, I couldn’t help but add this photo of Teko with his wife Rosalia. They have been together for “many, many years.” I asked them for a specific number, and after 2 minutes of conferring with one another they told me they couldn’t remember.
I held out until the last moment, but the time finally came for me to tackle La Nariz. Nariz is a site of spiritual importance for the Mayan people of the area surrounding Lake Atitlan. For over 1000 years, the top of this mountain has been used for rituals pertaining to the changing of seasons, harvests, etc. And it is one hell of a climb too.
Take a moment to view this slide show presentation of La Nariz, one of the most beautiful vantage points surrounding the lake.