A short story set in Mexico
At ten in the morning the day was already hot enough to dry the tears on my face as I walked into San Juan Cosala to attend little Santiago’s funeral. His teacher and his six-year-old school friends filed slowly into the churchyard, many of the girls in white dresses, and all of the children looking wide-eyed that death could happen to one of them.
The church, an unadorned red stone building is nothing fancy in comparison to many Mexican churches. Like the people of San Juan, it is solid, unembellished, graceful in its very simplicity. The stones are probably from an older temple, built to an ancient god.
The altar was swathed in white for a wedding the following day. Red Aztec lilies and white maiden’s fancies and the pale small buttons of feverfew graced the altar. White doves, gold leaves and paper angels with sequins adorned the side walls. It is the belief of the pueblo that little children haven’t lived long enough to sin, therefore as angelitos they fly straight to heaven. We listened to the parish priest offer what cold comfort words might bring to the bereaved coup]e, whose first born child had been hit by a truck.
Despite the heat, the church was filled to capacity. The Velorio the night before was the same; it seemed as if half the pueblo was there to say the rosary and sit with the family. The faithful will pray for nine days and on the last night, Santiago’s family will serve them pozole. In the city of Coluca, roast pork is served on the final day of mourning, and an elaborate fiesta is celebrated on the ninth day. Here in San Juan they bring small gifts of sugar and coffee and sweet bread and keep vigil the whole night before the funeral. The gifts are to preserve the unity of the pueblo so that the parents know the whole village is diminished by the loss. The idea is to maintain a state of balance between those with bad fortune and those with good fortune. This sense of the good of the pueblo is deeply ingrained, stemming from a tradition older than this church, maybe older than the ruined church beyond the square with birds nesting in the steeple.
People in San Juan Cosala are very Indio in appearance, the area having been settled centuries ago by Cora people and Tarascans and Huichols. The mourners wore jeans and tee shirts and guaraches, the more prosperous ones in beat-up boots, the old women covering their hair decently with small black lace mantillas. A baby in the row in front of me smacked his lips lustily as he nursed. The wind blew dust in our eyes, babies cried and parents embraced their children. It seems certain that Santiago and Rosa will survive, the pueblo will endure, as they have for so very long.
We all walked across the highway and up the hill to the cemetery, except for the immediate family who rode in a borrowed sedan of indeterminate color and age. Six of young Santiago’s uncles carried the small white casket all the way. It was decorated in red and white curled crepe paper, and they paused for a while under a roof the place of rest at the entrance The odors of vinegar and decay were stronger than the night before. It seemed fitting that we stood in the place where people have been buried Centuries before the Conquest.
Slowly we walked past granite and marble monuments and a few crypts to the most crowded part of the cemetery, picking our way over graves to the third class area. Every seven years the graves here are dug up to make room for others; only the rich lie in crypts and lie forever.
Even in el panteon, the wealthy, the middle class and the poor don’t mix.