Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Halloween and Dia de los Muertos in New Mexico

Halloween in New Mexico is a little different. For one thing, art is in the air and water here. You can’t avoid it, and it’s catching. I have never done much decorating for Halloween, and previously limited myself to handing out enough candy to trick-or-treaters to delight dentists for months to come.

Since moving to Albuquerque, I’ve gone a little crazy. My personal best, Halloween division, was dressing a 5 foot tall, almost anatomically correct plastic skeleton for Halloween. We got it at Costco, and three considerations struck me: 1) this is the Southwest, 2) Halloween comes immediately before Día de los Muertos, and 3) this articulated, posable skeleton was just slightly shorter than the average Conquistador. You can see where this is going. So I dressed him  in a 16th century linen shirt, trunk hose (a/k/a pumpkin pants), a matching jerkin, and black velvet flat cap, and sat him in a rustic wooden arm chair, right in front of the door, with sword. Much more elegant than a warty witch on a broomstick or an inflatable plastic pumpkin. 

This year, one of our local supermarkets has an articulated, five foot (stretched out full length, I assume) plastic stegosaurus skeleton in their Halloween aisle. It’s already come down in price. I’m hoping that if it’s there the day after Halloween, it will be more steeply discounted yet. My housemate has already bought a large, hairy spider—No! not a real one!—which we will position on the porch overhang. Let me be honest, here: I will be the one on the ladder. 

Halloween is followed by Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, which celebrates loved ones who have died. And “celebrates” is an appropriate word: this is not a morbid or even solemn festival. Tradition calls for the construction of an ofrenda (offering), a sort of altar. According to Remezcla at http://remezcla.com/features/culture/how-to-build-your-own-altar-ofrenda/, while the ofrenda may contain all kinds of things—a photograph and some object of significance to the person (like a baseball for a baseball player or a toy for a child), it should also contain things that “represent the four elements: fire (candles), wind (papel picado), earth (food), and water.” Sugar skulls, marigolds and incense are also traditional.

My housemate and I set up an ofrenda on the sideboard every year. We drape it with lace panels, hang a string of papel picado and often little LED lights, and put out photographs of deceased family members, interspersed with little pumpkins, autumn flowers, candy or other treats they liked, water, and battery-operated candles. We also include symbols of heroes: a model space shuttle, a miniature fireman’s helmet and a police car for first responders, pictures of people we admire who have died within the past year.

The traditional food is pan de muerto, bread of the dead. It’s a slightly sweet Mexican bread, made in a round loaf, with dough formed into “bones” crossed on top. The supermarket where we buy a loaf or two every year sells them in a couple of different sizes, “medium bread of death” and “large bread of death”, and they’re covered in very vividly colored sugar. Last year we got the deep purple ones, rather than the Dayglo pink or yellow-orange.    

Dia de los Muertos is actually celebrated over several days, from October 31 to November 2. Here in Albuquerque, the Open Space Visitor Center puts up an ofrenda honoring deceased “Heroes of the Environment”, the South Valley neighborhood holds a Dia de los Muertos Celebration and Marigold Parade, and the National Hispanic Cultural Center is holding an exhibition, community offrenda and screening of the Disney/Pixar movie, Coco. And those are just a few of the activities.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Travel in New Mexico

For my holiday mailing several years ago, I intended to do lyrics based on the Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond (Ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road/And I’ll be in Taos afore ye …, which would actually have some relevance, because there is a High Road to Taos, and I’ve been lost on it. On the low road, too.    

For Thanksgiving that year, a friend and I were driving up to her stepson and stepdaughter-in-law’s new home in Truchas, New Mexico. Truchas is an old town in the mountains about half-way between Santa Fé and Taos, so it’s about 90 miles from Albuquerque. We hadn’t been off the beaten track much in north central New Mexico, and one tends to forget that not everything is right off the freeway, as it would be in the I-5 corridor. 

Our host had emailed directions, which seemed straightforward. Take exit such-and-such, and when you pass Chimayó, turn onto Highway and-so-forth. Except he omitted to mention that you have to take the turn-off TO Chimayó and pass the actual town, rather than passing the turn-off, though he did remember to warn us of the possible presence of loose dogs and horses in Truchas. So we drove on through some beautiful scenery and the road became less and less a main road.

Eventually we came to a town called Cundiyo, the pavement ended and the road became more of a lane. Old adobe houses sat at odd angles to it: here the side of a house, there the corner. Not a person was stirring. It was like the first five minutes of a horror film, right before the zombies show up. 

We drove on, and pavement resumed. We drove through a town with no name a few miles on. No open business in sight, no human presence detectable. By then I was expecting to see plague victims stretched lifeless by the side of the road. Or black helicopters. Having moved to New Mexico from the I-5 corridor, I’m not used to seeing towns with no sign of life either human or mercantile.

Finally we came to a crossroad with the state route number we were looking for. After that, it was easy to find Truchas, although we overshot the turn-off to our friends’ house and made an unintended detour that took us onto a narrow, muddy road (it had begun to rain and then snow). We seemed to be heading into more mountains. Fortunately, while we were turning around (the truck has 4-wheel drive, which my friend actually got to use), an old pickup truck coming from the other direction stopped to see if we needed help. The driver and passenger were able to tell us where we’d gone wrong, and we made it to our destination.

Perhaps I should also mention one oddity about New Mexico. The highway or road name on the sign is not necessarily the same that’s shown on your map, or on the online directions. Sometimes the signage will give both. Sometimes not. That’s why we missed the correct turn. Intuition is important when driving in this state, and mine was not working that day.