Museum of the Mummies–Guanajuato

Me posed beside a monument in a Guanajuato  cemetery.

Me posed beside a monument in a Guanajuato cemetery.

I like graveyards. There’s a funeral or at least a burial scene in practically everything I’ve written. I’ve visited famous cemeteries all over the world, including: the St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans, the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the Highgate Cemetery in London, and, of course, the Pyramids of Egypt. I like the mysticism, and the elaborate tombstones, and the rituals that are part religion and part performance art.

Many people share my fascination. Otherwise they wouldn’t spend so much time and energy—not to mention money—on funerals and crypts, and all the fantastic graveyard art, especially in the old world cemeteries. Burial is not so much a way of disposing of the dead as it is a last right of passage, out of this world into the next—the

Museum of the Mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico

Museum of the Mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico

final act of the dearly departed after which everything will be different because they are no longer be around.

Every culture has burial and funeral customs. Some of them are solemn and some of them are just plain weird, but everybody has them—even New Age agnostics—and on a very basic level they are all the same. Whether we bury our loved ones under a twenty ton slab of granite or we scatter their ashes on the Appalachian

Standing room only in the Museum of the Mummies

Standing room only in the Museum of the Mummies

Trail, we do something that is meaningful to us, and (we hope) will be meaningful to the loved ones whether they actually know about it or not.

When I learned about the Museo de las Mommias in Guanajuato Mexico I thought: “This is right up my alley.” I thought Mexican mummies must be the product of some ancient Central American pre-Columbian culture. They had pyramids didn’t they? So maybe pyramid cultures came equipped with mummy technology.

Ignacia Aguilar (who may have been buried alive)

Ignacia Aguilar (who may have been buried alive)

Imagine my surprise. The Guanajuato mummies weren’t the product of an elaborate embalming routine. They were people who were buried in crypts roughly between the years of 1830 and 1958. Most of them died in a cholera outbreak in 1833.

In 1865 the city imposed a local tax for burials. A family could pay a one time fee of 170 pesos and be done with it. If they didn’t have 170 pesos to spare they could elect to pay the city a 50 pesos per year. If they neglected to pay, for any reason, the deadbeat dead were removed from the crypts

Fetal Mummy--advertised as the world's smallest

Fetus Mummy–advertised as the world’s smallest

and stored in a warehouse. Most of the bodies had disintegrated, but about 2% of them had mummified naturally.

The cemetery workers started charging Mexican tourists a small fee to come and view the natural mummies. Bits and pieces of the bodies were taken by tourists as souvenirs. Over the years, the warehouse became a popular destination and eventually the warehouse was turned into a museum.

 In 1958 the tax law was changed and no more bodies were disinterred but by then the museum was going strong. It gained popularity in 1970 with the release of a movie, Santo Versus the Mummies of Guanajuato, starring the popular masked wrestler Rodolfo Guzmán guanajuato.jaramilloHuerta.

The mummies were the inspiration for the short story, “The Next in Line” by Ray Bradbury. In the introduction to his collection, The Stories of Ray Bradbury, the author wrote: “The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.”

The mummies have gone on tour in the United States and have been shown in The Detroit Science Center in 2009, The West End Dallas Market in 2011, and The Natural Science

Mummy dressed in modern clothing

Mummy dressed in modern clothing

Center of Greensboro in 2012. The collection includes a fetal mummy (advertised as the world’s smallest) and the mummy of Ignacia Aguilar (who may have been buried alive). Most of the mummies are naked. A few are wearing socks (with shoes and without). Some are fully dressed in what appears to be fairly modern clothing.

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. You can read my fiction and make the comparison yourself. Major scenes in Owl Dreams take place in a cemetery. There are cemetery / burial scenes in Magic Popsicle Sticks and Trial Separation (to be released soon by Pen-L Publishing), and the streets are literally littered with the dead in the Kindle short, “Messages”.

 

The Parade of the Children

Parade of the Children San Miguel de Allende

Parade of the Children San Miguel de Allende

People in San Miguel take their festivals seriously so when some locals told me to be sure and catch the Desfile de los Niños (Parade of the Children), I knew it would be something special.

 Like almost all Mexican celebrations, this one has indigenous origins and is tied closely to the cycles of the Sun. The Parade of Children takes place approximately (mas o minus as they say around here) on the vernal equinox.

This is the day on the solar calendar (in case anyone needs reminding) when the Sun spends a brief moment in time directly above the Earth’s equator. After that, the world dresses in her spring wardrobe and days in the northern hemisphere continue getting longer and warmer until the Summer solstice (which comes with its own festival) when things start moving the other

Parade of the Children San Miguel de Allende

Parade of the Children San Miguel de Allende

direction. It’s an important day, and you can be sure that ancient Aztec gods are be standing next to the Catholic Saints making sure everything goes off as planned.

If I hadn’t known, I never would have guessed this parade had anything to do with astrophysics or Mesoamerican mythology. I don’t know how many children live in San Miguel, but it’s hard to imagine any of them didn’t play some part in the celebration. It was sort of religious, and indigenous,

Smurf in Children's parade San Miguel de Allende

Smurf in Children’s parade San Miguel de Allende

and ecological, and anthropological, and about as cute as anything I’ve ever seen.

Is it racist to say that Mexican children are among the cutest in the world? I’ll risk it. These children threw themselves into their roles. For the duration of the parade (two hours mas or minus) they were authentic Kings, and Queens, and butterflies, and jaguars, and cows, and Smurfs. I wondered how the Aztec gods were going to react to the Smurfs, but they didn’t seem to mind.

With all those three to eight year olds there must have been a tantrum or two, but I didn’t see a single one. The children all seemed happy with their roles, nobody was left out, and they picked up their trash when they were through.

The Mexicans in San Miguel are comfortable with their mix of modern and ancient—

Children's parade San Miguel de Allende

Children’s parade San Miguel de Allende

comfortable enough to let a curious Norte Americano author look at them under a literary magnifying glass. I’ve based a few characters on my Mexican encounters (Owl Dreams, Southwest Gothic Tales, and Messages). More are on the way. Magic Popsicle Sticks and Trial Separation are two more Native American oriented novels chock full of the kind of magic realism that makes San Miguel so special.  Those books are under contract with Pen-L Publishing. They’ll be available after they work their way through the editing process.

 

 

A Little Spanish Wouldn’t Hurt

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

What do San Miguel locals think about all the Norte Ameriacano’s who have moved to their town over the last two decades? The gardener in one of the B & B’s we stayed in told me, “They should learn Spanish.” He said it in lightly accented English he learned while working in the United States. “Some of these people have lived here for ten years and they still don’t speak our language.”

That sounded like something I might have said—or at least thought—about the Mexican immigrants in Oklahoma City.

“A little Spanish wouldn’t hurt you either,” the gardener told me.

I took it to heart. My wife and I enrolled in The Warren Hardy School, which teaches

Level 2 Spanish Teacher at the Warren Hardy School

Level 2 Spanish Teacher at the Warren Hardy School

Spanish to English speakers in courses that typically meet three times a week, three hours a day, for three weeks. The classes are pretty effective, but as you might imagine, they leave some gaps in your conversational abilities.

Mexicans love it when you make an effort. They are very patient with Anglos who try to adapt to their culture. That doesn’t mean they’ll speak more slowly so you’ll have a better chance at understanding. When a Mexican speaks Spanish, the language

A little Spanish is useful if you want to shop in the local markets.

A little Spanish is useful if you want to shop in the local markets.

comes out like a heavy object dropped from a great height. The words keep picking up speed until they crash.

“Mas despacio por favor,”More slowly please—might work for a word or two, but by the end of the first sentence they’ve reached the speed of incomprehensibility again. Still, you pick up a word or two, and, what’s more important, they pick up a word or two, and even if what you said was wrong, they hardly ever laugh at you—at least while you are standing there.

Parroquia de San Miguel. The trees are shaped like cylinders.

Parroquia de San Miguel.
The trees are shaped like cylinders.

A friend and I were looking for a good place to photograph the Parroquia (church). We ran into a man coming down w very steep hill as we were going up. Our conbersation started out great. He told us (I think) there was no good view where we were going, but he would show us a  killer “Buena vista.”

Before long it was clear he was taking us back where we had started, chattering in Spanish all the way, with lots of gestures and the only English he seemed to know: “Basketball! What the hell!”

“We’ve got to get rid of this guy,” I told my friend. Hopefully, with my Warren Hardy Spanish, we could do this without hurting his feelings. With my best Warren Hardy Spanish I tried to tell him we needed to go back home. I handed him twenty pesos—something all Norte Americanos do reflexively—and said, “Necesisitamous ir a su cassa.”

He backed away a little more quickly than I’d anticipated, but it was working.

“What did you say to him?” my friend asked.

Perro de San Miguel

Perro de San Miguel

It took me a minute before I realized I’d told him, “We need to go to your house.” I wonder what he thought the twenty pesos were for.

For my writer (and reader) friends, there’s a bonus to taking Spanish lessons. You can plant Spanish Easter Eggs (as my sister in law Emily calls them) in your stories. Elmore Leonard did it in Bandits. He buried the phrase, “No es pesado. Es mi hermano,” in a letter from Ronald Reagan soliciting contributions to stop communism in Nicaragua. The phrase was never mentioned again or explained but it means: “He’s not heavy. He’s my brother.”—a joke that only the in crowd will get.

I’ve hidden a few Easter eggs Owl Dreams, Southwest Gothic Tales, and Messages. Not Spanish Easter eggs, but I plan to start doing that right after I finish Warren Hardy level 2.