Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

On June 23, 2020, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, not far from the coastal town of Zipolite, where I happened to be living at the start of the March pandemic. I had just sat down to work when the room began to shake violently as if it were on the verge of self-immolation, and I stormed out the front door of my house to see that the power lines were everywhere in a world that was suddenly terribly insecure.

Contributing to the apocalyptic feeling was the vehicle that then flew past with passengers hanging out of the windows and shouting at bystanders to run for the hills or else be killed by an alleged incoming tsunami. It was undoubtedly an appropriate end, I told myself, to my stay in Zipolite – a place whose name, so to speak, means “playa de la muerte”, or “beach of death”, in the Zapotec -language.

There were several theories about the origin of the name, the most obvious being that it was a deadly stretch of sea, where waves and cracks caused the downfall of countless bayers over the years. Some observers have also argued that the local indigenous peoples regarded Zipolite – positioned as it is on the southernmost tip of Oaxaca – as a kind of underworld.

After being notified of impending martyrdom by tsunami, I was rescued from the gringa-in-distress attitude I adopted in my doorway by a man I had never met. José Luis, who was in his forties but looked much older, motioned for me to hop in his car and then drove me up the road to the piece of land where his extended family lived. I sat petrified for the next few hours on his mother’s porch while the family laughed for every aftershock and thought back to the last major earthquake in 2017 – when there was also a tsunami warning and the residents of Zipolite took refuge in the cemetery on a hill overlooking the town.

This time, the coast was finally declared clean and I dragged myself home – only to end up back at the piece of land that night, after the family came to the conclusion that I probably would not respond well to a magnitude 5.9 aftershock. not and José sent Luis to fetch me again.

Six months later, José Luis contracted a fatal diabetic coma and was buried at the hill cemetery himself. The funeral was accompanied by traditional ranchera music courtesy of a singer and guitarist – par for the course in a country where funerals are often festive, with drinking, dancing and fireworks.

In several parts of Mexico, however, the coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on things, as outlined in a May 2020 article in the Spanish newspaper El País entitled “La muerte ya no es una fiesta” – or “Death is not a party “more”. The closure of cemeteries and social distancing measures meant that in Mexico City, for example, it was no longer possible to be kept awake by 10-man mariachis.

According to historian Federico Navarrete of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, cited in the piece, the inability to perform established funeral rites was “problematic” for many Mexican communities from not only a “supernatural” perspective, but a ” community “one, as well, as funerals constituted” collective events “and a place for the” confirmation of social ties. “

Of course, this does not mean that death is always a joyous occasion in Mexico. In addition to being plagued by the pandemic, the country is embroiled in a homicide epidemic, while the United States-backed drug war launched in 2006 killed more than 300,000 people and lost about 80,000.

But as a Mexican friend recently reasoned to me: since everyone has to die anyway, it’s ultimately healthier for those of us who are still alive to make a feast of it. For someone like me who grew up in the US – where death is anything but a party, and where my brother and I held our breath whenever we drove past a cemetery – this attitude was similar to fresh air .

To be sure, under the American brand of murderous capitalism, there are not many opportunities for “community” in death – much less in life. Instead, the forces that actively pose people against each other, reducing existence itself to a matter of individual success or failure in the interest of maintaining a system of elite tyranny and institutionalized socio-economic inequality. It’s a deadly arrangement, to say the least – just look at reports like this one from the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies: “Inequality is literally dead to us”.

In December 2021, one year after José Luis’ death, I moved to the Zipolite Cemetery with its giant painted skeleton smiling next to the entrance. Scattered across the tombs were the colorful remains of the previous month’s Day of the Dead celebration, one of Mexico’s defining festivals. Papier-maché decorations, flowers and alcoholic beverage offerings abounded.

José Luis’ concrete grave has a painting of a rooster, a candle and a framed picture of him holding a Corona beer. I sat on the edge of the grave with my own beer and slowly replayed the events of June 23 in my head, crowing over the spectacle I made in my doorway and thanking José Luis for keeping me out. A couple arrived on a motorcycle to clean a nearby grave and deposit more flowers, while talking to the deceased all the time.

There is something at the same time grounding and constructive to communities in which the dead effectively remain part of life. And when I came back from the cemetery up the hill, I felt pretty alive on the beach of death.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.

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