|Mexico I, 1995....gouache painting by Mitzi Linn|
Perhaps you knew Karen Turtle. You could have met her through the Salsa Picante Folkart Store during one of your visits to Oaxaca in the late 1980’s. You might have been a wholesale buyer from a United States gallery seeking colorful, imaginative folkart from Oaxaca’s treasure chest of creativity. The carved-painted animals, the black pottery, the rugs.... Karen would have overseen your order, getting it made and shipped to New York or Chicago or wherever.....If you’d become friends with her, you might have brought some Earl Grey Tea, green granny apples or tofu which she loved and couldn’t get in Oaxaca. You might have taken her out to dinner at the Chinese restaurant since she was a vegetarian.
Or maybe you came from a family of rug makers, or crafts people living and working in the villages around the city of Oaxaca. You might have known her then as a friend, and buyer of your artisanias for the wholesale business she managed. She could have become the madrina of one of your children’s school party or of the wedding cake at your son’s boda. You could have danced a cumbia with her at a pueblo fiesta in San Martin Tilcajete, Santo Tomas Jalieza , Arrasola, or Teotitlan del Valle. You would have welcomed her in a beat-up Volkswagen bug driving up your barely passable street in the rainy season. Or greeted her after she walked 2 miles from the bus on the highway in her plastic huaraches. She was happy to bring you money and pick up an order for one of her wholesale customers.
An American by birth, Karen’s life style in Oaxaca wasn’t the expatriates dream of the fine house, leisurely lunches, servants and happy hour at 6 pm daily. Many ex-pats carefully never learned to speak Spanish so they wouldn’t be able to get really involved with Mexico’s many layers of reality. They moved to Oaxaca to live the good life in retirement, remarking at how cheap everything is in Mexico.
Karen was too young to be retired and had to work for a living. She worked the standard Mexican work week--6 days, with Sunday off. On Sunday she often caught a 5 am bus to get to a wedding or baptism mass at 6 am out in San Martin or Santo Tomas, or Arrasola. She arrived to make tamales wrapped in banana leaves or help the women of the family serve guests in the Zapotec-style fiestas. These people from various towns shared their lives with Karen, a guera, a white American, who they originally met when she came to teach English in their communities. She’d
gotten woven into the fabric of their lives, the births and deaths, work and fiesta.
At those fiestas Karen would drink mescal and joke around with her women friends, then dance with their sons as the celebration continued sometimes for days and nights. She became god-mother to two different girls, in two different pueblos, San Martin Tilcajete and Teotitlan Del Valle. Karen had come to Oaxaca to stay. Every six months she had to cross the Mexican border to renew her tourist visa, usually making a quick trip down to Guatemala, rather than to the United States. She worked illegally, always a little afraid of being denounced and deported. She was a wetback in reverse direction. She stayed because she loved Oaxaca, its rich culture and its indigenous peoples.
Karen’s love and respect for the local artisans was returned. They respected her because she was honest and never tried to cheat them or talk them into a bad deal. She helped make famous the painted, wooden animal carvers of the area by being a source for the writers of a now well-known book. She honored the carvers and their wives and children who painted the animalitos. She treated Teotitlan’s rug makers well. These qualities differentiated her from Mexican shop keepers and wholesalers. Teotitecas, people from Teotitlan, always say they prefer American to Mexican buyers for that reason. They are respected for their art. As the in-between person, Karen presented folkart items at Salsa Picante to be bought at wholesale prices by gallery buyers from the US. Her own sensibility and taste led to new designs and products. She spent days going out to various villages checking on orders for folkart galleries in the United States.
|Weaving by Tito Mendoza and siblings..|
I met Karen through a mutual friend in spring 1990. A short, trim woman, she dressed colorfully, in various local traditional styles, almost always, in skirts and blouses, with plastic sandals. She had a jeans jacket and various rebozos for chilly times. Her short, wavy,brown hair and bright blue eyes gave the impression of a American woman in her mid 30’s. She had a fiesty personality and had once been a political radical living in Berkeley. Older than she appeared, her romantic interest was a twenty-five year old Zapotec weaver from Santo Tomas Jalieza. Jorge, the object of her obsession, appeared to be innocent of her desires. I noted his chino eyes and bright smile when she finally introduced us.
Karen was always on the go. Still, she had loved her little apartment in a garden setting in Colonia Xochimilco. She lived there with her three-colored, timid cat named Salsa for several years. About the time we met, Karen has just gotten all her things shipped down from Berkeley, her previous home in the US. This included her state of the art stereo system. She had furniture made in Oaxaca, and bought things like an antique baul (a Spanish-style trunk on legs usually given at weddings out in the villages.) Of course, she accumulated a wonderful, though small folkart collection in her tiny house. Unlike other retired ex-pats, Karen had little money and lived on what she earned in the folkart export business. She’d been in Oaxaca for a number of years. By the time I met her she’d distanced herself from most other Americans living in Oaxaca. She loved the people from the villages, often saying she wished she could live in one of the pueblos. She wanted to marry Jorge and have a baby. She’d be happy to live in Santo Tomas with his family since in Zapotec custom the bride lives with the groom’s family. Of course, she already counted his sisters as friends.
Karen and I had mutual friends out in Teotitlan del Valle--Edmundo and Alicia Montano and their four children, Fidel, Pedro, Antonia, and Lichita (little Alicia). Lichita was her god-daughter. I’d met the family in February, 1988, when I led a small group to Oaxaca on the first of my Spirit and Culture guided adventure. We’d stopped to eat at their restaurant while walking around Teotitlan. We examined their colorful rugs. That day Edmundo was weaving in their patio of well-swept earth. In spite of my limited Spanish and their limited English, they made it clear I was very welcome to come to see them anytime. When I met Karen a couple years later we had great fun going out to spend time with them together. One time we helped make tamales with banana leaves for a fiesta.
|Garcia Vigil and Cervantes house on the right....where car is parked..|
In late winter 1992 I arrived back in Oaxaca after being in the US for months, and leading a meditation workshop in Puerto Angel where I met Peter Lamb from Ireland. His partner, Sean, owned an old house in downtown Oaxaca on Garcia Vigil. I’d wondered about that colonial house for years. It sits across from the folkart store ARIPO near the arches of Xochimilco.
Sometimes the balcony doors/windows were open and sometimes not. Large pots of geraniums sat on the balconies across the second story of the house. The house got painted rusty/red at some point with yellow framed windows and dark blue doors. I thought that no one lived there. I was delighted when Peter invited me to lunch with him at the house. We had much in common, him practicing Reiki healing and my reading Tarot and practicing similar healing techniques. When I got back to Oaxaca we hung out together, lunched at the house, traded treatments and became friends. What a sweet man and house!
I was eager to see Karen upon my return that late February. We’d written a couple letters over the months. Both single women in our forties, Karen was my only on-going, American woman friend in Oaxaca. Of course I always met new people, Mexicans and foreigners, but Karen and I had alot in common. Neither of us had much money, we weren’t retired and lived more like Mexicans than other Americans. Neither of us wanted to be part of the American expatriate community. Our politics leaned left of center. Sometimes we’d splurge and have dinner at the Chinese restaurant. I brought her green apples, Earl Grey tea, and tofu as she wished and other small things so hard to get in Mexico at that time.
We both loved baked potatoes. We usually got together for at least one baked potato feast with a fresh salad during my months in Oaxaca. I’d brought down a toaster oven. Karen preferred organic salads which were nearly impossible to come by back then. I invited Karen for a baked potato fiesta, complete with handmade limonada and fresh green salad on Palm Sunday.
By this time I’d come to live as the caretaker at Peter and Sean’s house across from ARIPO. (Known as the Cervantes House.) That wonderful old house had been built by the first Bishop of Oaxaca in the 1500’s. Those walls I’d looked at over the years were three feet thick. Peter’s house had a large permanent gas tank on the roof and hot water in the kitchen sink. That was a luxury in many Oaxacan houses. When I’d begun living there in early March, Peter and Sean needed someone trust worthy and bilingual to take care of the house. Peter explained that recently the housekeeper, Tomas, had ripped off all the tools and any extra useful items that had been stored in the garage. He couldn’t be fired but needed to be encouraged to quit. Tomas had become an alcoholic under the tutelage of a previous British caretaker. Some antique oil paintings and other things still remained in the house, though Peter and Sean had shipped most of the antiques to Ireland.
I noted Tomas’ limp handshake and evasive look when we met. A thin young man, he seemed more like a shadow than a person as he slunk along the corridor wall. At my insistence Peter had the lock changed on the front door, the only door. Tomas had had a key, and god knows how many duplicates circulated in Oaxaca. I didn’t want to be there alone with Tomas having a key. I’d be home and let him in to work, I promised. He’d come and clean. I’d water the many plants in their large clay pots daily. Tomas’ grandmother had been the Cervantes’ (former owner) maid. This position passed down through the family. For some reason after Tomas’ mother passed on none of the daughters wanted the job. Peter paid him $100 USD per month to clean and care for the place. Missing things, well.....
I planned to look out for the house as if it were my own. The third day after Peter’s departure, I found that the yellow bucket I used to water those geraniums out on the front balconies had vanished overnight. I made it clear to Tomas in my functional Spanish that the bucket should reappear the next day or....else. He brought the bucket but then did his best to not appear to clean when scheduled. I’d have to wait around. He didn’t call--phones were not all that common then anyway. He’d show up when I was about to leave. Towards the end of my stay there, he turned the job over to his brother, Rodrigo, a totally different kind of person.
Rodrigo told me his grandmother had frequently seen a ghost in the house. He recalled seeing something when visiting her one time. He wondered if I ever experienced anything strange ? And always, the question, aren’t you afraid living alone?
Rodrigo said he had been a medical student when students protested the Mexican government’s massacre of students in Mexico City. (1968) Hundreds of students demonstrated in the Zocalo in Oaxaca. Army troops attacked students from their nearby base at Santo Domingo Cathedral. This assault left some of his friends bleeding to death in the street. It traumatized him so much he left medical school and never completed his studies. He lived a block away at the family home caring for his old, sick father.
Coming through the street door onto the uneven worn green Oaxacan cantara floor gave me a feeling of peace and security. Always cool on hot days the adobe walled rooms warmed easily on cool rainy evenings. A statue of St. Teresa de Avila, carved from basalt, presided over the medium sized patio on the ground floor. She was half-hidden under a shower of night blooming jasmine vines in front of a defunct fountain. This sanctuary, a private home, and before that, a Carmelite convent, included five bedrooms and two baths, a library, a formal living room on the second floor where the window/doors opened to balconies with pots of geraniums above the street. I lived behind those very doors I’d been scrutinizing for years. Broad stone stairs connected the three floors. Adobe arches lined corridors that opened into various rooms on both floors. Bougainvillea flowered over the arches and up the light peach painted walls. At night, the blooming jasmine perfumed the air.
A formal dining room adjoined the modern kitchen on the ground floor. Its darkly stained long Spanish style table and chairs invited gathering friends for dinner, followed by philosophical discussions about art and politics over mescal and cervezas. Another Oaxacan pastime. While the house was in disrepair and for sale, I was living in luxury.
A monastery sat on the other side of the vine covered wall. Occasionally an inspired a boy would climb the wall and peer over into the vestibule under adobe arches where I spent hours making paintings. Luckily these boys were training to be priests not voyeurs.
Never appear unclothed outside your bedroom. This is my rule of thumb in Mexico. Everyone watches everyone else. Being a blond American single woman in her 40’s made me noticeable enough on the streets of mostly brown-skinned, black hair Oaxaquenos.
From the roof I had an unobstructed view of San Felipe, that shapely mountain north of the city. Sometimes I went up to the roof garden to watch the sky darken as the afternoon thunderstorm came over the Sierra Juarez. Lightning preceded the storms like fireworks. Strong bolts struck the lower hills followed by heavy rain, rushing down and flooding the pedestrian street, Macedonia Alcala. I understood why the ancient Zapotecs worshipped Cocijo, the god of thunder, lightning and rain. This awe inspiring natural phenomenon seemed godlike to me.
That Palm Sunday afternoon I remember Karen sitting in the rocker in the large formal living room looking at a book. The windows opened to the balconies above the street. I snapped a photo of her in the rocker before our baked potato and fresh salad feast. Relaxed, we talked about our lives and the week’s events. She loved the old house too.
By this time Karen worked at a different folk art store located near where I was living. Salsa Picante’s owner had given up his business which didn’t make him much money. Karen had recently moved to a small house in San Felipe del Agua, a house I had yet to visit. Karen, forever obsessing about Jorge, disliked her new working position, though she tried to get along with the owner Angela, a Oaxacan woman friend of hers. She wanted to continue the wholesale business she’d run for Salsa Picante but found it difficult to do with Angela’s way of doing business.
|Oaxaca Folk Dancers|
As Karen complained that day about the situation with Angela, I listened and encouraged her to consider going into business for herself, exporting folkart to the US. She had all the connections in both Oaxaca and the US. She had some money in savings still in California. The buyer for Jackalope (a folkart store in Santa Fe) also encouraged her to start her own business. Victor, one of Karen’s admirers and friends, offered to partner with her using his watch repair shop as an outlet for folk art. She didn’t know what to do. The Mexican red tape for foreigners going into business legitimately, including the la mordita (bribe) required, stopped all but the strongest of heart and bankroll. Still, she might be able to carry on as she had on her own, since she never worked legally anyway. She carefully didn’t reveal this to many.
Now she often had to walk a mile or two in those plastic sandals from the bus to get to a artisan's house when she went to check on an order. Before, at Salsa Picante, she’d driven a funky old Volkswagen out on those rutted village roads. She tried to carry on the wholesale business through Angela’s folkart shop. It wasn’t working well.
In two weeks Karen was planning to return to the United States to visit her mother and sister on the East Coast. She hadn’t seen them in quite a long time. As you might have guessed Karen changed her last name to ‘Turtle’ while living in Berkeley, trying to help save turtles. An former school teacher and graphic artist, her Berkeley life included hanging out at La Pena, the Latin American coffee house and supporting various Latin American causes. She often designed their posters. She planned to visit an old friend (another turtle lover) in the Bay Area on her upcoming trip.
We talked alot about the trip to see her family. Her mother had been particularly negative to her as a child, putting her down and undermining her sense of self-worth. I’d identified this during the year before when she participated in one of my workshops in Oaxaca. We talked about her current feelings. Her family really wanted to see her and she wanted to spend time with her sister’s twin boys, whom she’d loved as babies. They all lived in New Jersey.
So passed our peaceful Sunday afternoon, eating baked potatoes, fresh salad and drinking home-made limonada. We made plans to see each other during the week, perhaps take in a movie on Thursday. Thus began Holy Week.
I passed by to see her at Angela’s shop on Monday evening and helped her carry some empty boxes up to the bus stop on Porfirio Diaz where she caught the bus for San Felipe. We hugged good-bye, she got on the bus, and said we’d see each other on Thursday. Meantime, she would be out in the villages on Tuesday and Wednesday, checking on orders for clients in the US. She looked forward to those next days, being out with her friends.
|Monte Alban; North Altar..|
Holy Week progressed with the rains beginning in earnest. On Tuesday I noticed a storm coming in over San Felipe and considered I had just enough time to make it up to Monte Alban to experience it. I rushed down and got the bus up the mountain. I just arrived at the south end of the great plaza of Monte Alban when the storm hit full force. The wind drove the rain horizontally. Alone, I sheltered among the “danzantes”, those mysterious ancient carvings that seem to be Olmec in origin. The ferocious storm perhaps was a premonition of things to come.
On Thursday morning I decided that I really didn’t want to go to the movie that evening. Thinking to change plans, I tried to phone Karen at Angela’s tienda. She wasn’t there. This seemed highly unusual, since Karen normally did what she said she would do. I went there, a block from the house and found out from Angela that Karen hadn’t been at work since Monday. Since Karen didn’t have a phone, Angela just figured she stayed out in the villages or took off early for Easter vacation. Jose Luis Guttierrez, a carver from Arrasola, came in while I was there. He was also looking for Karen. She hadn’t been out to Arrasola. He suggested we try to call someone in San Martin to see if she had been there on Wednesday as she’d planned. As we waited for the return call via the community phone service (la casseta), I began to feel strange. No, her compadre Ventura Fabian said that she hadn’t come by his house that week.
By this time I was worried. Karen went to work with fevers and chills that would keep me in bed a week. I had a bad feeling, wondering if something had happened to her in San Felipe, maybe she’d gotten robbed and hurt or killed....though this wouldn’t be the usual scenario of that small town where she lived. Still, I kept thinking we should go to Karen’s house. Angela thought we should see if Jorge had seen her, so we got in Angela’s pick up truck and went to the Artisanias Market, south of the Zocalo, to see if he’d seen her. From behind stacks of hand woven Santa Tomas backpacks he also said “ No”. He hadn’t seen her in a couple weeks. I then insisted we go to her house. We headed for San Felipe, Jose Luis, Angela and me.
We got to her small, adobe house as afternoon rain clouds lunged over the mountain threatening to burst open. We knocked. No answer. We knocked again and again. Then, we noticed something strange--the black metal door was locked from the inside. (A peculiarity of Mexican locks) She must be in the house. The curious neighbors showed us where the landlord lived so we rushed over to their house, interrupted their comida and asked them to open the door to Karen’s casita. By this time alarm was setting in. The landlords said they really liked Karen and looked out for her since she lived alone. They’d last seen her Tuesday evening. They tentatively unlocked her front door.
Door unlocked, we rushed into the two room house. Jose Luis, first in, found Karen in her bed. A tiny trickle of blood came out of her barely opened mouth. Her eyes, closed, and her face peaceful. She was dead. Salsa, her timid cat, quite upset, ran out of the house. While I’d had that feeling that something awful had happened, it didn’t prepare me for Karen being dead. Right there in her bed, me touching her cold white hand and crying ‘No... No....No’.... unable to stop the wailing sound pushing out of me.
Shock set in. I was glad I wasn’t alone. It seemed to me she had died in her sleep. The landlords called the US Consular, Mark Leyes, who was just about to leave town for the holiday weekend. He came right over. He had to come since Karen had been a US citizen and would need a death certificate. He would have to seal the house, close it with a legal document, which would prevent the local police from robbing the place, in pretext of investigating her death. He called the mortuary and made arrangements with the funeral home.
Through this official American intervention, Mark took me under his wing. I appreciated his kindness. We searched the house for Karen’s address book. I knew her mother’s last name, Karen’s old name. I had to call her mother and sister in New Jersey. How do you tell someone their adult child, their sister and your close friend is dead? I still don’t know what I said. I was numb.
An autopsy was required since no one knew how she died. Karen didn’t do drugs so I assumed she had a stroke with the blood trickle out of the mouth. The door had been locked so we didn’t think she‘d been murdered. Mark made arrangements for the autopsy. She had wanted to be cremated, her sister said when I told her that Karen had died. I had had to pick out her burial clothes in the few minutes after they took her body from her little house, before the house was sealed. A skirt and blouse and her plastic sandals, earrings. I put food and water outside for Salsa her cat. Rain started pouring down on Oaxaca then. It was the evening of the Last Supper. Mark drove me back downtown. Angela and Jose Luis had left when he got there. Her body would be at the funeral home on Independencia later that evening after the autopsy.
|El Descanso.....painting by Mitzi Linn|
In the car outside the morgue, the ghoulish looking doctor who performed the autopsy invited us to view Karen’s body. I declined. Mark had to go though and returned in a little while looking sick. Ten years later he told me what had happened inside. After watching an intern saw her head open with a dull saw, the doctor had placed Karen’s slippery brain in Mark’s hands to show him the aneurysm. Mark dropped it on the floor. He was having dry heaves when he left the building. This haunted him a long time. He does have to verify deaths of Americans but he said he never got that close again.
Rain spread reflections of street and car lights across the streets that dark night. My life went into slow motion. The Buddhist teaching ‘death comes without warning’ passed through my thoughts.
I don’t remember going home, to the sweet old house that felt like a temple. But I was grateful to have it as a sanctuary. I must have gone to get my rebozo before we went to the morgue. Perhaps I phoned Karen’s family again. The rain had begun shortly after we found Karen’s body and by now, after 6:30 pm, it was dark and chilly. I made an altar for Karen in a nicho on the stairway, lit a large, votive candle and said a prayer. I placed her image of the Virgin of Juquila there along some other small things of hers. How convenient to be living with appropriate altar spaces.
Who took me to the funeral home that night? Perhaps Angela. I do remember we were together, upstairs in a large room with Karen’s body in a simple wooden coffin. Four tall white candles burned, one an each corner of the coffin. White nardos and lillies filled urns in front of her. Karen looked as she did that afternoon, except for an unseemly sewn-up cut in her neck, from the autopsy. She probably died while sleeping on Tuesday night. She would have turned 50 on her next birthday.
Angela left and returned later with a white cloth to cover her body. Jose Luis’s family, good friends of Karen’s, sent a group of resadores from Arrasola. They would spend the night praying for Karen. I needed to supply them with cigarettes and mescal, the traditional payment for their services. I went out and bought them some of both, though not enough probably to pass the night. The funeral home provided hot coffee and sweet rolls. I was supposed to stay with Karen’s body that night. I couldn’t. I was exhausted. Angela seemed to think the resadores only came so they could drink mescal while doing their prayers. I didn’t know. It was all new to me.
That afternoon I had learned I’d be in charge of the funeral. Karen’s sister asked me to take care of things. I was Karen’s family in Oaxaca. Her brother-in-law, Carl, would come on Easter Sunday. I didn’t want to have her body cremated until he got there so the ordinary funeral days had to be extended. Since the body wasn’t embalmed and she’d been dead already two days, it began to smell by Friday night. By Saturday afternoon I had the coffin nailed shut. I still can’t smell nardos without being carried back to the smell of Karen’s deteriorating body. I added new Spanish words to my vocabulary as the days went on.
Have I mentioned I knew next to nothing about Mexican funerals, and in this case, Zapotec customs? In 1989 I’d gone to a Oaxacan funeral home with musician friends when Pablo and Memo Porras’ father died. Middle-class Oaxacaquenos, they had the body at a funeral home rather than the family home which is what is done in the towns around Oaxaca. I sat with Memo and Pablo and their family awhile. Their father was buried the next morning.
I read about local funeral customs as practiced in Oaxacan villages. The family and friends gather for a wake the night after the death of the person. They bury the body the next morning. Often a band leads the procession to the cemetery. I’d heard their dirges in Teotitlan a few times. During the night, the deceased’s family makes hot chocolate, provides food, tamales, and drink for those who come to sit with the deceased. The body lies at home, on sand or a cloth or mat on the floor or on a platform, surrounded by candles, like an altar around which family and friends gather. They bring flowers, candles and mescal. People comfort the family and pray through the night. They all accompany the dead one’s soul on its journey to the after world. They make a procession to the cemetery the next morning to bury the body. I’d admired Felipe Morales’ painting of a skeleton in his death bed with candles at four corners at Gallery La Mano Magica’s exhibition for the Day of the Dead in 1988. But I’d never had to deal with the sudden death of a close friend or family member, even in the US.
It was after midnight when I finally left the funeral home that Thursday night. The quiet city smelled clean and fresh after the rain. I wrapped myself in my black ikat rebozo and walked alone slowly up Garcia Vigil towards the house. Stars shown from a distant heaven. Yesterday seemed like a thousand years ago.
Because of such a strong belief that the body of a deceased person shouldn’t be alone, Jose Luis’s family and others unobtrusively covered the nights after that first one. I couldn’t be there 24 hours a day, I explained. I was the only family member. Usually she would have been buried that next day, Good Friday, but I was waiting for Carl to come before the cremation. There was to be a funeral mass with a priest on Easter Sunday morning before her body was burned.
Good Friday morning I returned to the funeral home. I arrived early to find many people I didn’t know sitting in the large room with Karen’s body. I went around, shaking hands, introducing myself sharing information about her death and meeting these people, her other friends....They represented families of wooden animal carvers, weavers, potters, tin workers and her favorite cab driver, David. Word was spreading about her death. We’d called several people out in San Martin Tilcajete, including her compadre Ventura Fabian, the Fuentes family, and others. I’d called Edmundo and Alicia in Teotitlan as well as the Manual Jimenez family from Arrasola and Dolores Porras and other potters from Astompa. I used Karen’s phone book to call the casseta of each small outlying town. The casseta was the community phone service before individual phone service extended to private homes in most pueblos. I left messages for her friends and clients. I knew word would spread by also telling the family that operated the community phone. Word-of-mouth always works in Mexico.
As Friday dragged on many people from different villages came to pay their respects. Being good Friday made it all the more difficult to get into Oaxaca. Often buses run on very altered schedules, or not at all, on holy days. My friends, Glafira and the women from Casa Arnel, came to do the Rosary that night. They’d just met Karen at my house when I invited them over for tea and cake a few weeks before. My painter friend Humberto Batista arrived with Maggie, my flamenco teacher. Arnulfo and Mary Jane Mendoza came and sat for awhile. I was thankful to be with friends.
Mostly Oaxaquenos came to the funeral home to sit with Karen’s body. Very few Americans came. Perhaps they hadn’t heard about her death. I didn’t really know too many of Karen’s American friends. Weeks later several Americans told me they heard about it but didn’t want to come to the funeral home. Death made them feel uneasy.
Talking about Karen, all the Oaxacan crafts people emphasized that their business wouldn’t be the same without her. Many tried to talk me into taking up Karen’s business. I said clearly that I couldn’t, though I had Karen’s business address book for the United States. I took down names and addresses and directions to her friends’ and houses who came to the funeral home. I had to explain that I’m an artist, a painter and counselor. I couldn’t just jump into her business. Maybe they could work with Angela.
Most of these Zapotec crafts people remarked how Karen was their special friend. She remembered their birthday, brought them little presents from her trips to Guatemala. She came to weddings, baptisms, and to their town fiestas. She loved their way of life. She listened to their problems.
I found that Oaxaca valley people are more familiar with death, sudden or expected, than most North Americans. Medical help is harder to come by and people have fewer expectations. Perhaps death is experienced as a part of life. There’s a more fatalistic attitude, or, as most people say in one way or another,--it’s up to God.
I had to be outgoing, moving around the room. I found the women and men very understanding and reassuring. We held hands, hugged, shared our feelings and thoughts as best we could. Sometimes we cried. Spanish is a second language to me, and to many of the Zapotecs, so our communication seemed basic, but from the heart. My Spanish vocabulary expanded to include stroke, ashes, cremation as well as other words I had never expected to have to learn or use in Mexico.
Unless they came from the same village, Karen’s mourners didn’t know each other either. I recounted how Karen died, that she had a stroke, and no, I didn’t know she was sick.....Karen, out of her body somewhere above, must have been happily enjoying this coming together of so many people she loved and was loved by. I tried to explain that she wanted her body cremated and I was waiting for her brother-in-law to come for the funeral before the cremation. Inside I felt frenetic. Outside I calmly listened to Karen’s friends. When I told them about her wish to be cremated, they expressed startled disbelief and explained in detail the traditional type of Oaxacan funeral, the way it should be done. They wondered about customs in the US. Why would anyone be cremated?
Burning up a body and spreading the ashes someplace special wasn’t easy to explain to the Zapotecs. Their royal and rich ancestors buried their relatives in beautiful tombs, with exquisite decorations, including offerings in wonderful ceramics urns of Cocijo and other valley dieties. Even the modern burial with flowers and candles, coffins, crosses and monuments, gives the family a gravesite at which to celebrate the Day of the Dead. There they can commune with the deceased and remember the family lineage.
What would we do with her ashes? Something Zapotec. Bury them in their little box, in a cemetery in a valley town. Would it be San Martin Tilcajete, Teotitlan del Valle, or Arrasola? Each town’s delegation of Karen’s friends and compadres had their reason for wanting her ashes in their cemetery. I had to decide. Luckily for me, Edmundo got permission to bury her ashes in the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery.
He convinced the town governors there was no place else for them to go. She had no family. She was his comadre. She may be the only foreigner whose remains lie buried there in a child-sized grave. Perhaps the only non-Zapotec. For sure, the only box of ashes.... ! Now her little cross still is there with the turtle and another person is buried there also...the owner of the plot...
Early afternoon on Good Friday, deciding to take a break from the intensity of being in the large room with Karen’s decaying body and her many friends, I stepped out some glass doors onto an adjoining terrazzo that overlooked Avenida Independencia, two blocks from the Zocalo. I had forgotten it was Good Friday. I heard noises and looked up the street. Preceded by silent women in black, the large statue of Oaxaca’s patron saint was being carried down Avenida Independencia on the shoulders of devoted men. As the silent, grieving procession came alongside the funeral home, the Virgen of Soledad, her light brown face cast down, seemed to float towards me. The vision of her in that black gown with white pearls and the pearl and gold crown above her serene face dwarfed whatever feelings I had about the situation inside. She reminded me that death and grief are natural and universal. I felt her compassion for the suffering extend to me. Another long procession of women with black ikat rebozos covering their heads created a dark train to Soledad’s black gown. They clasped bouquets of white lilies and candles. People in the procession reflected the anguish most human beings suffer around death and dying. I felt some solace in their passing.
|Painting by Felipe Morales....(traditional death)|
Sudden, unexpected death seems the worst for the survivors. One thing Karen’s death taught me is that the living are seldom prepared for the death of a loved one. Many believe unexpected death, or violent death, is the worst experience for the soul in the after life. Disoriented souls and spirits often live in a psychic no-where until they stabilize and move on to rebirth or heaven or...... Hence religious practices around death including the rosary of the Catholics for nine days after the burial. Roadside crosses are raised to release the spirit of the person killed on that spot. The Zapotecs have a tradition of putting flowers and other offerings on the spot where a traumatic death occurs. The prayers and reading of the Bardo text to Tibetan Buddhist practioners as they die and afterwards helps the spirit, the being, to go on without fear. Spiritual practices related to death help mollify the grieving survivors and give the spirit of the dead something to help it consciously move through the immediate after death-of-the-body experience. I did my Tibetan meditation practice with Karen as the focus, including praying for her fortunate rebirth.
Among the young men who came on Saturday was Alejandrino Fuentes, a wood carver from San Martin Tilcajete. He came without his wife who was pregnant. Pregnant women don’t go to cemeteries or funerals, he explained. There’s a taboo about the spirit of the deceased and the spirit of the baby-to-be-born being in near proximity. Karen had often spoken of Alejandrino saying he was a really good person. She liked spending time with him and his wife.
I don’t remember if Pedro Montano came with his parents Edmundo and Alicia. His wife Karina Santiago, eight months pregnant, didn’t. Pedro and Karina were one of Karen’s favorite young couples. She’d written me that they’d started living together, meaning that Pedro and Karina had eloped. He brought her to his parents’ home to live. They got married by civil law. Karina would soon give birth to their first child.
Other seemingly single young men astonished me by flirting and asking me out. As we helped ourselves to coffee and sweet rolls, a couple of guys proposed marriage. I think they had something less formal in mind. That they were half my age and we were at a funeral home didn’t seem to matter. Jose Luis was among these young men. Their handsome faces and black eyes joked and smiled. Our playful flirting offered some welcome comic relief. They too were Karen’s friends and admirers. I appreciated their ability to joke around when things are grim, that distinctly Mexican way of relieving stress.
Late Saturday afternoon, when I was almost alone at the funeral home with Karen’s body, I sang a Tibetan mantra, out loud, in front of her wooden casket. The one associated with Guru Yoga. I hoped that invoking the emptiness of the Buddhas would help her spirit move on.
During those days at the funeral home, I invited everyone that came to come by Karen’s house during the next week to take away something of hers as her family requested. I drew maps to her house in San Felipe. Furniture, clothes......kitchen things, as well as her folk art collection. Her sister had said to give it all away, except the family silver which I should ship back. I decided that the two families in which she had god-daughters should be the first to take things. I chose some of her things for myself and some for her family and friends in the US. I felt Karen would be happiest if her friends had her possessions. It would be a giveaway, perhaps a kind of guelaguetza .
That Easter Sunday morning, Carl, Karen’s brother-in-law arrived in time to go to the funeral Mass at eleven AM. Few others attended. I remember especially Dolores Porras, the potter. Her loving spirit filled the room. After the Mass we paid the priest and took the flowers to a small open church across Independencia Avenue. We left them at the front altar. Her body went to the recently opened crematorium several blocks away.
Carl, a really sweet African-American man, assured me he came to help. He confided that he was closer to Karen than either her sister or her mother were, that they’d been close friends as well as in-laws. What a relief for me! I had a kindred spirit with whom to share a few days. We went to Karen’s house together that afternoon to look for her passport, any other documents and to start going through her things. We decided to send some things back and he would take some when he left. He paid for the funeral with money he brought and gave me some to use for shipping and other expenses. He’d be there only a couple days. Best of all he played jazz on my little guitar. Sophisticated sounds, never before imagined on that instrument, filled the patio those evenings and mornings. We carried the box with Karen’s ashes from the funeral home to the house putting them on the altar until the following Sunday, when they would be buried.
Another miracle that Easter afternoon. Suzanne and Mateo Lopez happened to come in from Puerto Angel. Suzanne, another American woman friend and spiritual practioner, helped give me the kind of support I needed. I could despair outloud, grieve, complain, and get hugged. The old house was full of love. Early Monday morning an earthquake shook us out of our beds into the patios and corridor with, and without, clothes. It was strong enough to shake that adobe house with 3 foot thick walls. Nothing broke. It was just another earthquake which routinely rumble through downtown Oaxaca. Carl was the most surprised.
Going through Karen’s things, Carl found a piece of paper saying if anything happened to her, to give her stereo system to Edmundo. She wanted KPFA in Berkeley to have her savings account left in a Bay Area credit union. We found her papers in various places in the tiny house.
I’d been most worried about Salsa, her cat. That evening we went back to the house to see if she’d come back around dark. Armed with a bowl of food, I called and called. Finally the timid three-colored Salsa came out of her hiding place. She’d never let me close before. I petted and talked to her. She was OK. I gave her food and water and locked her in Karen’s house with her litter box. By the end of the month everything had to be removed from the house. I knew Karen’s biggest concern would have been what happened to her cat. I decided to see if Dona Maria, who lived in a walled garden in Xochimilco would take Salsa back. Salsa had lived there with Karen for several years, so she knew the house and large, shady garden area. I felt she’d be safe from marauding dogs and cars on streets. Dona Maria was overjoyed to have her live there again. When I checked a month later, Salsa had adjusted happily to her old home.
On Tuesday various people started coming to Karen’s house to choose things. First some close friends that she worked with at Salsa Picante, Carmen and Abel. I’d met them with Karen and spent time with them. Carmen took the kitchen things. Abel claimed the bookshelves he’d made for Karen. Edmundo and Alicia Montano came with Lichita (Karen’s God-daughter). They took Karen’s writing desk, an antique from the area, as well as the stereo system which Karen intended for Edmundo. They didn’t seem to want much. Ventura Fabian and family, the other compadres from San Martin Tilcajete, took the gas stove, small refrigerator, the gas tanks, her bed and mattress. Their daughter, Elena, was Karen’s other god-daughter. They remarked that they could really use these things at their house in San Martin. Since god-mothers play an important role in the god-child’s wedding ceremony including certain financial obligations, I thought in giving them these things I’d be helping complete Karen’s commitments.
Still, Karen’s little house seemed crammed full, books on folk art, long-playing records including all the blues greats, Latin American folk music, clothes, Guatemalan weavings, pottery, painted animals, jewelry--colorful, interesting things she collected while she worked in the folk-art business. I made Carl take a rug that Edmundo had himself woven for Karen, and an interesting painted chest from San Martin. He took some of the carved turtles, from her vast collection. Other family things got shipped to his house in the US.
|Banda...carvings were part of Karen's collection ( I forget the artist)|
I took a large black pottery turtle for her grave. A few Americans appeared to take some things. I gave things to my friends who helped me. Finally, after Carl had gone and most things were taken, I left a painted blue table and some other things for the landlords who thought they deserved something. Didn’t they really own that table anyway, they wondered? They didn’t, I knew. But they would have to clean the house and rent it, carefully not mentioning the recent death there. By Thursday, a week after finding Karen dead in her bed, I never wanted to see that house again. I gave them the key and whatever was left in the kitchen and bedroom.
I had taken Carl out to Teotitlan to meet Edmundo and Alicia and family before he left. We ate lunch together in their patio. Adrian Montano came over to translate the English-Zapotec- Spanish conversation. He’d known and loved Karen too. We were able to share stories and feelings about Karen for a couple hours. I wished Carl could stay another week, through the burial of the ashes on Sunday. But, busy in America selling Mercedes Benzs’ and, on the verge of the break-up of his marriage to Karen’s sister, he had to get back to New Jersey.
I just wanted things to be over. I’d planned to go with Suzanne, Mateo and others on their annual pilgrimage to visit the Virgen of Juquila at the beginning of May. This tiny brown Virgin comes from a town somewhere between Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido. They made this pilgrimage annually during the first week in May when they closed the Posada. In order to go, I had to take care of everything surrounding Karen’s death before I left town.
After the funeral I ran into various artisans who said they couldn’t work with Angela though she’d offered to continue Karen’s work. Armando Jimenez’s was particularly upset trying to deal with her. Karen’s admirer, Victor Vasquez, wanted to take over selling the carved, painted figures through his watch shop on Macedonia Alcala. Later, using Karen’s address book, I went with him to establish connections in San Martin and Arrasola. He’s made a good wholesale and retail business selling the carved, painted figures in his small shop.
On the Sunday morning a week after Easter, Alicia and Edmundo hosted the “raising the cross ceremony” in front of their house altar in Teotitlan. Other friends of Karen’s came from various places. It’s not easy to do since the bus to Teotitlan doesn’t run directly from Oaxaca on Sunday. Most people didn’t have cars. I brought the box of ashes, and the pottery turtle. Alicia was serving hot chocolate as I arrived. It was a terrific to be with friends again.
A wizened old man performed the ceremony in front of the altar. This local resador chanted the prayers, lit the copal incense, blessed the cross brought by Juvenal, and led a short mass for Karen. Then we made a procession to the church, the box of ashes carried on a wooden table. We carried candles and flowers. Inside the tall, arched front door, the resedor lit more copal to bring blessings of the sacred place and its santos into Karen’s afterlife. Down in front at the main altar a wedding was taking place. Here, in the doorway, we crossed our arms, standing, while he offered more prayers for our dead friend and comadre.
From the church, we continued walking to the cemetery. There, quite near the front gate, a child-sized open grave waited. I remember that we all threw dirt on the tiny box of Karen’s remains. After the hole was filled, the cross was raised at the head of the grave, and a small altar built with bricks in front of it. The cross said Karen Turtle, 1942-92. It was plain, black, wooden with white letters. We put the black pottery turtle on the brick altar, and flower vases, filled with flowers, on either side of the cross. We lit Virgen de Guadelupe votive candles. Afterwards we walked back to Edmundo’s house. I promised Karen and the Montanos I’d return for the Day of the Dead that fall to clean and decorate Karen’s grave and spend the Day of the Dead with them.
Later that week I visited the Teotitlan Church to bring flowers to the Virgen de Natividad. Down front at her altar I lit candles and put flowers in vases and prayed that Karen would have a fortunate rebirth, perhaps in some Oaxacan village where she’d be loved as unconditionally as possible. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of Teotitlan. She loved so many of the small towns, the whole Oaxaca area, so much. Mostly I hoped she’d take rebirth where she’d be loved unconditionally. It’s a Tibetan Buddhist practice to pray for a fortunate rebirth based on the belief in reincarnation. I’d long forgotten that during my first tour group visit to this special church, I’d mentioned that anything you pray for there would come true. Two women from that first group I led to Oaxaca later reported exactly how their prayers at the Teotitlan church had been answered.
Over a year after Karen’s death, one starry Sunday night, Pedro Montano gave me a ride in his pickup to the crossroads of the Teotitlan road and the Pan American Highway where I could get a bus to Oaxaca. Waiting out there under the Milky Way, we started talking about Karen and her sudden death. Pedro, then about 25, related in a matter of fact tone that he and Karina firmly believed that their first child, Diana Karina, was Karen reincarnated. Diana was born a month after Karen died. He said that the Zapotecs believe that family members reincarnate in their own family. As they saw it, Karen Turtle had been part of their family. He said, “when I heard Karen had died, I knew that Karina’s baby would be a girl.” Up to that point he thought it would be a boy. This was the first I’d ever heard that Zapotecs believe in reincarnation. Diana, being the first grandchild, had to be one of the most cherished babies I’ve ever known. She is a beautiful, kind and smart young woman. And now a medical doctor....
The fall following Karen’s death I returned to Oaxaca for the winter as I had promised. Lichita Montano (her god-daughter) and I decorated Karen’s grave for the Day of the Dead. The whole family went to the cemetery together, including Troy, their dog. Edmundo and Alicia cleaned up the family tombs, throwing out old flowers and sweeping earthen mounds and white concrete monuments clean. After that they put fresh flowers, food and candles out for Edmundo’s father and Alicia’s mother.
|Karen's Grave Teotitlan 1992|
After tossing out old flowers and sweeping the earthen mound of Karen’s small grave, Lichita and I took the large black pottery turtle out from under the brick altar, putting it on top. We covered the small earthen tomb with a carpet of marigold heads broken by a cross of white flowers in the middle. We lit small votive candles and placed a plate of tamales with a cerveza and oranges to lure her back from the other world. Stately maroon cock’s combs and bright gold marigolds filled the vases leaning against her cross. As we lit white candles we each spent a few minutes remembering her in silence. Edmundo and Alicia reappeared from the back part of the cemetery also stopping briefly to honor Karen. Then we returned home to clean and decorate the house.
Their home altar transformed into a table of abundance under an arch of sugar cane and large pictures of Sangre de Cristo, and Guadelupe. I’d brought some copal and decorated breads to go with the flowers, oranges, nuts, refrescos, mescals and tamales that were part of the offrenda. We lit candles and then copal incense with which Alicia blessed the altar. Various adults and children fashioned an altar for the children out in the veranda. We gathered to eat tamales wrapped in banana leaves. The church’s bell started ringing at 3 PM and would ring until 3PM the next afternoon.
It got dark while we waited for their compadres Elias and Guadalupe from Mexico City. Visitors (compadres and family) from the pueblo started showing up with their offerings of flowers, candles and bread. Teotitecas do not go to the graveyard that night. They go to each other’s houses. I joined the family in their ceremonial line to receive new visitors in front of their altar. After beautiful words (short speeches) and shaking each new person’s hand with the Zapotec blessing “shaa” and lighting the visitors’ candle, we sat down at the long table, men on one side, women on the other. With offerings of mescals and cerveza and soft drinks we toasted each other and life. The party had begun and would continue all night. As visitors left later their empty baskets were loaded with oranges and apples and chunks of newly made chocolate.
Day of the Dead
Teotitlan’s Day of the Dead customs are a bit different than other towns in the Oaxaca valley. After dark, families take baskets with pan de muertos (special bread), flowers and candles to their compadres’ houses’. They do not go to the cemetery that night. Each house has a room with an altar built along one wall where all family ceremonies take place. The altar is decorated and heaped with bread, flowers fruit,nuts...mescal, water candles and food for visitors from the other world and this one. The host family members line up on the left side of the room across from the visitors. The visitors make a little ceremony in front of the altar, placing their gifts of bread and flowers on the altar and then lighting the large candle they’ve brought. After kneeling to say a prayer and kissing the altar, they greet the family and the host says some words, in Zapotec, welcoming them and inviting them to sit at the table. Then the compadres pass along the host’s family line, giving the soft ceremonial greeting (shaaa” in Zapotec) with a special handshake that reminds all they’ve entered a sacred space. Then everyone sits at the long table down in the middle of the room, visitors on one side across from family members. The male head of the family pours mescal in shot glasses which are passed around before a toast.
After the mescal, beers are also given to the visitors, and soft drinks to children or people who don’t drink alcohol. The night is passed talking, laughing and drinking as people come and go. The compadres leave loaded up with oranges, apples and other goodies from the altar. This ritualized party gives people a chance to catch up on how their compadres and comadres are doing, since work and regular family duties take up most everyone’s time.
At 3pm the next afternoon, when the church bell stops ringing, Teotitecas return to the cemetery accompanying their ancestors back to their graves and party into the night.
|Photo of traditional altar for Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle...Felix Mendoza and Antonia Ruiz...|