Celebrating The Dead

“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.”
— Thornton Wilder

By Sharon J. Leach ~ When it comes to our holidays, America is a multi-cultural mash-up. My Persian neighbors in California adored the oh-so-American holiday 
of Halloween. They loved it for its pageantry, focus on children, candy, ghoulish humor and sheer fun. They even added their own twist, serving dates with honey to adults coming to their door. Here in New Mexico, Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos, with its deep roots in Mexican culture, bares similarities to Halloween, yet focuses more on honoring the memories of loved ones, rather than thrills and treats.

A 40-foot-long mural of the Embudo Valley on the east wall of the Embudo Valley Coop in Dixon, by ceramicist Shel Neymark  and four local teenagers, is dedicated to the memory of Estevan Arellano. Photo by Jeff Spicer

A 40-foot-long mural of the Embudo Valley on the east wall of the Embudo Valley Coop in Dixon, by ceramicist Shel Neymark
and four local teenagers, is dedicated to the memory of Estevan Arellano. Photo by Jeff Spicer

Dia de los Muertos honors the dead, while playfully thumbing its nose at the gloom of mortality. Some traditions hold that the dead are with us, but only at certain times of year when the veil between worlds was said to be thin. At the midpoint between solstice and equinox on the pagan day of Samhain, it was thought the Aos Si, or spirits of the dead, could visit our world. Costumes and hitting up the neighbors for treats was part of that ancient European fall festival.

Similar—or shall I say, eerily similar—to the way the European Catholic Church transformed the old pagan celebration into All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days (Nov. 1 & 2), so too the Spanish conquistadors rescripted Aztec rituals in this hemisphere into those same Church holy days. Frustrated church leaders couldn’t repress old ways, so, as we might say today, they just rebranded them. The Aztec Day of the Dead holiday lasted a month. The goddess Mictecacihuatl, whom legend credited with dying at birth, presided as Lady of the Dead. Skulls, or calaveras, stood for the duality of death as an entry into new life. To this day, the sugar skull is one of the usual decorations on ofrendas—altars set up with offerings for the dead spirits—and lots of Taoseñas paint their faces with elegant skull designs for Halloween.

But with all the gloominess implied by a day or month-long focus on those who’ve died, the wonder of Dias de los Muertos is how colorful, festive and—ahem—spirited it is! What people love about this holiday is the colorful show. The costume at the center of this holiday is a skeleton, the human being stripped of all that makes us alive, and yet that skeleton is dancing.

Yet, on this occasion, it’s not enough to hold a party and dress up for a one-night dance with the specter of Death playing his fiddle. What is especially poignant about the holiday is that we take a moment to remember.

People we love are leaving us all too often. On Dia de los Muertos, we lay a table with delicacies for the spirits, items of interest to the loved one, often sins of choice from tequila to sweets. When my neighbor died, his wife made a gorgeous display for the Dia, with photos of her husband, sugar skulls and a pack of cigarettes. His was a free spirit, like so many in Taos, and he wanted a Day of the Dead celebration in his honor. So do I when my time comes.

Taos is a small town. When we lose someone, we all feel it. Dia de los Muertos became especially moving to me after the fall of 2014, 
when Taos lost three icons, men whose imprint on the culture and experience here were quintessentially Taos.

Peter Mackeness, holding a photograph with a caption that reads “Taos Plaza 1932 when Plaza burned down.”  Photo by Barbara Scott

Peter Mackeness, holding a photograph with a caption that reads “Taos Plaza 1932 when Plaza burned down.” Photo by Barbara Scott

When I met him, PETER MACKENESS was a couple decades my senior, more than 6 feet tall and large in body and spirit. He showed up at an Arroyo Seco Community Center history festival. With his Rastafarian knit hat and salt-and-pepper beard, I was smitten not only by that sweet Santa-like demeanor, but by his intellect. He’d brought with him a set of turn-of-the-century photos, and I recall one of a long-lost hotel that used to sit at the John Dunn Bridge when it was a stage coach crossing.

Because this genuinely kind man loved the unique history of Taos, he joined the Taos Historical Society, and eventually led his own Taos walking tours. He was an encyclopedia of facts, little-known in the usual circles. Mackeness was like an itinerant teacher and brother to all, sharing his brilliance and speaking out about the problems he saw with our American political system.

Back before his Taos days, Mackeness lived in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in 1967. A buddy from those days remembers helping Peter bring kids down from bad drug trips. “Peter loved the whistle blowers, the agitators, the trouble makers, the sacred clowns of all nations, of which he was a very colorful one himself,” according to another friend.

When he got to Taos, Mackeness ran an organic quasi-commune, later married and had a family. He was a carpenter and kept bees. His friend, Barbara Scott, called him “a renowned oral historian—collecting geological, historical, geographical, and metaphysical knowledge about Taos and sharing it with anyone interested in learning.” He said of himself, “I’m very consciously a living saint. I see my role as the one who imbues matter with spirit, as a translator, trying to take the light, the spirit, and convert it into matter. My role is to raise hell and lower heaven.”

What Peter found in Taos worked for him; he made this place his own and those lucky enough to know him, not only loved him but felt his huge love of life. Peter said about being here, “My 37 years in Taos have been a voyage of discovery. Living in Taos affirms my hope and my humanity.”

Estevan Arellano, photo by Don J. Usner.

Estevan Arellano, photo by Don J. Usner.

The same fall, we also lost a brilliant scholar from nearby Río Arriba County who had a deep influence on Taos and on many who care about the land of Northern New Mexico. When I first met him, JUAN ESTEVAN ARELLANO was writing scathing critiques of the sustainability movement in Taos. In green circles, he seemed to be our gadfly, poking fun at yuppie organic posers. Until the day he joined the board at Sustain Taos to help us walk the talk.

He was a deep thinker, activist and writer who spoke for the ancient acequia systems, and repartimiento, or sharing, of water. He taught us of their roots in Arabic culture before they became the engineering feat of traditional New Mexico agriculture. His books included “Enduring Acequias” (his last), “Ancient Agriculture” (an English translation of the first agriculture book written in Spanish in 1513), and for children, “Juan the Bear and the Water of Life.” In “Enduring Acequias,” he wrote, “It is a memory of a certain landscape that invades my dreams, tortures me when I’m awake, knowing that in a generation or two this landscape will be a thing of the past.”

To me, his was the voice of this land, weaving critical thinking with ancient land-based knowledge, punctuated with Spanish dichos or sayings. I recall this field blessing—Para nos, para vos y para los animalitos de Dios. Roughly, for all of us, all of you and for all God’s small creatures. At the time, Estevan was weighing the selfishness of keeping water only for human use without thought for wildlife or others.

Estevan’s vigilance preserved what gives Northern New Mexico its sense of place. He challenged us to see not just a bucolic trip down memory lane, but rather, a living tradition. Estevan suffered a stroke six years before he passed, and I stopped in to visit with him and his wife, Elena. I put him in touch with an acupuncturist-herbalist and they connected instantly as practitioners of the connection between land and well-being. He went on to write his last book, which would earn the 2015 New Mexico Book Award posthumously, and he shared his wisdom whenever asked to speak.

Josseph the Starwatcher, photo courtesy Alice Rynear.

Josseph the Starwatcher, photo courtesy Alice Rynear.

That same year, we also lost JOSSEPH THE STARWATCHER—with his cloak of many colors, on KTAOS, Solar Radio. The airwaves went silent when our favorite radio astrologist succumbed and joined the rest of the stars in the night skies. If Josseph could help us grapple with the winds of fate, we wanted to hear about it so we’d pull over and listen. According to those who knew him well, he was deeply affected by the political and financial trouble he saw in our country, the gap between those with too much and those with too little. I did not know him personally, but his erudite interpretations of moments in time, in Taos, on earth and in the universe were beacons along the way. His wife Alice continues to post readings of the stars on his Facebook page periodically, for fans who miss his guiding voice. And he will forever be a part of what has made Taos richer, wiser and in tune with the larger movements of the universe.

All of these men had concerns about the world as it is and worked until their dying breaths to make a difference. Each valued our place, here in this corner of the world. Each found the tools and inspiration to live well, give love, build community and share their wisdom.

They never stopped believing this place held something special—a unique inspiration for the rest of the world. A place where cultures collide and form something unique, a mash-up of tradition with new ideas, of land-based culture with global thinking. We are the richer for their contributions.

To do justice to all those that we’ve lost in Taos in the last few years, it would take a long time, perhaps even a month of speaking their names. I’ve spoken a few of mine. I think also of Aaron Rael. Tomás Atencio, the brilliant sociologist who spoke at New Mexico Bioneers. Neighbors like Larry Schreiber, the doctor and child advocate. And Betsy Carey, with her business card: Artist, Athlete, Activist. I think of the young and old we’ve lost to violence or despair, the jumpers and overdoses, and hold them sacred too. As Native people would say, all my relations. You have your own remembered souls.

But what makes this holiday so much more than dancing skeletons and strings of marigolds is the chance to hold these spirits in our thoughts, and invite them to visit with us once again.


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