of an Infant in Oaxaca
Perez Gonzalez was a beautiful baby. His parents Flor and
Jorge thought so; my wife Arlene and I agreed. Few are able
to share our certainty, though, because we were among the
very few to see him alive. Daniel was born in one of Oaxacas
well-known clinics. I welcomed him into the world along with
Arlene, our then 13-year-old daughter Sarah, and Daniels
abuelita (grandmother) Chona. From the womb, the nurse
passed our newest extended family member into three sets of
anxiously loving arms Chonas, those of his big
sister Carmela (Sarahs closest friend in Oaxaca), and
We have a long and colorful history together, my Jewish family
in my previous hometown of Toronto and my devoutly Catholic
family here in Oaxaca. Chona is our comadre and matriarch
of her family. Not six months earlier she and her grandchildren
had shouted Mazel Tov at Sarahs Bat Mitzvah
in Toronto. Over the years we have raised many a glass of
mezcal at milestone birthdays including quince años
(the fiesta when a young girl turns fifteen, with similarities
to the Bat Mitzvah); we have eaten matzoh together
for Passover in Toronto; and we have welcomed many a Christmas,
New Years and Dia de Muertos together in Oaxaca.
But it was Daniels death that reinforced for me, through
much laughter and many tears, the profound irrelevance of
cultural differences in the face of universal rituals surrounding
On the day of his birth, it was easy to imagine that Daniels
life would unfold like Sarahs. At 8 pounds, and with
a full head of black hair, the baby looked extremely healthy.
Like my wifes, Flors pregnancy had been full-term.
Like Sarah, Daniel was born by caesarian section; like Sarah,
his mothers umbilical chord had been wrapped around
his neck, causing temporary respiratory distress and the need
for a few days in an incubator. But we didnt worry,
his father and cousin both obstetricians with connections
in the Oaxacan medical community. He would receive the best
post-natal care available, and we would dance at his wedding
But then their paths diverged. After two days of life, we
mourned little Daniels death of respiratory distress,
beside his coffin in Chonas living room, with family,
friends and compadres.
Between the birth and the death came a crazy-quilt of only-in-Mexico
experiences that resonated with my memories of the mourning
process my Canadian family had undergone when my father Sam
died a few years earlier.
Most Oaxacans accept that death hits you at home---literally.
Daniel left the hospital in a white, ornately-adorned satin-lined
coffin, bound not for a funeral home, but for the livingroom
of the family compound. Once he was settled atop a table covered
with fresh linen, with a large silver crucifix behind him,
my compadre Javier and I were dispatched to the Mercado
de Abastos, to buy white gladioli and flower arrangements.
This was a far cry from the somber discussion of formal arrangements
at Torontos Steeles Memorial after my fathers
In this passionate and expressive country, even death rites
are incomplete without the drama of shouting and accusations.
At the cemetery I learned that Daniel was to be interred in
a low tomb-like grave atop Tia Lolita, his great-great-aunt
who had died in 1990, who was layered over yet another relative
who had died in 1982. But when we met with the head undertaker,
el presidente, at Lolitas graveside only hours
after Daniels death, we were advised that annual fees
hadnt been paid in ten years. Much shouting ensued,
but in the end, after heated debate, el presidente
had successfully extorted, as was his right, thousands
of pesos for arrears of government taxes and administrative
fees---plus about 1000 pesos in the likely event that Daniel
would require a boveda (literally a vault, the rebar
reinforced concrete slabs designed to keep the graves
occupants in an orderly configuration). And we still werent
done. Only once Chona had presented sufficient historical
documents to convince everyone that she indeed had the requisite
authority to bury Daniel alongside Lolita were the appropriate
certificate and receipts issued.
Back at Chonas home mourners had begun to arrive. Shortly
thereafter Jorge and I dropped off 150 various pan dulce,
to be used to dip into the traditional hot chocolate served
to those attending such gatherings. I then experienced another
profound frisson of déjà vu . The notably slower
pace of Oaxacas mañana society was gone. With
efficient dispatch, Chona and family transformed the home
into a grieving chamber, arranging for necessities such as
chair rentals, and ordering attendees off to kitchen duty.
There under Chonas roof I traveled back in time to my
mothers kitchen, crowded with friends and relatives
I hadnt seen in years, just after my fathers funeral.
I could hear my mothers friend Rayla organizing who
would bring what meals into our home during shiva
the week of mourning that follows the burial of a Jew.
Then there were the inevitable tragicomic moments. When I
gave my fathers eulogy, I couldnt resist telling
a story about him that made reference to a shared moment that
involved passing gas. In Mexico, the black humor of death
is even more visceral. When Chona and I went back to the cemetery
to ensure that preparations for the burial were well underway,
we found el presidente and his aide a half-foot down,
at the top concrete plate of the vault along with part
of a human jawbone. Chona was outraged, and began shouting,
that cant be Tia Lolita! We came up with
many theories for the mystery bone, all revolving around the
amorous activities of the dead, none repeatable in this newspaper.
That kept us going until we finally came across the complete
skull of Tia Lolita, still covered with the traditional fine
headcloth to prevent mosquito bites. We ultimately concluded
that a few years back someone else had been buried alongside
Lola. Mystery of the extra jawbone solved. Here in southern
Mexico, multiple burials in the same grave, at times at different
levels, and at times involving the removal of bones after
several years of non-payment of fees, may occur. In any event,
in return for a handsome gratuity el presidente agreed
to clear away a spot for Daniels cajita, and
hide Lolitas head and any other remaining bones in a
sack at one end of the grave opening. The funeral would take
place the next day, not unlike the dispatch with which Jews
bury their dead but very different from the traditional
adult Oaxacan death custom characterized by several
days of prayer, visitation and other rituals prior
to burial, similar in purpose and function to the Jewish period
of shiva after the interment.
Later that evening back at the house, we listened to a cassette
recording of nursery rhymes. Although we in the Judaic tradition
are not permitted music during mourning, these tunes seemed
appropriate. Arlene tenderly placed a small rattle beside
Daniel, in accordance with local custom. A young woman led
a 20-minute prayer, strikingly similar in nature to the Kaddish
or mourners prayer in a shiva home. Then more
food a rich mole negro with bolillos, tortillas,
salsa and more prayer. When the padre finally
arrived late, there was the obligatory humor about the clergy;
someone joked that he had just shown up for a meal.
By the following afternoon, we were placing a bountiful display
of flowers into the back of a pick-up. Javier and I took final
photographs of the baby, and then Jorge placed his son into
the back of a 1980s white stationwagon, for his final journey.
The cemetery ritual combined the continuing familiarity of
my own Canadian experiences with Mexicana. A few soft prayers,
a few handsful of earth placed atop the coffin, and incongruously
our two congenial cemetery workers placed the concrete slab
back between the remaining portions of the lid to the vault,
then mixed and applied cement to seal the boveda. Reminiscent
of Jewish custom, Chona asked Javier and I to assist with
the shoveling of earth, then invited everyone home for comida.
Back at the house there was no music. Idle chatter took its
place. Eventually, once most of the people had left, and only
the barren white altar and the slowly burning mourners
candles remained, Arlene and I decided to go downtown for
a walk, sad and emotionally drained, but oddly comforted.
After a Oaxacan funeral for a Catholic baby, I felt exactly
the way I did the first time I walked outside after arising
from my fathers shiva.
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