In Yucatàn, the Mayan people adapted, much as other Mexican cultures did, to the arrival of the Spanish and subsequent imposition of the Catholic religion. Catholicism adapted in some ways to the New World, allowing the mixture of selected native traditions with new European ones. In Mexico, this resulted in Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a holiday part indigenous, part Catholic. The Yucatecan version of this is Hanal Pixan (ha-NAL pee-SHAN), Mayan for Comida de Muertos, or Food for the Dead. Hanal Pixan is celebrated Nov. 2, this year a Monday.
The Yucatecan version of the holiday is relatively tame compared with festivities in some other parts of the country, but remains a significant observance. Families gather to remember lost loved ones, and to do this they prepare a symbolic meal of favorite foods of the departed.
A table is prepared with tablecloth, a green cross with a black Christ and blue ribbon. Flowers and sprays of specific types are brought in to decorate the table. The foods are prepared and spread out on the table, often along with images of the deceased. In modern times, bottles of beer or favorite liquors and other items such as cigarettes may appear on the table as well. Favorite candies or fruit sweets are prepared and laid out for those who passed away as children.
In Yucatàn, families prepare pib, or the very similar mucbilpollo, a sort of large pie with cornmeal crust that contains a rich filling of chicken or turkey, a grain called espelòn, spices and other ingredients. The preparation is wrapped in banana leaves, and traditionally tied up with hennequen (sisal) fibers or banana-leaf strips and baked on a specially-made fire interred in the ground. These days many people and just about all urban residents bake pib in the oven, although I understand pib made the modern way lacks a certain earthy, smoky savor. I have a friend who some years comes by my house to stick the family pib in my oven, since they have none. While it's baking we talk and drink coffee, or if it's hot, iced jamaica, sweet hibiscus-petal tea, at the kitchen table. Afterward, I usually get "paid" with a steaming, aromatic, crusty-on-the-outside-but-soft-on-the-inside slice of pib. I would describe it to friends north of the border as a stuffed cornbread, and it is very tasty.
A friend brought me these last-minute pictures from his pueblo, where he helped his family prepare pibes. This is a pib, slathered in salsa and ready to be wrapped up in banana leaves.
Here are pibes, wrapped and tied into packages with sisal fiber, just before being put into the fire.
The pibes resting on the hot rocks and coals, before being covered up to bake.
Branches and leaves are heaped on top to hold in heat and steam. It is ready in about an hour.
When it's time, the pib is unwrapped, sliced, and servings are placed on the altars for relatives no longer present. A rosary is said, after which it is considered that the departed souls have taken the essence of the offerings. The food is then enjoyed by all.
The days leading up to Hanal Pixan are for families. Long lines form at bus stops and terminals as inter-city buses and collective taxi vans, which serve smaller communities, are jammed with people, often carrying large bundles and bags, trying to make it home. Far-flung relatives arrive in the pueblos or barrios of their birth and spend time with parents and grandparents, spouses, children, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, godparents and friends. Cemeteries are jammed as family grave sites are cleaned up and decorated in preparation for visits; in Mèrida, traffic is rerouted and squads of police, ambulances and guards are mobilized to avoid traffic jams and to assist in the cemeteries. Markets are full of people buying flowers, specially-prepared sweets, and other necessities. It is common to see folks coming down the street carrying large bundles of flowers. As ingredients are gathered, food preparation begins. When the day of Hanal Pixan arrives and celebrations crank up, people are seen dressed in the finest traditional "mestizo" style: women in elaborately-embroidered, starkly white huipiles; men in white pants and filipinas (shirts cut similar to guayaberas but without a collar) and sandals called alpargatas.
Mèrida's principal daily newspaper, Diario de Yucatàn, wrote in an article Oct. 31, two days before Hanal Pixan:
"Everything is ready as, from today until day after tomorrow families all over the Peninsula come together once again with all their members, including with those who have passed on.
"Yesterday the cleaning and embellishment of final resting places continued in the cemeteries of Mèrida, along with preparations in homes to celebrate "with flavor" the lives of the deceased. In Sanborn's [restaurant] the tradition is present with pan de muerto [bread of the dead], but also customs of the Southeast [region of Mexico, namely Yucatàn] are present in the form of mucbilpollo, which is included on the restaurant menu."
My friend Rafael was setting up a small altar in the lobby of the hostel where he works when I stopped by Saturday.
Rafa had placed candies, tamales, cigarettes, beer, a cup of coffee and a variety of other items
in front of a portrait of Pancho Villa. A small urn of incense burned on the floor.
After visiting Rafael, I passed briefly through the zòcalo, or main square, which was full of small, traditional-style Mayan houses, constructed specially for the event and each containing an altar to departed loved ones. Folks paused during their errands to pay respects and enjoy the afternoon.
Note: All of the information above comes from conversations with Yucatecan friends or from my own observations. I am not an expert, and these events may be celebrated in varying ways by individual families, different pueblos, and in other parts of the country, according to their own cultural traditions. I apologize to anyone who feels that I have somehow been inaccurate or misrepresented any aspect of Hanal Pixan or Dia de los Muertos. I invite your comments.
Photo sequence of pib preparation by Victor Yam Alonzo.