The Day of the Dead

I was fortunate to be in Puebla 6 years ago on El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), to learn about the rituals and traditions of this important day of remembrance.  The people in Puebla set up elaborate altars all over town and I spent days walking around and marveling at them.  I also had a chance to visit a town called Huaquechula where I was moved to tears by how the locals honored their loved ones and shared their stories with perfect strangers like myself.  It left such an impression on me that when I was planning this trip to Merida, I made sure I was staying in Mexico through November 2.  Interestingly enough however, the way the Yucatecans commemorate El Dia de los Muertos is so vastly different from what I saw and experienced in Puebla it surprised me.  It’s as if Puebla and Yucatan are not even in the same country.  Then again, Yucatan could easily be a separate country from Mexico.  Declaring independence is what the Yucatecans have done in the past and an idea that makes perfect sense to me, as I have witnessed in the last two months how different they are in so many ways.

Altar at the municipal palace in Puebla

Here in the Yucatan, they have their own name for El Dia de los Muertos- the locals call it Hanal Pixan (in Mayan).  In general, I saw less of the papel picado (perforated paper) or the intensely colored cempasúchil (Marygolds) that were used extensively in Puebla.  In Merida, the locals set up their altars in the zocalo for just a day (Saturday before November 2) but they were not like the altars in Puebla at all.  They set up palapas, brought livestock (chickens, turkeys, pigs), and built small fires to cook, showing the way the Mayan people used to live.  In Puebla spectacular altars, evening activities, and various performances went on for days but in Merida these little “houses” set up for a few hours and as the sun set, “poof!” they were all gone.

In my house, Doña Gloria set up a small altar in honor of her sister-in-law (Señor Jose Luis’ younger sister) who recently passed away.  It was a modest altar with just a few photos and some candles.  For everyone, the big thing leading up to the Day of the Dead seemed to be not so much the altars but the preparation of mucbil pollo or pibil pollo and how this day would bring so many of their relatives over to spend the day together.  This particular Mayan style tamale is special in that it’s prepared and consumed only around Hanal Pixan.  Popularly called “pib” this extra large, party sized tamale is made with masa and met, and baked in banana leaves.  Unlike the steamed tamales wrapped in corn husks (those were the only types I’d ever seen in Puebla and in the States), the Yucatecans use banana leaves for their normal tamales and for these special ones called pibs as well.  Traditionally they were baked using hot stones in the ground the way Hawaiian luaus are done.  For my host family, it was Doña Gloria who was in charge of the pib and the whole process of preparing for it started several weeks ago with her buying banana leaves in Motul.

For the past week or so, I’ve been pestering her with questions about how she makes her pib.  She’s been really sweet about telling me how she learned to make it (she’s not from the Yucatan) and even took some photos while she prepared her ingredients to show me later.  Sunday night when I got home I saw her giant pot boiling away with chunks of pork and several whole chickens.  Monday morning over breakfast she explained to me that she likes to put in achiote and onions in the water along with chicken and pork to season the broth.  She lets the pork simmer to make the meat tender (she pulls out the chicken when it’s cooked but lets the pork cook for several hours longer) and then shreds the meat.  The broth is used to mix with masa to make the “dough.”  In a separate pan, she fries annatto seeds (what achiote paste is made from) with manteca (lard) to make the “sauce” that is later used to moisten the meat and the masa.  When the annatto seeds are taken out the resulting oil has a beautiful red sheen to it, as does the dough since the masa is mixed with the broth that contained achiote.

4 of dona Gloria's 7 pibs

I missed the assembly part of the pib making process since I had to go to school (darn school!) but Doña Gloria’s explanation made sense to me.  You take a large pan (resembles a brownie baking pan made out of aluminum) and line it with a large banana leaf.  Spread a layer of dough, put some of the cooked pork and chicken (shredded/cut in bite size pieces), spoon on the sauce, sliced tomatoes, epazote (Mexican herb), and habanero peppers to make it spicy, top it with another layer of masa (Doña Gloria puts espelón, small, black beans in hers).  The whole thing gets wrapped like a present with the banana leaf, tied, and baked for several hours.  Doña Gloria made 5 large rectangular pibs and 2 smaller, round pibs, and since her oven was too small to bake them all, they were sent out to a local bakery to be cooked.  She said she preferred to look for a wood burning oven to give her pibs something extra special but I think she ended up going with a regular bakery.  When I arrived home Monday evening, Señor Jose Luis was just getting back from the bakery with a trunk full of pibs, still hot from the oven.  I had a large piece for breakfast Tuesday morning and by Tuesday evening (an army of relatives had come over during the day), there was just one pib left over which was set aside for Patricia, Doña Gloria’s oldest daughter who was away in D.F.

Xec: pronounced "shek," served as a palate cleanser after pib

Don Pepe, whose comida economica (a little shop where I eat lunch everyday) also made pibs for Hanal Pixan served them at lunch so I was more or less pib’d-out.  So for dinner, it was Mexican hot chocolate and pan de muertos for me.  Yucatecan Day of the Dead bread has a sprinkle of sugar on top and a newer (or one might say “de la moda” or trendy/fashionable) versions of this traditional bread has queso crema or queso Philadelphia.  As you might have guessed, they put cream cheese inside the bread and since the most famous brand of cream cheese in Mexico is Philadelphia Cream Cheese, they call it queso Philadelphia (similarly they use the word “coca” as in Coca-Cola, to denote any kind of soda).  To do my part for El Dia de los Muertos, I bought a large pan de muertos for the family on my way home but I saw that there were already 3 other pan de muertos in the kitchen.  I happened to like the one I brought the best (it was from a well-known, very old bakery called Panaderia Montejo) and Doña Gloria also preferred it over the fancy pan de muertos with cream cheese (from Tere Cazola, another well known bakery in town with branches all over Merida including one at the Merida airport).  I had a large chunk of the plain one as my main course and a slice of the one with cream cheese as dessert, all washed down with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate.  I joked with Doña Gloria that I will have to go on a diet soon, to which she replied without missing a beat “una vez el ano, no hace dano.”  Basically saying eating like this once a year doesn’t do any harm.  And since she knew I was in Mexico a while back on the Day of the Dead, she added that in my case it’s more like every 5 years and I should take advantage of what I get to eat while I’m here.  Of course I nodded in agreement, with my mouth too full to make any words.

Pan de muertos for dinner in Merida

I should note that all the preparations, gathering, and sharing of the food happened on November 1 and on the actual Day of the Dead in Merida, everything was quiet as if it were any other day.  It was very different from how I spent El Dia de los Muertos in Puebla, but I realize that each region of Mexico has its own history and traditions.  Doña Gloria told me about how in her home state of Michoacan, there is a beautiful tradition around the island of Janitzio at night with canoes and candles.  No matter what the differences may be, I love that the Mexicans have a day to remember their loved ones and believe that they come back and share this day with the living.  I hope I’ll get to return to Mexico to experience this wonderful tradition again.

Something tells me I will…

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