Celebrating the Day of the Dead With the Maya of Guatemala (PHOTOS)

Currently I'm in Nahualá in the Guatemalan Highlands, where I'm filming Unrecorded Spirits: Life in Mayan Guatemala, a documentary I'm working on. I've filmed most of the movie and am now anticipating the end of the Mayan calendar, which takes place Dec. 21. I began shooting on the Day of the Dead on Nov. 1. This is an observance that I had experienced five years earlier in the same town. It inhabited me then and has remained vivid in my mind since. In Nahualá, as in the rest of the Latin world, Day of the Dead is a day to commune with the spirits of the ancestors. People go to the cemeteries and adorn the graves of loved ones with floral decorations and spend time there. Some approach the occasion as an opportunity to celebrate and have treats.

On this year's Day of the Dead, smoke from incense and ceremonial fires mixed with the clouds of the highlands, which, at this elevation, are akin to fog, condensing into a smoky mist that enveloped the hillside that the cemetery is perched upon. I stood atop the sole, crumbling mausoleum, which, at 6 feet tall and holding up my own 6-foot frame, provided for a grand panorama of the surroundings: a sea of Maya with their typical colorful apparel and wares, all weathered, providing a vibrant contrast to the otherwise gray scene. As kites swayed in the sky, the priest took the microphone and uttered some prayers and proclamations. It amazed me that in the chaos, the abrasive sound of the loudspeakers could be heard above all else, muffled but as striking as sharp chords. There was also the ubiquitous sound of hymn singing and somber chanting by the adults; underlying that was the activity and cheer of the children, who indulged themselves, paying little attention to what was happening beyond their own interests. Amidst this chaos I found a peace, basking in the overwhelming humanity and the active spirituality. The people here burn with religiosity in way that differs markedly from the over-intellectualized and over-philosophized devotion of Western countries. It is also a scene that is set in nature, the human god and Mother Nature in full embrace.

My initial and subsequent Days of the Dead were astounding, and they remain special to me. Though each unique, they all exemplify my greater experience here in the Guatemalan Highlands. The land and the people here are distinct, particularly in the relationship they have with one another; both can be beautiful and pained, fertile and strained, carrying a vast history and an ancient way of being. I say this with little authority other than my own perception, but after years of coming here, the place seems more complex than when I first came, but just as special. I have been fortunate to have spent time here and developed the relationships that I have. I think all people should be able to experience this amazing part of humanity. With the end of the Mayan calendar imminent, and given the access I have acquired over the years, I feel this is the best possible time to convey this experience and the stories of the unrecorded spirits that commune here.


Celebrating The Day Of The Dead With The Maya Of Guatemala
Celebrating The Day Of The Dead With The Maya Of Guatemala

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