Excavations December 2011

Land of the Dead

Guanajuato’s museo de las momias conjures the epic brutality of Mexico’s past.
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Abbas/Magnum Photos

For the past few years, we’ve spent part of each summer in Mexico, to escape the dual waves of crime and heat that swamp our hometown of New Orleans in those unbearable months. Like New Orleans, with its jazz funerals and Mardi Gras mortality traditions, Mexico is known for its cultural braiding of life and death, not just with the famous Día de los Muertos, but in daily activity. Every morning, walking our kids to camp in the town of San Miguel de Allende, we’d pass a man building coffins, shop doors wide open, his finished wares on display, as precise and ornate as the cakes in the window of the panadería across the street. During the local film festival, the cemeteries hosted midnight horror movies, which we could not persuade any of our kids to attend with us. On the city bus, a portrait of a bloody, anguished Christ affixed behind the driver’s seat might accompany you on your trip.

No danger in any of that—it enriches your errands, makes you feel more alive. What’s always concerned me about our frequent trips to Mexico is actual danger, not from drug traffickers as my parents feared, but from the seeming lack of universal safety standards, the eschewing of seat belts in taxis, the happy crowding of the disturbingly dilapidated playgrounds, the guardrails that, when they do exist, seem to be always 4 to 6 inches too short. But Mexico is also the most family- and child-centered place I’ve ever visited, and my preoccupations seem to be a by-product of my 21st-century American momhood.

On the 90-minute bus ride from our temporary home in San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato, the capital city of the state of Guanajuato, we debated whether to take our 5-year-old, Otto, to the Museo de las Momias, or Mummy Museum. Exhibiting naturally preserved 19th- and early-20th-century corpses exhumed when families couldn’t pay a burial tax, it’s one of the city’s main attractions. Otto was into Egyptology and Scooby-Doo and had begged to go, though we told him these mummies were a lot different—no sarcophagi, no bandages, no ancient curses that we knew of. My husband finally mentioned that when he went to the museum last year, a lot of kids were there. That swung it for me. If Mexican kids could handle it, so could our little New Orleanian. Accompanying us was my 13-year-old niece, Talbot, who also wanted to see the Mummy Museum and assured me that her parents would be totally cool with it.

You enter Guanajuato through rugged old tunnels, racing out of the subterranean dark straight into the bright glory of its colonial heart—a perfect introduction to a place famed for its disinterred dead and murdered revolutionary heroes. We decided to go first to the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a granary turned military stronghold built at the end of the 18th century. In 1810, it was the site of an early battle of the Mexican War of Independence; Spanish royalists and rich Creole families holed up there with millions of pesos in silver and weapons. The legendary miner El Pípila tied a huge flat stone to his back and crawled through a hail of gunfire to torch the doors of the Alhóndiga, clearing the way for the insurgents. Pillaging and massacring of the royalists ensued. Ultimately, the four main leaders of the insurgency were captured by the Spanish and decapitated, their heads displayed in cages on the corners of the Alhóndiga for 10 years, until the Mexicans finally achieved independence, took the heads down, and brought them to Mexico City for veneration.

The carnage continues across the street, at the Guanajuato Wax Museum, where certain of these historic tableaux are re-created, along with Tom Cruise, Sean Connery, and some disemboweled zombies. When we left the wax museum, Otto, recently caught up in recognizing his “firsts”—his first circus, his first mole (on his arm), his first jellyfish sting—exclaimed, “Hey, that was my first cutoff head in a birdcage.”

After lunch we took a cab up the hill to the Museo de las Momias. Our initial encounter with the corpses was buffered by the souvenir stalls edging the parking lot, the weekend line for tickets, and an introductory film, grainy and evocative with lots of dissolves and shots of cemeteries and people grieving. My Spanish is still terrible, and I didn’t understand much of the narration except the dramatic, trilling repetition of “muerte.”

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