by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
I was on a trip with an older friend. We had ridden the train from the Pacific Coast up the Copper Canyon and from there, flown to Mexico City. The weather was warm without being too hot to enjoy walking around in the afternoon.
We visited a large local market and saw all the skeleton candies and tried a few, but they really are too sweet. It’s like eating pure sugar, and soon makes the mouth feel dehydrated. We stopped to look at the large display of papier-mâché skeletons, bought a couple, then stopped for coffee and a piece of cake while we watched families come and go.
In certain areas of Mexico, like Lake Patzcuaro, the old traditions still survive, mostly for the tourists. Midnight parades to the local cemetery wander through the villages, gathering more and more citizens carrying lit candles. At the cemetery, groups move off, each to their own family slab of cement. They sweep the area clean, throw out wilted or faded flowers and replace them with bright paper or plastic flower wreaths. Cemeteries no longer allow fresh flowers because mosquitoes breed in the cups of water under the stems.
As the mother lays out a splendid meal of pumpkin empanadas (turnovers), cooked and shredded beef, warm tortillas, and refried beans, the father and kids pull any weeds that have taken up residence since last year, and sweep the walkways clean.
Neighbors exchange candies and other sweets, and soon the children are running around chasing imaginary ghosts, while parents catch up on news of other families. Some clean up their picnic but others leave it as a sign they did their duty to the ancestors.
We spent the afternoon walking through the markets and then, in the evening, as guests of a family friend at a large cemetery; we were eager to return to our hotel, a hot shower and bed. We said goodbye and headed off in a taxi through the busy streets of Mexico City. Neon lights flashed, people wandered around, some throwing little firecrackers, others going into restaurants. The whole city had a feeling of festival. The entire country celebrates not only October 31st, but November 1st and 2nd as part of the homage to ancestors.
At the hotel, I said I would like to buy some candy to take home. My friend pointed to a candy store across the street and we took off to procure my gifts. As we left, the man at the door said “Whatever you do, don’t give any money to kids.”
Returning back to the hotel, a little boy approached us with his hand out. He looked as if he hadn’t eaten in days and was clothed in little more than rags. My friend started reaching into his pocket.
“Hey, don’t do that. Remember what they said at the hotel,” I said.
“I’m only going to give him the few coins I have in my pocket,” he said as he pulled his hand out. There were only a couple of pesos and several centavos lying in his palm.
The little hand reached over and grabbed the coins so quickly that neither my friend nor I could have prevented it. The little boy took off running down the street as suddenly, another child ran up the steps to us. Then another, and another. Within a couple of seconds, the steps were filled with children, each holding out their dirty little hands toward us. I could see more running up the street toward us.
I felt myself pushed against the wall and watched, helplessly as my friend was pushed toward the edge of the steps. Like many steps in Mexico, there was no banister or rail of any type. If he fell, it would be down ten feet to the concrete below. He yelled out as hands pulled off his jacket and tried to stick their hands into his pockets. I watched, helplessly as he was surrounded by grabbing children.
I felt my bags being pulled out of my hand and someone tried to grab my purse, I clutched the strap and held on tightly as I yelled “Help!” The door to the hotel opened and several men came out yelling something in Spanish. Children started running away, some with my friend’s jacket and another with my bag of candy. My purse strap was still in my clenched fist but one child had reached in and pulled out my wallet.
Shaking, we made it into the hotel where the receptionist asked if we were okay. We were but clearly had not been prepared for the rush of children and how we could be completely overwhelmed by the crowd. This was one Halloween we would never forget.