Sunday, October 27, 2013

Las Momias de Guanajuato and Life After Death

by Amelia M.L. Montes (

El Museo de Las Momias (the museum of the mummies) in Guanajuato, Mexico is mostly visited by Mexicans.  It is not an overwhelmingly popular tourist attraction for the norteamericano.  In fact, if one is from the United States, usually the U.S. visitor is Mexican American. At least that's what it looks like to me whenever I visit. I do not claim scientific evidence on this opinion! 

The museum is just what it says it is:  a museum of mummified bodies.  These mummies were buried around 1833 and scientists have identified the probable cause of death for most: cholera.  They would have remained buried had it not been for local cemetery tax legislation.  
If a family member didn’t pay the burial tax, their loved one would be disinterred, and that’s exactly what happened to some of the families during financially difficult years.  What officials discovered when they began digging up these graves was unusual.  The bodies were naturally preserved.  combination of weather (dry) and soil conditions had mummified these bodies. Between 1865 and 1958, bodies were removed from these cemeteries and stored in a building.  If loved ones paid the cemetery tax, the bodies would be reburied.  Many families didn’t, and eventually, the warehouse became the museum—mummified bodies propped up against the wall with only glass between the museum visitor and the mummy. (In another article, I discuss the problematic issue of bodies on display--the exhibitionist unethical aspect which always is about displaying the body of the poor, the oppressed.)

The first time I went to El Museo de Las Momias was in the early 1970s.  I was in junior high.  It was a hot summer, and my parents decided to take a road trip to visit the family and areas of childhood, of birth. As soon as we arrived to Guanajuato, my mother felt it important to take me to “las momias,” to show me something that was unique to the geographic area of our antepasados.  Her mother’s family (my grandmother) were all from Guanajuato.  Maybe one of these mummies is a direct relation, I thought.  Maybe someone in our family didn’t pay the tax. You never know.  The individuals have been identified as farmers, miners (Guanajuato is known for its silver mining), midwives. 

Many children were also disinterred.  Other parents might flinch to think about taking their children to see mummified bodies, but not my mother.  Her demeanor was one of a serious, reverent air, ready to disclose information about this museum’s contents, and telling me that, indeed, we probably had a family member here.  And because all the other visitors (I noticed all were Mexican) and museum guides were also of a serious demeanor, I didn’t consider the place one of sensationalism or of humor. 

Later on, I learned that writer Ray Bradbury had gone to the museum and was quite traumatized by the experience.  He wrote the story, “Next in Line” soon after his visit—a psychological horror story of marital discord and the fear of death. It was published in his collection, Dark Carnival.  Mexico also capitalized on the sensationalist aspect to “las momias” by releasing a “lucha libre” B movie in 1970 entitled, “Santo vs. The Mummies of Guanajuato.” The famous lucha libre wrestler, Rodolfo Guzmán Huerto was the lead. And when I went to see Werner Herzog’s famous film, Nosferatu, I instantly noticed the long museum’s hallway (with mummies on either side) in his film. 
All of these examples are sensationalist creations that play to one’s fear of death.  When I returned to Los Angeles from that family trip, I was not horrified when I’d think of the Guanajuato momias, but interested in understanding life and death border crossings.  What happens to the individual inside of the casing where it is housed?  I think of this every time the cicadas are loudly filling up the quiet with their passionate zipper-like, back and forth rhythmic love calls.  There is so much auditory movement within their insistent calling.  It takes up space, and yet it is intangible.  Then, not many days later, I find their carcasses flitter and swirl in windy gusts before me.  What happens in between such transformations?

During the 1970s, I was lucky enough to have one of the most interesting teachers I’ve ever known—a nun who I think of today as a mystic. I’m still in touch with her and was fortunate enough to see her again this past September.  Funny, jovial, and searingly insightful/honest, she is not what most people think of a nun to be.  In seventh grade, she gave me the book Siddhartha to read, and many after school discussions would ensue regarding the book (as well as other books she gave me).  After school, she would use her classroom as an art studio to paint on large canvases: a robe draped over a table is one such painting.  While she painted, we would discuss.  She also repeatedly told me that I needed to do zen meditation (a Catholic nun in the 70’s telling me about zen meditation!).  Soon after my first visit to the Guanajuato momias, I wanted to know more about death and I believed she had the answer—or an answer that would satisfy me. 

I spent an afternoon telling her all about the Guanajuato mummies and their history.  After my long explanations and answering her questions about Guanajuato and my family, I asked, “So where do we go after we die?” 

I remember she just kept painting and would not answer.  There were often long silences in between our words.  I would stand beside her, watching how she effortlessly created the robe with its sweeping shadows and creases. 

In my insistence, I told her, “I don’t want to hear about God and heaven and all the stories we’re given in books.  I want to know what you think. What do you think happens?” 

Finally she stopped painting. “All of us are pure energy,” she said quietly.  “And when we die, that energy disperses.” 

It was an interesting moment that has carried me ever since in regards to notions of energy.  We say, “Place your energy where it will help you and others” or “Conserve your energy to heal,” etc.  There are “energy” drinks and a zillion workshops and groups to discuss or practice “body energy.”  We are consumed with the word “energy” as if we could indeed bottle it and own it, and yet it is elusive.  It is present between words. 

When we die, what kind of energy will each of us disperse?  Will it be negative or positive or a little of both?  By the time I was in high school, my 7th grade teacher had left the Mercy Nun convent to join a cloistered convent.  She has been a cloistered contemplative nun ever since, often telling me when I visit:  “People need to do more meditation.” 

The Mexican traditions and history I have been given, invite me to inhabit a space closely aligned with dispersed energies.  Many of us create altares in our homes not just during The Day of the Dead, but throughout the year.  I’ve gone to the cemeteries in Mexico where we eat in the cemetery with our dead.  We feed them.  We paint ourselves, get tattoos, dance in calavera costumes.  We celebrate our ultimate border crossing and those who have crossed before us. 

A few years ago, a short film was made entitled, “Pearl,” based on a poem (also “Pearl”) written by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser.  In this poem, (set in Minnesota), Pearl lives among the dead in her home.  Ghosts have come to sit on her couch, in her kitchen, on the landing of her stairs.  She can see them in her house and has come to terms with their presence.  What caught my attention in this poem and the film was how Pearl does not connect at all with these energies. There is a distinct barrier between them, strangers all inside this house.  Any possible communication is thwarted by a strange, cold silence.  In Chicana/Chicano and Latina/Latino literature and film such as the works of José Guadalupe Posada, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ana Castillo’s So Far From God, Norma Cantú’s Canicula, Pat Mora’s House of Houses, the dead are integral, present within and outside of the living. There is a porous relationship among these energies.  Perhaps that is what is unique about Mexican/Indigenous considerations of death and why we laugh and paint ourselves la calavera instead of shrinking away in fear. "All of us-- pure energy."  Wishing all of you a most wonderful upcoming Dia de Los Muertos! 

Famous Posada depiction of the Catrina


Unknown said...

awesome piece. Loved the topic. Reminded me of connections to Africa and significance of visiting the sites of death- to tell the spirit we are coming to take you home. Yes, you raise a good point, what kind of energy had those fallen apartheid soldiers dispersed? Hmm?



Unknown said...

Thank you for the piece I have been to Las Momias about 3x's and I love it! somos de Irapuato! so it's a close yet super fun place. Last year we went and it's cleaned up a bit since the 80's but it has the smallest baby mummy in the world.
I love the connections you made!

Edward Vidaurre said...

One of my favorite times of the year. Bravo! great issue!! Loved it from top to bottom!and yes! I subscribed to Iris De Anda's Newsletter!!! Abrazos!