Hanal Pixan – Day of the Dead, Maya version

Beryl Gorbman

Mary’s neighbor told her that if you pronounce “hanal pixan” just a little bit wrong, instead of meaning day of the dead, or feast of the dead, it translates in Mayan to “pull the penis.” That’s enough to keep you from even trying.

Day of the Dead is spread over a multiple-day period, with different events on different days, here in Merida. Actually, the portals between the netherworld and this world are open until the end of November, so you have until then to feed and hang out with your relative who is in another sphere.

Yesterday, on an extremely hot day, Mary and I set off for the Merida central plaza at about 10 a.m. By the time we’d walked the seven long, hot blocks to the square, we were drenched. To get into the square, you climb a few stairs and then you’re in the park. Yesterday, you climbed the stairs and dove into a sea of tightly packed but good-natured humanity. Men, women and children, many of them eating, pushed and pulled from every direction. A lady next to me said they needed traffic lights. Just about everyone was Maya, and I got to feel tall at 4′ 11.” Mary, in her bright orange shirt, towered over most of the crowd and was easy to locate.

There were hundreds of women from the villages dressed in their best huipiles. There is something so gorgeous about those outfits.

Many of the pueblos had shrines on display. They were all full of local foods and most of them had photos of people who had died. Many of the old, sepia photos were really a treat to see. The shrines were built in the style of the old Maya huts, and they had constructed representations of the old circular village wells, the three-stone hearths, stone fences and other village objects you don’t see any more. The women and men were dressed in trajes and many of the villages had groups of women singing and chanting misas to the departed.

I was delighted to be able to sample balche*, the traditional ritual drink made from scrapings of the balche tree. It was served in half a gourd, which everyone was drinking from, but I didn’t care. This was at the Yaxcaba, exhibit, where there were two men dressed in white explaining what all the foods were on the table. City and State agencies also had shrines, but they didn’t have the character of the ones from the pueblos.

from Yaxcaba

As I walked by one exhibit, a lady handed me a corn tortilla, fresh from cooking. She had made it by hand. it was hot and fluffy, a real tortilla, with little resemblance to the ones sold in the store or produced by machine in the market. It was actually good. Mary and I continued to push through the crowd, chewing on our giant tortillas.

Eventually, we came to a little band playing. There were a bunch of kids dancing in front, and one guy was beating an old Maya drum made from a log.

Band. Note Maya drum

Even Governor Yvonne Ortega was there!

La Gobernadora

After about an hour if intense closeness with other people, we fled to the Cafe Habana and devoured Cuban sandwiches.

Mary allowed a brief rest at home before we hit the road to the cemetery. Our mission was to leave flowers at our favorite grave, belonging to a lady named Maria. We have visited her a number of times because her resting place is so charming. There is an adorable custom statue of her, a tiny old lady, reading a book. Her daughter and grand-daughter are also buried in the same crypt. We brought her flowers and hung out for a while. There were families in the cemetery washing down their families’ graves and in some cases painting them. It was very quiet and friendly.

Maria with flowers

Newly painted grave

Then we went out and bought ice cold coconut juice and went home to recover from heat stroke.

*The ritual drink, balche, has a prominent place in my novel, 2012: Deadly Awakening.

About BG

Beryl Gorbman is a writer and private investigator who divides her time between Seattle WA and Merida Yucatan Mexico. She has published two works of fiction, 2012: Deadly Awakening, and Madrugada. They are both available on Amazon and other outlets. Also at Amate Books, and Casa Catherwood in Merida. You can read about them in various articles on this site.
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2 Responses to Hanal Pixan – Day of the Dead, Maya version

  1. Richard Pauli says:

    About balche

    The rotenone compound found in some balche brews have sedative effects. early herbalism considered rotenone containing products as morphine substitutes.

    some pulque brews are rumored to be made with different types of “sticks” that are stirred in the fermenting mixture, some acacia species are reportedly used in some areas. the author of the article suggested that these hometown, small batch pulque brews were quite different from the canned, processed pulque.

  2. Mesoamerica.com says:

    Hanal Pixán in the Mayan language means “food of souls.” This is the name given to Day of the Dead celebrations in the Maya area. In this region, food takes on a special meaning as traditional dishes are prepared for the spirits who are believed to return on this day.
    There are many similarities between the way that Hanal Pixan is celebrated and Day of the Dead celebrations in other parts of Mexico. Families set up altars in their homes and decorate graves in the cemeteries, but the foods that are prepared are unique to the Maya area of the Yucatan Peninsula. Mucbipollo, which means “buried chicken” is the quintessential Hanal Pixan food. It’s similar to a tamal – it is made with corn dough and wrapped in leaves, but it is much larger than a normal tamal, and it is cooked in an underground pit.

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