Postcard from San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico: Grooming Graves to Welcome Back the Dead


Hallowmas, or All Saints Day, is such a convenient make-up day for Catholics. There are so many saints, some have been forgotten. November 1 represents a time to remember all of them in one powerful group prayer.

The following day, All Souls Day, is ideal for praying for all the departed, particularly those who escaped hell but were not quite good enough to have Saint Peter throw out the welcome mat – those poor souls stuck in limbo or purgatory.

For many of the indigenous people of Mexico, Catholicism is but a recent thin veneer topping centuries of ancient Mayan beliefs. We are in the heart of that land. November 1 is celebrated as Dia de los Inocentes, a time to communicate with all the small children your family might have lost. November 2 is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

While a small number of Americans hold séances to try to entice loved ones back for a visit, most Americans shrink away from the thought of inviting ghosts back to be part of our lives. But here, families devote much time and energy to cleaning their ancestors’ graves in preparation for decorating them with items to entice the departed back to earth.

This past Sunday, we viewed some of these efforts outside a church that burned long ago. A band played spirited music outside the front of the ruins to entertain those hard at work and those lying underground.

Please excuse the quality of these photographs, but San Juan Chamula operates under its own set of laws. And one of these is you are not allowed to take photographs in its churches or close-ups of any people without permission, rarely extended by the city’s elders (more later). Violators will have cameras confiscated, or worse.

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Throughout San Juan’s valley, patches of marigolds are squeezed tightly amongst rows of corn. The marigolds will be harvested for the graves to help guide the dead to earth.

The sincerity of all the preparations is critical because one would not want the dead to feel inadequately welcomed, particularly because they can impact one’s prosperity throughout the coming year.

Postcard from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico: The Forty-Three


Forty-three. The number calls out from walls throughout downtown San Cristobal de las Casas.

And copies of their photographs leave their faces staring at you blankly as you wander near the zocolo at the heart of the city.

The desaparecidos, the missing students, may be from the State of Guerrero, but the sentiments of many of the young people studying to be teachers in this city appear to be with them.

City hall is heavily patrolled by well-armed soldiers during the day, but they check out for the night. On October 24, while the only guards were the janitors armed with mops, protesters took over city hall for the day. They also assumed control of the toll booths on the highway linking San Cristobal de las Casas and the state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez.

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Yesterday, the normalistas were back again, occupying city hall to call attention to the plight of their compadres.

The sit-in is peaceful. The protesters are unarmed. The blockade of the government offices is enforced by only a single string encircling the building.

Although the students could easily be overcome by force, the police and soldiers remain a distance away. There is no apparent desire to spark any confrontations. The students were allowed to express their concerns, with the everyday rhythms of the city expected to return today.

The Best Halloween


Circa 1997, maybe. Pumpkin Monster absconded with our daughter Kate.

The only flaw was small children truly were frightened, and one brave girl kept hitting Pumpkin Monster’s legs and yelling at him to let her go. Unfortunately, Pumpkin Monster’s legs actually were Kate’s real legs.

Kate and the Mister spent a week or two working on this contraption trying to make it light enough so she could carry Pumpkin Monster on her back.

The costume ended up winning first prize at a large party a few days before Halloween.

But that is not what made this the best Halloween ever.

The Mister was out of town on business that night so he missed the contest. This is what Kate left on the kitchen counter to find when he returned.


Not just a thanks, but a “dobble thanks” from the future English major. And that’s what made that year the best Halloween ever. The road warrior tucked the note in his wallet and still has it today.

Happy Halloween!

Recommended Halloween reading: my favorite David Sedaris story, “Nuit of the Living Dead” from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

Or, for a local touch, try my “ghost” posts:

The Curse of Madarasz Park: Another Ghost Wandering in Brackenridge Park?


Sometimes in the middle of the night, lions and wildcats can be heard crying out from the San Antonio Zoo by people living in neighborhoods more than a mile away from Brackenridge Park. Or so they say. I’m not convinced that some of those cries might not be a woman’s screams….

Shortly before coming to San Antonio to star in a silent film shooting in San Antonio in 1923, Martha Mansfield predicted what fashions stylish women would be wearing that fall:

The straightline frock, slim and narrow, is back for another season…. in lustrous satin of white or pastel shades.

The Hamilton News, July 2, 1923

After breakfasting in the company of friends at the St. Anthony Hotel on the morning of November 29, she unfortunately traded a narrow, fashionable frock for one of yards of fabric billowing over layers of crinolines. She donned the gown for her role as a daughter of the Confederacy falling in love with a Union soldier in The Warrens of Virginia, written by William Churchill de Mille, Cecil’s older brother. Brackenridge Park was selected for the day’s shooting because it:

contained a picturesque group of rag pickers’ shacks that would do very well for the servants’ quarters of the Southern plantation….

The Ogden Examiner, December 30, 1923

Her chauffeur parked the car near the set, and, during a break in filming, Martha retreated inside to relax. Shortly thereafter she emerged “screaming from her limousine, a flaming torch.” Leading man Wilfred Lytell threw his jacket over her head and face to protect her from the flames as the chauffeur frantically flailed to extinguish them. Although she was rushed to the hospital, she died from the severe burns on November 30.

How the fire started and enveloped Martha so quickly remained a mystery; police termed her death accidental. Some say the cause was a match tossed away carelessly by a fellow cast member; others speculated she herself dropped a match while lighting a cigarette. The Ogden Examiner hinted at foul play, perhaps the actress had not been alone:

What was it that turned the picturesque gown into a fiery funeral shroud?…. What started the flames that swept over her crinoline costume and wrapped her in a deadly embrace….

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Born in New York as the new century dawned, Martha Erlich quickly progressed from the Ziegfeld Follies to star in silent films under her stage name of Martha Mansfield. The young starlet quickly was cast in numerous films, with a role opposite John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1920 her most famous.

After her life was extinguished in San Antonio, her body was shipped to New York. Papers reported 1,000 people crowded into the funeral chapel, with another 5,000 held at bay by police outside. Among the films released after her death was The Silent Command, a story of “temptation and disgrace of a naval officer” by a ring of spies led by Bela Lugosi. The Washington Post reported the film was “heartily endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy and by General Pershing.”

So perhaps there is another ghost haunting Brackenridge Park, joining poor Helen Madarasz whose body went up in flames the year Martha Mansfield was born.

I promise I am not actively seeking spirits to populate the park. Helen is the only one I stumbled across on my own. Pursuers of the paranormal based in Austin recently led me to Martha after reading my earlier post about Helen. Just in time for Halloween. And Sarah found an additional four men who all perished in 1906 and 1907 in the portion of the park that bore Helen’s name – Ernest Richter, Otto Petrus Goetz, Sam Wigodsky and William Berger.

Let me know if you see or sense any of them. Or perhaps hear their screams.