Mas o Menos: An 8-Hour, All-Inclusive, Oaxacena Funeral (S1 EP3)

Mustafa Shaikh
7 min read

I more or less lived the life of a freelance reporter for Vice.

This week's episode flows better if you read last week's.

The conversations that are quoted in the episode below initially took place in Spanish.

Expect 1.5x the normal reading time of an average episode.

Without further ado ...

This woman, Perla, who I had been dating for a grand total of two weeks while staying out in Oaxaca City, Mexico, invited me out to a misa aka a funeral. The funeral was 90 minutes outside the city, and she said it would be simple: there was a ceremony at the church, and then there'd be a breakfast where people would be drinking mezcal. At most, we'd be there for two hours. The reason she wanted me to come along is that she really wanted to show me some small towns on the way back to Oaxaca City after the funeral.

I thought, hey, why not? Sounds like a cultural experience. She assured me that this funeral would be a relaxed affair as it's taking place 40 days after the person's death. Plus, I enjoy seeing small towns in Mexico.

This misa was set to start at 9, so we set off for San Pablo Guilá a little earlier than I'd like to get my day started. On the ride I got caught up on the backstory: Perla is working on a line of mezcal that is infused with cannabis with a father-son duo. The son, Javier, unfortunately had a motorcycle accident and died.

We pulled up to the church and find that we were the only ones there. Perla adds things up and remembers that some of the smaller towns in the larger state of Oaxaca don't follow Daylight Savings Time. Didn't realize it was an arbitrary town-by-town decision.

With the extra hour on hand, we set out to find breakfast and ended up at this great spot with fresh tortillas.

One of the workers there inquires as to why we're in town and tells us that he thinks the funeral is actually at a church on the outskirts of town. He gets on the phone and starts making calls and eventually confirms for us that we are indeed in the right spot. One of the things I love about small-town Mexico: people are extraordinarily helpful.

The highlight of my day.

After breakfast, we head back to the church. Let me tell you, they really know how to get a funeral started in San Pablo Guilá. There's a small band leading the charge into the church followed by all of the attendees who are carrying sage.

When we enter the church, Javier's dad greets us. As Perla only knows him and Javier's mom at this funeral, he insists that we sit with him. I was envisioning sitting in the back row, but now here I am up in the second row with Javier's family.

In total there were about 70 people in attendance. Gender-wise things were heavily skewed towards females, which Perla explained was because the men were working in the United States.

The church's priest was late by half an hour, and when he showed up, he was a she. Perla remarked that this was the first time she's every seen a female lead a church. Maybe the priest was also in Texas working.

The services themselves involved a lot of Spanish that I didn't understand. Other than hearing words like "amen" and "hallelujah," and getting the option to eat the flesh of Christ (which I still don't get the whole cannabilism aspect of Christianity), everything else was a mystery for me.

After the service, the band starts up again and we head out. I'm told we're going to the cemetery, which wasn't on the original itinerary that I signed up for.

Our 15-minute march led us to a cemetery, but as I soon found out, not the cemetery where Javier was buried in. The town's cemetery was full, so Javier was buried in a new cemetery on the outskirts of town.

People are now milling about as beers and mezcal shots start getting handed out. There's actually a guy who has a jug of mezcal strapped to him with a leather belt whose job it is to go around and pour mezcal for people. And ya, it's strong. Mind you, it's 11:30am, or 10:30am, depending on who's counting.

NYC, represent.

With everyone a round or two deep, we all load up in cars to go to the actual cemetery. We, first, however, all meet up a ways off from the cemetery because another procession is in order.

I will say if you were going to get buried somewhere, this was a good resting ground. It was a beautiful location tucked up in the mountains. It was also strange to be in a new cemetery. You've got this empty plot of land with five gravestones that are waiting for more company.

There's a variety of things going on at the cemetery. Family members started giving impromptu speeches that choked everyone up (I definitely shed a thug tear). A relatively chill affair suddenly got flipped into a very somber one.

Then you've got people "pouring one out" for Javier, which I didn't realize happens outside of Boyz in the Hood and Tupac lyrics. The band is still here and intermittently plays songs. Then you've got a few folks who are so drunk that they had to be carried out of the cemetery. It's a mess.

At some point, one of the attendees, Sergio, strikes up a conversation with me. It turns out he actually used to live in Queens and worked at the Olive Garden in Times Square. He asks me how much longer I'll be in Oaxaca.

"I'm leaving next week."

"Oh, you're going back to the United States with your wife then?"

"My wife? ... Oh no no. She? She's not my wife."

"Sorry, your girlfriend. She's from Oaxaca, right?"

"No. Well yes, she's from Oaxaca, but she's not my girlfriend. I just met her two weeks ago."

"Two weeks ago?"

"Yeah, two weeks ago. I have no idea why I'm at this funeral."

He looks at me dumbfounded, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation.

As we continued to talk I found out that he's Javier's uncle. I figured it was time to get a clearer understanding of why we're here.

"So tell me, all I know is that Javier died in a motorcycle crash. But how did he die?"

Sergio points to the sky, "It was his destiny."

I couldn't get onboard with his destiny being to leave two young kids fatherless so I probed further.

"Was he driving fast?"

"Yes, he was driving fast. 125, maybe even 150 kilometers per hour in the town. He then hit the curb and his head went into the pole. He wasn't wearing a helmet."

I did some quick math. OK wait what? He couldn't have been going 80 mph in this town. There are no paved roads in this town. We're really out in deep Mexico. It's either dirt roads or cobblestone. Sergio, however, confirmed that Javier was driving that fast.

"So was he drinking? Did have any beers that day?"

"Well ... yes he had some beers, but not too much."

"Was he drinking, mezcal?"

"Well ... yes he had some mezcal, but not too much."

"Then, he got in the accident because he was drunk?"

"No, that's not why. It was his destiny."

I found his perspective to be pretty enlightening about Mexicans' attitudes towards drunk driving. I noticed on a few occasions during my time in Mexico that Mexicans were much more prone to drunk driving than the average American.

A few days later I went online and found numerous research studies showing Mexican-Americans have much more drunk driving incidents than other groups. From what I could gather, it seems to be rooted in the belief that at the end of the day, you're in God's hands.

When I die, someone please bring a live band in for me.

After baking in the sun for well over another hour, we mercifully piled into the back of a pickup truck to go to Javier's house for lunch. (I will say, there's a charm to riding in the bed of a pickup truck.)

My goal is simple at this point. It's a little past three o'clock. I've had my full of this funeral. It's hot plus my brain feels fried from having to think in Spanish for the last six hours. We're getting in, eating, and then dipping. Unfortunately, there were complications.

For some reason as we walk into the front yard, Javier's mom starts talking to Perla. Next thing I know Javier's mom is wailing in Perla's arms. That in turn puts Perla over the edge.

I'm like c'mon now, you picked Perla? Of all the people here, this is one of the people you know least. (Perla later shared with me that she was also confused by the situation.) Perla and some of the other women take Javier's mom into the house to console her.

I peek into the living room a few times to see how things are progressing, and each time, things ain't looking good. Perla motions to me to come sit with her and comfort her, and I immediately walk out each time.

I did not sign up for this. This is on you. I'm at a point feeling so drained by the heat, my work-in-progress Spanish, the emotional rollercoaster, and way-too-strong mezcal that I need to be comforted.

I spent the next two hours eating soup (an interesting choice to have as the communal funeral meal), play-wrestling with children, answering some more questions about how I ended up here, and getting more agitated by each passing minute.

Finally a little after 5, we start making our way out of San Pablo Guilá. I start adding up how many beers and mezcal shots Perla had prior to driving and think to myself, "You know, I think I'm ready to leave Mexico and try somewhere else out." It's my destiny.

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Next week on Mas o Menos ... a reflection on how current-day Mexico tells its history.

This essay was edited by Mustafa Shaikh. Blame all grammatical errors on him.

You can catch up on past writings here.