'El Camino de la Luz' or 'The Way of the Light', Mexico City 2011
"The Mexican", writes Octavio Paz in his Nobel prize winning 'Labyrinth of Solitude', "is familiar with death. He jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
I'm not quite sure whether this rings true or not, certainly death is not something to be enjoyed but there is certainly a strange interplay of life and death here in Mexico that mixes faith, magic and history in a unique way. Stanley Brandes in his anthropological history of the Day of the Dead in Mexico 'Skulls for the Living, Bread for the Dead' recounts in the book's introduction how, on one of his first trips to Mexico in rural Oaxaca, he was invited to a funeral. Rather than stand as a passive spectator he was shocked that the family members and friends invited him forward to the coffin to take pictures of the corpse. The family wanted to remember this moment in the person's life as much as they wanted to remember him alive and smiling for snapshots...and so began Brandes' fascination with these cultures and customs in Mexico.
Contrary to my expectations and while different to many of our own experiences, this Mexican affiliation with death is not borne from a lack of respect or some kind of thin bloodlust. True, it's up front and laid bare for all to see but one of the greatest indicators of a deep feeling and sensitivity for the dead is the custom of 'El Camino de la Luz' or 'The Way of the Light'.
While working on the crime beat and photographing what the night throws at you naturally it can be highly charged at times but for the most part there is often an eerie calm and quiet to be observed in the faces of the spectators and the movements of the emergency services and police who deal with these things in the course of their daily work. There is a strange silence to the spectacle of the event.
Often, one of the first things you notice is a small white candle laid in proximity to the body. This practice is done in much haste and as soon after the person has lost their life according to the Mexican tradition. The candle is lit, people tell me to provide a pathway of light, 'El Camino de la Luz' for the angels, so that they may come quickly and retrieve the soul of the deceased and provide it safe passage to heaven.
La vela, or the candle seems to provide a kind of instant shrine at the scenes of these incidents that somehow helps you understand and appreciate this affiliation with death in Mexico. People gather around and watch the proceedings, the scenes are documented and discussed but everyone pays heed in these first moments as the candle burns.
While not exactly magical - I have yet to have visions of angels descending from heaven - 'El Camino de la Luz' somehow provides a sense of peace and detracts from the horror of the incidents. As time passes and people begin to disperse, as the bodies are moved into Coroners vehicles, often times an anonymous person steps forward to extinguish the candle, satisfied that the person has gone to a better place. This act is never met with disagreement and it's a kind of instant closure that, whether religious or not, brings solstice and a broader sense of compassion to otherwise tragic things.