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28 Nov 2020 18:50
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  •   Home > News > International

    As coronavirus devastates Mexico, Day of the Dead has taken on a more sombre tone

    The November 1 weekend is typically a time where families tend the graves of loved ones, decorating them with marigolds and sugar skulls as live bands play and tortillas and tequila are passed around. Not this year.

    With music playing from a mobile speaker and snacks and soft drinks on hand, it was a smaller and shorter gathering than would usually be expected at this time of year in Mexico.

    The family of Leonardo Peña Bonillo — his wife of 27 years, Ivonn Peña Gonzalez and his children Miguel Angel, Eric, Armando, Daniel, Karen and Iván — have come to the cemetery in the southern Mexico City borough of Xochimilco to finish building and decorating the grave where he was buried after his death from COVID-19 on June 20.

    With cement, tiles and plants, the family created a handsome tomb while a cemetery attendant looked on, gently urging them to get it done as quickly as possible.

    Due to pandemic social distancing measures implemented by the Xochimilco municipal government, family members are permitted to spend only 30 minutes at a time in the cemetery in the days leading up to the traditional Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico on November 1.

    Leo, as Peña was known to friends and family, was a much loved father and husband who died at the age of 45.

    In the cemetery in Xochimilco, he lies next to many whose tombstones bear dates around the same time: deaths in April, May and June this year, including people as young as 30.

    Xochimilco was one of the parts of Mexico City hit hardest by the pandemic during this period.

    'We are used to the government lying to us'

    A taxi driver, Leo Peña was well-known in the local community for his love of tinkering, fixing and racing cars. In tribute, his sons made the crucifix marking his grave out of old car parts, including tail lights and a steering wheel.

    The November 1 weekend is typically a time where families tend the graves of loved ones, decorating them with marigolds and sugar skulls as live bands play and tortillas and tequila are passed around.

    This year, the cemeteries will be closed on November 1 and 2 to prevent the spread of the virus, which shows no signs of abating in Mexico.

    Since the first cases were registered in February, there have been more than 907,00 confirmed coronavirus infections in Mexico while more than 90,000 people have died from the virus.

    For many, the loss of their loved ones has also meant severe economic consequences in a country where the basic wage is 123.22 pesos (about A$8) per day and the public health system is very barely resourced.

    In addition to high levels of poverty, with about 60 per cent of workers employed in the informal economy, the pandemic in Mexico has also been able to take hold due to widespread distrust of official communications from government and media.

    Many simply did not believe the pandemic was real, and, at any rate, few have the privilege of being able to work from home or to take time out without earning income.

    "We are used to the government lying to us," said Ruby Chompo, 27, who lost her 35-year-old husband, also a taxi driver, to COVID-19 in September.

    She is six months pregnant with their second child. Speaking by phone from the borough of Iztapalapa, Chompo said that many people did not believe in the virus to start with.

    "People believe now, but mostly we hope to be asymptomatic. What else can we do? We have to keep working."

    Times had already been tough

    Iztapalapa is home to the Centro de Abastos market that supplies much of Mexico City — and indeed the rest of the country — with fresh produce and has been one of the places with the most lives lost to the pandemic.

    Some government assistance has been forthcoming to help people weather economic losses, but it is far from enough as the infection numbers continue to climb.

    The Mexican economy, the second largest in Latin America, has contracted by 17 per cent in the last quarter and at least 16 million more people have fallen into extreme poverty, according to a study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

    Xochimilco, home of the Peña family, is world-famous for its canals and floating gardens. Thousands of domestic and foreign tourists visit every year to take a ride with a trajinero and experience the unique UNESCO-listed ecological heritage that includes the endangered axolotl and many migratory birds.

    The business of the trajineros was forced to close between March and July this year to keep the pandemic at bay. The future remains uncertain as pandemic numbers have picked up again and, like most authorities around the world, the municipal government hesitates to make even medium-term predictions.

    Mexico is using a traffic-light system to manage public activity in the face of the pandemic, ranging from red where only essential economic activities are allowed, to green where all activities entailing public gathering are or will be permitted.

    As October approached, trajinero Alvaro Desiderio Gutierrez was worried about his other business, growing vegetables and seasonal flowers using traditional pre-Hispanic farming methods.

    Marigold season was coming and there was no word on whether the cemeteries would be open at all, let alone on November 1.

    Times had already been tough — as well as the shutdown of boat rides, an entire harvest of petunias had to be thrown out when there was nobody to buy them earlier in the year.

    Day of the Dead celebrations to go ahead

    The announcement that people would still be able to attend their family grave sites in October was a relief, and people started buying small pots of marigolds.

    "At the beginning of the month, this place was full," says Desiderio, as he shows the ABC around his greenhouse. "I was worried we wouldn't be able to move them."

    The closure of cemeteries on November 1 still means business is curtailed, he says.

    People are buying marigolds in smaller amounts because they won't be building large public offerings.

    When it comes to public Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City, Xochimilco has an advantage that has made it a bright spot on the city's sombre calendar this year.

    Boat rides are an open-air activity, as is the annual October performance of La Llorona, the Mexican legend about a woman who wails in the night as she searches for her lost children.

    The performance is going ahead for 2020, with punters wearing face masks and watching from boats with strictly limited capacity.

    In a contemporary plot update, La Llorona will be looking for her children taken by the pandemic.

    Production assistant Juan Cruz Martínez told the ABC he and his team were working hard to make sure everything went according to plan.

    "With the pandemic, people really need some enjoyment at the moment."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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