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Dia de Los Muertos (y los borrachos)

Updated: Jul 29

My feet were still hovering above the earth that October. I had just arrived to the World Heritage city of Antigua in the Guatemalan Highlands, where I lived with a friendly host family and daily walked to a language school for gringos to baptize my mind in Spanish immersion.

I was twenty-six and thought I was old, my life slipping out from under me as I careened toward thirty and what felt at the time like old enough that I should know more than I did. I was adrift, owning only what I could fit in a green duffel bag, in search of a new language and a new life somewhere on a continent I had never been before.

I saw the poster on the cafe wall only a few weeks after I arrived, advertising a week-long cultural tour deep into the mountains, via Lake Atitlán, with a final stop in a small pueblo called Todos Santos for their annual Drunken Horse Race. The festival takes place on Dia de los Muertos and honors the single Mayan ancestor who stole a horse from the Spanish conquistadores and road in defiance through the streets of Todos Santos. Having already climbed a smoldering volcano that had erupted just weeks before I arrived, I felt defiant as well. I wanted to keep shaking off the split nerves and fumbling feeling one gets when you can point to where you are on the map, but in every other way feel as lost as it gets.

We set out in two white vans with two Guatemalan guides, one of whom wore a heavy wool sweater that buttoned up the front with large ceramic buttons, and the other who wore little beyond a white t-shirt, even when it rained. And it definitely rained. Almost from the moment we pulled out of the cobbled streets of Antigua and rolled into the countryside. The grey skies hung low over muddy farm land and clusters of tile-roofed houses, that stubbornly held on to sloping foundations as the rain fell relentlessly.

We stopped midday to buy pan dulce and bowls of menudo in a road-side tienda. The bathroom was little more than a wooden outhouse in a field that drained into a small, fenced corral with a single cow that lay in the stinky muck. We were a mix of tourists, some student backpackers like me, another a dog walker from New York, another whose parents had hoped a few weeks in Guatemala would inspire a new direction in her life. But mostly I was drawn to the vacationing couple from Southern California named Pete and Sarah, who did yoga, and ate raw nuts and were in search of steamed spinach with every meal, and provided me with a welcome slice of home.

I roomed with them at Lake Atitlán, rimmed by volcanoes that sat in milky blue light at the far side of the lake. Our hospedaje sat above the shore in a series of bungalow rooms that surrounded a funky restaurant with over-stuffed seating in the lobby and a wrap-around porch with views for days.

We ate granola for breakfast and lake trout with potatoes for dinner around a communal table. We hiked to an artists’ colony when the rain let up, and met a woman who lived in a house with high walls full of tall windows, surrounded by her paintings that leaned in piles against the walls. Back at our lodging, the rain continued to fall in downpours that blotted out everything beyond the shoreline, and then let up long enough for us to swim in a grey lake filling with new streams of muddy run-off.

What we couldn’t know in an age before cell phones and wi-fi, is that this rainfall had been whipped up by hurricane Mitch off the Caribbean Coast, hundreds of miles south. And while we were merely suffering wet boots and soggy jackets up in the mountains, below us in the coastal plains that stretch from Guatemala through Honduras and out to the islands of Belize, absolute destruction was befalling millions of people.

As we played around the lake, below us a dormant volcano was filling to the rim and would eventually collapse burying entire villages. The island chains offshore were set to be wiped clean, whole communities would be lost to flooding, and my mom back home, thinking I was on the island of Antigua in the eye of the storm - not the mountain village of Antigua in Guatemala - was in a hot panic trying to locate me in a country neither one of us knew.

Don’t drink the water, our guides warned almost hourly. We were high enough, and oblivious enough, to still joke about the rain, as we made our way in the vans on switch-back roads higher and deeper toward Todos Santos. Narrow roads that hugged swollen rivers, and small clay houses with lines of forgotten and muddy laundry hanging heavy in the yard.

At last, we came to a place where the sky opened up and highland prairie stretched around us. We shared the cracked clay road with trucks filled with women and children, and colorful buses with men piled on the roofs. And there were families on foot carrying heavy woven bags and armfuls of colorful flowers. We rolled into Todos Santos past a humble cemetery filled with gravestones and candles and bright paper flowers. Small fires smoldered by the graves, along with plates of food and small tokens of affection and memories.

But the cemetery, while full and festive, was almost an after-thought.

The center of town was roiling with preparation for the race. The rain had let up for a moment but everything was soaking wet, including the crisp mountain air that held our breath in puffs of cold steam. Crowds of men filled the streets dressed in blue and white striped shirts that represented their ancestors’ spirits, and red striped pants that represented their ancestors’ blood. They had been drinking heavily and dancing since the night before. You could feel the pride and smell the alcohol. Men coursing with juice to numb the fear - and possibly the pain – if they should be thrown or trampled.

These men had come from all over the highlands and the drinking began days before the race, but ramped up with enthusiasm the night before. In their camps, in back-alley bars all around town, and in the streets. Some were already passed out on the road, while others were doused with cold water to bring them around enough to get on horseback.

The men had been adorned with feathered hats, and woven fabrics, and women moved through the streets spitting mouthfuls of alcohol to bless the riders with protection. The tension was thick, the men full of moonshine and menudo, now red-face and bleary, attempted to mount the spooked horses on high alert from the blaring mariachi and homemade pipe bombs exploding all around.

It’s muy peligroso, said our guides, but very dangerous seemed like an understatement as we moved to the muddy race track at the edge of town. The horses faltered in confusion as their riders tried to stay astride and upright, aided only by their equally drunk pit crew. It seemed likely that this wouldn’t end well, and indeed many have died, which also seemed likely. Drunk is not the right word to use here. Muy borracho also falls short. Obliterated and out of body might be getting closer to where the racers were hovering. And already gone could be applied to many before the race had even begun.

Only a small post-and-rail fence separated the spectators from the thundering crush of confused horses and riders. Down the track they went in a gun shot, riders barely hanging on with loose bodies and half-closed eyes. The rain began again, and I shared an umbrella with a stranger who used it to keep us from mud-splatter.

Around the bend, the track came to an abrupt end, and the horses managed a u-turn and then back they came, over and over, each time in heats with fewer and fewer men. Some men slipped off their horses and lay passed out in the mud, others hobbled back with broken bones, and another with his arm caught in the reins was running alongside a horse he couldn’t manage to stop.

Back and forth, braver and bolder. Shouting to the sky, channeling the spirits of Todos Santos, throwing back moonshine and calling up the defiant spirit of their ancestors who flew in the face of Spanish conquistadors, and later military genocide. Todos Santos was the pueblo that would be the last stronghold of a population now mostly diluted by Spanish blood, and the encroaching modernization of the country around it.

It was perfect chaos. It was nothing like my gringa eyes had seen. It was total abandon to this tradition that went beyond the rider and his horse. This wasn’t calculated or constructed. There were no release forms, no one had insurance. This didn’t seem to me to have anything to do with today, or the pressures of the here and now. It was about going back. Way back as far as one can go. Drinking to obliterate whatever we call today. Drinking to call up the spirits, the warriors, the bloodshed and the defiance.

And when the race was over and the wounded were carried off the track, the head of each family took to his horse and road additional laps with a ceremonial chicken that would be sacrificed on horseback as an offering to Todos Santos. The gallina blood, a sacrifice to the bravest of the brave ancestor who stole that defining horse so many generations before. Only the captain can kill la gallina, only he can eat it, and in so doing bringing closure to the tradition.

For years I told this story in mixed company as though these men were some kind of comical caricature of Latino machismo. Drunk horse riding and chicken killing seemed to check all of the boxes to that end. But in reflection now, that's just simply not the whole story. To honor those who have come before. To be the living who are keeping the spirit and memory of the dead alive. What greater way to honor their sacrifice than to channel their bravery, to throw caution to the wind and challenge the fates to a death of freedom on horseback. That seems to me the most honorable tribute, fitting their bravest Mayan ancestor.

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