Mexico Life
The moment when the writer realized he was in over his head. The moment when the writer realized he was in over his head. Miguel Ángel Gómez Cabrera

An Easter excursion imparts a sober reminder: be careful, for life is short

Just because there are some mariachis playing doesn't always mean it's a happy occasion

It was Easter Sunday morning in Casas Grandes, a small pueblo in Chihuahua.

I’d just arrived after spending the previous two weeks photographing in Mata Ortiz, an even smaller village about 20 miles away that’s world-famous for its pottery. I was hoping to photograph something on Easter Sunday, and since there are processions in every city and pueblo in Mexico during Holy Week, I figured I had a pretty good shot. But, apparently, there were none in Casas Grandes. At least none I could find out about. So, with nothing to do, I lay in bed, trying my best to come up with a reason to get up. When I heard mariachi music, I figured, “It’s Easter Sunday, there’s mariachi music; it must be a procession.”

I grabbed my camera, hung it on my shoulder and headed out. I don’t take photographs without permission and always made it a point to hang my camera on my shoulder so people would know why I was there. I learned on this particular Easter Sunday that that’s not always a good idea.

I followed the music to a small church a couple of blocks from my room. As soon as I arrived, it was clear that something was off. Sure, there was a mariachi band playing in front of a lovely little red church, but there seemed to be an awful lot of young men standing around looking very pissed off. Didn’t seem like much of a celebration.

A small group of women stood next to the band, chatting with them between songs, and I was about to cross the street and ask them what was going on when I felt someone standing behind me. Actually, I probably smelled the alcohol before I sensed his presence. When I turned around, I found myself staring into the chest of a very large man wearing a cowboy hat that shaded his eyes, making him appear even more ominous, and a plaid shirt that was a bit too tight, making him seem even larger. A mustache drooped over his upper lip. He looked down at me, and if people really could breathe fire, this guy would have turned me into a cinder.

The little girl who appeared out of nowhere.
The girl who appeared out of nowhere. Joseph Sorrentino

“Are you a tourist?” he fairly spit out.

“No,” I answered.

“Then who are you?” he demanded.

“I’m a photographer from the United States,” I said and then, not too intelligently and with just a little too much attitude, added, “Who are you?”

“I’m a member of the family. What are you doing here?”

“I heard the music and thought it was a procession for Easter.”

“We always bury our dead with music.”

That definitely got my attention. At the time of this event, my Spanish was still a work in progress, and I constantly cursed myself for not working on it harder. I vowed to redouble my efforts if I survived this situation and fervently hoped that I wouldn’t say anything insulting or stupid. I decided to keep it as simple as possible. “I’m very sorry. I didn’t know it was a funeral,” I said.

The sidewalk we were standing on was slightly sloped and, of course, I stood below him which made me feel even smaller. It really wasn’t steep but, because I was so nervous, every time I tried to step up so my head would at least be level with this guy’s shoulder, I slid down. I don’t know if I looked ridiculous, but I felt ridiculous.

I eventually succeeded in getting up the incline and stood next to him. I kept trying, with my limited Spanish, to explain my presence, but my bone-dry mouth was making that even more challenging. The fact that several of the pissed-off-looking young men were edging closer didn’t ease my sense that things could go very badly very quickly.

“I don’t photograph without permission,” I continued, “and I don’t want to photograph a funeral.”

I probably apologized another half-dozen times. He seemed to relax a little and asked where I was from. I said New York. That broke the tension — everyone loves New York — and he said he’d worked in the U.S., on a farm in Michigan. We talked for a few minutes longer, and it actually went quite well. Considering. I mean, I was still alive.

The lovely little red church where it all happened.
The lovely little red church where it all happened. Joseph Sorrentino

I asked him who died.  “My brother,” he said.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “That’s terrible. I don’t want to bother you, so I’ll be going now.”

We shook hands, and as I turned to go, he said, “Be careful. Life is short.”

As I walked down the street, I noticed several police and army vehicles, something I thought was a little unusual for a funeral. A young man called out to me as I passed by, but instead of stopping, I quickened my pace. That seemed to be the smart thing to do. I stopped in a small store a couple of blocks away, and although I hadn’t smoked in years, I bought two single cigarettes — sueltos, they’re called in Mexico — and a Coke. I went to the park across the street and sat on a bench.

I wouldn’t learn until later that day that the funeral was for a drug dealer — the man’s brother  — who’d been shot dead the day before. He’d been shot 20 times. But even without knowing that at the time, the encounter was so tense that I found my hands shaking as I stared at the cigarette.

I looked up and saw, a few feet away, a little girl dancing. She had curly black hair and large dark eyes and wore a green flowery dress and a big smile as she twirled around, not a care in the world.

Our eyes met. She stopped dancing and walked toward me. Without hesitating, she planted a kiss on my cheek and then, smiling, danced away.

Joseph Sorrentino, a writer, photographer and author of the book San Gregorio Atlapulco: Cosmvisiones, is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. More examples of his photographs and links to other articles may be found at www.sorrentinophotography.com  He currently lives in Chipilo, Puebla.

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