I started out so excited. I was going with Alberto to collect flores de muertos in the nearby hills.
I was staying with Alberto and Anna in San Augustin Etla, a village outside of Oaxaca. I was there to photograph Day of the Dead. Although Alberto had promised me there wouldn’t be any problems with my doing this, the locals were initially skeptical about my presence.
Day of the Dead celebrations in this and neighboring pueblos feature elaborate costumes, dancing and skits. The skits are kept secret — rehearsals were literally behind locked doors — and people apparently believed that I’d steal the skits and tell neighboring pueblos about them. It didn’t occur to anyone that my Spanish wasn’t good enough to do that.
But during an evening of beer and mezcal, everyone loosened up and welcomed me. That evening, Alberto turned to me.
“Would you like to come with us tomorrow morning to cut flores de muertos?” he asked in a low voice, lending it such an air of mystery that I immediately said yes.
“We leave at five,” he said.
Flores de muertos are flowers cut for Day of the Dead — brilliant yellow and deep red ones. I was going along to photograph and help cut the flowers.
When I awoke at just past six, I decided to mosey on downstairs and see what was shaking. Alberto and Cristina, another friend, were sipping coffee at the kitchen table.
“What’s up?” I asked. “Are we going to cut flowers?”
“We’re waiting for the truck,” said Alberto. “Have some coffee.”
We sat around for several minutes, sipping coffee and making small talk. I was glad we were delayed. The light would be so much better for taking photographs. After maybe 10 minutes, Alberto got up and walked outside but quickly returned.
“We have to go,” he said. “The truck is here, and we have to meet the second truck.”
We clambered into the truck and were soon hurtling up the road to the mountain, Alberto’s trusty dog Washi running alongside. I didn’t see a second truck.
We pulled off on what had now turned into a dirt road. Alberto shut the engine and got out. Cristina and I followed. After a few minutes, I asked what was up.
“We have to wait for the key,” said Alberto.
There was a chain across the road, blocking access. I leaned casually against the truck, hoping I didn’t look too annoyed. Washi had caught up to us and was curled on the ground, asleep. I watched a Volkswagen Beetle with four large men in it make its way around the gate and up the mountain.
“We have a truck,” I thought, “Why aren’t we doing that?”
Half an hour later, the second truck pulled up and the gate was quickly unlocked. Cristina, apparently sensing what this trip was going to be like, headed home, but not me. I was headed up a rutted mountain road to photograph people cutting flores de muertos.
The hard-packed dirt road turned into soft soil, and although Alberto’s truck was often spinning its wheels, we still made progress. The second truck soon left us behind.
Alberto, refusing to believe that his truck couldn’t make it up that mountain, simply kept the gas pedal on the floor every time the truck got stuck and smiled at me broadly every time we got unstuck. Washi trotted along a little behind us. The first time the road forked, Alberto slowed a bit, looked at both roads and muttered something in Spanish. He shrugged, muttered some more and then pressed on the gas, heading up the right fork.
He followed the same ritual at the next fork. Washi the wonder dog was nowhere in sight, but Alberto was untroubled.
“She loves to run,” he said proudly. “She will find us,” he said. “I hope.”
An hour later, we found the second truck. The men were all combing the hills for flores de muertos, but there were hardly any. The fields of yellow and red I’d been promised were nowhere in sight.
“There are no flowers,” Alberto said.
I had already figured this out. We walked around for a few minutes, picking the occasional flower. It was clear the photographs were going to be pretty damn boring. Washi, who had indeed found us, was lying on the ground, panting heavily.
“We have to go to another place,” said Alberto.
We climbed back into the trucks and headed down the mountain, Washi again trotting slowly behind. Alberto stopped the truck after a few minutes and opened the back door to let in Washi, who had fallen far behind, her love of running apparently sated for the day.
“Last year,” Alberto explained, “the fields were covered with flowers up here. Well, maybe there will be many down below.”
I didn’t bother to mention we hadn’t seen any fields bursting with yellow and red flowers on the way up.
We found the other truck pulled off by the side of the road. The men were sitting around, looking bored. Alberto parked, got out and also proceeded to look bored. I trotted out, trying to not look pissed. It was almost nine o’clock, and we’d only collected a handful of flowers.
I sidled up to Alberto and asked why we were waiting.
“Gordito,” he said.
“Gordito?” I asked.
“He is back there,” he explained, “cutting flowers.”
I decided not to point out that we had just been back there and that there were no flowers to cut.
Someone pulled out a radio. After fiddling with the dials and antenna for a minute, he settled on a station that was mostly static. He then turned up the volume as loud as possible and sat with the rest of the men in a small hut.
We waited. We ate some tortillas and cheese and waited some more. Finally, an hour later, Gordito showed up with a fistful of yellow flowers.
“Let’s go,” Alberto said.
We drove down the mountain, faithful Washi lying down in the back. We arrived at the house, five hours after we’d left, with a couple of bunches of flowers.
Later that afternoon, we constructed the tapeta for Day of the Dead, a structure placed with the altar that bears flowers topping an image of the maker’s choice. To make this item, a drawing was first made on a large sheet of plastic. Chicken wire was placed above that, and flowers were placed in the chicken wire.
We had a large drawing of a skull, and it was clear that there weren’t nearly enough flowers. A couple of the young men helping with the tapeta drove off in a truck and returned a half-hour later.
And, of course, the back of their truck was crammed full with flores de muertos.
Joseph Sorrentino is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily.