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Consuelo Rendón, Revisited in 2004
A Life Transformed ~ A Story of Faith and Survival

Life in the village of Tzintzuntzan is so tranquil that one might describe it as an Eden-like setting on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro. In this small village, the life of Consuelo Rendón followed the comfortable rhythms of fiestas, changing seasons, and the daily making of pottery. All that Consuelo had known would forever be changed in August of 2003.

The news of the tragedy spread swiftly. Consuelo's adult son and wife were away at work reaching for the American dream in southern California, while a neighbor watched over their children. There was a terrible fire and the house was gone within minutes. The unbearable message that four of Consuelo's grandchildren had perished finally reached family in Mexico, Consuelo not having a phone. What had been a family of six would return to Michoacán as two. The deceased children would be brought to their true home. They would be buried in Tzintzuntzan.

August 2003
The home altar filled with photos, the children's toys, and
clay formed from Consuelo's own hands
holds the fresh fruit and flowers.
Four figures on a nearby shelf overlooking the altar.

In any language, there are not adequate words to fully express unfathomable grief, but the deeper meaning of, "Tango dolor", in Spanish translates as a very painful loss…a terrible emotional aching. There were so many tears in the days following the tragedy. "Tango dolor".

Upon our return to Tzintzuntzan at the end of October 2003, we could no longer remain casual onlookers observing the preparations for the coming evening of November 1. As neighbors and family gathered to create the children's tribute for the cemetery, we experienced the meaning and true purpose of La Noche de Las Animas (as Day of the Dead is now called in this Purépecha village) as never before.

LEFT: The childless mother attaches toys, flowers, and sweets to the beautiful altar. CENTER: The wreaths leave no doubt that three sons and a daughter were lost. RIGHT: Relatives and neighbors work together to prepare the traditional flowers.

As we approached Consuelo's home, the sight of the huge, adorned arches and photos of four smiling children brought tears to our eyes. But to my complete amazement, we found the house in a very different mood that day.

I could not comprehend how the grieving mother attached the very sweets her children adored to the shrine without sobbing. I found neighbors smiling back at the children's photos. Consuelo and the elders were solemnly laboring over the flowers. The children's father was busy cutting wire and string and gathering the necessary candles. Everyone was working with purpose to create the most-personal and fitting tribute, and a quiet peace had descended upon this family. I admit, this perceived stoicism left me perplexed and very uncomfortable.

The completed altar before it was placed in the family’s burial area of the cemetery.

The arches were laden with as many flowers, toys, and sweets as could be attached. The tradition of adding fruit and bread in the first year of death was overwhelming exceeded, and my internal discomfort with death only grew. The cempazúchil (a marigold-like flower), cock's comb, and indigenous orchids gave off a pungent, bittersweet aroma. Four crosses, four photos, four wreaths, and yet…no tears. Undeniably, this family believed that the children were coming to visit this evening, and in that fact, they found great comfort where I could not.

I had always acknowledged the Mexican perspective that death was just another inevitable step on life's journey, or had I really? Witnessing the restorative powers of the ancient rituals of altar-making firsthand, I slowly came to realize the source of Consuelo's quiet strength. There was comfort in knowing that all the generations were linked by keeping the vigil since the time of the pyramids. And there was comfort found in the promised vigils to come, into the eternal future. What was done for their loved ones this night would also be done for them. Forever and ever. And yet I admit that my brain and heart still helplessly railed against the unfairness of death.

The adorned entrance of Tzintzuntzan's famed cemetery
awaits the families, the faithful, and the curious
…and the spirits.

We returned later that evening to Tzintzuntzan with ease and little traffic. Where were the miles of cars? Standing water was everywhere leaving no doubt that a huge storm had just passed discouraging the expected mobs. We made our way to the cemetery and marveled at the sight of adorned graves usually obscured by a thousand tourists. As we entered the cemetery, we quickly sank past our ankles in mud and grabbed at each other's elbows to keep from sliding. But the flickering candles casting their glow on the faces of villagers, families and friends were more beautiful than I could remember from all the previous years. Although the family's altar was drooping from rain, and the sugar skulls melting, the sweet tranquility of the moment was unforgettable. Truly transforming.

After Muertos, Consuelo's family, now expanded by her son and daughter-in-law, struggled to get back to the business of making the famous "blanco y negro" pottery for which they are known. But things would never be the same. As time went on, Consuelo's husband stopped fishing, stopped helping with the lifting of the heavy platters, and turned to drinking. And that could be the end of this story in many Purépecha marriages where alcoholism is present: the wife laboring daily to put food on the table while enduring the abuses of the husband.

Not Consuelo.

In this tiny town after being married all her adult life, Consuelo Rendón said, "No más!", and left her husband and home of more than 40 years, and hardest of all, her familiar horno. The courage of this action in a tight-knit, indigenous village is unfathomable. She moved the family to her mother's land where only remnants of a house were found. It was cold and there was no roof or floor, and…no horno.

Rick attentively listens to Consuelo's plan of action,
and wants to know how we can help.

The first order of business was to build a proper horno for firing and her son immediately began the adobe construction. Next, Consuelo's adult daughter and co-worker-in-clay, was charged with the covert task of visiting her father's home and sneaking out the precious clay molds that are an artisan's valuable heritage. With some financial help from ZOCALO and others, work could begin on the roof. Per Consuelo's wishes, not over where they slept, but first over the horno to protect the clay and merchandise! The leaders of the community quickly came forward with another loan enabling Consuelo to receive electricity and further improve the house. And so she began a new life at 64.

On our next visit Consuelo proudly gave us a tour. "Look at my chickens, look at my cow, and see the avocados on this tree!" . Consuelo was proud of her hard-won independence, but it was the ability to make pottery again that brought the familiar, broad smile back to her face despite the harsh living conditions.

ABOVE: Not a minute of daylight was wasted as work commenced before
the household had electricity. Finally able to fire, the completed figures
represented so much more than mere merchandise.

Exactly one year to the day after the children perished, we returned to visit Consuelo. The altar was prepared with roses, photographs, and flowers, but located in a different home than the previous year. The daughter-in-law was busy with laundry. The son welded new doors for the house, proudly showing us that they now had electricity. The chickens had multiplied to over 20, and it was reported that the cow was contributing nine liters of milk daily. Suddenly, as if called by a voice no one else could hear, the son and daughter-in-law stopped work and quietly walked to the cemetery to be with the spirits of their children. Consuelo and her daughter continued molding and painting clay with sadness, working side by side as each other's best friend. Again, on this day no tears were shed. One year later, Consuelo was finally able to smile and to make plans for the future.

LEFT: The home altar for the children, August 2004.
RIGHT: One year later, Consuelo smiles once
again while making pottery.

I had previously described Consuelo's work as joyful and naïve, but I now see so much more. Strength, courage, and determination were always there in the repeated and comforting images of Tarascan life in clay.

I avoided writing this story for more than a year, returning over and over to the tragic loss of the children which can never be changed. I am learning to look to Consuelo's example and to at last examine the lessons learned during "La Noche de Las Animas" 2003.

Consuelo's family is grieving, but they are clearly lifted above the terrible cycle of unanswerable questions…the "what ifs" and the "what might have beens". I must also learn to find comfort in the continuum in which this village and this family so strongly believe. I must accept death as surely as I accept the daily gift of life. As every Mexican so wisely recognizes, in this matter, there simply is no choice.

By Debra Hall
September 11, 2004
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO

Update as of November 2007:
With time, the strain of tragedy tore apart Consuelo's son's marriage, but he lives in the same household compound as his mother to this day.