Rendón, Revisited in 2004
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.
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.
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.
completed altar before it was placed in the family’s
burial area of the cemetery.
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
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.
adorned entrance of Tzintzuntzan's famed cemetery
awaits the families, the faithful, and the curious
and the spirits.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
By Debra Hall
September 11, 2004
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, 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.