Tutotepec, affectionately called "Tuto" by its handful of residents, is nestled among the many peaks of the Sierra Madre Oriental in the State of Hidalgo, Mexico. On our first trip way back in 1997, we felt as if we were embarking on an odyssey not at all sure we would we be able to find this then speck on the map.
I want to know more, but time is of the essence if we want to find our way back to our so-called modern and civilized world. Before the bend in the road that will hide Tutotepec, I turn for a last glimpse. Am I dreaming? Or is the trail of cempasúchitl flowers slowly being erased by cautious souls?
The first part of the trip was easy. We left Mexico City early and took the highway towards Tulancingo. The cut-off to San Barolo was there on our left. As we turned onto it, we knew that we were not just taking another road: we were traveling to another dimension. Soon our known reality would disappear behind us. Near Santa Ana Hueytlapan, we passed a procession of Otomi women carrying wax candles, baskets laden with food and beautiful crosses made of cempasúchitl (holiest of Aztec flowers and known the world over as marigolds). They wore home-woven thick black skirts and beautifully embroidered white huipiles (blouses). The bright colored ribbons braided into their jet-black hair had caught our attention before we reached them. Slowing down, we heard their prayers. I waved to them, and a few of the younger girls could not resist the temptation and smiled shyly in return. Then we saw the men: in blinding white cotton clothes, straw hat and glistening machete resting on their shoulder.
After Tenango de Doria, the road seemed to play hide and seek with the mountains, and the lusciously green scenery was hard to resist. A picnic pause would be great, but "Tuto" could not wait.
Finally, we reached San Bartolo. Now all we had to do was find the road that would lead us to Tutotepec, located somewhere in the mountains. But which one was the yellow brick road? Suddenly, I spotted a trail of cempasúchitl flowers. Divine intervention? Perhaps. On a hunch, we decided to follow them. A few kilometers and many centuries later we arrived.
Tutotepec can hardly be called a village. A governmental store for very basic needs, a small clinic that only opens a few days per month, the derelict church with its adjoining cemetery is all that the town has to offer. The Otomi Indians that have not migrated to the cities still live in tight-knit family units scattered around the mountains and only come to Tuto for important celebrations, such as the Day of the Dead.
As we walk toward the town square, we notice a flurry of activity. Passenger cars drop off their passengers, others arrive on foot and still others on horseback. Today on November first Tutotepec will remember their departed loved ones and catch up with old friends and neighbors. A typical Mexican village scene, when all of the sudden the scores of a basketball game being played by teenagers interrupt the conversations of men dressed in jeans and Texan hats talking with their compadres. In the cemetery, the women are preparing everything for this most moving festivity. Communities all over Mexico honor their dead, but here we are outsiders; we are city people. Walking towards the cemetery, we see a woman making fresh tortillas. When did we eat? We quickly devour a couple of tacos.
The cemetery is bulging at its seams. As he walks among the tombs, my tall, bearded French husband stands out like a beacon. The women lower their eyes and discretely laugh behind their hands. As I stop to admire their work, they greet me by lightly brushing their fingertips against mine. We smile more than talk. They ask me if my husband is a gringo and do not know what to say when I say answer that he is French. They laugh politely not knowing if that is good or bad. However, they are amazed when I tell them that I am from Mexico City. The City is a place of magic and wonder; nothing is more important than the ancient Tenochtitlan capital of the proud and mythic Aztecs.
The tombs are barely visible under the mounds of marigolds. Everything is ready: decorated crosses, lighted candles and straw baskets burdened with the favorite delicacies of their departed loved ones wait for their arrival. While the family waits, they listen to the music being played by a trio here, a quartet there. An air of expectancy floats in the air. They are not sad because the tombs will soon be blessed ensuring that the yearly rendezvous will take place again.
However, if we want to visit what remains of the Augustine church and see the bell, we must hurry. The mist has already covered the summits of the surrounding mountains. There are no benches inside, but in front of the altar two men with their hats and bowed down pray that the Padrecito, will arrive before the fog hides Tutotepec.
We find the cramped winding stair and grope our way to the top. There she is. The Bell, the pride of Tuto and personification of Marie Magdalene and of Ometecuhtli, an ancient goddess to whom they still pray. The residents of nearby San Bartolo have tried to steal the Bell, but each time it mysteriously reappears in her rightful place. She is the guardian of Tuto. As long as she reigns over the cemetery, the departed will be protected from malignant forces.
I get as close as I dare to the edge. The fog shrouds the cemetery, but here and there I can see a flickering candle or orange and yellow bursts of marigolds. The aroma of Copal, ancient Aztec incense perfumes the prayers that transformed into murmurs float in the air.
Suddenly, a banner and three crosses appear. They wind their way through the cemetery. We hear, more than see, tubas, trumpets, and a large drum and men singing. We are told that a new cofradia is about to be sworn in. But that is a private ceremony, and we are intruders.
Maricarmen Ferrant was born in Mexico City. Following her husband, she has crisscrossed the world, living in Chicago, Buenos Aires, Nantes, Diego Suarez (Madagascar) and Mumbai. She now resides in Mexico City. She is an amateur photographer and promoter of Mexico.