Wahaca Day of the Dead Festival

Wahaca Day of the Dead Festival

Wahaca Day of the Dead Festival 2015

Venue: Tobacco Dock

Report by Craig Ballinger 

’The VIP bar is in the far corner, diagonal from here.’ A girl in full death mask face paint says this as she looks up from her clipboard and slips on our wristbands. I nod as if I expected to be treated this well. We’d waited in a queue for a while, taking in the beautiful venue. All brick and fine ironwork, the Tobacco Dock was built in the early nineteenth century to hold precious goods from the Stolen World.

The first talk in the English PEN area of the Wahaca Day of the Dead Festival begins in fifteen minutes. We make it a few paces before we’re fed free tequila – a quick half shot from a brand on a promotional push. We shuffle about in the dark space before getting a couple of morning margaritas.

At the PEN stage we take a round table close to the front. It feels like a cocktail lounge. DBC Pierre takes to the stage with cartoonist Martin Rowson and host Alex Clark to talk about death and Mexico.

Clark compliments Pierre on his perkiness. ‘It’s the coffee…I’ll join the police force next.’ A Black Books reference– we’ll trust this man. He talks of growing up in Mexico City, being a resident for 13 years from age seven – ‘It completely corrupted me’ – and how his award-winning book, Vernon God Little, was directly influenced by the bustle of Latin America.

Pierre is pleasantly shabby in a loud, on-theme shirt and seemingly ready for the bar. Martin Rowson looks like a detective or Blues Brother in black suit and trilby. It turns out he’s every bit as witty in conversation as he is in his cartoons. He talks of humans as ‘inherently preposterous creatures’ and states that ‘most jokes are about death.’ To remind us that we’re all fallible humans, he says, picture ‘important’ people on the toilet’. He talks specifically about George Osborne and gives my mind a picture it doesn’t need. Rowson follows up by stating that Osborne is a special kind of human though, as ‘he won’t die because you cannot kill that which does not live’.

Death fantasies

Skeleton

‘We’re releasing our inner urge to commit genocide.’

There’s further talk of the rituals surrounding death, those things in place ‘to stop you going mad’. Rowson focuses on the death fantasies of the everyday, the zombie killing of video games, commenting that we’re ‘releasing [our] inner urge to commit genocide’.

It’s a highly amusing, highly political talk with simple facts showing the strange world we live in. Rowson states how ‘you can show as many dead foreigners as you like, but we can’t show a dead Briton, a dead soldier’, and it shows how much media is subtly controlled; how narratives are driven and drilled into the minds of the public.

When the talk is over we wander the building witnessing the goings on. Death masks on everyone; bars and canteens; a hippy mariachi band playing a cover of the Specials’ Ghost Town.

There are queues for most things – beer, tacos, toilets – but it’s impressive to see the snaking line of people waiting to hear Mexican journalists in conversation. We make it in but only to stand at the back of the packed room. Our host is Ioan Grillo, a British journalist based in Mexico City and author of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency. Alongside Grillo are Mexican journalists Sandra Rodriguez Nieto and Alfredo Corchado. There’s discussion of the danger to these people because of the work they do – the constant threat of death from the Narcos. This is real journalism, taking on the deepest stories.

For Sandra Rodriguez Nieto the drug war came to her. Working for El Diario in Juárez, the stories to cover quickly became about drugs, corruption and murder. She made a decision to help people try to understand what is happening, why it’s happening. Grillo got involved as a foreigner and talks about how it’s always thought your nationality may guarantee you some extra protection. Narcos don’t want the extra attention, but Grillo points out that you can’t have a rational conversation in many situations, that sometimes the person you’re interviewing is a ‘fifteen year-old, with an AK47, who’s been smoking crack…bullets do not recognise nationality’.

Welcome the dead

Altar

The altars are filled with gifts welcoming back the dead.

In this country the media is a right-wing ruled mess of propaganda and re-written press releases, but journalists don’t regularly fear for their lives. This is the era of Affordable Decadence – where the theory of Bread and Circuses is a fact and consciences are wiped clean with talk and posturing.

‘Is that lucha libre?’ Alfredo Corchado says with a smile. We can hear the thuds and cheers of the wrestling ring on the floor below as we listen to the talk of the worst sadness – of decapitation, torture and intimidation.

After the talk we get back to the party, to drink beer and eat tacos. This is certainly a strange place to have such deep talks going on. In a space beneath a staircase, a candlelit cave, there are altars to the murdered journalists Rubén Espinosa and Regina Martínez Pérez. The altars are filled with gifts welcoming back the dead – food, drink and cigarettes but also personal artefacts like cameras for Espinosa, a photojournalist. Here we learn the true tradition of Día de Muertos.

By Craig Ballinger

3 Comments

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