Category Archives: Death and all its trappings

Tiene azucar? — Diabetes in Mexico

Tiene azucar? (Do you have sugar?) is the local way to ask if you have diabetes. It’s not uncommon to see people who have had their feet or legs cut off because of complications with diabetes. The lady who talked to herself on the way to La Yacata had untreated diabetes. She died of a diabetic coma a few years ago at the age of 45. When my son was in elementary, parents were required to attend a workshop on how to diagnose diabetes in our children. We were to look for a purplish ring around their necks that looks like mugre (dirt) but that doesn’t wash off. 

According to the World Health Organization, diabetes is the number one cause of death with nearly 80,000 deaths per year. Mexicans with diabetes die on average younger, at 57 years, compared to the overall age of 69. Early death is not the only side effect. Diabetes can cause strokes, kidney failure, foot ulcers, nerve damage, and blindness.  By 2050, health care practitioners estimate that half of the population of Mexico will have diabetes.

One factor in developing Type 2 diabetes is lifestyle choices. Over the past 40 years, Mexicans have gotten fat. Soda consumption is out of control with an average of more than 176 liters per person per year. It’s hard to find a meal not accompanied by a coke, “la chispa de la vida.” Even breakfast might be served as a bolillo de trigo (wheat bun) and coke. In most areas, a can of soda is cheaper than a bottle of water. High alcohol consumption is another factor in the high sugar diet so popular these days, sugar tax be damned.


You are what you eat!

The diet has changed as well. Moving from a predominantly plant-based diet based around corn, the average Mexican now consumes more than double the amount of meat consumed in 1960. Carnitas (fried pork) stands can be found on nearly every corner.

In addition to poor diet, Mexicans have become less active overall. Children don’t run and frolic outdoors, but instead huddle in corners playing hour after hour on their cell phones, tablets, and Xboxes leading to a rise in childhood obesity and early onset of Type 2 diabetes.

Of course, it’s not all in the diet. Mexicans also have a genetic predisposition towards developing Type 2 diabetes which compounds the problem.

And the prevalence of this disease places a burden on the healthcare system currently in place. Estimates average more than $700 USD per year per person out of pocket expenses for diabetes maintenance (insulin injections, test strips, pills) and that doesn’t include the cost of dialysis and kidney transplants that are services also not covered under Seguro Popular. Since minimum wage is still under $5.00 USD per day, this is a huge expense for many families

More education about the prevention and management of diabetes is needed. The general idea I hear is that we all die from something, we might as well die fat and happy. And you can bet, their death will be celebrated in grand style, carnitas (fried pork) and coke all around at the velorio and novena perpetuating the cycle.

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Filed under Cultural Challenges, Death and all its trappings, Health, Parenting Challenges and Cultural Norms

Funerals in Mexico–Test of Endurance

Sometimes I think that all I write about these days is Death. We’ve certainly experienced our fair share since moving to Mexico. In September, we experienced yet another tragedy.

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My husband’s nephew L made a series of poor decisions and was taken from his home in the middle of August. Several weeks later, his body was found in La Barranca, a small mountaintop community that is a municipality of Moroleon.

His body was taken to Celaya for autopsy and returned to his mother’s house in Moroleon at 3 am the next morning. She had cleared out her tortilleria to receive the body. However, the coroner’s report was not sent with the body. Without the coroner’s report, a death certificate could not be made nor a plot in the cemetery purchased. L’s body had already begun decomposing, so time was of the essence.

Therefore, L’s younger brother A went with the funeral home people back to Celaya to await a coroner’s report. My husband and I hoped to be able to speed the burial process along even without the documentation and went to the panteon (cemetery) to see if we could purchase the plot since it was Friday and the offices are closed over the weekend.

We arrived there to find that the girl who is in charge of the office wasn’t planning on coming in that day. We spoke to the caretaker. Several calls were made and finally, we were told that she would be in after all.

We headed back to my husband’s sister’s house to see what else could be done. The civil registry office closes early on Fridays. Brother A returned with the coroner’s report just in time to get the death certificate but the cemetery office was now closed again. The girl promised she would come in on Saturday at 8 am especially for us to purchase the plot, so the funeral was scheduled for 11 am the next day.


That night was the velorio (wake). I have to say I was disappointed in the behavior of the attendees. I arrived a little late and nearly everyone present was either high or drunk. I didn’t stay long. I wonder if it was perhaps the age of the mourners, most were just teenagers, and maybe it being their first death, they didn’t know how to act. When I presented my theory to my teenage son, he pointed out that this wasn’t his first funeral and that he certainly wasn’t carrying on like that. So I don’t know what to think about their behavior.

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The next morning, my son and I went to pick up some flowers before the funeral service at the church. Unbeknownst to me, my gas gauge was broken and we ran out of gas on the highway. We had to walk about 2 kilometers to the nearest gas station. Fortunately, the last 1/2 mile or so was mostly downhill and we coasted right up to the gas pump.

We missed the misa (mass) completely but still went to get those flowers and headed to the cemetery. L’s older brother who is working in the U.S. sent enough money to hire a banda (band) to play during the funeral procession from the house to the church to the cemetery, and then continue playing for an hour or so after the casket was covered. Relatives in el norte (U.S.) also sent enough to buy a ground tomb rather than a crypt. It’s twice as expensive to be buried underground.

I can’t say that the mourners’ behavior was any better at the interment than it was the night previously at the velorio. This isn’t my first funeral here, so I know that this was not the norm. There was such volumes of weeping and wailing and screaming that it really was fit for a telenovela (soap opera). The younger brother A. threw himself into the grave at one point and one guy, I’m not even sure who he was, danced on the tombs as the banda played on.

L’s mother was putting on quite a show, which would have been fine since everyone grieves in his or her own way and all that. However, it was now midday and the sun was blazing hot and no one thought to bring any umbrellas for shade. Well, there was one, but it was a child’s umbrella and it barely covered her head. So her younger sister, who was trying her darndest to be supportive and had stayed up since 3 am the previous day to help her sister through this most difficult time, was left without shade and finally fainted. Here’s where all the first aid training I had paid off.

There is one mesquite tree in the entire cemetery which provides only partial shade. Some of the menfolk moved the prostrate sister to said shade. Having just hiked 2 km myself, I still had 1/2 bottle of water I bought at the gas station. This was poured over her head and revived her some. She was still unable to focus or speak coherently. My son and I marched our fannies to the corner store and bought two bottles of suero (electrolytes). I forced her to drink the smaller of the two bottles immediately. She did and by the last drop, she said that the world had stopped spinning.

I decided that her supportive role in the ongoing drama, albeit commendable, was over for the day. The oldest sister supported my decision. So her father and my son half-carried the ailing sister to the entrance area where there was both shade and benches. I bullied her into drinking the second bottle of electrolytes until she was able to respond to questions without her eyes rolling back into her head. There was some talk of taking her to the hospital, which wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, but nothing came of it. She did go home and rest for a while.

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Eventually, someone talked the mother into going home and she was given a prescription for some tranquilizers so was able to mostly make it through the novena (9-day prayer session) without completely alienating the entire family.  I’m not sure that you ever recover from the loss of a child, no matter how it happens.


So about L, the autopsy report has not been released as it is part of an open murder investigation. I doubt it will ever be made available. L. had been in trouble before, and in fact, had been kidnapped and tortured and escaped. Despite this, he continued to antagonize the wrong people. He and another young man were taken by those that do the taking around here. No one saw anything. No one knew anything. Without the autopsy report, the family won’t know if he was tortured before he was killed or exactly how he died, which may be for the best, the not knowing part I mean. In having a body to bury, there is some closure. The other young man’s family is still waiting for any information.

The situation where we live has become intense. The cities listed with the highest number of homicides in the first 8 months of 2018 surround us. In August alone, there have been more than 3,000 homicides making a grand total of 22,000 homicides thus far this year. That number doesn’t include Desaparecidos (those that have disappeared). The state in which we live, Guanajuato, has been leading the body count with 1,671 homicide victims between January and August. There is currently a turf war going on between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the Santa Rosa de Lima gang.

L was just one more casualty. No one expects the police to find the murderers. After all, the police are up to their eyeballs in this whole business. I’ve seen the impunity that exists before.

What surprised me most was the lack of judgment from the community. It might have been easy to dismiss what happened to L as no more than he deserved. That’s probably true. But what I’ve heard from those who reached out to help, those that attended the funeral service, those that are still trying to do what they can for L’s mother, those that have expressed their condolences, is that each and every one of them realized that it could have been their brother, their cousin, their nephew, or their son. Maybe this realization even inspired the devil-may-care attitude of some of the mourners. After all, they could be next.

So today, el Día de los Muertos we have gone to the cemetery yet again. The grief is still raw and ugly. But we’ve brought flowers for my mother-in-law, killed by a police officer 6 years ago in May. We’ve brought flowers for my brother-in-law, who lost his battle with alcohol last November. And we’ve brought flowers for L, who was once the little boy who called me Tia.





Filed under Death and all its trappings

Mama Sofia

In March, Mama Sofia, my husband’s grandmother, died. She was 97 years old. She was able to recognize and converse right up to the end. She was ill for about a week and stopped eating, insisting she wasn’t hungry anymore.

She had been living in Zamora, Michoacan with her daughter since her husband Tio Felipe died. We didn’t find out that she had passed away until the next day. We gathered the clan and headed out immediately from Moroleon. It was a hot, dusty, uncomfortable 3-hour drive.

When we finally arrived, I was a bit taken back by the house where Mama Sofia had been living. Her house in Cerano was only two rooms, but comfortable. This house was made of cardboard with a corrugated tin roof. I knew that her daughter C. was not so desperately poor that this was the only option available. She had run a successful tortilla business for years. But, when I met her husband, things became a little clearer.

C’s husband received us like a sultan on his bed, hidden in the interior of the house that seemed more like a labyrinth to me. He had the only fan in the house directed at him, never mind the mourners crouched around the rapidly decomposing body of Mama Sofia. His entire contribution to the evening’s events was sipping from his tequila bottle, although to be fair, he did offer everyone a shot in their coffee before retiring.

Things in Michoacan are done a little differently. Beneath the casket, there was a cross made of cal (lime) and two bowls of purple onion in vinegar rather than a dirt cross and sliced squash to draw out the “cancer” (bad humors) from the body. Twenty-four hours after death, there must be a misa (mass) said for the departed soul.

Things in Mexico often take longer than it seems like it should. Therefore, there was a hold-up for the mass scheduling and burial. Instead of taking the body to one of the templos (churches) the priest came to the house. And what a priest!

He was young. I’d say no older than 25 or so. He also was from Cuba and had just been transferred to Zamora. This funeral was his first in the community. Much to my surprise, he transformed from a serious young priest into a scolding fire and brimstone preacher in just minutes. Nothing he said during the course of the evening was in the least bit comforting for the family. He scolded them about not knowing the Lord’s Prayer well enough, about having the body placed in the casket before being blessed, about gossiping in the presence of a dead person, about the lack of confessors, about having no woman to lead the prayers with the rosary, about having a rosary that was blessed by the priest on Viernes Santo (Holy Friday) apparently that’s a no-no, about kids having caps on in the presence of death and on and on.

So since Mama Sofia couldn’t get a mass scheduled at the church at the 24-hour mark, the priest did a full mass right there on the dirt street, in front of the cardboard house that sheltered Mama Sofia’s body. He enlisted an altar boy. C. set up the altar on a folding table and hung a large Christ image from the roof. He enlisted a woman to read some bible passages. He enlisted 2 ladies to pass the collection dishes. And he enlisted me.

Yes, me. Somehow I found myself being blessed by the holy father and transformed through the holy spirit into a Catholic. My son said I had a deer-in-headlights look the entire time. That’s pretty much how I felt. My job was to handle the wafers, dip them into the wine, say “El cuerpo y la sangre de Cristo” and pop them into the open mouths of the recipients. Me. I’m still in shock I think. Somehow, I think this wasn’t quite orthodox.

I managed it though. There were more wafers left at the end, so everybody who took communion, and a few who didn’t (like me) were given a mouthful. Apparently, once the wafers have been blessed it would be a sin to waste them.

The priest had the same idea about the communion wine. After the service, he not only polished off the entire bottle but opened a second one. Then he introduced us to his 9 or 10-year-old son who travels from congregation to congregation with him. Ummm, ok.

While we were sitting around after mass, there was a spectacular bike crash between two of the neighbors behind the boards on buckets pews. While these two guys were arguing over whose fault it was, a man with orange and black pumpkin boxers on and nothing else walked through the drama and back with a container of milk. I swear I didn’t touch the communion wine!

Then, somehow during the prayer session (rezar) the priest handed me the rosary and told me to move forward a bead every time he said Amen. So round and round the rosary went. When I reached the cross thing, I tried to go backward, but I thought that didn’t seem right, so I jumped the cross thing link and continued around. I really think I need to do some more research on funeral protocol just in case I’m pressed into service again.

The burial wasn’t until 12:30 the following day and most of the clan weren’t able to take any more time off from work, so we piled back in the vehicle around 11 pm to head home. We missed the exit ramp off of 15D and added about 40 minutes to our trip. We did arrive finally, to the delight of our hungry animals and collapsed into our beds.

We will miss Mama Sofia. She was an indomitable woman. It was an honor to have known her.


Filed under Death and all its trappings