This story was originally published in Spanish on MUNCHIES MX.
San José Iztacalco's cemetery, located on the East side of Mexico City, smells like fried liver.
It's not an unpleasant smell; the fragrant steam of beef liver seasoned with a copious amount of sliced onions and chiles toreados mixes with the smell of wet dirt coming from a recently opened grave. The scent of the lilies that a woman brought for her father's grave mingles with the slight stench of putrefaction escaping a fresh grave where a body was recently buried. It's Friday, the day of the week when Arturo González, "El Caballo" (The Horse), and his fellow gravediggers prepare a feast among the dead.
It isn't disrespectful towards the deceased; they have been getting together on this day for many years. They all pitch in money for food and a couple of them go buy what's needed for the meal. Then, in an area near the entrance of the cemetery, they light a campfire with dry flowers and wooden easels that once held funeral wreaths. They place a steel comal (a smooth, flat griddle) over the fire and place a frying pan on top of it to cook the sliced beef liver.
"Imagine this: a liver and onion taco with chiles and a cold beer. It's the best!" says El Caballo.
"We do it every Friday. Well, we try to—we do it when we have enough money," he says. "Right now we are suspending our lunches together because a lot of people are coming to celebrate the Day of the Dead. So we can't cook tacos in the entrance of the cemetery—everyone would want to eat some!"
El Caballo moved to Mexico City 54 years ago. He was 2 years old when his parents left the State of Hidalgo looking for a better future in the country's capital. He became a gravedigger in 1984, when he was 24. He needed a job to support his wife and children.
A family member offered him a job at a cemetery, and he took it. However, he had to talk himself into it.
The celebrations surrounding the Day of the Dead festivities are some of the most important Mexican traditions there are, and some of the most recognized around the world. Day of the Dead is an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity; we are proud of this tradition and every year we celebrate it with excitement, but nobody wants to touch a dead body, much less bury one.
These preconceived ideas also danced in Arturo's mind, but he convinced himself of the fact that this job wasn't that bad. On the contrary, it was an honorable task that would allow him to support his family. So the following day he decided to show up at the cemetery.
"The salary isn't the best, but I work for the government, and sometimes we get great tips and donations. And, you know, even if I don't get good tips, this is my job. This is what I do."
We are walking down the central hallway of the cemetery and I see people around us getting everything ready for the Day of the Dead festivities: cleaning up the graves of their loved ones who have passed, and decorating them with flowers and gifts.
"I've aged a lot working here. I've barely been here for 34 years; it feels like it was yesterday that I got this job," Arturo says. "The truth is that I'm still young. Look, I just started losing my teeth", he says, flashing me a toothless smile.
"I heard there's good food around here," I say through laughter, hoping that he'll recommend some places for me to check out.
"We buy things that are easy to cook: head cheese, ham, pulled pork, tortillas, and that's it," he says. "We are ready to eat, right here among the graves or wherever we may be at the moment. Even when we have to bury a body we'll sit down, with the body right there next to us, and eat our lunch. It's not weird to us… I usually forget about the fact that I just dug up a corpse, and by the time it hits me, I've already eaten two tacos."
Many Mexicans are used to eating at cemeteries on the Day of the Dead, Mother's Day, or when they visit a loved one's grave. Some people even eat at the funeral of their loved ones, with the bodies right there in their caskets. There's not much difference between that tradition and eating in the presence of recently dug up human remains.
"Can you imagine? Breathing all the things that are released from dead bodies," he says, laughing. "Either way, you produce antibodies to fight bacteria, so it's OK."
People who work at cemeteries are multitaskers. They have to clean the main street of the cemetery and the narrow hallways, they throw away the dry flowers and old wreaths, they build the vaults, they load up the service trucks with garbage, they make headstones, and they repair monuments. But their main responsibility is to open up the graves, dig up the bodies that rest inside, and bury the new body along with the old remains.
"What are you having for lunch today?" I ask.
"I'm not having lunch today," he says. For the first time since we've been talking, El Caballo talks seriously, not an ounce of humor in his voice. "We are working. This is our job. Sometimes we get to eat and sometimes we don't".
The good thing is that this gravedigger doesn't have an empty stomach. Every single day before he leaves his home, he drinks a cup of coffee with milk, and eats a couple loaves of sweetbread and a bolillo (a roll). That gives him enough energy to take on the long day ahead. If he doesn't have time to eat in the morning, he buys some peanuts or cookies from a lady who sells food by the entrance of the cemetery bathrooms or he buys what he calls an "executive breakfast," because that's what he has seen people wearing suits and ties eating before they go to work: one bottle of Coca-Cola and one Gansito (a snack cake similar to a Twinkie).
"Do you want to know what's my favorite food? I love pork," he says. "I like to eat it on Sundays, when I can afford it, of course. Otherwise I just imagine it. I also like pork with green chili, nopalitos, and purslane or potatoes… We don't have time to fry (pork rinds), so we buy them from a butcher. We open the bag and eat them just like that. We buy two kilos of tortillas, pass the bag of pork around, and everybody prepares their tacos with chiles cuaresmeños, salt, and lime."
El Caballo stops talking. We exchange a look of complicity and then he says something that makes us both burst into laughter once again: "Now I'm getting hungry."
As soon as he's done laughing, the conversation turns serious again. "That's all we eat, because this job is very hard. Just to move the granite tombstones we need a lot of energy. Imagine moving those! We have to move them and to carry them, and we have to be very careful not to break them."
El Caballo may be right when he says that eating while sitting next to human remains helps their bodies produce antibodies. Accidents are really common, and even though workers wear industrial boots and some of them even wear uniforms, they don't have personal protective equipment to keep them safe from falling or getting skin wounds caused by rusty metal boxes. They don't even have gloves or face masks. At least the government makes sure everybody, including El Caballo, gets vaccinated.
One of his co-workers, El Gallo, has just made a tombstone that's 1.80 meters long and almost 1 meter wide. In a single day he made that out of cement and ceramic tiles, and it weighs nearly 100 kilograms. Three of them can build a 2.20 meters deep grave to fit up to 3 caskets in four hours—they just need bricks and cement.
El Caballo, El Gallo, and an 18-year-old boy carry the tombstone for 30 meters. It's not an easy task considering that the ground is similar to a street filled with potholes.
"Let's go," says El Caballo. "Let me buy you a Coke."
"No man, come on. I should buy one for you," I say.
He refuses to let me pay, and as we keep walking El Caballo tells me that after November 2, when the souls of the dead have taken the essence of the food their families brought them as gifts, he takes a nibble of some of those gifts. He takes an apple from an old man's grave, a piece of bread from a young man's, or some candy from a child's grave. But he's not stealing it. It's a fair trade. The man takes care of the dead every single day of the year, and the dead share some of their food with him.
Just before we reach the table of the lady near the bathrooms, El Caballo tells me the secret to being good at his job. "Do you know what's the most important thing in this job? To do it with love. If you do that, you'll be safe. Seriously, I love my job. It gives me everything I need, thank God."