Having not celebrated Halloween since I was 12, I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to my night ahead. Although I still purchased the customary bag of Brach’s candy corn every fall as soon as it hit the shelves at the drug store, that was about all the Halloween celebrating I did. But the work I was currently doing was going to make this Halloween quite different.
For the past two months I had been working as a volunteer at a home for orphaned and abandoned children in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The organization actually had two homes in Mexico, one in Cuernavaca, a major and historical city about 70 miles south of the capital where the high school kids lived, the other in Miatcatlan, a small pueblo (village) about 20 miles south of Cuernavaca which was home to the younger kids. My job at the organization was on-site journalist and my work consisted of covering the news and events of the two homes for the organization’s global donor base, using both the website and quarterly newsletter as my publishing mediums.
When Emily, one of the volunteers who had held my post before me, told me that I would need to go to Miatcatlan to cover the Halloween festivities there, I inwardly groaned. I had never liked going out to Miatcatlan. It was a pain to get there as the journey included a nerve-wracking five minutes when you knew you were approaching the stop but you didn’t want to call out “para” to the driver too soon for fear it would be incredibly too early, thus forcing you to walk, but not wanting to call it out too late either. It was a lose-lose situation in terms of keeping your nerves calm. Every time I had to go there, I desperately yearned for the buzzer mechanisms commonly found on all public transportation buses in the United States. The few times I had gone to Miatcatlan I had always made it a point to return to Cuernavaca the same day so I wouldn’t have to sleep over there. Although my accommodations in Cuernavaca were less than glamorous-moldy walls, damp pillowcases, a toilet that was constantly clogging, it was still Eden in comparison with where the volunteers at Miatcatlan lived. But this time I was going to need to bite the bullet and stay the night, as I also needed to be present for the early morning activities the following day. November 1 was the day all the children’s birthdays were celebrated at the home. Although a child’s individual birthday was still acknowledged if it was known (some children who had been abandoned had no idea what day they were born), usually with a special treat and a small gift, the home had a mass celebration on this particular day, complete with an early morning treat of tres leches (three milk) cake and a school holiday.
After arriving at Miatcatlan and leaving my overnight bag in the volunteer house, I set out to find anyone I might possibly know. Although I wanted nothing more than to curl up with a good book and be transported back to my little niche in Cuernavaca, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Thankfully I came across Sara, one of the volunteers at Miatcatlan who I liked to call a “die harder.” She had been volunteering at the home for two years and didn’t have any intention of returning home anytime soon. “Hola Sara.” “Julia, como estas?” As we exchanged pleasantries, a cluster of middle school girls started to form around us. Having been there for so long, Sara had quite the following in terms of four foot five shadows. When one of the girls asked if I was Sara’s hermanas, we both burst out laughing. Although we looked nothing alike, to a 10 year old Mexican girl, two white gringas might as well be sisters.
I will say this about Miatcatlan-unlike at the Cuernavaca home where the universal “teenage attitude” ran rampant, at Miatcatlan, there existed just honest to goodness childish antics. So from time to time it was refreshing being there, hearing Spanish being spoken by some of the home’s youngest residents, seeing children being children. Before long it was dark and the children started to become restless, anxious for the night’s activities ahead.
As I hung out in one of the girls’ dorms, I marveled at the ingenuity and resourcefulness I saw in some of the girls as they readied themselves for the night. Unlike in the United States where each year parents often give in to a child’s demand of an overpriced, cheaply made costume from one of the ubiquitous Halloween stores, here were children who had put together clever costumes out of very little and without the help of parents or financial resources. There was a girl who dressed up as a pumpkin. She had constructed a “head” out of papier-machier she had made herself and then wore orange clothing for the rest of her costume. There were great laughs had when some of the other girls were helping her stuff clothing into her mid-section area in order to complete the look. Another girl had teased her hair out and applied layer after layer of makeup and paint to her face and body in order to resemble “una bruja”(witch).
The first activity of the night was a talent show. The best was when Kara, a volunteer whose immense height was matched by the pronounced Texas drawl she had, performed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with the girls she took care of. Even though these girls had been born long after the days of “Thriller” and most likely knew none of the words to the song, it was still one of the neatest moments to see Thriller being performed in a small Mexican pueblo, complete with choreography. Sara later told me that Kara had practiced with her girls along with the music video, dozens and dozens of times. They may not have placed first in the talent show but they still got my vote for being number one.
Although I ended up marrying a haunted house aficionado, which basically equates to going to at least two haunted houses every fall, prior to that Halloween in Mexico, I had never been to one before. I scare quite easily and avoid horror movies like the plague. So when I heard that each year the volunteers put on a haunted house for the children, I honestly thought to myself “how scary could it be?” Well, as I passed through its rooms with the group of girls I was accompanying, I was holding on to them just as tightly as they were holding on to me. I have been to numerous haunted houses since, many costing $15, and none have been as scary or as clever as the haunted house that a group of American volunteers staged at an orphanage in Mexico. When the haunted house is a former sugar plantation that dates from the 19th century (the home in Miatcatlan had very historic origins), I’m sure there are some wonderful ghost stories to be had there.
This was a Halloween like no other. Gone were the cheesy and commercialized elements of overpriced costumes and accumulating candy as if it is a competition. Instead there was a more classic and homespun feeling to it, how Halloween used to be. Although I got very little sleep that night and had an insect friend join me as I was showering, just seeing the happy looks on the children’s faces as they got dressed in their costumes and sharing in their fright with them as we walked through the rooms of the haunted house were more than enough to compensate. It was a Halloween I would never forget.
Julie is a librarian by day, die-hard travel fanatic and writer by night. When she’s not traveling, she’s either testing out a new recipe or being a foodie in Pittsburgh. If you’re interested in seeing where she travels to or what she makes next, follow along via the links below!