Overheard in a Mexico City Cantina

A downpour started. The cantina beckoned.
I sat and heard two men debating change;
How Mexico’s divisions should be reckoned.
These words are what I heard in that exchange:

“You radicals are dull. You bear this chip
Of weighty social anger on your shoulders
And push agendas with a strangling grip
Up mountainsides like Sisyphean boulders:
You won’t let communism go. You sigh
With praise for leftist murals by Rivera,
Who hated wealth but loved all it could buy.
You laud men who wear dresses and mascara
And feminists who twirl a lariat.
You hate all faith yet reckon Frida Kahlo
A martyr of the proletariat.
You worship anarchy and all that’s shallow,
And revel in the damage that you’ve done—
Like all the faithful priests you’ve massacred.
Thank God your godless daydreams never won
And that few goals you hoped to pass occurred.”

“You’re one to talk with ancient superstitions
And dreams to build a new Jerusalem
From Spanish conquests and archaic missions!
You’ve crowned the Virgin with a diadem
You can’t afford. The people starve and beg
Yet you commit their welfare to God’s hands.
Observe that homeless man with just one leg—
It’s not us socialists who stole his lands!
The rich did that. We must embrace extremes
To redistribute wealth and to bring fairness;
To help all Méxicanos live their dreams
And push them to embrace social awareness.
This country’s riddled with anxiety.
We must give more than comfort to the poor!
The last thing that we need is piety
We’ve got to share the wealth by force or war.”

At this point something drew me to approach:
“Señores, por favor, may I inquire
How Mexico endures such harsh reproach
From sides as polarized as ice and fire?”

My Spanish was too poor. They stood and left
By different exits, each man flushed with hate.
Their conflict left me worried and bereft.
What if my homeland suffers the same fate?

Poet’s note: As a consequence of Mexico’s Cristero War—a rebellion of devout Catholics against the brutally anti-Catholic government of Mexico between 1926 and 1929 (with on-going violence lasting until 1934)—at least 40 priests were killed, the rest exiled. Of the 4,500 priests who lived in Mexico before the rebellion, only 334 remained by 1934. The death toll of the Cristero War was about 90,000. Only in 1940 did Mexico’s government relent in its hostility to the Church.



The Cemetery at Tzintzuntzan

The gate’s crowned with a cross of floral gold.
I hesitate to enter but am led
To join these mourners. How my heart fears death!
As hymns are sung, I see a woman weep.
Her husband nods to me. They are not old
But haggard from the loss all parents dread.
The tomb depicts a child. I catch my breath:
New toys adorn their boy’s eternal sleep.

I stumble through a solemn Spanish prayer
Then leave them to their grief. I slowly turn
To face a hundred decorated tombs,
Amazed how each bears treasures of the living.
Mementos, food and photos everywhere:
A prized sombrero perched upon an urn;
A grave trimmed with a canopy of blooms.
Death cannot stop these villagers from giving!

Around me fragrant marigolds are strewn;
On benches, gravestones, on the paths and gate—
As if a floral cloudburst had occurred
Of gold and amber—hues just like the sun.
The dead aren’t gone—they’re only garbed in bone.
These blooms are guides to where their loved ones wait
To visit like old friends; to shout the word
Bienvenidos! Life is not quite done.

The marigolds don’t speak of resurrection
But earthly peace; they don’t presume to say
What death is like, what mysteries come after.
This village knows God’s answers will come soon.
But while they can, they cherish the connection
To those who never really go away
With anecdotes, with favorite foods, with laughter
The strum of a guitar, a raucous tune.

Each marigold’s a harbinger of yearning.
The decades melt away as does the veil
That separates the living and the dead.
Both meet in memory—to right a wrong,
To beg forgiveness, finally discerning
That mercy is the one gift that won’t fail;
To banish prideful rancor and instead
Sigh peacefully, content after so long.



Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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18 Responses

  1. Phil S. Rogers

    Thank you Brian for two well done poems, as well as a dive into culture and history. I admit to being totally ignorant of Mexico’s Cristero War, and need to do further research.

    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you very much, Phil. Mexico truly has a fascinating culture and history. Your research will be rewarded.

      • Bhavini Shah

        Hi Brain,
        I hope this note finds you well. We would like to feature your poem “Leap of Faith” on our site for the national poetry month.
        Please let me know what is the best way to contact you for more details.

      • Brian A. Yapko

        Thank you so much, Bhavini. That’s very kind of you! I’ve let our moderator know to go ahead and send you my email address so we can communicate directly.

  2. Cynthia Erlandson

    Wow, Brian, I absolutely love “Overheard”. You’ve recreated the conversation so believably — and metrically. In the first speaker’s paragraph, your description of anger as a weighty chip on shoulders, and of radical agendas as boulders that have to be pushed up “Sysyphean mountainsides”, are excellent. “Who hated wealth but loved all it could buy” says so much in one line. And rhyming Rivera with mascara, lariat with proletariat, and Kahlo with shallow — just brilliant! “Cemetery” is heart-wrenching, especially the opening verse which finds a wonderful way to let the reader know who are the mourners and who is the dead (“They are not old, / But haggard from the loss all parents dread.”) Your abcd rhyme scheme is very well done, also.

    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you very much indeed, Cynthia! The “Overheard” poem expressed my frustration at how leftism continues to poison Mexico. I understand the leftist arguments against the religious right but I do not sympathize with them. Too many leftists in Mexico just seem so angry and anti-Catholic.

      I wanted to temper the cynicism in “Overheard” with a beautiful and moving aspect of Mexican culture — the continuing relationship so many believers have with their deceased loved ones. For the Day of the Dead they’ll put up ofrendas — little altars — which have pictures of the loved one, marigolds, and favorite objects and food. They believe that this helps their spirits come to visit and recognize their earthly home and loved ones. This custom also takes place in the cemetery and, seeing all the ways the living try to stay connected with their dead really blew me away. This cemetery was by turns somber and loving and warm. It’s quite remarkable.

  3. Roy Eugene Peterson

    I remember Mexican History was a course I took at the University of Arizona as part of my graduate minor. This poem is a great representation of what happened with excellent rhyme while solidly portraying the atrocities and devastation that happened. Your last line reflects my own fears of what could happen here if the leftist socialist/communists gain just a little more power in our own country. “The Cemetery…” portrays how a culture different from our own bury their dead much like the Egyptians in thinking there will be mortal requirements for things the dead may have needed or treasured in the immortal afterlife. What amazing detail you have written into both poems that bring them alive in our minds-eye.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, Roy. Since you’ve studied it, you must know far more Mexican history than I do! “Overheard” discusses some events which I had not known about, so I was glad to use poetry to introduce others to something which ought to be remembered. Mexico offers some very rich subject matter for poetry. I’m pleased that you liked the “Cemetery” poem as well. Traditional Mexicans do have a very different concept of death and remembrance which I somehow find congenial.

  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Brian, when my family took a vacation to the Southwest in 1962, we saw precisely that type of cemetery somewhere in New Mexico. I was amazed at all the gaily colored decorations, small dolls, floral bouquets, and objects of remembrance adorning the monuments, some of which were simply wooden crosses with small name plaques. This was so very different from the American cemeteries I knew, which were all of stone, darkly formal and imposing, and with no more decoration than an occasional wreath or small flag.

    The poem “Overheard…” gives a solid description of the antithetical character types that have been common in all Latin countries since the 18th century. There are the devout Catholics, who are also profoundly attached to their inherited culture and traditions; and there are the anticlericals, ferociously leftist and seething with rage against established social norms and practices. This is why civil disruptions in Latin countries, when they reach the boiling point, spill over into war, mass murder, sacrilege, atrocities against clergy, and furious persecutions of Catholics (not of other religionists, for the most part).

    The list is long: La Vendee in France, the Cristero War in Mexico, the Spanish Civil War, the Portuguese Revolution, the Castro-ite takeover of Cuba.

    Thank you for two compelling and well-crafted poems.

    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you very much, Joe, for the personal memory and your insights into Latin-American history/politics. Living in New Mexico myself I can certainly attest to the type of cemetery you saw here, though such cemeteries are less and less common as faith and tradition dwindle away. New Mexico is becoming quite assimilated into mainstream U.S. liberalism and those whose families have been here for many generations and who care for tradition and faith are often don’t bother voting and/or are frustratingly passive in standing up for their culture. Or, like New Mexico’s excessively liberal and ambitious governor, have abandoned any semblance of faith or tradition in favor of power.

      Your comments on “Overheard” are spot-on. There is and has always been a dramatic polarization of points of view in Mexico (I’m not as knowledgeable about other Latin-American countries.) And there’s a bloodthirstiness to it! I was shocked on tour in Guanajuato to be shown a granary building where, during the Mexican War of Independence, the revolutionary hero El Pipila was spoken of with reverence for setting fire to the building where hundreds of royal loyalist women and children were thereby burned to death. In fact there’s a statue to him as a hero. What a world.

  5. Margaret Coats

    Brian, the cemetery poem is a gorgeous description of how Mexicans acknowledge the transitional state of those who have died within living memory. As you say, “they cherish the connection.” I think it’s a mindset that belongs to certain cultures (that express it in distinctive ways) and to some individuals. I recall visiting my great-grandparents’ graves when I was a child and taking wildflowers that grew along the way. Sometimes my parents and grandparents didn’t know where I was going, and I wondered if the great-grandparents (whom I never knew in this life) did know and could see me. Also wondered if they would approve.

    The overheard conversation is presented clearly, with fitting and unusual rhymes that make it a special treat to read. You pack in the arguments so well that I think it must be a fictive situation. All the more so, because the many California Chicanos I know will usually do almost anything to avoid such a conversation, especially if it concerns La Cristiada (the Cristero war). Family memories are long and tender to the touch. When the boy martyr Jose Sanchez del Rio was tortured and put to death in 1928, it was his godfather who gave the order (after offering him every possible inducement to change sides). Can you imagine? One man who began school in Mexico and completed it in California says he never heard a word about that part of history at home or in school, in either country, until he as an older adult started to look into it.

    I think you have too low a death toll in your note. About 90,000 combatants died (surprisingly, more government troops than Cristeros). But the total number of the dead is more like 250,000, including civilians murdered in large groups because the government suspected them of assisting Cristeros. The 2012 movie “For Greater Glory” shows Cristeros arriving at what they thought would be a friendly village, only to find every single villager shot dead. They halted their campaign to provide Christian burials. We also see an American diplomat dealing with the problem, who is disturbed to see bodies hanging from poles along the railway. Thank God he then hesitated to provide American planes to the Mexican government. You are quite right to end your poem with a wish that our homeland not suffer the same fate.

    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you, Margaret, for this rich and detailed comment. I love your story about the flowers for the great grandparents you never met. Candidly, I think that would be a beautiful subject for a poem that you might consider writing.

      You’ve quite accurately guessed that the entire scene and scenario of “Overheard in a Mexico City Cantina” is quite fictional. While it did rain profusely, I never stepped into a cantina nor did I overhear Mexican people discussing their highly polarized society. What I did see were two strangely contrasting scenes — I went to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City where the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego and which was PACKED with pious Catholics attending mass. And, of course, I had my mystical experiences at the Cemetery and a village church in Tzintzuntzan. But then I also went to see murals by Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco which were zealously atheist and communist in subject and sensibility. I heard leftist contempt for religion and I could see how the religious eschewed them. I saw convent after convent after convent “nationalized” and turned into museums or music conservatories because the Mexican government had confiscated assets of the Catholic Church. And the final straw was a mural by Orozco in Guadalajara which the tour-guide and other tourists oohed and aahed over and which was horrifically anti-Church, apocalyptic and equated crosses with swastikas. It was so full of anti-Christian hate that I felt positively poisoned by the experience and had to write about it. “Overheard” is the very subdued reaction that finally emanated from that experience.

      Concerning the Cristero War, I will defer to your superior knowledge of this horrific event. My information came from Wikipedia which did not really distinguish between combatants and innocent civilians. Knowing what I know of the length and scope of the war, your number of 250,000 victims sounds much more plausible.

  6. Joshua C. Frank

    Both of these are great! The first one articulates both sides accurately and poetically—very difficult to do. The only problem is, I’m afraid the United States has already suffered worse than that fate; at least the Catholic guy was allowed to speak. In the United States, the other guy would be screaming at him and calling him names after the first sentence. We who are on the side of good have to fight for a chance to speak. Mexico probably endures that because the leftists there at least allow dissenting opinions.

    My question is, what if they suffer our fate?

    The second one is really beautiful. I can picture the scene, and it’s such a wonderful tribute to the dead, what the Mexican villagers are doing.

    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you so much, Josh! I’m not sure how to gauge your assessment about the Catholic guy being allowed to speak because I made this entire conversation up in my head! Would a Mexican leftist politely listen to someone on the right? Frankly, with the anger I saw in leftist protests in Mexico City and other places, I truly doubt it. As far as I can tell, Mexico is not as well-off as the USA. So much of the government and law enforcement is corrupted by the drug cartels, and Mexican drug cartels are worse than the mafia. In some ways, Mexico actually makes the U.S. look functional.

      I’m so glad you liked “Cemetery at Tzintzuntzan” (try saying that three times fast!) This was much more autobiographical and, I hope, captures the almost mystical feeling one gets in such a place.

  7. Julian D. Woodruff

    These are both vibrant models of clarity. Your assessment at the end of “Cantina,” and fears for the state of things here in the US are well-founded, although they are worse still in Canada, Ireland (see Catholic World Report for 8/22), and elsewhere.
    Your closed lines in “Cemetery” give it the feel of a documentary photo exhibition, through which the viewer moves from one image to the next. I was struck by the contrast between your description and the very inviting, landscaped and finely manicured acreage of Holy Sepulcher Cemetery here in Rochester, which I think of as its high-rent district.

    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you so much, Julian! Yes, I believe my fears are realistic since I have now seen what happens when polarization increases. Like Mexico, the USA is increasingly becoming two separate countries which uneasily share the same territory. As you point out, this seems to be true of many countries in the West.

      I’m glad you liked “Cemetery.” I have always been to cemeteries in which stone and marble dominated and personal touches were seen as idiosyncratic and transient. In Mexico it seems like the opposite is the case. It’s the personal stuff that matters much more than the marker.

  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, as ever both poems are beautifully crafted. They flow so naturally… but only because of the effort you have put into them, and I must say, your rhyming skills are superb… impressive, yet never distracting. In “Overheard in a Mexico City Cantina’ you have crafted a poetic conversation that brings the characters to life and draws the reader in to the hypocrisy of those who “… must embrace extremes / To redistribute wealth and to bring fairness” – your closing line taps into a concern many have… and sends a chill. Very well done, indeed!

    Today is the anniversary of my adored grandmother’s death. Her favorite flowers were marigolds. She used to grow giant ones for her garden borders. I am raising a toast to her and preparing a few of her favorite nibbles in memory of her magnificence. Some may say my annual ritual is a tad strange… but your exquisitely crafted “The Cemetery at Tzintzuntzan” tells me otherwise, and I thank you wholeheartedly for this beautiful gift. I especially like the words: “The dead aren’t gone—they’re only garbed in bone./These blooms are guides to where their loved ones wait.” This is the first time I’ve read this poem. I usually read your poetry as soon as it comes out… now I know why. Thank you for making today extra special.

    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you so much, Susan! I can’t say I enjoyed writing the “Overheard” poem but I wanted to artistically depict the polarization of Mexico which may soon become the polarization of the USA. Or maybe already has…

      I’m especially pleased that my “Cemetery” poem came at a time for you when it could inspire memories of your grandmother. I don’t think your annual ritual is strange in the least. I believe it is a loving way to keep her memory alive. That is such an important thing.


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