Day of the Dead in Terlingua: an otherworldly photographic experience

Deep into the southwestern edge of Texas lies Terlingua, a small and intimate community of desert dwellers, artists and some retirees who romanticize this mining town from the early 1900s. Terlingua marked the dawn of the mercury rush, mush like California and Alaska did for the gold rush. The mines went bust by the 40s and the residents abandoned the cinnabar infused American dream leaving Terlingua to slowly morph into a ghost town. Today, the town is seeing a revival of sorts, attracting creatives, free spirits and eccentrics – individuals who seek no attention to the point of hiding in anonymity. Yet, Terlingua is a tightly knit community where members hold on to each other dearly, and this bond is out on full view on Day of the Dead. November 2nd is a day of remembrance every year at the local cemetery where four hundred graves are honored – many of old time miners, but some of recently departed souls as well.

© Ayash Basu. Local artists and musicians gather at “The Porch” – a control tower of sorts for Terlingua social and community events.

The Terlingua Trading Company porch is the social hub every afternoon. The daily tradition of “come grab a beer, find a spot on the bench, start a conversation, play or listen to music, make friends and watch the sun go down” is core to Terlingua. Even on November 2nd, people first commune here over a few brews, get their face painted and sing some songs before going down to the cemetery. Local residents describe Terlingua as “a town of misfits that fit in, all of ’em misfits but not in the same way.”

© Ayash Basu. The local community and visitors gather at the cemetery by sundown to pray for the spiritual journey of the departed over a potluck, with BYOB and singing around a fire late into the night.
© Ayash Basu. One of the early visitors to the cemetery, other than the organizing family, and some local friends are the King and Queen (some call them Bride and Groom)
© Ayash Basu. Sun down is eagerly awaited in order to get the evening activities going. Stunning sunsets are routine in this part of Texas, but the setting and occasion make it even more special.

For Terlingua and its residents, Nov 2nd is not a day of mourning. In fact far from it. It is a time of paying respect, sharing and feeding each other. This is not a community that exchanges gifts – even in Christmas! They feed, support and hold on to each other. They purposefully reflect on the lives of those that they have lost and introduce them to their children. And everyone is welcome to join them.

© Ayash Basu. Grace, a young woman from the area dons the role of Queen in 2016.
© Ayash Basu. Women adorned in red roses is a common sight. Red roses signify memories of the lost that will not be eroded by death.
© Ayash Basu. A long time resident comes to the cemetery every year to remember the departed and has deep knowledge on who lies where in the cemetery, and did what.
© Ayash Basu. Randy McLaughlin – the “King” for the last many years ponders sitting next to the fire as the candles are lit by 400 plus graves.

It’s a surreal sight to be in the cemetery with hundreds of candles below and millions of stars above. It’s a way to teach the community to not fear death as residents dress up as skeletons – alive, dancing and dressed up in brightly colored outfits. Children are introduced to their family members who have passed. One can walk past each of the four hundred graves that are lit with candles, to have a private moment of remembrance and prayers. The moment is pure, spontaneous and unembellished, much like the stark Texas desert that serves as a fitting backdrop.

© Ayash Basu. The candles light the graves late into the night, much after people have left. Even after the candles burn off, millions of stars radiate upon the graves – pretty symbolic.

A version of this post with alternate images first appeared here