"Dead man walking" has a whole new meaning with Puerto Rico's "muerto para'o"
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"Dead man walking" has a whole new meaning with Puerto Rico's "muerto para'o"

When 23-year old Christopher Rivera Amaro was shot and killed on January 26, 2014, it didn’t take long for his family to decide that they wanted a unique wake.

Five days later, when mourners came to pay their respects at a community center in the Manuel A. Peréz housing projects, they were surprised to find Rivera standing.

Rivera, a professional boxer, was dressed in black and gold boxing silks with “Gracias a Díos” embroidered in white thread. His hands were fitted into blue boxing gloves. He wore black sunglasses, ready for the glare of camera flashes. A five-o-clock shadow of a mustache was visible above his top lip, and his expression was one of contented cool, the look of a man accustomed to some degree of notoriety.

Standing in the corner of a red-carpeted ring, red and white bunting draped on the walls behind him, everything was picture perfect. So picture perfect, in fact, that family members posed for pictures with Rivera.

Dressed casually, they stood next to him like adoring fans, which they were, pointing at him just as you would if you met a minor celebrity on the street and you convinced him to take a selfie with you. All the while, a video of Rivera’s boxing matches played on a loop, projected onto a large screen set up next to the ring.

The scene was so bizarre it went viral. Reported by the Associated Press, who had a photographer shooting pictures at the wake, the story got picked up around the world, from FOX, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, to name only a few, to the Telegraph in the U.K. and China Daily.

Rivera had enjoyed local fame in life, but in death, he gained international renown. Journalists, bloggers, and online commenters all seemed to be intrigued by Rivera’s wake, unsure whether to label it absurdly macabre or elaborately entertaining. Maybe it was a bit of both.

What most everyone missed, though, was that Rivera’s wake wasn’t even the first of its kind in Puerto Rico. The Marín Funeral Home of San Juan, the same funeraría that staged Rivera’s final appearance in the ring, had been fielding and fulfilling similar “as in life, so in death” requests for more than five years. From a man posed on his motorcycle to an elaborate scene that involved placing a dead man who owned an ambulance company at the wheel of one of his vehicles, the Marín Funeral Home had been developing something of a specialty for a while. In fact, their practice of posing dead people in diorama-type tableaus had become so popular it had even inspired a debate about its constitutionality in the legislature.

It had also picked up a name: the muerto para’o, or “dead man standing.” The term emerged around 2008, when the Marín Funeral Home prepared the body of 24-year old Ángel Pedrito Pantoja Medina for his wake. Dressed in popular street-style clothes, accessorized with a Yankees ball cap, glasses, and a large crucifix on a chain hanging down nearly to his navel, Pantoja was propped up — standing — in his mother’s living room. No one would have guessed that he had been shot 11 times and thrown off a bridge in his underwear.

And that’s just the way Pantoja wanted it. His father had been killed when Pantoja was a kid, and seeing his dad in the coffin prompted him to make a promise to himself: When his time was up, he wouldn’t go lying down. He’d be a “muerto para’o.”

Artistic origins

Even Pantoja’s wake had a precedent, though few people made the connection.

More than a century before Pantoja was para’o in his mother’s living room, Francisco Oller, a Puerto Rican artist, painted his most famous work, “El Velorio” (“The Wake”). In it, a group of more than a dozen people fill a room in the midst of a raucous, indulgent celebration. A child and a dog run happily toward the foreground while a smiling man hoists a stick up toward a suckling pig hanging from the rafters. The wine is flowing and so is the rum; over in the left corner, a man playing the cuatro, a Puerto Rican guitar, sips the island’s favorite spirit, accompanied by a man playing the güiro and a woman playing a maraca. And to their left, things are really getting randy, as a couple locked in a drunken-looking embrace are getting their heads doused with moonshine, poured out of a bottle by a man who looks like he’s going to be shaking off a bad hangover tomorrow morning.

Almost everyone seems to be oblivious to the fact that on the dining room table, laid out on a lacy white cloth, is the body of a dead child. Her head, crowned with flowers, rests on a pillow on one side of the table. Her feet and blue shoes nearly hang off the the other end.

The artwork, painted around 1893, is one of the most famous in Puerto Rico’s history. Everyone knows “El Velorio.” The painting is so famous, in fact, that it has been reinterpreted repeatedly; in 1991, artist Rafael Trelles made a Technicolor, mixed media version of “El Velorio,” and other Puerto Rican artists have riffed on the work too. A version of “El Velorio” was even hanging in the lobby of the iconic Caribe Hilton Hotel last December, right near the elevators that take guests up to their rooms.

“The wake is a party, a carnival that disguises the pain of life,” wrote art historian Luís Alfredo López Rojas in his explication of Oller’s painting. “Death and pain intersect with life and happiness, and give the poor person a necessary touch of hope.”

His description could just as well be applied to all of the modern day muertos para’o. While some Internet commenters decried the posing of Rivera in the ring — “[A]ppalling. Reminiscent of circus sideshows…. Why not bring him home and sleep with him one more time?” wrote one woman, while another urged his fellow boricuas “to get it together already!” — Elsie Rodriguez of the Marín Funeral Home doesn’t view the staged wakes as disrespectful, nor does she see them as an indicator of social decay. On the contrary, she sees the muerto para’os as a way to soften the suffering of families, and she and her colleagues have no plans to deny any requests they deem reasonable in the future.