" Day ot the Dead in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico.

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Noche de Muertos or Mexican Day of the Dead in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, México

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A small altar with a skull or calavera and a display of cempasuchitl flowers, a rather grim reminder of death found in one of the town's churches.

Much has been written about The Day of the Dead in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, where I live. Some writers 'get' it. Some just like being a part of the excitement. Some vehemently disagree with everything. And there are those who haven't a clue.

 
Even the fields around Pátzcuaro display a natural backdrop for the Noche de Muertos celebration.

As with most aspects of life here, Pátzcuaro accepts all viewpoints, chews them up, spits them out and goes about its business unhampered by how the rest of the world views it. The town celebrates the Purepecha customs and fiestas as easily as it welcomes the tourism generated in part by these events. Of all the indigenous traditions, The Day of the Dead is the biggest draw.

For generations, the traditional celebration, known here as Noche de Muertos, was a family affair, celebrated in a communal setting. In the old days, there were no tourists around to witness the festivities. And then there was the black & white film, Maclovia with María Felix. Shot in the 50's on the nearby Island of Janitzio, the movie created a mini-boom in tourism. This generated more films which in turn added more publicity. A snowball effect took place and today the events surrounding November 1 & 2 are, as my neighbor says, 'Todo un show.'

 
The Island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro is always a big draw for tourists but on November 1 & 2 the throngs of visitors are truly intense.

As with any good show, the production needs an audience and an audience it gets. In fact, the drama plays to standing-room-only crowds. Lonely Planet 2004 warns travelers that prices for lodging can go up 25%-100% or more from the normal rate.

A reporter from my old home state of Minnesota made the mistake of waltzing into town in 2003 without a reservation only to find every available hotel room filled. A last-minute fortuitous cancellation or perhaps a bit of wheeling and dealing allowed her to write a totally different article from the one she might have penned had she been left to join the young crowd sleeping rough in doorways, portales and around the ex-colegio Jesuito.

If you're reading this now and planning an overnighter for Muertos, it's still a possibility…as long as you're thinking 2006. Many visitors check out and make their reservations for next year in the same swipe of the credit card, demonstrating that this is one show that plays to encores.

 
José Guadalupe Posada began in the 19th century the calavera and calaverita tradition that continues to this day. The drawings of skeletons posed in very life-like and fanciful situations play with the idea of death. The written calaveritas are humorous rhymes that often are designed to poke fun at politicians or other well-known luminaries. To the right is a modern-day version from a great foto-blog www.foto.nadapersonal.net.

It is erroneously said by some that the Day of the Dead is the Mexican version of Halloween. Despite the prominence in many stores of ghoulish paraphernalia suitable for an October 31 celebration in the States, such a comparison is leagues away from reality.

The traditional custom of young kids circulating about town with a hollowed out, candle-lit squash asking that coins be dropped inside is vaguely reminiscent of the 'trick or treat' of Halloween. This is especially true now that the squash has been replaced quite often with a plastic pumpkin head that is thrust in front of unsuspecting tourists even a week before the actual date. Residents are not so apt to coo, 'How quaint! Isn't that just SO cute?' as some visitors tend to do.

The Halloween imitations and the plethora of extra events and activities that surround the actual Muertos bear evidence both to the entrepreneur mentality and the burgeoning tourist population that Muertos has created. But the weeks of preparations in the various villages around the lake leading up to the actual vigil in the cemetery and the ceremony itself are relatively unchanged from the time Bishop Vasco de Quiroga witnessed it almost five hundred years ago.

If you are unable to attend in person, you can order a top-notch video of the preparations and the cemetery vigil from brafilms@laneta.com. It is called Animecha Kejtsitacua (Ofrenda para los Animos) and is in Spanish only. You should also be able to pick up a copy at Sipalito, a gallery/shop next to Once Pizzas in Pátzcuaro's Plaza Grande.

 
   
 

The huge archways constructed from a tree felled for the occasion are completely covered in marigolds and are a focal point in the smaller towns around the lake. The massive arches require a community effort to build and to raise. Strong muscles, ropes, levers and rolling logs are utilized to maneuver the archways into position the eve of October 31.

The arches are designed to guide the spirits of loved ones back for their yearly visit. Smaller version are often found at individual gravesites, on home altars and decorating business establishments.

As tourist flock to the cemeteries, especially on Janitzio and nearby Tzintzuntzan, the comment often heard is 'When does something start to happen?'

I found I was better able to answer this question after attending an Ojibwe wake in Minnesota. With my Western, white woman mind set, I was waiting for things to get underway just like the tourists on Janitzio. They never did…in a Western, Caucasian way. I thought I was there to pay respects to a friend and one fine lady who had recently died. Everyone else was there to accompany the spirit of the dead woman on its journey to the other side. Every so often, one of the elders got up and talked extemporaneously in Ojibwe. There was occasional chanting. From time to time, tobacco was passed around and people smoked in companionable silence. Tears were forbidden as it would make the spirit sad, so there was almost a festive air about the gathering. Friends milled about and talked, sharing stories of the woman's past life and then drifting into general present-day gossip. Hours into the wake, a table was set up and piled high with food. After the feast, we again resumed our places and continued much as before. Since I arrived before 10:00 AM and left after 5:00 PM, it was not what I expected, especially since much of the party went to the cemetery after this and continued the vigil.

Except for the fact that the Ojibwe accompanied the spirit away from this earth rather then welcomed it back as the Purepecha do November 1 & 2, the two ceremonies are very similar. There is no one moment when one can say, 'Voila' and something spectacular happens like the lighting of an elaborate Castillo, the intricate fireworks tower so popular in these parts. It is simply a time spent in a loosely organized communion with the other world.

 
Tzintzuntzan's divided cemetery (the town's road splits it in two) has lately become as popular with tourists as Janitizio. Center photograph by Peter Mattews at www.matthewspeter.com

It's easy to see why many tourists, especially those used to 'adventure tours' or a 10-city two-week European blitz are somewhat befuddled, wondering when the festivities get going. Apart from the fact they don't in a Western Caucasian sort of way, the other difficulty is that the visitors usually are not part of a family group, so they can't share the camaraderie of hours of reminiscences. Besides, the night is generally very cold. And damp. And maybe rainy. The crowds are truly enormous, making one feel more a part of a cattle call than anything else.

Maybe this explains the huge quantity of booze consumed by some that can generate into ugly scenes of drunken tourists toppling over lighted candles or weaving onto gravesites after tripping over the huge wreaths that adorn the plots. Then there are those that are just too insensitive to realize that setting up strobe lights and focusing a camera right in the face of a rebozo-clad woman without first asking permission is really pushing it.

 
Wreaths made from colorful ribbons for sale before Muertos. The bright colors adorn the gravesites in the Mesa Purepecha throughout the year until they are removed the end of October to prepare the area for the spirits' new visit.

Here and there a visitor is privileged to be invited into a family group or maybe simply isolates him or herself from the crowd, takes the time to become a part of the night and experiences the spiritual nature of the gathering. These are the ones who will never look at death in the same way again.

If a cemetery vigil isn't part of your itinerary, there are certainly numerous events planned by the surrounding municipalities where things can be counted on to happen in a more prescribed tourist fashion.

 
Check out the altars, called ofrendas, in many schools, businesses, homes and museums in the area. If you are in Pátzcuaro, you might want to walk around the center of town and keep your eyes peeled for an open door leading into the patio of a private home where the public is invited to view the home altar..

 

 
Sweet reminders of our mortality...sugar candy skulls and coffins. Geta a personalized version with your name written across the surface.

Then there is the huge Tianguis or craft market. In Pátzcuaro this takes place in the Plaza Grande. In the past it was hodge-podge of multi-colored tarps haphazardly covering separate stalls where vendors hawked imports from Taiwan alongside regional artesania. There were extension cords draped everywhere as well as those running along the ground connected to noisy generators.

The newer uniform canopy and overhead lighting with a central power source makes a walk through the myriad crafts a dryer, quieter and much more enjoyable experience, especially since the Taiwanese items have been weeded out. Now much of the work for sale is museum quality, particularly the pieces entered in the concorso. Buyers from all over hover about this tent like the hummingbirds at our feeders and competition to snap up the best pieces is fierce.

 
The distinctive black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec, a small village outside the city of Oaxaca, another area famous for its Noche de Muertos celebrations.

For the first time in 2004, the plaza was shut off to all vehicular traffic, causing gridlock on side streets and mumbling from local merchants. Walkers rejoiced because they could walk with ease and their ears were spared the HipHop music of the 'juniors' from Morelia who parked Daddy's fancy car right in the plaza, turned up the volume on the car stereo, opened the trunk full of beer and booze and began to party.

Who knows what will be the rule this year. Some of those merchants doing the mumbling are pretty powerful folk in town (maybe even parents of the juniors).

What is a certainty is that the event has become an occasion for young people to converge on the town en masse for a party. It is the same mentality that causes youths to head for the Festival Cervantino in Guanajuanto and the Pamplonadas, or running of the bulls, in San Miguel de Allende. Whether it's the juniors from wealthy families or the modern-day hippies, a "gathering of the tribes" has an appeal over and beyond the actual purpose of any festival.

 
Amid all the activity and the crush of tourists, it is sometimes hard to notice the flowers that are an integral part of Muertos. But if one heads up to the Basilica a few days before November 1, it is possible to see an incredible display of color. Stall after stall and truck after truck are bursting with the traditional marigolds/calendulas, purple cockscomb, tuberoses, strawflowers and feathery nubes (very similar to baby's breath).

My favorite has always been the nardos, or tuberoses, because the jeweler I apprenticed with in 1980 preferred nardos. They were the favorite flower of his wife. She had died in childbirth after giving birth to her fifteenth child, a baby who soon joined three others whose vigil is celebrated on the eve of November 1 when the spirits of babies and very young children as well as women who have never married are welcomed back home.

Jesús Cázares Solario was the last in a family of silversmiths spanning four generations that made the traditional jewelry of the Mesa Purepecha. His work exemplified the same kind of evolution that has taken place with the Noche de Muertos celebration itself.

The 16th century missionaries were no dummies when it came to conversion tactics. They were clever enough not to ban outright the old Purepecha customs that were based on an indigenous belief in non-Christian gods. They merely incorporated much of the tradition into the trappings of the new religion with a different god, assuring an easier conversion into the new faith while giving the locals the best of two spiritual worlds.

Pieces of bone that had been placed inside the filigree of the earrings of the early Purepecha to ward off evil spirits were removed but the silver framework remained. The central figure of the wedding necklace in the 1500's was replaced with a cross while the corral, silver fish and filigreed balls remained.

 
In a similar change, the flowered archways, incense, lighted candles, ofrendas with favorite food and drink, huge bouquets, massive wreaths and flower-petal pathways that were part of the pre-Christian ceremony remain to lure the spirits back to earth for their yearly visit. But the date was changed to incorporate the festival into the traditional All Saints and All Souls celebration within the Catholic Church.

Living between the two worlds of his ancestors and his conquerors, Maestro Cázares continued his craft. He died in 1999, the same year we came to live permanently in Mexico.

Being mestizo, he is buried in the Panteón Municipal and his grave is visited during the day since the municipal cemetery is locked every night, November 1st notwithstanding. His spirit is welcomed back by a mass celebrated November 2nd, rather than by the traditional all-night vigil on Janitzio and in Purepecha towns throughout the area.

Nevertheless, enough of the old beliefs remain. Amidst the profusion of flowers, the smell of copal, the lighted candles, the huge crowds, the bustle of little boys peddling water to clean the graves or snacks to munch on to while away the time, I feel very close to the spirit of this man.

The mass in the Panteón Municipal receives little publicity. After all, it's not part of the tourist package. In all the years I've been there, I've only seen one middle-aged couple and one young guy arrive with cameras. They soon developed a rather bewildered expression and left the scene precipitously.

What they should have done is come back to the Panteón Municipal the next day when the cemetery is basically deserted and given themselves enough time to sit in what has to be on of the most beautiful, flower-filled, peaceful spots one can possibly imagine. There are no chairs but the dead won't mind if you sit on the raised concrete slab that marks the spot for their mortal remains. The stone might even be warm from yesterday's visit; and if you try, you can feel the tie that binds one world with the next.

 
One of the cemeteries lit up for the November 1st all-night vigil and Pátzcuaro's Panteon Municipal, the day after the crush of family members. Photo to the left by José M. Osorio from Souleyes Magazine, documenting communities of color.

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