travelog 73

Dia de los Muertos

Along an inconsipcuous dirt road food stalls line up next to stalls selling sun glasses, brightly colored leather belts, CD's and plastic toys. Hundreds of people stream towards a big gate and disappear behind it into a labyrinth of colorfully decorated graves. Mariachi players stroll around the cemetery and offer their services. Everywhere people eat and drink, and laugh and play. They sit together on plastic chairs under CocaCola umbrellas and drink beer and tequila. The cemetery is a sea of flowers, plastic and real ones, as colorful as we have never seen one before. It's All Saints' Day in Mexico, and it's celebrated properly!

These days the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is celebrated at the beginning of November, dates that were prescribed by the Catholic church. Originally these celebrations go back to pre-hispanic times and were celebrated at the beginning of August, honoring Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of death. According to the pre-hispanic world view of the Mexican native inhabitants, life and death were not two points on opposite ends of a straight line but rather two points opposite each other in a circle. There was no life without a previous death and no death without a previous life. The contrast of life and death was not as absolute for the native Mexicans as it is for us today. Death was not the end of life but only a phase in an infinite cycle. Life, death and resurrection were therefore only stages of a cosmic event repeating endlessly. In other countries one talks as little as possible about death. That's absolutely not true for Mexico, as Octavio Paz commented in his book "The Labyrinth of Solitude": "The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it. It is one of his favorite playthings and his most steadfast love." All Saints' Day on November 1st is also called Dia de los Angelitos. It's the day people remember the little dead, the children. On November 2nd, All Souls' Day, Mexicans remember the adult dead. They believe that the souls of the dead visit their relatives for one day. To help the souls find their way home, people often build altars in their homes. Candles light the way and copal, an incense, shows the dead their way with its fragrance. The altar is also decorated with colorful paper cut into intricate designs and flowers, particularly the orange flowering cempasuchil, a marigold relative. A photo and sugar skulls with the name of the dead inscribed on its forehead are also part of the altar. The favorite beverage and food of the deceased are an important part of the altar too. There's also a water jug so that the soul can quench its thirst after the long journey home. Sometimes people also place a bowl with fresh water and a cloth on the altar so that the far-travelled souls can refresh before the big feast. On altars for children one can often find sweets or toys.

There are a few places in Mexico that are famous for their celebration of the Day of the Dead. One of these is Oaxaca, but with the continuing political crisis and the escalation just days before All Saints' Day it's probably a place to go to another time. Mixquic on the outskirts of Mexico City is another famous place but since we dread the mere thought of going anywhere close to Mexico City, we decide to go to Michoacán, a Mexican state that is said to still celebrate these days more or less traditionally. Particularly the area around the lake of Pátzcuaro is well-known for the Dia de los Muertos celebration. On October 31st there's not much going on. Graves along the road are sometimes decorated with fresh plastic flower wreaths. Especially striking are those that are adorned with the traditional orange marigold. We pass many pickup trucks selling masses of marigolds and other white and scarlet flowers. Many bakeries offer Pan de Muertos, sweet rolls in all sizes but always decorated with pieces of dough in the form of bones. Under the arcades in Morelia and Pátzcuaro vendors sell sweet things. There are sugar skulls with gleaming eyes; couples sitting up in their graves with beer, Coca Cola or tequila in hand; the Virgin Mary and angels; little devils; etc.; but there are also skulls made of chocolate that come in all sizes and all with wonderfully shining eyes. On many plazas, the main squares, competitions are held for the most beautiful and elaborate altar. People return from the public markets with armloads of marigolds and flower wreaths. In many places there are stalls offering catrinas, colorfully painted ceramic skeletons with fantastic dresses and hair-does, candle holders in the form of skulls, and many other souvenirs. The hotels are hopelessly booked up and many have grasped the opportunity with both hands and raised their charges for 100% or sometimes even more. Restaurants and coffee shops are decorated with true-to-life catrinas and many have put up an altar in honor of a deceased person.

On November 1st we stroll through Morelia where we're offered guided tours to Pátzcuaro and the surrounding area at almost every street corner. At least we can see which places we should avoid. At the far end of the main square in front of the cathedral young people are building a huge altar. Some men are busy unloading masses of flowers from a delivery truck. The smell of marigold clings to the air. In front of the handicrafts museum students are building altars as part of a competition. Flowers are brought along cars and cardboard boxes come from nearby stores. Next door we purchase some chocolate skulls that have a tempting smell. But basically we stock up on sleep!

Toward evening we set off in the direction of Pátzcuaro though we avoid this city at all costs because we want to try to visit places away from the mass tourism. That's why we drive along the west side of the lake to Jarácuaro, a small village on a peninsula in the lake of Pátzcuaro. We set our hopes high for the Purhepecha mass a friend recommended. The cemetery lies in the dark, the graves are decorated but no candles are lit. At a taco stand we get something to eat and are grateful that the owner sends away all the kids asking for a small contribution. Again and again we'll meet them, the next day at the topes, speed bumps, and tonight in the narrow streets and on the squares. They carry pumpkins carved with skulls or plastic pumpkins in the style of the American Halloween and try to outdo each other at begging: "Una contribucion para mi calaverita", meaning a contribution for my skull. Soon we have given out all our pesos and made some children happy. A stage is set up on the main square in front of the church in Jarácuaro and benches are carried out of the church. Apart from six other tourists we seem to be the only strangers here but of course we can't distinguish the Mexican tourists from the locals. In our opinion the mass is a truly Catholic mass and we wait in vain for a few words in Purhepecha. For 1 1/2 hours we listen to the various priests and fathers and to some chosen girls, dressed in beautiful traditional costumes, reciting Bible verses. The only thing that reminds one of the Purhepecha traditions is that at the end of the mass various things are offered to God. Again it's the beautifully dressed girls and women who bring copal, cuetes, fireworks, straw hats, tortillas and brooms to the altar. In between there's lots of fireworks going off so that we miss parts of the sermon because of all the noise. After the celebration of the mass the stage is quickly changed for the next event. A woman from a radio station gets on the stage and finally we enjoy some Purhepecha. It's a fantastic Indian language with many hissing and clicking sounds that has nothing to do at all with common Spanish and sounds extremely strange to our ears. Then a group of dancers entertains the crowd with the Danza de los Viejitos, the dance of the old men. Apparently this group is very famous and has won many prizes. Next they will perform in Cuba but tonight they fire the audience with their colorful costumes, their hats with long, brightly colored ribbons and their fast stomping dance.

Towards 10 PM we set off again. We drive along the lake to Arócutin. At the entrance to the village we're greeted by a huge arc that is stuck with marigolds. We find the church without problems and the cemetery lies exactly at the exit of the church, a fact not very common in Mexico. We stand in awe walking on to the cemetery. It's lit up by hundreds of long candles. The graves are beautifully arranged, covered with marigolds, and adorned with elaborate wreaths. The wreaths come in all forms and are sometimes several meters tall and not at all round. Pink orchid flowers decorate almost every grave. Soon we discover a Pepsi bottle on one grave. This must have been the favorite beverage of the deceased. Wrapped in warm blankets, relatives sit in groups around the garves and contemplate, chat and laugh. Baskets covered with colorfully embroidered cloths hold the food that will be eaten later that night. Fresh fruits are part of every grave decoration and the women take care that the candles never go out. Because friends recommended another cemetery as well we drive a little further to Erongarícuaro. There's a lot going on on the main square. The souvenir stalls are still open and at other stalls you can get atole, a hot beverage with a base of corn, plus tamales or tacos. The cemetery however is almost completely empty. All the graves are decorated but only a few candles light our path between the extremely close graves.

Since there doesn't seem to be a velación, the lighting of the cemetery with candles, we drive back to Arócutin. In the meantime many tourists have arrived here and we sit down at one of the food stalls drinking hot coffee and cinnamon water. Tonight we'll do without the piquete, the shot of alcohol that is offered. Hordes of people stream past us and on to the cemetery. Some groups have a guide holding up a purple light bulb. It's comforting to see that large groups of people come back from the cemetery too. At midnight the church bells ring almost constantly. Towards 1 AM we dare to go to the cemetery again with all the Mexican tourists. Everything is still bathed in that wonderful soft candle light but it's also a lot more crowded than earlier that night. Television teams and tourists squeeze right up to the people around the graves with huge video cameras and microphones. An over-eager photograph sneaks up to a few centimeters distance to the stony face of an old man and pushes the release non-stop. Visitors flash and film and take pictures for all it's worth. We almost feel weak at the knees at all the impudence with which the tourists approach their subjects. The poor locals really must feel like wild animals in the zoo but they seem to let it wash over them with stoic peace and composure.

Towards 3 AM we set off again, this time in direction of Quiroga. Most of the cemeteries that we pass on the way are dark and deserted. Only in San Andres Tziróndaro we see a few candles burning on the graves. There's not much traffic on the road and we assume that most of the tourists have finally crawled into bed. That's why we dare to drive towards Tzintzuntzan, the place of the hummingbird. Suddenly traffic gets dense again but it's only oncoming traffic. As soon as we approach Tzintzuntzan we're trapped in a traffic chaos and have to crawl through the small town to be able to turn around at the other end. The road that goes further to Pátzcuaro seems to be one single traffic jam. We park a little bit outside and walk back to the centre of town. The road is lined with stalls selling food and souvenirs. Bawling Mexicans sit on the pavement and drink beer and tequila. Music booms from loudspeakers, everybody honks their horn when nothing moves anymore and the police desperately use their whistles but there's nothing to be done. We have the feeling of having landed at a fair! And all that at 4 AM in the morning! Nonetheless we stroll over to the cemetery which is beautifully lit with candles. Many locals watching over the graves of their loved ones, sleep under blankets or in plastic chairs. Some really clever ones even put up a small tent. Actually, this cemetery would be beautiful with all the candles, flowers and wreaths but it's difficult to not take account of the carnival-like surroundings and the stopped and stinking traffic. That's why we leave quickly and crawl into bed at 5 AM, where we sleep like angels until 10 AM.

On November 2nd we continue our tour of the cemeteries. First we visit Pátzcuaro where, as expected, we have to be very patient in traffic. Finally we get to the main square where many stalls have been set up under the huge trees. Craftswork from all areas of Michoacán is sold here, although much of it falls into the section kitsch and junk. Most Mexican tourists seem to like it and in the end this is the most important thing for the vendors. On the smaller square we walk through the public market where nobody seems to care about the bustling tourist activity. Today we drive again along the western shore of the lake of Pátzcuaro. The cemetery in Arócutin lies peaceful and deserted and even the gates are locked. On the other hand, there's a lot going on in Erongarícuaro. Crowds of people stream up to the cemetery and bustling residents sell fruits, plants and snacks in front of many houses. There's a real party going on on the cemetery! There's almost no room to walk between the cramped graves but somehow people managed to sit in groups around the graves. They eat chayote and cooked sweet squash. Some families brought pots with food that is now served on disposable plates. Others enjoy tostadas de ceviche and most drink cold beer from coolers. In one corner we meet a Mariachi group playing songs on request and wandering from family to family. Improvised masses are held at some graves and relatives remember the deceased. Without exception the mood is exuberant and cheerful and screaming and laughing children play catch between the graves.

In Quiroga too, a bigger city in the area, all hell has broken loose in the cemetery. The crowd streams to and from the cemetery on a dusty road, past countless stalls offering fried fish, tacos, colorful belts, baseball caps, ice cream, cold beer, CD's and much more. Again, there's almost no getting past the graves. The magnificent display of flowers is stunning, just as the lively cheerfulness of those present. Mariachi groups play with drums and trumpets. In the shade of trees and umbrellas people chat and laugh. Delicacies are served from coolers and baskets. If it wasn't for the climbing over the graves one would think he was at a fairground!

Although it's almost impossible to observe the Dia de los Muertos without tourists, Mexican or foreign, these celebrations are absolutely worth a visit. Probably there's no place anymore that has not been discovered by the tourists and every inside tip of your friends and guide books has also long been found by other people. Nonetheless one can still find less-visited places where mass tourism occurs within limits. After traveling through Mexico for many years this was the first time that we spent two days touring cemeteries and it was an unforgettable experience. We will always remembter the soft candle light bathing an entire cemetery, the orchid wreaths and flower decorations, the beautiful costumes and faces of the Purhepecha, but also the cheerful exuberance of entire villages celebrating their deceased loved ones. It might well be that we write next time in November from Oaxaca where the Dia de los Muertos is said to be celebrated as traditionally and colorful as in Michoacán.

October-November 2006

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen