Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Día de los Muertos: Past and Present

Well, the celebrations have all wound down and life has returned to normal. Of course there are still vestiges of the famous “Day of the Dead” celebrations to be seen around town, and in the cemeteries. All in all it was a very different experience for me this year. Having spent the last few years in Patzcuaro, Michoacán, where people come from all over the world to see the Day of the Dead celebrations, I was a little surprised by the rather low-key preparations being made for the big day here in San Miguel.

Certainly the ubiquitous cempasúchil, marigolds, and the rich burgundy coloured coxcomb were in evidence on every street corner in the days leading up to the celebrations. Catrinas, skeletal figurines in lavish outfits, abounded and papel picado, paper banners with designs cut out in shapes of skeletons, coffins, birds and flowers, hung above altars in most stores and homes. The mercados, markets, teemed with sugar skulls and candy animals.


Cavities Waiting To Happen

I think the difference was in the manner in which these objects and events shaped the holiday here. I know that sounds a little obscure, but there is a subtle difference between the San Miguel holiday preparations and those of Patzcuaro, that is hard to explain. In Patzcuaro as Day of the Dead nears, there is a palpable excitement in the town. There is not a vacant hotel room to be found, every restaurant is hopping, the tianguis, a huge market where people from all over Michoacán come to sell their arts and crafts, is in full swing and the plazas throng with visitors, locals and vendors.

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Cempasúchil and Coxcomb, Patzcuaro

On November first, “All Saints Day”, the children who have died are mourned. On that day people who have lost children go to the cemetery to celebrate that short life and commune with the spirit of their lost child. At midnight it becomes “Day of the Dead” and the lost adults are mourned. The cemeteries fill with families and well-wishers and the spirits of lost loved ones are evoked using the smell of the cempasúchil , candles, incense, pictures and favorite belongings, food and drink of the spirits, in life.

Of course there is sadness associated with this, but also happy memories and warm feelings shared by the whole family. In some places in Patzcuaro, such as the island of Janitzio, these congregations can become quite the party.


Cemetery in Patzcuaro

Here in San Miguel the mood was entirely more sedate. I have now come to realize that simply because the people here observe the holiday in a more subdued manner, it does not mean that it is less important to them. In San Miguel the cemeteries close at sunset.  On November first those who have lost children come to the grave sites during the day and on November second, those who have lost adults attend the cemeteries. They come early in the morning and some will spend the day there. These visits here seem a little more quiet and intimate.

I was lucky enough, on November first, to be invited to a restaurant for a very different type of Day of the Dead celebration. One room was set aside for an ofrenda, an altar or offering, and we all brought pictures, candles, candy and marigolds for decoration. We had a wonderful lunch with many of the dishes prepared containing the cempasúchil petals. I had a pumpkin and marigold soup that was absolutely fabulous!


Our Altar in Restaurante El Muro

After lunch we all went to the altar and shared our stories about the pictures of our loved ones, in Spanish, of course. Some were very recent and sad, while others were happy remembrances. It was a lovely way for a group of strangers to share a special day.


Mi Papa

The picture above was my ofrenda to my father, who passed away just before I left Vancouver. However, not everything that day was so somber, as the following pictures will attest.

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El Catrin

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Enjoying Corn Cake with Rompope

Rompope is sort of like eggnog, but much better!

There were also some other fun events happening for Day of the Dead, like the Desfile de las Catrinas, Parade of the Catrinas. For this one day on November first, the Catrina comes to life. It began at the Rosewood Hotel, and after the costumes and makeup the Catrinas paraded through town to the Plaza Principal where they threw candy to the kids waiting there, and were then judged for best costume.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Catrina, she is a skeletal icon associated with Day of the Dead, and seen everywhere in Mexico. Below is a picture of one of my Catrinas, carved by Enedina Castillo in Tocuaro, and painted by me.

catrina 008

This year we had the first, and possibly the first annual, La Calaca Festival de Arte Y Cultura, The Calaca  ( '”The Skull” ) Festival of Arts and Culture. This went on from November first through fourth and offered a number of great events, including 2 concerts of Andrea Brooks playing the Earth Harp, free in the main plaza.

When all was said and done, Day of the Dead was a very different yet equally enjoyable event this year in San Miguel.


  1. Sounds nice and fun also.
    We skipped the festivities downtown this year. Guaymas always has a Festival de las Calacas; but this year it was the weekend before the 1 of Nov.. They always hold it on the closest weekend. The parade is a fun event with the participates dragging the observers in with them to dance.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  2. You're welcome Brenda. It was a very different experience for me this year and I really enjoyed it. I had never seen the parade before and I love it! I hope next year that I will be able to walk well enough to join the parade. I also hope they will do the Calacas Festival here every year too.