Mexico: Celebrating Life on the Day of the Dead

We just celebrated our first Dead of the Dead here in Mexico.

Do you know what the holiday is all about? I’ll start with a quick primer just in case…

The Day of the Dead holiday (Diá de los Muertos) begins on Oct 28—though altars and decorations appear days before that—and lasts through Nov 2. It’s a colorful, joyous blend of Catholic and Aztec traditions.

Children and infants who have died are honored on Nov 1st, which corresponds to  All Saints Day and is known as Día de los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”) or Día de los Angelitos (“Day of the Little Angels”). Deceased adults are honored on the 2nd, which corresponds to All Souls Day and is known as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (“Day of the Dead”).

Mexicans traditionally spend a lively day or two at the cemetery, where they reunite and celebrate with the souls of dead loved ones. Graves are adorned with flowers, votive candles, and lanterns. Friends and family lay out commemorative offerings including food, calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls), tequila or other liquor (for adult’s souls), toys (for children’s souls), photos and personal mementos. Festive music makes it a real party.

Mark, Scout and I opted not to gawk in the cemeteries (sometimes that’s welcome, other times not). Instead, on the evening of November 2, we headed to the village of Ajijic to watch a torchlight parade we’d read about in the local paper. We hoped to find a colorful, neighborhood celebration but weren’t sure what, if anything, to expect.

We got really lucky. I’m so relieved we didn’t bother driving to Guadalajara or going farther afield in search of “local color”…which we almost did.

THE TORCHLIGHT PARADE

The torchlight parade, or comparsa, was brief but spectacular. It came and went in less than 30 minutes, but was the best, most memorable parade I’ve seen in my entire life.

Most of the procession had passed by before I even remembered to take out my camera. Imagine dozens of hooded, skeleton-costumed figures on horseback, illuminated only by flickering torches.

Pickup trucks decorated with marigolds carried dead brides in wedding dresses, dancing skeletons and even a life-size skeletal bull ridden by La Muerte…death.

I saw surprisingly few expats. But plenty of Mexican families were crammed onto the narrow, uneven sidewalks, their faces reflecting the flickering torchlight. Vaqueros enjoyed the scene from horseback. Noisy firecrackers, intended to summon the spirits, exploded unseen in all directions and made us jump.

THE TOWN SQUARE

After the parade passed by, we headed for Ajijic’s main square.

It was a happening scene, packed with people, many wearing elaborate skull-shaped masks or face paint.

The costumes were stunning, especially the face paint. Everyone started with a the same canvas: a whitened face. But from there each face was transformed into a unique work of art.

Some people darkened their eye and nose sockets. Others used sequins or costume jewels to create intricate and colorful details on their faces. Common designs were petals around the eye sockets, spider webs on the forehead, stitches around the mouth, and hearts and flowers in what little space was left.

 

Memorials “painted” with colored sawdust decorated the streets; candles in paper lanterns illuminated the sidewalks.

Memorial altars lined the perimeter of the square. Some were simple affairs, nothing more than a photograph, a name, a few votive candles, and some flowers or fruit.

But others were elaborate recreations of entire lives.

One celebrated a musician named Victor Manuel Medeles Romero. A video screen flashed photos from throughout his life. The props around the altar brought him to life…his accordion, his suit, his shaving and wash stand, a table set with favorite foods, wine, tequila, books, skeleton dolls (catrinas), more clothes, mementos, fresh flowers (particularly marigolds), etc.

It was a fascinating glimpse into another life, another time.

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Diá de los Muertos altar for musician Victor Manuel Medeles Romero

 

Mark looking at this Diá de los Muertos altar for a young woman who died in her 20s.

For dinner, the usual. Street tacos, a couple of cervesas, and for Scout, ice cream afterward.

This was one of the most memorable, uplifting celebrations I’ve been to in my life. We can’t wait to do it again next year.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tom Medsger November 7, 2012 at 9:58 am

Greetings, Mark, Renee, and Scout,

Terrific pictures and “reporting!” I’ve been in Mexico two times for Day of the Dead ceremonies (Querétaro and Dolores Hidalgo), but I have to say Ajijic outdoes them both, at least compared to what I was able to see in those two cities. Maybe they each had a parade, but I missed them if they did. A friend in Portugal tells me that their Day of the Dead commemorations are much more solemn: church and cemetery, but no “pagan” (as he put it) trappings. No fun, in other words. ¡Viva Mexico!

Tom

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2 Mark November 8, 2012 at 11:52 am

Thanks for the feedback, Tom. During the evening, Renee kept saying her photos were coming out terrible — it was too dark! When she got them back home, she started to change her tune. Expecting the worst, the images she captured blew me away when I first saw them. They truly captured our experience that night.

We went to Ajijic for dinner, not knowing what to expect besides the parade. What a surprise! The little celebration in Ajijic was marvelous and just what we were looking for that night. Some friends of ours chose Chapala and didn’t find much of anything going on over there. I bet there are celebrations like this going on all over the country. A Canadian friend who is a native of Guadalajara kindly gave us some recommendations which looked really good. But when it came down to Friday night, we were looking for something more intimate and closer to home (Guad is an hours drive away). So it worked out. I can’t wait until next year.

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3 Jenn November 7, 2012 at 11:40 pm

Wow! What a fantastic experience! Thank you for sharing it with us through your writing and beautiful photos. So neat to learn about this through your eyes.

One of my very early memories as a toddler was in the Philippines (it was a Spanish colony for 500 years) during the celebration of The Day of the Dead – Araw ng Patay. I remember being held in someone’s arms, standing along the side of our street to watch the Araw ng Patay procession. I was frightened of the men and women painted in black with painted skeleton faces and bodies, carrying a shrine and walking silently down our street. I’d love to see this again as an adult, and of course have my kids experience it as well.

J

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4 Mark November 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm

I never thought of that before… but it makes sense the Philippines would also celebrate the Day of the Dead. They call it “Araw ng Patay?” After becoming acquainted with the holiday here, I would very much like to see how the Filipinos celebrate. Do they also do the shrines to those relatives who have passed? I wonder if it’s more sombre like Portugal, as Tom mentioned above. When do you want to go? We’ll meet you there!

Saw your photos of the snow. Makes me think of how cold it was the past winter in southern France. Remember? But it’s an opportunity for the kids to make some extra $$. And get some good exercise. Give them our best. And tell B I keeping my eye on the hockey stick.

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