By KRISTINA MORGAN, BLC EDITOR –
Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), is one of Mexico’s most unique and widely celebrated holidays. People come from all over the world to remember their deceased friends and family members and experience the Day of the Dead in Mexico.
Like most things, Mexicans don’t celebrate it halfway! The Day of the Dead actually lasts three days: Oct. 31 – All Hallows Eve or All Saints’ Eve; Nov. 1 – All Saints Day or Day of the Innocents (Día de los Inocentes); and Nov. 2 – All Souls Day or Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos).
From the outside looking in, Day of the Dead appears to embrace many things I personally find distasteful, such as morbidity and the macabre. I even dislike horror movies and scary Halloween costumes! I remember when I finally caved in and decided to see what this celebration was all about from a purely scholarly perspective. So I left my preconceived ideas and judgments at home, and brought my kids and a camera, prepared to be a spectator.
In order to do this “right,” we were told we needed to go to the local cemetery and participate in both Day of the Innocents, for babies and children who have died, and the Day of the Dead, for remembering and honoring adult friends and family who have passed.
Day of the Innocents
When we arrived at the cemetery on Nov. 1st, Dia de los Inocentes, we pitched in as families cleaned and decorated the area with candles, fresh flowers, and paper they’d cut into designs resembling colorful snowflakes. I watched as families brought food they had carefully prepared and arranged their children’s most beloved toys. Some had cradles made out of flowers or paper.
One little boy’s grave displayed photos of him, one in his soccer uniform, another teasing his sisters, and another a school photo. They had all his favorite things laid out: M&M’s, pizza, Fritos, an Elmo doll, his soccer uniform and his little shoes. A lump the size of Texas swelled in my throat as I felt the pain and grief this family must have endured…or still be enduring!
I was beginning to understand that this was not about being macabre or morbid. This was a genuine, heartfelt remembrance. Families reminisced by the graves and laughed as they brushed away tears while sharing funny stories about their children they had lost. This struck a deep chord within me. It seemed to be a place and a time to actively remember how these people we have lost have touched our lives and honor them and their memory while still being philosophical and even—joyful!
It was really beautiful watching the families cleaning the area and remembering the ones who passed on. Looking at the graves it felt as if you could discern their personalities when they were alive. Teddy bears and lit candles at night in the cemetery should sound creepy, but it was just so beautiful.
A tidbit I found rather interesting was that families placed rosaries around their (living) babies’ necks (those who haven’t been baptized yet) and the babies were not allowed to touch the ground or sleep because of the belief that their souls can be snatched by the dead. As the parents left the cemetery, they called their babies’ names loudly so the baby’s soul was sure to follow and not stay behind. Many parents believe that the link between a baby’s life here and that on the other side is still fragile.
Tomorrow, Day of the Dead, we will go back to the cemetery for dances, ceremonies, prayers and more except with the focus on the adults who have died. But first, in preparation for the next day, altars on three or seven levels must be made. This is a pre-Hispanic ritual that dates back to the Mixtecas/Azteca/ Mayan Indians.
The three-level altars represent the past, present and future, while the seven-level represent the seven levels of Heaven. The most important element is the salt or ash cross at the bottom that represents north, south, east and west, and is supposed to cleanse and purify the spirit when it comes to visit the next night. Interestingly, this date ties in with pagan and Celtic rituals on the same day in other countries.
After observing the Day of the Inocentes, for the babies and children who have died, and building the essential alters, we returned to the cemetery on Nov. 2nd for Day of the Dead.
There were so many people all working their way down the cobbled streets, loaded down with flowers, bedding and food, that it seemed like the cemetery was an enormous magnet drawing the entire town there. Some expats stood in their doorways looking puzzled or even alarmed. Yes, the Day of the Dead does at first glance seem like a very strange custom for those of us who are from North of the border. I had serious doubts of my own about this seemingly gruesome holiday. But I was determined to ride it out and try to experience the whole thing—everything except spending the night, which was just not going to happen this time!
The kids and I met up with a few other brave expats as we meandered our way to the graveyard. Along the way were stands selling roasted chick-peas (delicious!) and real kettle-fried potato chips, tamales, fresh fruit and spiraled churros dredged in cinnamon and sugar.
At the end of the road (a dead-end—pardon the pun) there was a stage with chairs in front. Soon the ballet folkloric dancers, which were all children between the ages of about seven and 14, gathered and began their traditional dances. In the beginning the dances were very Indian. But as the dancing progressed, they became more Mexican, with full colorful skirts with ribbons at the hem swishing and twirling. Some of the music even had a decided Texan influence, with the children dressed in denim and cowboy hats. I found out later these were dances of the Baja region of Mexico.
Later in the evening when the sun went down, there were some pretty scary characters dressed as dead people and skeletons and angels and demons wandering around silently in the audience depicting how all these spirits are believed to walk among us. This was a bit creepy, since they weren’t interacting with us but just walking around stone-faced.
After the celebration dances outside the gate, everyone filed into the cemetery. It was a hushed procession. The cemetery was splashed with fusions of colorful flowers and ablaze with candles in cross patterns over and around the graves. Families had been working since dawn the day before in order to be ready to receive the spirits of their loved ones on this night, when the veil between this world and the next is supposed to be the thinnest.
This time families brought cots to sleep on and were setting up camp around their loved ones’ graves. There were several musical groups playing. One (my favorite) was a lively mariachi group which made me want to dance. They were passing out beers and looking forward to remembering and celebrating their family member who was also a musician when he was alive.
It was interesting to me that there were people buried in the cemetery in Ajijic that were clearly not Mexican, yet most of those graves had also been decorated and cleaned by the Mexican families.
I began clicking pictures left and right and found many of my photos had orbs in them. For those that believe the orbs are spirits, I must say that the spirits really seemed to like that Mariachi group! Their photos had dozens hovering around them, while the other groups had just a few. My youngest daughter said she didn’t want any orbs near her and, believe it or not, there were none in the photos of her. However, other children had quite a few, and as the night wore on that there were more and more orbs.
After eating roasted chick peas, fresh, flaky pastries and chocolate, and washing it all down with cold, dark beer, we headed home—the others stayed behind to spend the night hanging out with the dead and partying.
Mexicans have found a way for each of the people who have touched their lives to have their own “book” written about them and passed down through the generations of family members who are devoted to remembering them through their shared memories. What a wonderful gift to their younger generations, and what a tribute to their ancestors!
The Day of the Dead taught me something about living. I emerged from the celebration amazed at the Mexican families’ ability to laugh at life and death alike, taking it all in stride as simply a part of our existence. Another excuse have a party? You bet! As if Mexicans need any excuse! But I have never in my life been as touched and changed by Mexico’s customs as the nights we spent with them in the graveyard in Ajijic.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kristina Morgan, BLC Editor
Kristina has lived and worked in Mexico and the Lake Chapala area for 17 years. Three of her four children were born and raised here, and are now north of the border furthering their academic studies. Kristina is an Unlimited License General Contractor and PR/Relocation specialist. Although she divides her time between Mexico and the U.S., her heart was claimed by Lake Chapala long ago.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Paulina Rosas
Our feature photo at top is by photographer and graphic designer Paulina (“Poli”), who is dedicated to capturing and immortalizing life’s most important moments. Her photos include many of her young son, as well as the culinary creations of her partner Chef Thane Madrid, of Opa Bistro in Ajijic. See Poli’s work at her web site.