By Greg Niemann
It was chilly as we approached the cemetery late that moonless night. Lights from numerous candles and a few flashlights cast eerie illumination on the very dark hillside reserved for the dead. The cemetery was buzzing with activity as the living came to visit. People moved about, their shadows on the stone markers dancing with life.
We entered and joined numerous small crowds who had crammed this rural village cemetery in their celebration of death. We too had candles, and sweets, and flowers to dispense among assorted headstones of the visitors’ loved ones. Those who had departed mortality were now revered and venerated by their surviving loved ones.
It was November 2, the Day of the Dead, (Dia de los Muertos), an important holiday throughout Mexico where the living honor the departed. Religious observances in Mexico are often a curious blend of Indian tradition and symbolism, Spanish pomp, Roman Catholic ceremony and Mexican bravado. This special brand of folk Catholicism is tolerantly accepted by the prelates in Rome.
No holiday better exemplifies this unique composite of customs than Mexico’s deep-rooted Dia de los Muertos. After Christmas and Easter (which are also observed with some cultural blending), it is Mexico’s third most important holiday.
Celebrated over November 1 and 2, it combines Halloween (31st), All Saints Day (1st), All Souls Day (2nd) and the Ancient Indian Day of the Dead. Predating the arrival of the Spaniards, the ancient holiday was based around the Indians’ beliefs that the dead returned once a year to be fed.
Even today, the holiday is a happy time to welcome the souls of the dead who come back to visit. To greet them, the Mexican people flock to cemeteries (panteόns) where headstones of deceased relatives have often been previously cleaned by children and surviving relatives.
Food and offerings are laid out and graveside parties and picnics are held by the loved ones of the deceased. Of course, after the spirits have enjoyed the food, the family members are free to indulge.
In many homes throughout Mexico, family altars (ofrendas) are prepared and favorite photos of the deceased are displayed, along with flowers (usually marigolds), food, liquor and often a specially prepared Pan de los Muertos (bread). Cakes and cookies in the shape of skulls and skeletons abound; papier- mache skulls and cross bones along with spindly, black-and-white wooden skeletons (calaveras) replace balloons as decorations. Most famous is the Calavera Catrina which depicts a female skeleton dressed only in a dapper hat.
Many believers look for signs that the spirits did come: a few crumbs where there weren’t any before, a glass that had tipped over, or a wind that had blown a candle out. Those signs tend to reinforce the beliefs.
Celebrations throughout Mexico
We’ve attended several of these celebrations, in Baja and in mainland Mexico. One recent year we were in Oaxaca where cemetery tours are even offered to two cemeteries. Oaxaca, a charming colonial city in Southern Mexico, is arguably the most famous Day of The Dead destination.
Along with the several crowded Oaxacan area cemeteries, numerous processions, parades and festivities took place, in all the churches, in the plazas, and throughout the streets. It also seemed every home or business had prepared an elaborate ofrenda, adding colorful displays throughout the city.
Before the village cemetery, we went to the main city cemetery where food stands were set up outside, live music could be heard from blocks away, and locals danced among the mausoleum crypts. Candles were omnipresent and the flickering flames lent a surreal image as throngs of people moved in and out of the shadows. Now in this little village several miles outside of town we wandered about the spooky graveyard. Many families were keeping vigil, some quietly, alone in their thoughts, and others in a party mode. They seemed to appreciate our concern and comments.
“Es mi papá,” one teenage girl told me, pointing to a grave covered with food and flowers. Her mother told us about him, how long it had been since he had passed away, etc., and reminded us that he was a “very good man.” But the time for tears had been long gone and a contented happiness infused with pride brought him back for her.
At another grave, a woman was adding a few bottles of Tecate to a growing pile of tamales, chocolates and fruits. “This was his favorite beer,” she told us about her deceased husband. “He loved his Tecate.”
Some members of another large family group had a card game going as they sat above a grave in flickering candlelight.
Elsewhere in Mexico, the colonial city of Patzcuaro in central Mexico also has large and popular activities for the Day of The Dead celebrations. We were disappointed in some Mexican cities, like Veracruz, Xalapa, and Tlaxcala, where after planning our visits to coincide with the Dia de los Muertos, the celebrations were more subdued.
Baja California is not especially renowned for Day of The Dead celebrations. Tecate and La Paz (Baja Sur), are two that have events to mark the celebration. In most cities you will know when you’re in the vicinity of a cemetery, however. You will usually find street vendors selling flowers, food, decorations, and small “calaveras,” those little wooden skeletons.
Traffic sometimes gets backed up in Tijuana in front of Panteόn Jardín on Calle Benito Juarez (2nd Street/Calle Segundo) where the Ensenada toll road dead ends (no pun intended) into the cemetery. Tijuana also offers graveyard tours. See http://www.turistalibre.com/p/upcoming-tours.html.
Rosarito’s Katrina Fest
To honor the Day of the Dead and the Calavera Catrina, the city of Rosarito hosts a family-friendly event on November 1 and 2 called “Katrina Fest.” In addition to typical Day of the Dead festivities, the event includes art demonstrations, food, and music. The free event takes place in the Municipal Art and Culture Institute (IMAC) in Rosarito at Abelardo Rodriguez Park, starting at noon and running until midnight. For more information, check out the Katrina Fest Facebook page.
Nowhere else in the world but Mexico is death celebrated with the same light- heartedness. Mexicans laugh and joke about death and from childhood learn that life and death are a pair.
According to Mexican comedian Hector Suarez, laughing at death does not mean Mexicans aren’t afraid of it. “Mexicans fear death,” he said, “so they want to be death’s friend. They think that if they are his friend, he won’t do anything to them. That is why a Mexican plays with death.”
According to one Mexican anthropologist, “In terms of its impact on society, the Day of the Dead is the most important celebration of the year. It is a day for joy, a day for sadness. It is a ceasefire, when people are expected to forgive each other. It gives people an inner strength. It is sad to see a relative die, but it is not so sad if you have this belief.”
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.