That’s the spirit
In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is really a celebration of life
It’s Nov. 1, 2009, and I’m sitting on ground shaded by a small bush in Panteón, the centrally located and largest cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. I’m watching three teenage boys, adorned in buzz cuts and earrings, digging earth under a hot sun to mound a grave. They stop to talk periodically, but mostly they share the shovel among themselves and continue trenching.
Around them are families—old, young, in-between—working burial sites to rid them of weeds, to repaint rustic crosses or brighten tombstones, to plant or arrange flowers, to retool names and dates of the dead. Some are creating altars of remembrance filled with alfeñiques—sugar figurines, especially calacas and calaveras, skulls and skeletons—designed to celebrate life on this Día de los Muertos.
I can appreciate their work, for in this town that she loved for many years, my own mother’s ashes are scattered, placed by my sister and me in 2002 after her death. Re-imagining her presence in the botanical gardens, in the art school, in her favorite restaurant as I experience Day of the Dead celebrations, I contemplate whether this tradition is one Americans should embrace as their own.
Day of the Dead is commemorated Nov. 1 and 2, particularly by Mexican people throughout Mexico, often in Mexican communities in the United States, by those of Latin descent, or simply by those who appreciate its meaning. Its purpose is to remember and to celebrate those who have died, so their spirits can return to be with their loved ones, as they do, these two days a year. The tradition reinforces family respect for both the living and the dead, and it has long been part of Mexico’s rich history.
Día de los Muertos reaches back 2,500 to 3,000 years to the Olmecs, Mayan and other ancient Mesoamerican peoples. Nov. 1 is All Saints Day—which in medieval England was called All Hallows, hence Halloween for Oct. 31—and Nov. 2 is known as All Souls Day.
Traditions associated with Day of the Dead are designed to celebrate yearly those souls no longer with loved ones and to prepare their resting places for their return. Gravesites are cleaned and decorated, altars are erected, food and drink provided. Day of the Dead represents death as a natural phase of life rather than a punishment, and it is a festive, colorful holiday.
In San Miguel, preparations for celebrations begin weeks in advance. Stores display figures of skeletons in every form imaginable: paper skeletons hanging from ceilings; 3-foot-tall white figures highlighted with black, often dazzlingly dressed, perched on chairs; Frida Kahlo look-alike skeletons; dog skeletons; card-playing skeletons; guitar-playing, mescal-drinking skeletons. Primed in color and glitter, feathered and garish, these bones smile ghoulishly.
During the last week of October, small, tented enclosures open on the plaza displaying the alfeñiques: hand-made skulls, skeletons sitting on coffins, sheep, bread and pastries, small baskets of fruit, miniature tables full with meals. All are intricately made, colored icing laced on hard sugar, sequins glittering in eye sockets, some creations even arrayed in miniature clothes. Also displayed are tissue paper decorations, papel picado, cut-out patterns in rectangular shapes that hang as if on laundry lines—purple, green, yellow, orange—while another vendor sells orange and white candles for lighting on the altars.
At the most crowded booth, death is definitely sweet for Manuel Robles. Ageless and handsome, he was born in San Miguel and has been making sugar figurines for 45 years. His pieces are beautifully crafted, and I tell him he is an artist. Knowingly, he shrugs his shoulders and slowly turns his head back and forth, as he does each time I return to buy more alfeñiques for the altar I am creating for my mother. I ask to take his picture, but he smiles and raises his palms—no—saying his grandfather warned him years ago that a photo would take away his spirit.
El Jardín, which means “the garden,” is the downtown square, the town center. There materials for Day of the Dead decorations begin to appear the day before Halloween, and will be festooned with even larger altars than those in Panteón. Because of the enormous and meticulous effort involved in preparing for the celebration, Oct. 31 becomes a day-long workday. In the evening, this labor of love culminates in fireworks.
Small, colored, patterned-cut banners, tied in rows across Calle Correo all the way to La Parroquía, the ancient sandstone church in the square, flap against the bluest sky. In front of the church stands an elaborately created, multitiered, 5-foot-tall, four-sided pyramid of an altar. Bedecked with skulls, tokens, pictures, flowers, individual fresh fruit pieces, and intricately carved melons, it is a magnificent sight. Redolent in bright colors—orange, pink, yellow, green, blue—seed, bean and flower-petal mosaics of Mayan gods, birds and more skeletons surround the pyramid, painstakingly constructed on the cobblestones encircling the massive altar.
Altars are created all over town—in buildings, on playgrounds, near churchyards. Separate from the huge altar in front of the church, and around all four sides of El Jardín, are individual altars: pictures, candles, sugar figures, piles of seeds and beans, marigolds, favorite food and drink of the departed, each telling a story.
One has pictures and mementos for “Sara.” Another, including a bottle of beer, is for José de Jesus M. Chon Balas. One altar, inside the Municipal Building, displays a larger-than-life statue of Generalisimo Don Ignacio de Allende y Unzaga; he is a much-admired hero in San Miguel’s history, and the altar is dedicated to him and other fighters for Mexican independence.
But the real heart of the matter is Panteón, the cemetery where those young men were industriously mounding earth around their departed, where swarms of ordinary people remember loved ones individually. Theirs is not a public display in the crowded downtown square; rather, their remembrance is the hands of family in earth: weathered, browned by sun, removing weeds that have grown since last November, arranging stems of bright, pungent marigolds, sometimes bordering the mounds with bricks.
The most poignant are small graves of “angels,” the young or infants. One is overflowing with potted succulent plants, richly green, completely filling a wrought-iron fence enclosure for a child gone at two months. The grave is being tended cheerfully and devotedly by the mother and a toddler who tries to help, too. I have to remind myself that this is a time for remembrance and not for mourning. These careful arrangements are necessary so the spirit of this infant can return for a brief visit to his family.
An elaborate altar for a relatively young man stands out, his picture centered in a large stone memorial. His parents tidy up, arranging alfeñiques, adding a small bottle of mescal. Brothers, sisters, cousins mill around the grave site, chatting amiably. Flowers drape the stone surface surrounding dozens of figurines, including a miniature sugar table laden with food and drink. In the corner, surveying everything, sits a large, smiling skeleton.
Families in Panteón work all day Nov. 1 and then will spend the next day picnicking and communing with spirits of the departed, their way home readied by the preparations of the family. The cemetery will be crowded with people, most in cheerful celebration, others in somber reflection, enjoying time with loved ones, sharing food, drink and memories.
By dark on Nov. 1, El Jardín is packed, with regular humans and life-size calaveras—predominantly male skeletons—and catrinas, skeletal parodies of upper-class women. Colored spotlights on the stage in front of La Parroquía focus on brightly dressed dancing skeletons using falsetto voices and telling stories. Joyfulness is in the air as costumed children walk the square asking for sweets. A gecko, a Tibetan monk, princesses, a baby swaddled as a pumpkin, one boy with red, white and blue pants imprinted with stars, mysterious black vamps—all move happily through the crowd.
As the night progresses, music plays in the background, a full moon hovers, La Parroquía lights up to the steeple where a cross shines, multicolored banners flap in the cold breeze—and no space is to be had. By 8 p.m. there is standing-room only, a kind of Mexican New Year’s Eve Times Square celebration, absent only the element of time. After all, this is Mexico.
So, what of this celebration of death, something uncomfortable, at best, for most Americans? Even though the ritual is Day of the Dead, the memory in these celebrations is of life—its wonder, its tragedy, its endurance. What is remarkable to me—a person who has yearly marked both parents’ death dates with crosses on the calendar, an embarrassment in this context—is that the tradition survives because it belongs to all family members, because it respects not only the dead, but also the living. Elders, especially, watching careful nurturing by family, know that one day their role in the ritual will change.
Certainly, I observed the old at Panteón, but also it was young people cleaning gravesites, carrying water for flowers, placing marigolds. The collective memory of family keeps spirits alive by welcoming them home every year on Nov. 1 and 2. It is a tradition that we Americans—many in search of meaning in our lives—might want to adopt, especially with families so fragmented in our society. For Día de Los Muertos, at least, family is alive and well in Mexico.
As for me, I’m taking the tradition home—to join with other elements of Mexican culture in my life: brightly colored pottery, a blue-green-pink gecko on my wall, a photo of a pumpkin-colored papaya. This year, my first experience with Day of the Dead, I honored my mother. I placed her photo as a young, beautiful woman near a vase of marigolds, burned a candle, and arranged sugar figurines about the frame, including one of a dog—she was partial to dogs.
After the celebration ended, I carefully wrapped my calacas and calaveras. I will unpack them each Nov. 1, light some candles, decorate with flowers—marigolds if I can find them—and welcome my mother, my father, and other departed souls who have brought meaning and joy to my life, those I do not want to forget.