Mexican life

Day of the Dead

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Our humble altar yesterday afternoon.

THIS IS THE Day of the Dead, and last night was the preceding evening.

My child bride usually builds an altar in the living room. There are too many who died too young in her family, and there was a new addition to that sad list this year. A kid brother died last May of a heart attack at the age of 55.

My mountaintop town is famous throughout Mexico for its Day of the Dead festivities and activities. There are spectacular graveyard scenes in the area. One is within walking distance of our home. Some years we walk over there on the Big Night, and some years we don’t. Last night we did not.

We stayed home, eating salads and watching Netflix.

The traffic is always dreadful. Were our cemetery not within walking distance, we’d never see the event. The most publicized cemetery here is on an island in the lake. You can only get there by boat, and hordes of people visit.

A far superior option is to visit one of the many other cemeteries that surround the lake, places where you’re not shoulder to shoulder with tourists traipsing through the tombstones, candles and marigolds.

It’s full of loveliness and spirit.

Life for the living will start returning to normal tomorrow. By Monday the mobs of tourists will be gone, the massive market on the plaza will pull up stakes, and we’ll return to our customary tranquility hereabouts. That’s how I like it.

Dead or alive.

33 thoughts on “Day of the Dead

  1. I love and respect this tradition. Learned about it many years ago in Arizona, and it touched me. I don’t go on tours to cemeteries as I feel I am intruding but after everyone is gone, and the petals are falling, I just might be taking a stroll. One year, I too will construct an altar. Yours is wonderful.

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    1. Peggy: I don’t know how the locals do it up in your area because, from what I have read, it varies widely across Mexico. Here where I am, of course, is a very, very big deal. And it is quite worth seeing in person. I highly recommend it. You can do it without being an intrusion. The families expect it, it seems. I’ve never felt like I was intruding. Quite the contrary. The families are quite friendly and polite as you walk quietly by.

      Our neighborhood cemetery generally is a great place to visit. There have been some blips over the years, however. Once a news crew came from Mexico City, and set up with bright lights and cables right in the middle of the place. It was tacky and absurd, and I told them so. The locals, being Mexicans, said nothing. Another year, some governmental genius had installed a monster spotlight on a high pole at the entrance, lighting up much of the cemetery like high noon. That was gone the following year though, thank God. Usually, it’s great.

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      1. Ajijic is a zoo to me. Various tours offered, parades, altar contests. The Mexicans do a wonderful display for the Gringos. I am sure their own remembrances are more quiet and personal. Chapala does the same but not the tours. Out where I am close to Ixtlahuacan de Los Membrillos is full of Catrinas, altars, contests and the cemetery is very old and large. I think they hold the Guinness record of the tallest Catrina! I will still wait until all is quiet except for the lurking souls to pay my respects.

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        1. Peggy: Isn’t Ajijic sort of a zoo every day? I think so.

          Visiting the cemetery any time other than the Big Night is not the same by a long shot. Go over there next year. That’s my advice.

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  2. Felipe, everything you said about hoards of tourists on Janitzio is the absolute gospel. As you know we went last night and I have never been in a place so crowded with people. Believe it or not, the most crowded place was at the docks AFTER we returned from the island. It literally was a mass of people shoulder to shoulder. This was around 11 pm. No way all of those people were going to make it to the island.

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    1. Troy: I always tell people the same thing. Avoid Janitzio. And they always ignore me. Always. The place is simply too famous, which is the problem, of course. With so many other villages in the area, all with cemeteries, and virtually all with few to fewer tourists gumming up the works, and all marking the occasion in the same way, heading to Janitzio is, to put it mildly, not your best choice. It’s a lousy choice. I remember the first time we visited the cemetery within walking distance of our house. It was astonishing and beautiful. And I was not pushing myself through throngs of tourists. Some years we go over there on the Big Night and some years we do not. You do run into sightseers there, but it’s a minuscule fraction of what dumps onto Janitzio, and it’s really not a big distraction.

      Oh, well. You can lead that horse to water, but you cannot make him drink it.

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  3. I had the same concerns as Peggy when first I visited the cemetery near your house on night of the dead. I felt like a real outsider who was stumbling through someone else’s personal reverie. That feeling was increased by my complete lack of Spanish. I almost felt like I was not part of the human race.

    On subsequent visits, I have used my still-not-very-good Spanish to talk with the families about the person(s) being commemorated, especially during the daytime when the graves are being decorated. I have learned a lot and I have shared some memories of my family members who have died. Sharing a tongue completely changes the experience. And, as you say, the families seem to welcome people into the spectacle with its unmistakable reverence and grace.

    I am not certain I will ever do it again. The crowds have become too large for me to enjoy the experience. But, like Paris, I will always have those memories.

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    1. Señor Cotton: We have not bothered to walk over there for two years now, but we did not find the previous visits to be annoyingly crowded by visitors in the slightest with one exception when a TV news crew from Mexico City landed on us. I think a huge majority of the Muertos visitors head to the island of Janitizio, a grave error due to the mob scene they encounter. But, having said that, it depends on what you want to experience. If you want Mardi Gras with a side of cemetery, go to Janitzio. It you want a stunningly beautiful and peaceful, spiritual scene laid out before you, something that will virtually take your breath away the first time you see it, go to any of the other villages in this area, knowing that you won’t be rubbing shoulders with vast mobs of sightseers.

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      1. Jeff: Nobody can delete here but me, and I would never delete you, amigo. I read some of that article. Interesting. I put to you that the Day of the Dead, Halloween, etc., are a cultural mix from a variety of sources going back who knows how many centuries. Due to my not being a Christian, I just find it all interesting and fun. Different strokes, as they say!

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  4. We went out to one of the smaller inhabited islands, can’t remember the name, but it had a small population and a small cemetery. Little kids were at the boat dock to escort us up to the cemetery. And they gave us flowers to place on the gravesites. Being new, we visited, gave the mama a “tip” but were asked to give the flowers back to the kids as we left. Love the quaintness (not to be confused with street smarts) of rural Michoacán.

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    1. Carole: This is the first time I have heard of cemeteries on any of those other islands, which are smallish and sparsely populated. Sounds a bit like they’re running a scam with those revolving flowers and the “tip.”

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      1. I was with Carole when we stopped at this small island. Greeted by a group of small children giving us flowers. Of course, in return, a few pesos were exchanged. We really felt welcomed because there were so few others there. We went to a small cemetery nicely flowered with marigolds. No vendors hawking their wares. Can’t recall the name of the island, seems like it was two islands away from Janitzio. A smaller church as well. When walking back down the hill to the dock the young ones asked for their flowers back, probably in anticipation of more tourists coming for a look-see. It was a delightful visit as the kids were so friendly and loving. I have photos of about five little boys and girls sitting on my husband’s knee.

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        1. Leisa: Well, that casts a different light on the island visit. Oddly, I have never set foot on any of those other islands. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I’ve never done it. And I’ve only been to Janitzio twice, maybe three, times, and always very briefly. Janitzio is a tourist trap, in my opinion.

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  5. We had breakfast at the restaurant outside of Patzcuaro this morning around 11. Thankfully, the traffic was leaving Patzcuaro so we had no issue. At the glorieta we encountered bumper to bumper coming into town. When it came time to go back home, the cars were bumper to bumper all the way to Tzurumutaro. The cemetery at the crossroads was busy but not packed. There were even a few parking spaces in the front and plenty on the side street. I can see that it would take at least 45 minutes to get to anywhere close to town. My question is, once they are there, where are they going to park?

    Bumper to bumper for all that distance is one heap of a lot of cars to put somewhere, or do they just keep going around in circles for the rest of the day.

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  6. We loved the Dia de los Muertos experience as well. So many tourists come; Mexican, European and American. I agree with Carole above, the smaller inhabited islands were far better than Janitzio. It is an experience to witness how families of the deceased make it a time-honored tradition to sit by their loved one’s grave all night. Yes, big tourism $$ going on, but still, the smaller ofrendas of altars and shrines made in a family’s garage, living room or a storage shed is a humbling sight.

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    1. Leisa: I prefer the less-mobbed cemeteries, like the one in our neighborhood. The first time I went there, I was astounded, literally. It’s not been so moving on subsequent visits, but it’s still wonderful. But that first time … wow!

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  7. I am in Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca, again at the time of Day of the Dead.

    It is a touching tradition here and the tourists are welcome. I cannot say why since there are so many of us that it seems an intrusion. However, the vast majority of tourists are polite and the families are very accepting of the intrusion(s).

    I too have discovered that with just a little bit of Spanish the families are most welcoming and ready to accept strangers into close contact and discussions.

    Viva Mexico!

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    1. This is so true about families offering to show you things about their loved ones. Photos, candies, foods and even cigarettes and favored liquor of the deceased. It is a proud tradition they are willing to show and share with visitors.

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    2. Ricardo: Yep, walking around the cemeteries is no problem, and the people don’t seem to mind. Just gotta be nice, which you are.

      I have never been to Oaxaca. Maybe one day. Have to fly. I ain’t gonna drive, and a bus doesn’t sound very appealing either. We’ll see.

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  8. Here is a video made by a young couple visiting here. I met them earlier this week. They asked for advice. I told them to avoid Janitzio, but they ignored me as everyone does because everyone wants to go to Janitzio … and they do. It’s a very interesting, well-done video. They are talented, and it’s what they do for a living these days. But you can see from the video that the event on the island is a combination of Los Muertos and Mardi Gras. That’s fine if that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a quieter, overwhelmingly beautiful event completely dedicated to the purpose at hand, visit one of the cemeteries off the tourist trail hereabouts. There are quite a few of them.

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  9. The traffic was gridlock last night. Worst ever in the nine years we have been doing it. Last year we had low-flying drones even at the smaller cemeteries. We will never do the night of Nov. 1 again. But we did discover by accident arriving early (6 am) Nov. 2, while the families are still there, is just as great of experience with no crowds.

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    1. Patzman: We did not venture out on the Big Night, so I’ll take your word that the traffic was horrendous. It always is. We did venture out this night, the following one, and it was nightmarish. I picked up my wife near downtown at 7 p.m., and it was a solid line of traffic all the way out of town, almost all of it entering, not leaving. I cannot imagine why that was happening. The previous night I understand, but why were all these people coming here the next night, and where on earth were they going, and where were they parking? Incredible.

      We’ll be visiting our neighborhood cemetery, which is a good one to visit, in the future since we can just walk over there. As for going at 6 a.m., well, that ain’t gonna happen. That’s still beddy-bye time.

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  10. Some things are best enjoyed at home watching television. At night, the graveyards here are inhabited by vagrants and perverts. We had Halloween instead. The wife abandoned me for the night, so I did the candy thing myself. I had eighteen kids, fifteen black kids and three Mexican kids. Not one white kid. I am not sure what caused that. Maybe it was the dirty bookstore or the freeway traffic.

    The upside is that there is a lot of candy left. The downside is that I am a diabetic.

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    1. Señor Gill: The Halloween turnout of blacks and Latinos does not surprise me. From what I’ve read, and not having been in the United States for a decade, there are no more white people up there, thanks to the open border.

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  11. The people on both sides of the border in Nogales are hoping and praying that convoy of Central Americans goes to Texas or California. That many tired, hungry and angry people will make for a real disaster. They will arrive without funds and with expectations to be cared for like relatives. That isn’t going to happen. If those folks had any skills or abilities, they would have stayed home and made a go of it there. They need to make their own economic miracle rather than steal someone else’s.

    I am afraid that there will be a lot of stealing and looting. There is only so much money to fund the social welfare system, and I am afraid that those who are already dependent upon the system will not like having their food stamps, subsidized housing and other benefits reduced to accommodate these people.
    No matter what happens, it will be a disaster. If they get into the U.S., it will be bad for us. If they end up in Mexico, it will be bad for Mexico. Any way you turn it, these people were lied to and used.

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    1. Señor Gill: Bad situation indeed. Gonna be interesting to see what happens when they start reaching the border. Trump says no entry, but we’ll see about that. If they stay in Mexico, it won’t be much different here. We already have lots of folks just like them. Our nincompoop president-elect has already offered them work, etc. Can’t imagine what he’s thinking of offering them. He also has promised to give us Mexicans “free” healthcare like Canadians and some Europeans have. A Latino Bernie Sanders. Sheeesh!

      Things are going badly.

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