Sunday, November 4, 2007

Dia De Los Muertos

Ajijic celebrated the Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) this week. The fiesta lasts from the evening of October 31, through the evening of November 2. For us, it began with a surprise parade up Calle Hidalgo past our house on the 31st, just at sunset. It was a surprise because we had only heard about the activities on the 1st and 2nd, but that's Mexico for
you--always the unexpected! The parade included local marching bands, pick-up trucks with living tableaux portraying various Catholic religious themes, and the finale was a large troupe of dancers in pre-Colombian costumes.

The mixture of Spanish and Indian religious traditions is also typical of Mexico. In fact, the Day of the Dead was an attempt by the Church to co-opt native traditions about death and the dead into the Catholic All Saints Day. All Saints Day in the US has morphed into Halloween, which has lost nearly all of its religious significance and is about "ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night." In other words, a highly commercialized horror show.

In Mexico, the meaning of the Day of the Dead could not be more different. It is a true celebration, focusing not on the horror and monstrous aspects of death, but on death as a transition to a state from which dead relatives and associates can return to visit. It is a kind of family reunion of living and dead, with the living preparing altars containing offerings of food and objects that the dead person especially enjoyed in life. Some of the altars are dedicated to famous people like Pope John Paul, and I even saw one with the picture of Errol Flynn. School Children are encouraged to make their own altars, which were displayed at the Ajijic Cultural Center. For a fuller explanation of the history and significance of this national fiesta, click on Days of the Dead.

November 1st is reserved for dead children, who are supposed to be especially blessed since they are too young to have sinned and thus go directly to heaven. They are considered to be little angels, or Angelitos. The 2nd is reserved for adults. However, the whole family seems to participate in both events. On the night of the 2nd there were two activities going on at opposite ends of town. One, at the town cemetery, was just down the road from us. The other was at the Ajijic Cultural Center, on the main plaza. They were both scheduled to start at the same time, just a dusk, but we decided to try to do both, the cemetery first, then the plaza.

Carole was a little concerned about the cemetery event, fearing that we might intrude on solemn family gatherings. However, as we walked down the narrow cobblestone street it became evident that the event was anything but quiet and solemn. More and more people were streaming in our direction, as we passed neighbors setting up food stands and their personal family altars along the street. Firecrackers exploded around us with startling regularity.

When we got to the entrance to the Panteon (cemetery) the street was mobbed and all sorts of stands and stalls lined the road. It had the feel of a tailgate party. On a stage at the end of the road were colorful dancers, with a giant skeleton figure as a backdrop. The atmosphere was gay and festive.

After watching various troupes of dancers, and listening to a Mexican poet give a dramatic recitation of what I gathered was a headless-horseman sort of tale, we decided to head for the plaza, which promised an art show, more dancers, and more altar displays. Carole was tired, so I decided to go it alone. I enjoy walking around Ajijic in the evening because the whole community comes out of their homes to hang out on the street, even on non-fiesta nights. It's not uncommon to see a young mother with children, even infants, walking around at 11:00 PM.

At the Plaza, I talked to an elderly Mexican man whose English, though limited, was much superior to my Spanish. At my request he very kindly explained some of the symbolic elements of the altars (see the link).

I was entranced by the costumes and the skeleton faces worn by children and adults alike. At one point I was able to go backstage and got permission to photograph four very pretty dancers. Be sure to take in the Dia De Los Muertos if you ever visit Mexico at this time of year!


  1. Wow! It's a whole different world in Mexico. Great description - I certainly learned a lot.

  2. We moved to Mexico last February, and, like you, have never looked back. Thank you for a wonderful site which will probably now become our guide to this very special country.


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