Sunday, November 9, 2008

Day of the Dead Fiesta in Ajijic & Chapala

In Mexico, the dead live on. Ghost dancer at the Ajijic Dia de los Muertos fiesta in a rare moment of repose. The Day of the Dead is actually two days, November 1 and 2. The first is for dead children, "los angelitos", whose innocence is such that they are presumed to have gone directly to heaven, and the second is for adults.

Both in timing and in the ghostly aspects, there is some superficial resemblance to Halloween as it is practiced North of the Border. But the traditions are totally different, in origin, meaning, and practice. The origins go back thousands of years into the histories of the various indigenous cultures of Mexico. There is a light dusting of Catholicism over these traditions, but only a dusting. In practice, the purpose of the Dias de los Muertos is not to frighten, but to celebrate the lives of those who have simply passed over to a different plane of existence.

Each year, the spirits of the dead return to visit family and friends, not in terrifying way, but in the way of a relative who has been away traveling for a long time and stops by for a short visit. How would you deal with such a visitor? Bring out his favorite foods and drinks, make her comfortable by displaying familiar possessions such as a favorite book or a guitar she used to play. Remember him or her with stories of fun or emotion they shared. In this way, the person is kept alive in a way I began to understand and feel for the first time.

Mis amigos, Jay and Veronica. Jay Koppleman is a wonderful local photographer whose work has graced the covers and pages of Lake Chapala area magazines. We ran into each other at the Ajijic Plaza, both intent on snapping some shots of the action. Later, he and his pretty Mexican girlfriend Veronica took me to Chapala to see an aspect of the Dia de los Muertos I had never encountered before. On the right hand column of this page you will find a section called "Other sites to check out". Be sure to click on Photo Gallery by Jay Koppelman.

Scary and funny at the same time. The ghost dancer was a frightful figure but also a clown. The kids loved him, especially when he would suddenly rush at them, causing them to scatter like shrieking birds. At one point, a small terrier was affronted by this apparition's antics and began chasing the ghost dancer, furiously nipping at his heels. The crowd howled with laughter as the ghost dancer raced around in circles and through the audience, trying to shake off his tiny assailant. The terrier, his valor demonstrated, finally trotted off to the cheers of the crowd.

An eerie profile. The hood of the ghost dancer's costume gave him a very strange profile. He used it to alter his appearance throughout the dance, and sometimes pulled it off his head to surround and capture an unwary bystander.

Catholicism and paganism melded. The ghost dancer holds a cross in one hand, and the marigold--an ancient symbol of death--in the other. Clearly there are heavy elements of paganism in his dance. In fact, the Catholic Church has very ambivalent feelings about the Dias de los Muertos fiesta and has, at times, denounced some aspects of it. However, the Church made its bed when early authorities co-opted pagan festivals and shrines into the Catholic tradition. Sometimes there seems to be a very thin veneer of Catholicism over thousands of years of indigenous religious culture.

Rockin' round the clock. After the ghost dancer departed, one of the local ballet folklorico companies provided some wonderful entertainment. Here, a couple fling themselves into a rowdy dance, dressed in the clothing typical of 19th Century country people who might have just finished a hard day's work on the patron's hacienda.

A graceful bow. This couple finished their dance with a bow, recalling the graces of past times on remote haciendas where such dances were the major social entertainment.

A dazzling display. Next came satiny dresses and voluminous skirts. Ballet folklorico was created to preserve the traditions of past centuries. There are ballet folklorico companies all over Mexico and in the United States too.

A flourish of skirts. The athleticism of these dancers was impressive. The costumes had to be heavy and hot, but they just kept whirling.

Male and female dancers weave an intricate pattern. While the clear stars of the show were the female dancers with their dazzling dresses, the males had their moments. If you look closely, you can see the male dancer in this picture is carrying machetes in both hands. These long, sharp knives--really almost swords--were used in some of the male-only dances. They were rhythmically clashed against the stone plaza surface and against the machetes carried by other dancers as they whirled about each other. Choreography and long practice help ensure no one is beheaded or disemboweled. Still, it was sometimes unnerving to watch.

The swirling, twirling dancers in their brilliant dresses were almost dizzying. These costumes represent what the higher classes would have worn in early 19th Century Mexico.

Leaning over backward to please. At the finale of their performance, the female dancers leaned back so far I feared a domino-like collapse. No disasters occurred, however. At the end, Jay and Veronica approached me about accompanying them on a special adventure to neighboring Chapala.

Altars lined Cinco de Mayo street for many blocks. After the dances in the Ajijic Plaza, Jay and Veronica took me over to Cinco de Mayo street in Chapala where a number of blocks were cleared of parked cars and given over to altars. These are a major element of the Dias de los Muertos fiesta. Some of the altars are created by families to commemorate departed members. Others might celebrate the life of a national hero, or even (see below) call attention to the death of a species. Usually the altars are set up in front of a house for neighbors and passersby to view and admire.

The altars were quite large and many took up the entire front of a house, extending well out into the street. People had spent much of the day setting everything up and the event had the feel of a huge block party. The altar pictured above is very traditional. The picture of the deceased is prominently displayed, surrounded by marigolds, a symbol of death. Candles light the way for the spirit of the dead person to come visit. Next to the picture is a basket with a bar of soap and a towel so the person can clean up after their long journey. Also included are small bowls with traditional foods and bottles of liquor for refreshment. The overall effect is quite cheerful, rather than gloomy. After all, a loved one is coming to visit after a long absence.

An altar for the animals. Dia de los Muertos altars usually involve family members, but not always. In this case, the creator of the altar wanted to call attention to the extinction of whole species of wildlife. The cross says "rest in peace in the earth". On the altar are skulls of a wide variety of animals and the stuffed body of a wildcat with a dead bird in its mouth. Mexico has a growing environmental movement.

The path to eternity. A typical element of many altars is a path, or walkway, paved with marigolds, which leads the spirit of the dead to the altar. Additional elements shown here are candles and skulls made of sugar which are eaten after the event.

Gambling for souls. In this living (sort of) tableau, death plays cards with anyone willing to sit down at the gaming table. Step right up!

Standing watch. Some of the altars came complete with mimes who silently stood guard over the pictures and favorite foods and personal items deceased family members. Curious, I asked if you have to be dead to be pictured on the altar. You do indeed. At one altar, a group picture of young men had one end torn off. Apparently all those pictured had died, possibly together, and the one in the torn off section survived.

A ghostly appeal? This young woman's sign means "I look for a boyfriend". She is dressed as a cadaverous bride. Any takers? Apparently she is celebrating the life of some relative who died on the verge of marriage.

Almost makes me want to regrow my mustache. The streets were thronged with people not only from the neighborhood and from the Lake Chapala area, but from Guadalajara too. This young couple joined a large group of others dressed--and made up--for the occasion. The crowd was so thick I was afraid some of the beautiful altars might get damaged, but everyone was careful and respectful of the work others had done.

Sorry, all seats are taken--you just can't see the occupants. At this altar, someone has set an elaborate table for the dead with different meals on each plate representing the favorite dishes of the departed. A ghostly figure ensures that no one sneaks a bite uninvited. However, there is also a tradition of providing food for passersby, and we stopped at several locations to sample various delicacies including some delicious dessert tamales, a first for me.

Catrina keeps watch over La Revolucion. No Dia de los Muertos fiesta is complete without at least one Catrina. These are skeletal figures, usually female but sometimes male, dressed in a variety of costumes and engaged in the activities of the living. Catrinas were created by a 19th Century Mexican journalist and cartoonist Guadalupe Posada who drew figures in the elegant European-oriented costumes of the time. The idea caught on and today there are a wild variety of Catrinas (and Catrinos) engaged in every task imaginable including some dressed as Gringo tourists complete with camera. Hmmm...perhaps I have been getting a little thin lately?

This completes my posting on the Dia de los Muertos. Please feel free to comment below, or email me through my profile information. I love hearing from folks.


  1. This is Jay and Veronica from Ajijic. Nice photies Jimmy. Thanks for that day "Day of the dead" we had a good time. Saludos a Carol. V & J

  2. Your photos are fantastic. We are just getting ready to relaunch our new Focus on Mexico website and are looking for new pictures for our gallery and content areas. Would it be possible to use some of your pictures and also the description/stories you have written below them. Extremely well done. And thank you for posting my Expat interview. Cool. Muchas Gracias. You can call me here in Ajijic at 766 3987 or email me at Our website is and the new site will be the same URL just whole new design.

  3. I think you have been doing really good job with all these pictures and stories. Gracias por honrar y fomentar nuestra cultura.

  4. Jim & Carole,
    Thanks for the great description of photos of Day of the Dead in Ajijic. I am headed there next week for that very reason and did a search to see if I picked a good spot. You confirmed it. Don't you just love Mexico? Me too!

  5. Wanted to find out about accomdation in Ajijic. I'm flying to Guadalajara prob. hoping to keep expenses down...most hotels seem reasonable tho'. Cheers


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