Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A walk along Chapala's Street of the Dead

Faces out of a nightmare? Not at all! Mexico's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a time of fun, warmth, fond memories, and family bonding. Visitors from the US or Canada are often disturbed, or at least baffled, by this celebration of death held each year on November 1 & 2. The first night commemorates los Angelitos (the little angels), children who died very young and so immediately joined the angels in heaven. The second night is for older children and adults. Because it comes so close to Halloween, a US celebration which is gradually catching on in Mexico, the two occasions are sometimes confused by outsiders. They are very different. North-of-the-border folks tend to be skittish about death and dying and refer to it in euphemisms if they can't avoid talking about it altogether. The Day of the Dead is an expression of how comfortable Mexicans are with death. From the Mexican point of view, death is simply a passage to another state of being where the dead continue as part of one's family life, even visiting the living periodically. The Day of the Dead is a time when such visits are especially encouraged and facilitated. The dead are welcomed back as treasured visitors who have returned from long and distant journeys.

Altar for Felix Guzman Aguayo (Sept. 15, 1941-April 5, 2010). To encourage dead relatives to return, Mexican families create altars at their homes. I found this one along Calle Cinco de Mayo, a street in the small city of Chapala a few miles east of my home in Ajijic. For a map, click here. The people who live along several blocks of this street have a tradition of placing their altars in front of their homes. Over time, a friendly competition has developed and both sides of the street are now lined for blocks with altars, some simple and some outrageously colorful, complex, and even hilariously funny. This display draws visitors from all over the Lake Chapala area and as far away as Guadalajara. I was attracted to Sr. Guzman's altar because of its simple elegance. Family members can often be found nearby, so I asked one young woman if Sr. Guzman was her relative. "Mi tio," (my uncle) she answered shyly. She seemed pleased that a visiting gringo had chosen her display for a photograph.

Those commemorated by an altar don't need to be related, just dead. The white-haired gentleman above is Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the man who launched the War for Independence from Spain in 1810. Since this year is the Bicentennial of that important event in Mexican history, the family who built this altar decided to dedicate it to Father Hidalgo. Although the initial revolt that he led came to a bad end, as did he, Hidalgo is revered as the hero who emancipated Mexico's indigenous people.

Altar for a villain. Not far from Hidalgo's altar, I was astonished to find one for General Porfirio Diaz. He was the dictator of Mexico from 1876 to 1910, when he was overthrown at the start of the Mexican Revolution. 2010 is also the Centennial of the beginning of the Revolution. Diaz did much to develop and industrialize Mexico, but at huge cost to everyone in Mexico except for the rich elite at the top. He is famous for his remark "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States." Unlike the great majority of Revolutionary leaders who followed him over the next 20 years, Diaz died peacefully after living out his days in luxury in France.

A great artist is celebrated. One family assembled an altar for Diego Rivera, Mexico's greatest muralist. Rivera became world famous for his huge murals depicting the history and culture of Mexico. His mural in the Rockefeller Center in New York was demolished after Nelson Rockefeller discovered that Rivera, a dedicated Communist, had painted a portrait of Vladimir Lenin in the middle of it. Rivera had a sense of humor, but Rockefeller apparently did not.

In memory of Mexico's Charlie Chaplin. This altar display includes the Hollywood star won by Cantinflas whose real name was Fortino Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes (August 12, 1911-April 20, 1993). He was a brilliant comedic actor who always portrayed the little guy who managed to outfox the rich and powerful. He followed an old principle: "if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with B.S." Charlie Chaplin himself once called Cantinflas "the best comedian in the world."

The central element of a Day of the Dead altar is a photo of the one honored. The photo above is of Freda Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera and a great artist in her own right. An altar is generally constructed like stepped pyramid, and the photo is usually displayed on the top level.

Votive candles are used throughout the altar displays. The candles represent light, faith, and hope and help guide the spirit of the dead person to the altar. They also help light the scene for the living and are used to highlight various of its aspects and to line the borders.

Family member makes final preparations. The stepped pyramid design and use of candles can clearly be seen here. In addition, there is often a yellow pathway made of marigold blossoms leading up to the altar. The scent of marigolds, called cempasúchil by the indigenous people, both attracts and guides the dead. Where the marigold path meets the altar is a cross with 4 candles representing the 4 cardinal points. The cross itself is laid down with ashes. The dead person is cleansed of his sins by proceeding up the yellow path and standing on the cross. The young man in the photo is lighting an incense burner.

The use of incense for religious and ceremonial purposes is very old in Mexico. The small clay incense burner above smokes with burning copal. The incense clears the area of negative energy and evil spirits and, along with the cempasúchil, assists the dead person in finding the way. One of Hernán Cortés' young officers, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, often wrote of Aztec priests "fumigating" Cortés and his men when they came to visit Aztec cities and temples. The indigenous people used the name pom for the the resinous sap of a tree of the genus Copaifera. It later became known to the Spanish as copal, and is still used in indigenous ceremonies such as sweat lodges. Since incense had long been used by the Catholic Church in its ceremonies, there was a natural connection. The Church often converted aspects of indigenous religions, such as copal burning, to its own purposes. However, the deep pagan origins of the Day of the Dead were initially too much for the Church to stomach, and for a long time the authorities attempted to suppress the fiesta. Finally, they recognized that "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

His soul cleansed by incense, the dead person can then clean up the rest of himself. Other typical features of an altar are a bowl or pitcher of water, soap, and a towel. These are included just as you would provide them to a weary, dust-covered traveler who has completed a long journey to your home.

Next, a bit of refreshment. Once cleaned up, the wraith will want a bit of refreshment to restore his spirits (pun intended). The bottle shown above is probably the favorite brand of the departed one.

And now, to dinner! The person for whom this altar was dedicated probably was an aficianado of mojarra, also known as tilapia, probably caught in Lake Chapala. Up until recently, fish in Lake Chapala were contaminated by effluents from upstream factories and farms. Hopefully the diet of the departed did not contribute to his passing. Mojarra are served whole, as shown above. Another typical item on the altar is sliced lime or lemon, seen on the plate.

Pan de muerto (bread of death) is a tasty treat. This sweet bread, covered by granulated sugar, is very popular and is found on nearly every altar. Sometimes the bread will be shaped as a human figure.

Sugar skulls are also ubiquitous on Day of the Dead altars. They are made from sugar paste called alfeñique and come in various sizes, sometimes wearing hats like the one above. The skulls can be ordered from your local baker with a name or message of your choice on the top. Often, a large skull is placed on the top step of the altar pyramid to symbolize the Eternal Father, Giver of Life. When they are grouped in threes on the second level, like you see above, they represent the Holy Trinity. The cloth on which the sugar skulls sit is purple, the color of mourning. You will find purple somewhere in most of my altar photos.

Returning family members like to have familiar things about them. In order to further encourage the departed to return, some of their favorite possessions, or objects that represent activities they enjoyed, are displayed. This part of the displays is very idiosyncratic, which makes it especially fascinating. The person celebrated here had a favorite doll, but also liked to play with a yo-yo, seen between the doll's legs. The doll leans back against a keyboard, indicating that the dead person was a musician.

Proud proprietors of the Graveyard Cantina. Many of the displays included living tableaux. Here, the couple above have created a bar called the Panteon, which means graveyard in Spanish. Under the grinning gaze of a skeleton, they display their wares. It was not a real bar, however, just a tableau for fun. The owner appears to be wearing a devil's horns, as well as a Che Guevara t-shirt.

An apparently satisfied customer at the Cantina Panteon. The young daughter of the couple in the previous photo was also part of the tableau. She sat at a small table with a glass and half empty bottle of Bacardi rum. My guess is that she didn't drink the other half.

A rather sad-looking young catrina. Dressed as one of the famous skeletons of José Guadalupe Posada, this young girl was part of another tableau portraying a whole restaurant full of skeletons, including the waiter. Although her make-up made her look rather sad, she immediately grinned at me when I finished taking the photo. Posada was a 19th Century cartoonist who lampooned the pretensions of the wealthy upper classes by drawing them as skeletons, called catrinas (catrinos for men), dressed up in 19th Century finery including the extravagant hats favored by the women of those days. Fittingly, this catrina's hat is purple. Posada, who profited little from his hugely popular catrinas, died poor and was buried in a common grave. Diego Rivera, among others, named Posada as a major influence on his work.

Brothers share a piece of sugar cane. The older boy holds his younger brother on this lap in the hotel tableau. I often marvel at how Mexican children take care of one another. I'm sure there must be squabbling, but I rarely see it. Much more often, I see older children, even teenagers, carrying the little ones or holding their hands, or playing with them lovingly.

Wanna play a hand? The skeleton in this display appears ready to deal a hand of cards for your soul, or whatever else you might have to offer. As far as I could tell, she has a winning hand, as well as a winning smile.

Free food is also part of the Day of the Dead tradition. A group of friendly teenagers hands out fresh pan de muerto to passersby. There were many options for snacking as we progressed down the street, including fried mojarra, tamales, and tacos. The kids were very polite, charming and sweet.

A wall of the dead. For those who wanted to participate but don't live on Calle Cinco de Mayo, or perhaps didn't have the resources to pay for an altar, there was a bulletin board display at the end of the street. Pictures with brief descriptions were shown on both sides of this board, and there were other boards as well. I remember the picture of one man who had a large family and made his living with a small bicycle-repair shop. Gone, but not forgotten.

An especially poignant reminder. Glancing down, I found this little display on the ground at my feet. What caught my eye was the US currency. The message on the white paper says "In memory of our brothers who died crossing the border while seeking the North American dream. Rest in peace." As I examined the scene more closely, I realized that the skeletons strewn about the sandy ground represented the many who have died of heat or thirst in the scorching desert country shared by Mexico and the Southwestern US. Millions of people have crossed and recrossed the border desperately seeking work from US employers who profit hugely from their low cost labor. As usual, the victim gets blamed, while those who have profited from the desperation continue to do so.

This concludes my posting on the Dia de los Muertos. I hope you have enjoyed it, and perhaps learned a bit about this unique Mexican celebration. If you would like to leave a comment, please so do in the Comments section below, or by sending me an email directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Thanks for this informative piece. I am visiting the US this week, and witnessed with my own eyes how the adults are out in force on Oct. 31st. --some even collecting candy! It has become an orange and black early Christmas it appears...

  2. Hi Jim,
    We love your blog. My husband, John, and I are residents of San Miguel de Allende. John is a Rotarian in town and is helping to organize a golf tournament to benefit the three Casas Hogares in San Miguel. Would you mind posting some info about the tournament on your blog and maybe include the website link? We are hoping some golfers from Ajiic or nearby areas might join in the fun....and it's for a very good cause! Thanks so much for your consideration. Sharon

  3. Hello in 2013, Tom here in Minnesota. My good friends Linda and Victor Youcha live along the lake there and linked this page the Day of the Dead of this year. Thanks for sharing. I hope to visit there from the cold country where I got to know the Youcha's and their family. Muchas Gracias!


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim