Over 30 years ago I was invited to spend Dia de Los Muertos in Patzcuaro, Michoacán, possibly the most traditional observance of Day of the Dead in modern Mexico. We travelled in small candlelit boats across Lago de Patzcuaro to the cemetery on the island of Janitzio. Bathed in orange from the light of a thousand candles and even more marigolds, the island felt sacred and welcoming, a perfect invitation to the souls of the dead. As we wandered through the glowing cemetery, we witnessed large and small groups of family members congregated at their family plot. They would stay all night long honoring their dead relatives, chatting, drinking coffee and champurrado and inviting the spirits to join them on earth for the evening. (Champurrado is a traditional drink for this holiday and through to Christmas, akin to hot chocolate but thickened with toasted corn flour.)
To clarify a common misconception, Dia de Los Muertos is NOT Mexico’s version of Halloween, and the 2 events are not connected culturally at all. Dia de Los Muertos takes place on November 1st and 2nd; the first day honors children who have passed away and the second honors adults. Having been passed down from the Aztecs, Mexicans have been following this tradition for thousands of years. These spirits aren’t scary or somber but loving honored guests.
Here in La Paz in 2019 Dia de Los Muertos is a little less homespun and a little less romantic, but it’s still a much-anticipated and joyful celebration. People gather at both the pantheon (cemetery) and at the Teatro de la Cuidad (city theater) for the outdoor festivities.
We went to El Teatro this year, and teeming with color and music, the place was alive. There ere a variety of decorated ofrendas (altar) inviting spirits of relatives and famous people to join us. One honored a well-loved grandfather who died this past year; his altar was adorned with his personal items, photos and plates of his favorite foods. And at all the altars there were multitudes of marigolds (the smell attracts the spirits), pan de muerto (sweet bread decorated with shapes of bones), sugar skulls, candles, copal incense (the smell directs the spirits), papel picado (cut-out tissue paper rectangles signifying the wind and the fragility of life) and the ubiquitous skeletons.
Altars are not just found at public celebrations. It’s very common for a Mexican family to set up a personal altar in their home. Whether simple or elaborate, it tells a story, stirs up memories and shows respect to loved ones.
All this talking to the dead made us hungry so we did a quick reconnoitre of the food and drink puestos and settled on tamales and champurrado. Dessert to follow.
Good music, dancing and comedy were onstage, and the beautiful silent Catrinas were drifting among us mere mortals and posing for photos. These tall female skeletons are a relatively new addition to Dia de los Muertos having been created by a political cartoonist in 1910. Originally, the newspaper cartoon Catrinas were a symbol of the “common man” protesting the government corruption and social inequality of the day, but they are now an image of how Mexican people view death and the afterlife. Death is the great equalizer. It comes for all of us.
The Parade of the Catrinas is always a fun part of the show. Each Catrina is introduced onstage and judged in either the children or adult category…a difficult job! The quality and creativity of the costumes and the powerful attitudes of the performers are magical.
Our visit to Dia de los Muertos 2019 ended with churros and coffee.
I’m pretty sure that Frida Kahlo stopped by our table. Nice but kooky.
And Tom Petty was a no-show.
– Fern Corraini
Fern Corraini is a veteran traveler and explorer who moved to La Paz from Canada thirteen years ago and is happy to call Mexico home. In addition to her international travels, Fern has been an English teacher in Canada and Guadalajara, a customs officer, a beekeeper, a sandblaster, a travel rep in the Dominican Republic and a motel owner. When she’s not busy keeping Vista Properties organized as our administrator, Fern loves to cycle, visit the beach and spend time with her two rescue kitties. She loves La Paz and firmly believes that the taco is the perfect food.
More photos of Dia de Los Muertos…