“How would you like to join us in celebrating the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in San Miguel de Allende this November 2nd?”, asked my pal Scott. It sounded intriguing, though we had only the remotest idea of what it entailed. We soon learned it meant flying non- stop from Vancouver to Mexico City, and then travelling 274 km north by car to the old colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico.
Somewhere in my distant memory I had visions of skulls and masked dancing by los Indios, probably in an old National Geographic film. Over the weeks preceding our flight, Scott sent us numerous articles. One of the best was “A Beginning History of the Day of the Dead,” by Helen Tafoya- Barraza. It laid out the basics, focusing on the long history of the Dia de los Muertos tradition in Mexico. The festival dates from Pre- Hispanic times, and as the anthropologists say, is syncretic in that it fuses and convolutes Aztec, los Indios, and Christian traditions into something wholly new.
Some authors today refer to “the Days of the Dead,” combining October 31, November 1, and November 2. Hallowe’en (or All Hallows Eve) is followed by “el Dia de los Innocentes,” the day of the children (also All Saints Day in the Christian tradition), and finally “Dia de los Muertos,” (also All Souls Day) on November 2. In San Miguel de Allende all three days are combined into a major community festival. With a population of 139,000, the town houses about 3,000 Canadians, 14,000 Americans, and a mixture of all the nationalities that make up contemporary Mexico. In true syncretic fashion, there is something for everyone during Los Muertos.
Our group, comprised of three Vancouver couples, rented a classic brick and sandstone house in the old town precinct. After settling in on October 29th, we began exploring the markets and choosing the items to create our ofrenda, or family altar, to honour our three families’ dead. Traditionally the altar is built on the days leading up to November 1. While some are modest, many people spend small fortunes creating their family’s ofrenda.
First we moved a large chest of drawers into the dining room and set a cardboard box, upside down, squarely on top, creating two levels. Next we covered the altar with embroidered tablecloths, and added candles, sugar skulls (large and small), and food and drink for our spirit guests. Guided by the candlelight, we hoped to welcome deceased grandparents, parents, and a few departed friends. Some of our loved ones were represented by photographs placed on the altar, others by ceramic Catrina dolls, and a few by cell phone pictures. Salt, the spice of life, and favourite fruits and drinks (including bottles of beer) were also added to the mix of gifts.
By noon on November 1st we were finished building our house altar, and headed out to view the more public aspects of Los Muertos. Chief of these occur in Mexico’s public cemeteries, where families of the deceased scrub grave plots clean, add pots of orange marigolds, or zempazuchitl, the sacred flower of the Dead, and arrange mountains of chocolate candy, sugar skulls, bottled sodas, and even plates of tamales, tortillas, tacos and salsa for the returning and hungry departed.
While family members of all ages assist in these preparations, the real numbers turn out on the evening of Dia de los Muertos – November 2nd. We walked back to the cemetery closest to our house, through thousands of gathering family members. Marigold sellers, barbecoa stands and community bars were doing a booming business. Eventually we got to the cemetery’s main gate, which was now guarded by two policemen. When asked if we could enter, they replied simply, “Manana.”
Surrounded by happy children, many closely holding their grandmothers’ hands, we were not unhappy. The voices of extended families preparing to spend the night with those soon returning from the realm of the Dead filled the evening air. Many had elaborately painted faces, ranging from masks of blackened skin and whitened eyes, to boldly painted skull designs. To our Vancouver eyes, it all at first seemed macabre. But soon we felt the enveloping spirit of family, expectation and community all about us. It freed everyone from the fear of death. Dia de los Muertos, we learned, is really a celebration of love.