meta name="p:domain_verify" content="8b08da541f8a920e6 Marie Z Johnston: Day of the Dead in Patzcuaro, Mexico

Monday, November 10, 2014

Day of the Dead in Patzcuaro, Mexico

Patzcuaro is a thriving colonial town on the southern edge of Lake Patzcuaro which, at 7000 feet above sea level, is home to 5 islands and the P'urhépecha people. Among the locals it is generally believed that this lake, of volcanic origin with no rivers in or out, is where the barrier between life and death is the thinnest.

We arrived in Patzcuaro late on the evening of the 30th.  First thing after breakfast we walked to the historic center of town where the two main plazas and many side streets were in full artisanal marketplace swing.  The variety and quality of the handmade items was staggering. Pottery, carved wooden statuary, baskets and straw skeletons, hand embroidered traditional shirts and dresses, beautiful shawls, hammered copper pots, traditional silver jewelry... each booth operated by the artisan's family.  Under the arcade of the Plaza Grande were stand after stand of sugar skulls, coffins and angels made as offerings for deceased family members.

Unlike cemeteries "State Side" where the ground is flat (for easy mowing) cemetery plots in Mexico are mounded - in fact, it is said that the better cared for the rounder they are!  Families tend to the eternal resting place of their loved ones in preparation for this one night every year when the veil lifts and the souls of the departed are free to visit with the living.

On the night of November 1st, 'festivities' for the Dia de los Muertos begin in earnest. Families have been preparing for weeks mounding the dirt, cleaning grave sites,  scrubbing tombs, building alters that are piled with candles, sugar skulls and offerings of the dead person's favorite food and drink.  

Passing by on the highways and city streets by the truckloads, marigolds are everywhere. Known locally as cempasúchil this was the flower used by the Aztecs to remember the dead. Some people grow their own but most are purchased from stands and trucks.  Grave sites are blanketed with marigolds, as their color is said to help guide souls to their homes and altars. 

The five islands have their own Dia de los Muertos festivities and can all be reached by boat; either small, covered ferries operating on a regular schedule or by much smaller, independently operated skiffs that hold up to 8 people, are open to the elements and not for the faint of heart.

Saturday night, the official Dia de los Muertas night (and a national holiday) we visited several cemeteries.  Approaching each one, the atmosphere was very festive with food stands outside the cemetery and live music being played grave side while families picnicked, gossiped, laughed and cried.  Flowers were arranged just so, candles lit, people visited with the living and children played amongst the dead.  Each cemetery was filled with families sharing memories and stories, talking amongst themselves in the candle lit dark.  This went on till dawn.

The next day we drove around the lake and further from Patzcuaro we ventured, the fewer tourists there were and the more we felt like intruders happening upon something very personal, intimate and sacred.  Two very solemn, traditionally dressed women were sitting beside a lovely Latina woman I'd just met, who'd recently returned to Patzcuaro after many years in Los Angeles. She translated what these two women were trying to tell me: Death was not the end, just a continuation and the spirits of the dead return happily to visit with their loved ones. That death was not something to be feared, hidden away or whispered about - rather embraced as an inevitable transition.

I think they are right.  Our western culture treats death as terribly tragic yet grieving and sorrow are private emotions (and somewhat shameful) that never go away and really shouldn't be discussed.  A person passes on and all that remains are photographs.  Small children grow up knowing very little, if anything, about their recent ancestors because there are no regular family gatherings where the departed are celebrated.  It's sad really, and such a huge loss of family culture and tradition.    

I'm thinking that the Dia de los Muertos is a tradition I'd like to introduce to my family and friends.  Not the cemetery aspect - as most of my relatives are (literally) scattered all over the globe - rather a family altar in my home that is decorated with marigolds, candles, photos of loved ones, plates of fruit, favorite foods and a feast to share with the living people I love.  We'll tell stories of the past while celebrating our good fortune and love...  the love we share in life and the love that brought us to this exact moment.

A bientot mes Amis,

These little fish called charales are a local treat and absolutely delicious fried

For more information on Mexico and Dia de los Muertos, click on the links below:

Mexico Cooks by Cristina Potters

National Geographic - Dia de los Muertos

About Education - Day of the Dead

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Parisiennes Postcards said...

Zabie this is beautiful. Thank you for sharing the great photos and a part of your Mexican adventure. I hope that you will keep a marigold for me on the mantle.

Marie Z Johnston said...

Thank you Loui!