Saturday, December 10, 2016

Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos)

Ever since coming to Mexico for the first time in 2013, there has been one cultural celebration I've yearned to see-- Day of the Dead.  At it's core, it is a time when Mexican families honor and celebrate the lives of their deceased loved ones-- a Mexican "Memorial Day" if you will.  But this being Mexico, they celebrate with MUCH more color, vibrancy, and meaning than we do in the U.S.

Dia de los Muertos is a both a heartfelt and fun-loving celebration.  It's a time to remember departed loved ones by creating colorful altars (called "ofrendas") of marigolds and sugar skull candy treats, family photographs, and small mementos of things the deceased person loved most on earth.  The Indigenous Mexicans believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31st, and that the spirits of deceased children reunite with their families for 24 hours on November 1st (All Soul's Day), and spirits of deceased adults reunite for 24 hours on November 2nd (All Saint's Day).  The altars provide these spirits with a welcome and familiar place to return to earth.  

It's also a fun celebration for the living to paint their faces as Catrins & Catrinas (male & female skulls dressed in Victorian costumes popularized by the artist José Guadalupe Posada), and parade through the town streets to taunt and show no fear of death by living more fully and vibrantly.

In the past couple of years, San Miguel has combined Dia de los Muertos into a 4-day arts festival called La Calaca.  This video is a great summary of the festivities--

La Calaca Festival- Experience Dia de Muertos in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico from La Calaca Festival on Vimeo.

Upon our arrival to San Miguel, there was plenty of evidence of Dia de los Muertos preparations underway.  One plaza was filled with vendor stalls selling sugar skulls and other sweet treats for decorating altars.

At another square in town were these artists' alter boxes, providing a modern twist to the traditional ofrenda--

Various doorways were also decorated in marigolds--

Just a couple days before La Calaca was to begin, Ursula received a call from Germany that her elderly mother had been unexpectedly admitted to the hospital.  Ursula decided it'd be best to fly back to Germany ASAP to assist her mom for a couple weeks.  In the meantime, unless her mom's health took a bad turn, Hans would stay with the RV and try to capture all the celebrations in Mexico that Ursula would be missing.

So, as La Calaca started, Hans and I headed out (sans Ursula) to Parque Benito Juárez to see the face painting and art events.

On the first day of Dia de los Muertos, November 1st, Hans and I headed out to San Miguel's largest cemetery, Panteón de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.  There, dozens of families were bringing flowers, sweets, and mementos to decorate their ancestors' graves--

Young boys carried buckets of water to help wash the tombstones--

While mothers climbed ladders to add fresh flowers to a family grave--

Some of the finished tombs were quite elaborate.  No expense is spared for Dia de los Muertos-- quite impressive how much the Mexican people honor their dead.

One section of the Panteón was quite surprising to stumble across-- an area of ex-pat graves.  Here, more modest gringo tombstones were found, many with some rather light-hearted epitaphs--

In the late afternoon, we headed down to the Jardin at the center of town.  Here, local women were buying floral "crowns" to wear for the evening's festivities:

The Jardin was decorated with all sorts of colorful ofrendas (altars) which had been built by various school children and civic groups.  These comprised of flowers, candles, colored grains and sand, and all kinds of other items from mezcal bottles, cigars, and guitars, to skeletons!

As the sun finally set, the streets filled with music of marching bands and thousands of parading young adults.  I'd never seen so many people in the streets or around the Jardin before!  Everyone was having great fun and all remained orderly.  What an experience!

Even little ones were getting into the action!

What an amazing, unforgettable experience!

The next day, November 2nd, Hans and I decided to skip another visit to the Panteón, but as we drove and passed other cemeteries in the countryside, noticed large crowds of families converging there to have their day-long celebrations of music, food, and drink at the graves.  Best for us tourist gringos to leave that a private family and community affair.

After experiencing Dia de los Muertos, I hope to never forget the lessons of the Mexican people-- to honor both life (and death) with full vibrancy and gusto!



  1. So colorful, Lynne. Your photos captured the feel of the day so well. Hope this day finds you happy. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this colorful post about the "Day of the dead". Really enjoyed.

    Hope you are cheerful and happy.

  3. This is the most lavish celebration that I have seen. So glad that you got to experience it and share it with us.

  4. I never really got this celebration before but your explanations and pictures of the event really helped me understand. Thanks for sharing. You changed my perspective for sure.

  5. They really celebrate it. All we have is Memorial day. People just put flowers on graves.

  6. Great post. When volunteering out at the Buenos Aires NWR last year we passed a graveyard located on the refuge near an old homestead. This was in November. It was obvious that the Dia De los Muertos had been celebrated at the graveyard. The yard was clean, completely raked and all of the graves had been decorated. There was also evidence of a celebration as a BBQ and other supplies were neatly stored in a corner of the yard. Amazing. Your pictures are amazing. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Beautiful colorful photos. Thanks for the story


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