Mexico’s Day Of The Dead As Evening Falls
In early evening, the town square in Patzcuaro is bustling with lively spirits.
People gathered for musical parades, wearing wonderful outfits and fascinating face paint. The plaza has been all a hustle and bustle the last few days, decorating the statue in the center of the plaza and around. Artisans filled the entire double-lane tent that wrapped all the way around the entire town square. Scattered around various streets, independent booths sold food, decorations — all kinds of things. Even some little trick-or-treaters ran around asking for candy, bringing a bit of Halloween into the mix.
All in all, it’s a dazzling kaleidoscope of sounds, visions, and delights.
These statues came to life, and set up a spot to pose for photos on the plaza.
What a colorful vision!
Make sure to walk around during the day to enjoy the sights!
We were truly amazed by the gorgeous flower arrangements throughout the plaza and town! Tuckloads of fresh flowers are brought into town for families to purchase to decorate their families’ graves with. You’ll notice yellow marigolds are predominately used, as it’s believed that the bright color and strong scent helps to guide spirits to their respective altar.
You will also find various-sized catrinas for sale, and on display. A catrina is a figure of a skeleton woman, usually dressed in a beautiful dress with a large hat. We found many gorgeous catrinas for sale in the market, and they all have their own personality and outfit.
We dined at this sidewalk café, and the procession of passers-by was astounding.
This gent offered to pay us a visit. Photogenic!
The island is the hot spot.
Hoards of people head to Janitzio island to celebrate like it’s 1999. We chose not to visit during the holiday, because it was described having a “Spring Break” tone. (Ashley says, “I don’t know what your college experience was like, but I made quite a few stupid decisions”, haha.) We plan to visit the island in the next few weeks, when it’s quieter.
We joined up with a small troupe at a nearby hotel.
We gathered together here at Villa Victoria. Noting the increasing crowds and traffic, the organizer decided mid-tour that this was the last year to do a group trip to graveyards; a wise decision.
We weren’t quite sure what to expect once the sun went down.
Going into our evening tour, we were rather excited and open to what the experience would bring. We also had some uncertainty. Our tour brought a small van of us to a couple graveyards, to witness the family rituals. Coming from an American perspective, this sounded pretty inappropriate. Graveyards are considered quite sacred and solemn, and the love between a person and their departed loved ones is fraught with delicate taboo. Wouldn’t this be an issue?
We were reassured that the Mexican perspective on death was a bit different, and thus people were very accepting of strangers milling about the graveyard while they sat by their loved ones’ graves. We were told that we should ask permission if we cared to take a photo of anyone in particular (naturally), and beyond that nobody would bat an eye.
While some of these points may have held some truth, once, please consider that things taking a turn, more recently. Tourist traffic has drastically increased in the past couple years, due to the popularity of the movie Coco.
We saw visited two cemeteries around Patzcuaro Lake and they were different. One felt very humble, the tombs were smaller and there were less decorations, we were informed that it was more “traditional.” The second cemetery, was bursting with large marble tombstones dripping with colorful flowers, candles and momentos. It was very interesting to see the differences
Having seen things firsthand, I’m embarrassed to have added to the problem. Please consider some of our tips to enjoy Day of the Dead responsibly, a bit further down the page.
This entryway welcomes spirits to join living families, using the joyful hues of marigolds and favorite decorations.
Families gather to connect with their loved ones. We were told it can be more important than even Christmas, because on Day of the Dead: the whole family is together.
It’s upsetting to see how growing crowds are intruding on the tradition.
Honestly, we were a bit shocked at the way tourism is growing to affect Day of the Dead. “Growing” is a key word, here: there are a lot more people checking things out than there were before.
Here are some of the growing issues:
- The growing crowds intrude. People are visiting graveyards in greater numbers than before, making these sacred grounds crowded, and imposing upon the locals gathered there to celebrate the tradition.
- The mud gets bad. No matter how lightly and respectfully you walk, you will add to lots and lots of slippery mud.
- The noise is inappropriate. Shockingly, there were tourists shouting to each other alongside gathered families. Even if you’re quiet, you’ll be adding to the loud mob mentality by attending.
- Traffic is a total mess. It will be a hassle to you, and to everyone else; there are areas of traffic jams, and of total gridlock. We heard stories of people being stuck in traffic and not reaching their destination.
Marigolds and candles abounded throughout.
The tone amidst the gathered families was not solemn; it seemed gentle, caring, casual, and loving.
There are some points you may not realize.
Consider these points:
- The graveyards are for families to gather. Consider the close and intimate tone of Christmas, or for other USA folks: Thanksgiving. It’s not much a place for spectating strangers with cameras.
- The families can’t just move their graveside ritual. The good people coming together to honor their loved ones don’t have a choice in location. You do.
The jack-o-lanterns are a new thing, apparently: from “kids affected by Hollywood”, as our guide put it.
Lots of care and attention goes into decorating. There’s actually a tray of beer on there somewhere — the favorite of the departed, perhaps.
Here, a jack-o-lantern rests among the more traditional decorations.
Please avoid disturbing a beautiful family holiday.
At its heart, Day of the Dead is a beautiful occasion. Please allow your curiosity to contribute to the spirit, rather than detract from it. We’re not experts, but it seems like some suggestions are in order.
Here are some ideas on how to explore the unique spirit of Day of the Dead in a responsible way:
- When it comes to honoring departed loved ones, make your own ritual. Our friends in town set up their own offrenda, with photos of loved ones. They stayed at home and connected with Day of the Dead on their own, without intruding on the private family rituals of others.
- If you don’t have enough family in Mexico, take it online. I made a shared document with some photos of my departed brother, some sweet remembrances typed up, and I shared it with my family. Some decided to add to the photos, some didn’t, but it seemed appreciated, and it was a nice feeling.
- Observe the ritual in an integrated way. We know some retired US expat folks who have a friend in a Mexico graveyard. They gather at the graveside of that friend, and it’s rather appropriately done.
- If you’re looking for Coco, go to Disney. In all sincerity, you may be disappointed if you are inspired by the movie to look for mere entertainment here in Mexico. Kids will probably appreciate an experience at a Disney park if that’s the kind of thing you’re after. At the very least, find a tour that shows you the tradition without disrupting others.
- Bonus: invite strangers to Thanksgiving! For good karma; welcome others to be involved in a holiday of family love that’s all your own.
- Consider some alternatives. If you absolutely must intrude on families’ graveside rituals, please tread lightly: go early as they are setting up, perhaps stay outside the gate, etc.
Another entryway was very striking.
Importantly: I suggest against visiting graveyards as we did. There are too many people milling around, and it is becoming disruptive. I’m embarrassed to have contributed to the problem.
It’s quite an atmosphere.
As you might imagine, it is quite muddy.
Day of the Dead is an inspiration.
All in all, we are really inspired by the spirit of Day of the Dead. It refreshes our view on our loved ones — whether departed or still with us — and evokes a tone of loving closeness. Xo
The welcoming bounty includes bananas, suspended from the entry archway.
Curious about things earlier in the day?
The experiences of Day of the Dead were so enthralling, it became too big for just one post! Be sure to check out our earlier post:
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Curtiss is a lover of delicious atmosphere, experiments in location independence (and digital nomadism), and that magical place where wifi and paradise overlap.