A melancholy man lovingly decorates the grave of his dead wife with marigold petals and prepares for an all-night vigil. A raucous family in the same cemetery remembers a dead relative with alcohol, chilaquiles — tortilla chips with cheese and tomato sauce — and song.
A three-year-old excitedly carries a sugar skull to his kindergarten where he will proudly put it on the school altar. A protest group sets up an altogether more sombre version outside a government office to demand justice for murdered young girls.
Mexico’s El Dia de Muertos — Day of the Dead or All Soul’s Day — is colourful, poignant, mystical, political, contradictory, satirical, macabre and rather childish — all at once.
The classic place to immerse yourself in Mexico’s Day of the Dead is the islands in Lake Patzcuaro in the central state of Michoacan, populated by indigenous Purepecha. The mist from the lake mingles with the mysticism of the indigenous culture to produce a particularly intense experience. But finding a place to stay can be a nightmare and to get away from tourist trinkets you have to get yourself to the most remote islands.
Perhaps the purest sense of the celebration’s pre-Hispanic roots requires a trip to the Mayan town of Pomuch in the Yucatan peninsula, where relatives exhume the bones of dead loved ones to give them a brush- up for the year to come.
The prize for the most aesthetic celebration may well belong to the city of Oaxaca, renowned for the quality of its local artists who use coloured sawdust in extraordinarily intricate altars set up on pavements.
But of all the many options available you can do a lot worse than choose the easiest of all: Mexico City. It may not sound very exotic, but it does drive home just how adept the Dia de Muertos (which is really two days, sometimes more) is at reinventing itself for each new era and remaining at the centre of Mexican popular culture.
The origins of the festival stretch back to the different ancient Meso-american cultures that lived in the area and shared a fascination with death. None more intensely than the Aztecs who dominated central Mexico for centuries and held a specific fiesta for the dead in the middle of the year that the Spanish colonial powers moved to coincide with the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day on November 2.
At the core of the celebration are the ofrendas, or altars, which are said to guide the spirits of the departed back to Earth for a brief sojourn among the company of those they left behind. For a feel of how much preparation goes into them, pop into a market from the last week of October until the spirits go back where they came from on November 2. Any market will do, outside the business districts, from the historic centre to the southern barrio of Coyoacan.
There you will see locals struggling under the weight of huge bunches of bright orange cempazuchitl flowers (local marigolds) and smelly bright purple flowers that act as beckoning beacons. Then there are the piles of pan de muerto, a sweet round decorated bread that provides the spirits with sustenance when they’ve found their way.
Most of the stalls are dedicated to the more humorous side of the whole endeavour that became a key element of the urban celebration in the 20th century. There will be models of skeletons getting drunk in cantinas, sculptures of ornately clad female versions and sugar skulls with space to write your name on the forehead in coloured icing.
There is a lot of Halloween paraphernalia, too. But rather than smothering local traditions it has simply been incorporated into the general cacophony, rather like the Catholic theme imposed by the conquistadors who ensured it all happened around All Saints’ Day.
Public ofrendas are easy to find in Mexico City, beginning with those laid out in the great Zocalo (plaza) in the centre of town. But my favourite is the Muertos exhibition at the Dolores Olmedo museum in the far south of the capital. The central theme changes each year. In 2008 it was icons from the golden age of Mexican cinema — represented in skeletal form.
Set up by one of the main patrons of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the museum also has an impressive permanent collection of their works in grounds where peacocks roam and xoloitzcuintli (hairless dogs) pose.
For me, the highlight of being in Mexico City on the night of November 1 (the heart of the ceremony) is the chance to drive about another 30 minutes down the road and spend a few hours or so in the cemetery in San Gregorio Atlapulco, Xochimilco, on the semi-rural edge of the city.
Stretching up from the edge of what remains of the lake system that once filled the Valley of Mexico, many residents still farm the artificial islets known as chinampas that were the basis of Mesoamerican agriculture in the area. Definitely worth a wander around if you get there before dark.
Activity in the cemetery itself doesn’t really get going until well after dark, but it is worth the wait to see how this traditional community within the confines of the metropolis fondly remembers its dead. By midnight, it is literally buzzing with activity as families arrive laden with brooms, buckets, flowers, candles and everything else they need to set up their ofrendas on top of the graves. Each is different and some are stunningly creative. The collective result is both beautiful and rather otherworldly, without being overly solemn.
Some families sit around eating and drinking tequila, chatting about the departed and singing their favourite songs. Minstrels and mariachi bands wander along the paths offering a more professional rendition for a fee.
Children play between the graves and the elderly sit wrapped up in heavy blankets preparing to wait the night through. If you speak Spanish, most people are happy to tell you about their dead and their traditions, although there are also those deep in silent thought and melancholy who obviously want to be left alone.
The cemetery is open to anybody who wants to go and I have never seen any sign of irritation with strangers taking photographs although it is advisable to ask permission before taking closer shots. The first time I went, in 2000, there were no other outsiders. The last time, in 2008, I spotted several other foreigners wandering around with cameras.
But the cemetery is a long way from being overrun, unlike the much more famous village of Mixquic further down the road. When you eventually draw yourself away, look back as you drive off towards the concrete jungle to see the orange glow above the cemetery fade into the black night. —