I have experienced Dia de los Muertos living in the Mission District of San Francisco but never in its country of origin. Finally I got to see it in its native land!
We do not have a official ritual or holiday to honor family members that have died in the United States like they do in Mexico. There is thing called Memorial Day that I think maybe was/is celebrated here and there. Mostly people I know remember their dearly deceased on the day of the loved ones birthday or not at all. I would say as a culture we are afraid of death and it is rarely expressed as a natural part of life.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that most white Europeans lost touch with their pagan heritage (thanks to Christianity) which included the Celtic holiday of Samhain and has the same idea as Dia de Los Muertos and is celebrated on the exact same day. Samhain originated thousands and thousands of miles away and across an ocean. Interesting, huh?
Dia de los Muertos comes from Mexica or Aztec pre-Hispanic traditions and while it is changing— the holiday is still alive and well in Mexico. It is considered a time when the boundaries between the physical and spirit world are more open and spirits can return to the material plane. It is also time to honor the natural cycle of life and death.
San Miguel is a town centered around tourism and home to a large percentage of foreigners that live in the city year round so it’s not your average Mexican town–but still it was lovely to see the community gear up for Dia de los Muertos. In the days preceding: mostly by selling sugar skulls (Calaveras) and marigolds on the street and plazas for decorating graves and altars. The calaveras are placed along with treats the dead (Muertos) enjoyed while alive to welcome them. Marigolds are used to entice spirits to return by their distinct smell.
San Miguel held a celebration in the central plaza with public altars, a Catrina parade (not a costume but an honoring of Dia de Los Muertos and its origins are in social political commentary), and an indigenous music and dance performance.
On Wednesday the second of November and final day of Dia de los Muertos, I went to the large cemetery in town and saw how Mexicans celebrate Dia de los Muertos more traditionally and as a community. The cemetery was bustling in and out. Vendors were selling all kinds of things on the road leading to the entrance of the cemetery. There were marigolds of course, containers for the flowers, candles and all kinds of other things. There was a special for buying cable TV along the way, hats, purses and food of course. There is always something to eat in Mexico.
The cemetery was packed! Families gathered around their loved ones graves, talking and a few were praying. There was a mariachi group and a marching band. No one was crying and to my eyes the mood seemed jovial. People were hanging out. Graves were weeded and decorated– some simply and some more elaborate. It didn’t feel sad til I found myself in the section of the cemetery for children that had died. But still no one was visibly upset, they were cleaning the graves of weeds and marigolds were aplenty.
Public altars in San Miguel Allende.
From a more modern artsy altar in the center of town.
I only took a few pictures in the cemetery–out of respect. Something didn’t feel right about photographing the graves and posting them on the internet.
Catrinas in the center of San Miguel de Allende.
Shops and restaurants with decorated archways.