Dia De Los Muertos — Celebrating the Dead and the Living

An ofrenda at San Miguel’s Juan de Dios market

If you’ve seen Disney’s “Coco,” you know at least a little about Mexico’s Dia de Los Muertos. Day of the Dead celebrates the loved ones we have lost because remembering them keeps them alive. Here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, it’s a time of traditions that date from the time of the Aztec empire — as well as some modern adaptations.

I am lucky to be in San Miguel for this wonderful holiday. Walking around town here is always a pleasure but perhaps never more than this week. The town is dressed up in marigolds, ribbons, and “papel picado.” Tiendas display lifesize skulls and skeltons called “Catrinas.” The scent of the marigolds invites the dead to return to us. The Catrinas in their flamboyant dress remind us that everyone, rich and poor, ultimately ends up in the same place. In Mexico, death brings sadness, but not the kind of fear that we experience in US culture. The feeling here is not foreboding but joyous and fun and, of course, a little bittersweet.

A doorway at Bellas Artes
Catrinas remind us that vanity is ultimately practiced in vain

Perhaps the most important ritual of Dia de Los Muertos is the making of “ofrendas” — altars to honor those we have lost. A typical ofrenda includes marigolds, candles, pictures of those who have left us, and some of the foods they loved. In the spirit of my second home, I made an ofrenda in the garden of my casita. It honors my brother Richard, my parents, and my Auntie Dawn. I have left out a bottle of white wine for my mother, who invariably poured herself a glass every day on the stroke of 4pm. For my dad, I’ve left a slice of watermelon, which he loved. (He would have preferred shish kebab but the feral cats would be all over it). My brother gets a plate of enchiladas — handmade from painted sugar — in remembrance of a practical joke he played on my sister. It’s a long story, but she got her revenge by putting a brown paper bag of dog poop under the driver’s seat of his car. I put a brown paper bag on the ofrenda too, except empty.

My ofrenda — check out my dad’s Superman t-shirt.
Handmade sugar skulls are important features of ofrendas

My ofrenda also honors my friend Robby’s mom, Clara Degay Carrier, who died this week at the age of 84. “Degay” was the first black elected official in New Iberia, Louisiana, and sat on its school board for more than 20 years. During that time, she literally threw away the procedures manual and she made plenty of good trouble. For her, I’ve put out a bunch of bananas, one of her favorite foods.

If you want to know a little more about ofrendas, read my friend Bonnie’s post from last week. http://bonnieleeblack.com/blog/art-and-offerings/#comment-6694

Typical among the more elaborate costumes for Dia De Los Muertos

Tonight there is a Catrina parade. The city streets are jam-packed with locals and tourists. Tomorrow, many will walk through town to see their neighbors’ ofrendas, and to the cemeteries that are blanketed with marigolds. This time of playfulness and reflection will bring the community closer together and closer to what is unknown.

27 comments

  1. Hola Kim! Hermoso relato. Gracias por apreciar una de nuestras más significativas tradiciones.

  2. Your most lyrical, heartfelt, educational and emotionally moving post. Thanks Kim. A great tribute to Robbie’s mom.

  3. love this post and brings back my memories of San Miguel and Oaxaca 2 years ago at this time.

    stating in San Miguel for the winter? I’m back in Oakland area for 2 weeks after a month in Italy, then on to Big Island for the winter and still doing a lot of immigrant work. Check out Facebook if you wanna see my experience in Italia. Hope our paths cross in 2022!

    Karen Hester karen@hesternet.net 510-654-6346 whatsapp +15106546346

    >

  4. You created a beautiful and meaningful ofrenda, Kim! I’ll never forget visiting Michoacán during el Día de los Muertos 40 (!) years ago.

  5. Kim, how wonderful that you’re able to share in this amazing Mexican celebration of our loved ones who have died! Just love your photographs. There is so much vibrancy in the colors of the decorations, ofrendas, and costumes. Thanks for sharing this tradition.

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