Dancing with the dead

Picnicking with the dead: In a rustic hill town, Mexico's Day of the Dead festivities teach an expat American some important life lessons.

Published October 25, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Located deep in the heart of central Mexico, Patzcuaro is a rustic hill town of winding cobblestone roads lined with 16th century whitewashed adobe houses. Firewood still gets delivered by burro. The town has few phones, no stop signs and just a handful of expatriates. It is the home of the Puripecha Indians, who are known for their fine weaving, pottery, coppersmithing, woodcarving and practically daily surrealistic Catholic-pagan fiestas.

Last year my husband, Dave, and I quit our high-stress Bay Area jobs and moved there with our three-year-old daughter, Annalena, to find out what would happen if we had the luxury of time in our lives.

El Dma de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is the tourist event of the year in Patzcuaro. You can tell, because it's the only time the town's tourism office gets it together to print maps. Coinciding with the Catholic All Saints' and All Souls' holy days on Nov. 1 and 2, the Day of the Dead celebrates the traditional graveside reunion of families with the spirits of their deceased loved ones.

By the time November rolled around, I'd been living in Patzcuaro for almost a year and had stumbled on so many mind-blowing "pure" Patzcuaro ceremonies that I was sure this famous and commercialized one would be a disappointment.

One friend said that the previous year's ceremony on Janitzio (the island in Lake Patzcuaro most celebrated for its Day of the Dead festivities) had all the spirituality of Oktoberfest in Munich -- obnoxious television crews sticking microphones into mourners' faces, an hour-and-a-half line just to get into the cemetery, throngs of drunken tourists trampling the graves. With such jaded expectations, I was unprepared for what turned out to be the festival's mystical passion and emotional scale.

First, a spectacular week-long folk art and flower market sprang up in the central plaza: aisle upon aisle of whimsical clay devil figures doing things like flying helicopters and eating popsicles on park benches, and ceramic dishes painted with jolly skeleton rock bands and baseball teams. Pan de muertos bakers handed out hot fresh samples of sweet bread shaped like people. There were wood carvings (including an 8-foot-long alligator planter I grudgingly resisted), 4-foot-high black clay pots and mountains of white candles. For the kids, there were stick-gun-clutching Zapatista dolls from Chiapas. Along the perimeter of the square were hundreds of outrageously gaudy memorial wreaths adorned with pastel tulle and ribbons, tin foil and silk lilies.

Under the portals on the south side of the plaza were displays of tinsel-eyed sugar skulls with names like "Lupita," candy animal effigies and chocolate coffins. We bought a wry old feline with whiskers of blue icing in honor of the cat we'd had to leave behind when we moved from California.

Most staggering, though, were the three surrounding blocks heaped with blazing orange marigolds, velvety blood-red cockscombs and lacy white baby's breath. Vendors in the everyday food market had also added flowers to their normal fare (pig heads with wild orchids, onions with zinnias). But marigolds reigned supreme -- they were everywhere. The town smelled orange.

At Annalena's school, the kids painted pictures of skeletons and marigolds and made up poems about death. Her homework included talking with us about the people in our family who have passed away and what foods they liked to eat. Part of the tradition involves placing favorite foods on altars and graves for the departed to enjoy. We dug out faded photographs and reminisced together about how Great Grandma Mae loved apple pie ` la mode and Uncle Pete had a thing for fried chicken. A blue-bellied lizard drowned that week in our wash basin and, choking with tears, Annalena sobbed, "I really really miss my friend Mr. Lizard! He's d-e-a-d! He liked to eat f-l-i-e-s!"

Intellectually, Dave and I understand that open discussion with our toddler about death is healthy, but since we didn't know how to start, it was a bizarre relief to see the school take the lead in educating our child about the subject.

Each class made its own pretend grave in the school garden, carefully decorating it with flowers, candy skulls, photos, poems, drawings, bread people, bananas, tangerines, dried fish and the names of departed relatives and pets. Parents were invited to assemble at 8 p.m. by the candle-lit graves, drink hot chocolate and watch the children perform a play, sing a song and read their poems -- all about death. At the principal's request, Dave played jazz sax between presentations. Kids came up to him afterward saying his music was muy padre ("very father," or way cool). It was cheery and festive, and touching to see our relatives honored on the preschoolers' altar.

The afternoon of Nov. 1, we went to the cemetery in Tzintzuntzan. Bustling families carried in armfuls of candles and wheelbarrows loaded with flowers. They cleared graves, cleaned headstones and constructed elaborate altars in preparation for all-night picnicking with their dead loved ones, whose souls are believed to return at midnight, guided by the scent of marigolds and the sound of church bells. Children were racing around and vendors were selling balloons and tamales. It wasn't about grief; it was about remembering and honoring and feeling close to the dead.

But it all just made me want to cry. I finally lost it when we walked by a young couple quietly sipping Cokes in front of a grave they'd tenderly decorated with tiny white blossoms and a little rag doll. The headstone said their daughter had lived for five days that past April.

Amazingly, the Indians didn't seem disturbed by our presence. I don't know if their tolerance had to do with the much-needed pesos tourists bring to the region, or the fact that outsiders have been coming for so long that they're used to us. Perhaps it was simply that this event, while deeply personal, has always had an element of public spectacle to it.

In the early evening, we went to the straw-hat-weaving village of Jaracuaro for what was billed as a traditional Puripecha music and dance show. One masked dance troupe was unforgettable -- a cross between Funkadelic and the most flamboyant San Francisco drag queens, doing slow-motion, indigenous Busby Berkeley numbers that ended with them whooping like cranes, rowdy as frat boys. They wore white wooden masks painted with black mustaches, pearl necklaces, cascading blond wigs festooned with sparkly Christmas garlands, black satin Oriental-ish embroidered capes, sequined Virgin of Guadalupe bibs and boots made of bells. They danced next to a 30-foot-high marigold-encrusted cross balanced impossibly on a tin jalapeqo can. (You think I'm joking.)

Around midnight, we drove to the Ihuatzio cemetery, knowing this dusty poor village wasn't on the standard tour. The memory of what we saw there has since taken on the quality of a fever dream, and still summons up all the mystery and passion of this rite.

It was a misty, pitch black night. A dozen riderless horses roamed the highway, moving in and out of our headlights like apparitions. Thousands of white candles illuminated the cemetery vigils. Mourners stared solemnly into the flames. Smoky hay fires shot sparks high into the air. It smelled of chamomile and decaying flowers. A hunched widower sprinkled orange petals on his wife's grave. A weary-looking mother with a stoical preteen daughter poured a shot of tequila for Dad. We walked on the spongy earth past all these scenes, trying not to step on the graves, trying to be invisible and feeling grossly conspicuous -- at once embarrassed and privileged at being able to share so intimately in this life-transcending embrace.

By Gina Hyams

Gina Hyams is an expatriate writer based in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She is currently at work on a travel-parenting memoir titled "Escape Artists."

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