Sunday, November 3, 2013

El Dia de los Muertos

Micaela at California to Korea and Back Again requested a post on el Dia de los Muertos from your reporter here on the scene in beautiful small-town Todos Santos, Mexico. Yup, this is the town named for the Solemnity of All Saints' Day. So what were All Saints and All Souls Days like here?

Actually, let's start with the evening of October 31st, which of course in the States is a BIG DEAL, too much driven by BIG MARKETING to get consumers to buy lots of stuff. Happily, the bloggers I follow who have actual children manage to get the spirit of this event right in that they approach it the way it was done when I was a child (mas o menos 60 years ago). Keep it simple; keep it fun; don't turn it into an adult bacchanal.

Todos Santos is a small town of about 5000 people. Although there is a gringo community here, it's just that - a separate community within the town, and a small proportion of the total. And on top of that, most gringo homes are quite a distance from the established barrios where the locals live. We live in a barrio that is mostly locals, with a smattering of gringos.

So...this town is not as infected with American culture as, say Cabo San Lucas. Nobody makes jack-o-lanterns, nobody decorates their houses with seasonally appropriate things. Although there are a few children who try to go trick-or-treating, they really don't have much encouragement since it isn't a part of the traditional Mexican culture. We have had a few children come by our house, without costumes, shouting "Halloween!", hoping for candy. Not very many, however. And there are no community festivals or kids' parties to celebrate Halloween or an equivalent. No importa, they've got a more meaningful event to look forward to. The big event for Mexicans happens on November 2nd...but I'll get to that in a bit.

You'd think that November 1st, being All Saints' Day and a day of obligation, the church would be packed for mass. Nope - in fact, there were very few people there for mass (unusual). My hunch is that they stay at home to hang out with family members who come from other places to take part in the events of All Souls' Day, although I haven't had the chance to ask anybody about this yet. Anyway, a lot of people are going to have to go to confession for having missed a holy day of obligation!

So now we get to the REAL event around here: All Souls' Day - el Dia de los Muertos. We have two panteones (cemeteries) in our town: the old one, which is full, and the new one.

This is the old panteon, which is on a steep hillside accessible only by an almost impassible single lane dirt road.

This is the new panteon, which is in a flat area of town (a rarity!).

On Saturday there were two masses, one at each cemetery (usually there is only one mass on Saturday, at the main church). All the families go out to the cemetery for the day to place new flowers on graves and do maintenance work on the family plots. There is an empty lot in town where artificial flower arrangements can be purchased; in fact, it's the same empty lot where you can buy an artificial christmas tree in December (real trees aren't available here in the desert). So, people buy new artificial flower arrangements and head out to the family tomb with brooms and buckets of paint, lay out a picnic on the tables and chairs they've brought, turn on the car radio for some music, and have a grand time bonding as families, both with the living and with those who have gone on.
In connection with el Dia de los Muertos, our town has a unique event which is actually emblematic of what is happening in a less visible way within all the local families. There is one family, the Salgados, who have a family reunion at this time every year here in Todos Santos. I spoke with one of the Salgado padres today and he said that generally there are about 300 of them who come to the family reunion. About 30 of the family members still live in Todos Santos and the rest live elsewhere, principally in La Paz (about an hour away). Each branch of the family (the grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-granchildren of the original family patriarch) wears a different colored polo shirt, and they have a parade down one of the main streets of town.

You can see 4 of the 6 branches here: the blue, the navy, the red and the yellow (there were also green and white). They had a band playing at the front of the parade - quite festive!

So, in our small town, el Dia de los Muertos turns out to be a sweet time of families gathering and celebrating their "familyness" much as Thanksgiving is in the States. I suspect that this is the way it was throughout most of Mexico in times past, without even all the skeleton dolls and cookies that America is led to understand are the main elements of the event. There is one main element here: the family. That's what the day is about for most Mexicans. Of course, that's not what you see if you look for pictures of it, or watch news clips, because "familyness" isn't exciting. It's better than that: it's sharing and honoring life together.

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