Dias de los Muertos, or day of the dead, is a celebration that takes place across Latin America but most notably in Mexico on November 1-2. The dead are allowed to return and walk among their families and loved ones. The living decorate graves of family members with calendulas (marigolds) and bring offerings of food and drink to welcome them back. Through the night, everyone feasts and celebrates. There is music, laughing and tequila! But most importantly, a very heavy presence of memory.
Patzcuaro in the Michoacan region is notorious for its festival. This was the experience that excited me most when I was doing my research. My motivation for picking this town was that it was small; its tiny graveyard was on an island a ferry ride away. The idea was to have an authentic experience, try to understand the festival from a local’s eyes and come to appreciate a deeper understanding of what this festival felt to them.
In America, we are scared of death. We do our best to keep it as far out of our minds as possible and when confronted, we are forced to face our deepest fear. There is a graceful depth to a culture that chooses to embrace death, to see it not as an end but just another step and celebrate memories instead of being beholden by them with grief.
Anna and I arrived a day before. As we pulled up to our Airbnb near the ferry, we were greeted by the sight of local fishermen stringing marigolds around their boats and signature butterfly nets. The nets’ design is unique to the area and used to catch the local favorite, pescado blanco.
The next day we wandered through town. Markets popped up around the ferry to attract tourists. Wandering through stalls and past food vendors, we got out first glimpse at “La Danza de los Viejitos.”
Boys between the ages of 4-18 guise themselves with hats adorned with bright ribbon, a smiling mask, and typical campesino clothing. It is a intended to be a humorous dance. They start hunched over, aching in pain as they walk with their canes in slow motion. It quickly changes into vigorous stomping of their feet. The viejitos are accompanied by violins and guitar melodies which are meant to interpret the folkloric characteristics and excite the crowd. There are moments in the dance when the viejitos return to their “elderly” state, coughing and falling over. This performance is said to trace back to pre-Hispanic times to the Purépecha indigenous group from Michoacán and was meant to honor the ‘Old God’; later, after the colonization by Spain, it was “modernized” and became a parody of old Spanish men.
After some shopping and a late lunch we boarded the ferry to cross over to Janitzio. There was some very colorful singing by the young men on the board who were already taking out their bottles of tequila and challenging each other to shots. We couldn’t understand the whole songs but could pick up enough words to understand the refrain which contained a lot of “motherfucker” in it.
After stepping off the boat we began to search for the graveyard. It was close to sunset and I wanted to get some photos before we lost the light. As we drifted upwards, passing shops filled with pointless knickknacks,obviously designed to lure in tourists, it began to seem like the whole hill was full of shops only designed for tourists. There were lots of restaurants and little stalls selling micheladas and other drinks. It seemed to have existed solely for this point, only for this night.
After randomly picking streets to follow and alleys to climb up we finally found the graveyard in full bloom. Marigolds powdered the tiny graveyard and the candles were starting to glow. A few locals were already there, starting their watch that would last all night.
After getting my fill of photos, we decided we would return later to see it all lit up in full darkness after a search for food, so we headed up to the top. I was filling invigorated. The experience was turning out to be everything I wanted. It was as quaint as I had hoped and I was ready to observe the locals have their celebration around the graves. But my invigoration and hopes were about to be horribly destroyed.
After finding our way back down to the graveyard, we could see the mass moving around in the darkness. This tiny area was crawling with people and as we dared to enter the sprawl, we saw local families shoved to the sides as tourists poured over the graves getting their snapshots of the decorations as well as selfies. Some tourists even asked locals to take pictures of them in front of the graves.
It was an abuse of everything I was expecting it to be. Instead of it being about the locals it had morphed into being about the tourists. Did these locals miss out on one of their most spiritual celebrations to appease to tourists who came here to photograph themselves in front of it? And I mean in front of it. There was no participation, no experience, just a photo to be taken. Was it some trade-off for the revenue being generated by all these visitors.
Disheartened and overwhelmed Anna and I slipped out. We didn’t want to feel a part of that, of what felt like pure exploitation. But how could we not be? We came here just like everyone else to witness this ceremony even if it was just a guise, all dressed up for a photo op. And it was dressed beautifully. The candles illuminating wreaths of marigolds, local children dressed up running around with lit pumpkins asking for dinero. My photos show only the beauty and none of my disappointment and ultimately I will treasure the trip. But it didn’t help deepen my understanding of the festival, it only made it feel more superficial.
Vamos a Mexico!
I’ve been to Mexico before….if it counts that it was on a cruise to Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. Yea, I know that doesn’t really count. Which is why I’ve been wanting to go. Also I did feel a little guilty about being a slightly obnoxious neighbor.
This trip was planned around Dias de los Muertos, the day of the dead festival. My best friend decided to hitch along with me for her first international trip. Our route included Mexico City, Patzcuaro, Guadalajara, Tequila, Guanajuato and a stop in the Monarch Butterfly Reserve before heading back to Mexico City. For the sake of spacing out all the photos I took in Mexico, this blog specifically covers Mexico City.
First stop, Teotihuacan, the Mesoamerican city just outside the city. Though many cultures, including the Aztecs would come to claim it as their own over the centuries, not much is known about the original people who lived here and built it up as a city. Believed to have been started around 100 BC, there is no information about why it was built. The compound is centered around the Avenue of the Dead. It’s about a mile long ending at the Pyramid of the Moon.
If you are so inclined towards beautiful views, the climb up the Pyramid of the Sun promises a substantial vista. However, the steps are steep and the high altitude is enough to make even the most fit of trekkers stop halfway up to “admire the view” before the final ascent. Most everyone makes it though, the elderly with canes, yogis ready for sun salutations and even Japanese grandmothers sporting sombreros.
Both pyramids are worth a climb offering different views of the massive complex. Bring your hiking shoes and be prepared to be swindled out of a little money by a guy blowing into a whistle that sounds like a jaguar call. You’ll realize shortly after handing over MX$250 you should have paid MX$40 for that it really doesn’t sound like a jaguar when you do it.
Day 2: Xochimilco (pronounced sochi-mil-co; xochitl: flower, milla: garden, co:place)
Luis was on the hunt for calendulas, marigolds, for his Day of the Dead altar. Marigolds are an invitation to the dead to return and are strewn gracefully in front of altars to resemble a runway or just placed around the altar with food and drinks.
But first, lunch! We stopped at the market to try some local delicacies: quesadillas made with huitlacoche (corn smut), chicharron and pumpkin flowers. Yes, it was all delicious, but my favorite was the corn smut!
Next stop was a pulqueria for some pulque, drink of the gods. It is made from the fermented sap of the agave plant and tastes a lot like milky kombucha.
The main attraction of Xochimilco are the festive boats cruising the canal. From the outside it looks like a tourist trap with all its glaring colors but it mainly serves as a popular destination for locals celebrating birthdays, family gatherings and any other occasion. You hire a boat, one size fits all and join the parade on the canal. Vendors cruise around selling food, plants, flowers and most importantly drinks! Try a michelada. Choose a cerveza and dress it with lime juice and hot sauce, rimming the cup with salt and spice.
Two hours was up in no time. The day could have floated away sipping micheladas and drifting the canals listening to mariachi bands and toasting with tipsy locals. This is one of the must-dos for a trip to Mexico City. Grab a few friends or find some strangers to go with you and it’ll be a blast. The only word you’ll need to communicate is “Salud!”
Mexico City was the beginning of a beautiful trip. As an American, you don’t always hear the best things about Mexico and when people find out you are visiting there and aren’t going to the beaches they question your mental health. Never on this trip did I feel unsafe or taken advantage of. Yes I may not be the best bargainer and I found myself speaking French while trying to respond in Spanish, but instead of pickpockets or sinister intentions, I was greeted with broad smiles and warm invitations. All they really want from you is that you eat a lot and have a good time.
Tips for traveling in Mexico City:
- If you have an unlocked phone you can purchase a sim card with about 1 gig of data for MX$150 (roughly USD$8.33 in 2016) from any Telcel (best coverage). Perfect if you are there for 2 weeks! Topping up is just as easy if you stay longer.
- Metros are the cheapest costing MX$.10 (half a penny!) for a ride but Ubers are also surprisingly cheap averaging MX$40 (USD$2.22).
- If you are considering driving around Mexico from Mexico City be prepared for hefty tolls on main highways. They are the quickest and safest but range from MX$40-$400 per stop. A three-hour drive will cost you around MX$700 (USD$38.89). Gas is more expensive. Also make sure you have the mandatory insurance on a rental car. This is a good article that explains insurance: http://www.sfgate.com/mexico/mexicomix/article/Renting-a-car-in-Mexico-What-you-need-to-know-3787891.php
- Visit Teotihuacan by yourself without a tour. This is a good article and how to catch the bus: http://thegirlandglobe.com/how-to-visit-teotihuacan-without-a-tour/
- Most importantly! Learn how to say your numbers in Spanish. Above learning anything else learn those numbers! You will have a upper hand at bargaining!
Dana has a very large family. For this family portrait session she was able to round up four of her children plus one her son’s long-time girlfriends. While her children and husband did not share her enthusiasm for a few quirky photos, we were able to convince them to do a few over beignets! I’ve never photographed at Morning Call, mostly using the bridges and trees around it in City Park but I think it’s about to become my new favorite spot. We spent a good hour trying to get everyone to relax for a good group photo around the park but as soon as you put beignets and allow someone control over sugar intake, it becomes easy.
I haven’t had the opportunity to do many band photos but on a recent shoot with Brett and Tony, we needed the life of the quarter. Although for a Tuesday night it was pretty dead, even on Bourbon. We tried to get a long exposure on Bourbon but were missing the essence of people. We were able to get a pretty decent one though.