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.