Dia de los Muertos, November 2011

“the authentic and true death is forgetting”

Every November in Chapala, the community puts up altars for Day of the Dead on one of the town’s main streets. It is just amazing to go over there every year and see what they’ve done; it’s always different from year to year. Some of the altars are traditional ones honoring departed loved ones – relatives, friends teachers, important figures in the area, even movie stars and famous singers. But some of the most interesting ones are political or social – this year there were altars and processions honoring those who have perished in Mexico’s drug wars, a wonderful altar to the great Mexican painter Tamayo; an altar to protest the very controversial proposed new pipeline which will take water from the lake to provide water for the teeming millions in Guadalajara. We love going every year; in spite of the not-always-for-the-best incursions of global monoculture into Mexican traditional life, Dia de Los Muertos just seems to keep hanging in there, and in many communities, as young people put their own stamp on this ancient holiday which combines elements of the pre-Hispanic and Spanish cultures. It is fascinating for an outsider to watch.

In Chapala, lots of people chip in money, time and effort to make these altars and then, once night falls and the candles are lit, people from all over come to walk the several blocks where the altars are set up to walk by them all and check them out, the same way we used to drive by over-the-top suburban Christmas light displays when I was a kid. There is music, little kids perched on their dads’ backs, teenagers hanging around (Sofia of course was there checking it all out with her school friends), people handing out traditional drinks and pieces of the traditional bread of the dead, pan de muerto, foreigners, dogs, everyone having a great time. Of course, at all the local cemeteries, the graves are still decorated, families come to the cemetery to visit their departed loved ones with food and drink, kids run around, and the traffic in front of the cemetery requires bunches of extra cops to manage the flow.

As with many contemporary manifestations of tradition, some things – remarkably – still seem fairly permanent. They say that the orange of the marigolds was a holdover from the Aztecs, who thought that the brilliant orange of the flowers would light the way for the spirits to come back to touch base with the living; the purple of course was the color of Christ and of Christianity; black for European notions of mourning, and so forth. Every altar pretty much as the requisite mirror (so the dead can spiff themselves up after the arduous  journey back here), soap, towel, comb and basin. The usually four levels of the altars also have meaning and were taken from Aztec tradition. And so it goes.

Kids love putting on face paint....

Altar commemorating a fellow who died from drinking too much....


Altar to victims of the drug war


Traditional altar

Altar for the great Mexican painter, Rufino Tamayo. That is ME with the camera reflected in the mirror!

Detail of the altar for Rufino Tamayo
Death to violence in Mexico
Traditional altar
Traditional altar
on Calle 5 de Mayo

Papel Picado

Traditional altar

Parade of young people protesting violence in Mexico

Protesting the proposed new aqueduct taking lake water to Guadalajara

The Authentic and True Death is Forgetting

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s