The air hums with anticipation in the villages of Mexico as November approaches and with it "Dias de los Muertos" or the Days of the Dead. There is a buzz of activity as there is much to be done. Everything must be perfect for the visits from deceased relatives and friends.
Graves must be cleaned and swept, weeds pulled, repairs made and painting done. The cooking will take all night: making the tamales is a long, complicated and delicate process. Spices must be ground for the moles, special pumpkin seed sweets be prepared.
Building the family altar is a very important part of the preparations. Laden with flowers, fruits, food and drink for the visiting dead, it will also be covered with treasured belongings and photographs from times past to help the visiting spirits feel at home. Jars of water are set out to quench the thirst of the dead for it will be a long journey home. Exotic brews such as tequila or pulque are on hand for those who fancied something a little stronger in their time; perhaps there is a Coca-Cola for a child. Each altar is a personal expression of the family and the expected souls.
Let's take a stroll through the marketplace as the villagers make their preparations. In pottery row, new dishes must be purchased for offerings on the altars and for stewing spicy chicken moles because one cannot honor the dead with old crockery! The herb stands are redolent with the fragrances of ginger, corianders and whole nutmegs. Nearby, tables are piled high with the "Pan de Muerte" (bread of the dead) twisted into fanciful shapes and decorated with skulls, crossbones, and skeletons.
Children crowd around the stalls of handmade toys showing people from all walks of life as skeletons: There are ice-cream peddlers, seamstresses, dentists, secretaries at their typewriters and mechanics crouched under Volkswagens making repairs. Sugar skulls with shiny paper foil eyes twinkle in the sun. Exquisite candies in the shape of hearts, angels and tiny animals are filled with liquors of anisette. In another stall, the mellow colors of handmade candles catch the eye. A candle is lit on the altars for each soul expected.
The part of the market devoted to flowers is the most enticing of all. Great bundles of crimson cockscomb and sun-yellow Tsemposuchil (flowers of the dead) are heaped up everywhere in brilliant still-life compositions. Paths of petals will be laid into the houses to help the dead find their way home.
On the evening of November 1 we will all converge on the cemetery. As we follow the glow of the candles into the cemetery, we can feel the spirits around us using the same lights as guideposts to their families. The mood is hushed and solemn, one of quiet fellowship. The smell of the carpets of flowers and flickering candles creates a mysterious atmosphere. The women kneel or sit all night to pray. The men will keep watch, talking softly and drinking. The children will play board games on the gravestones, finally falling asleep.
Outside of the cemetery, in the eerie light of bare light bulbs, food stands sell cooked tamales, empanadas, fresh fruit and refreshing beer and mezcal. After a short break for refreshment, our all night vigil continues in the warm glow of the cemetery.
In the morning, everyone will return home and the deceased souls can return to the other world reassured that they have not been forgotten.
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