From the beginning of time,
man has felt the need to explain the mystery of life and death. Many civilizations and cultures have created rituals to try and give meaning to human existence.
·Where do we come from?
·Why does life end?
·Is there "life" after death?
·If so, what kind of "life"?
·Can we do something while alive so we can enjoy "life" after death?
These are some of the questions
man has asked himself in order to understand our finite existence on this earth.
To the indigenous peoples of Mexico, death was
considered the passage to a new life and so the deceased were buried with many of their personal objects, which they would need in the hereafter. Many times even their pets were sacrificed so
they would accompany their masters on their long journey.
pre Columbian times, El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead has been celebrated in Mexico, and other Latin countries. This is a very special ritual, since it is the day in which
the living remember their departed relatives. Sometimes, when people of other cultures hear for the first time about the celebration of
the Day of the Dead, they mistakenly think it must be: gruesome, terrifying, scary, ugly and sad. Nothing further from the truth, Day of the Dead is a beautiful ritual in which Mexicans happily and
lovingly remember their loved relatives that have died. Much like when we go to a graveyard to leave some lovely flowers on a tomb of a relative.
November 1st and 2nd Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead, and there are two very special places where this ritual is specially impressive: Mixquic,
a small town in Mexico City, and in Janitzio, a charming little island in the state of Michoacan.
The first inhabitants of Michoacan, the state where Janitzio
is located, thought that because of the extraordinary beauty of this lake, it was the door to heaven and that through it the gods used to come down to earth.
One of the vastest and richest kingdoms of pre-Hispanic times was established in this
Mexican state, the Purepecha Empire, which was able
to maintain its independence from the powerful Aztecs, who at the time had control over most of Mesoamerica, Middle America.
Like the rest of the pre-Hispanic civilizations, these people succumbed to the Spanish
conquerors, which imposed their customs, their language and their Catholic religion. The natives acquired these new cultural elements but blended and adapted them to their own culture; from
this fusion new beliefs and ritual were born, such as the Celebration of the Day of the Dead.
is probably one of the most representative of the merging of the two cultures, observed in their magnificent Spanish architecture, its spacious plazas or squares, and their folklore
and religious fervor of their traditions.
Towards the last days of October, the entire region prepares for the great fiesta
of Los Días de Muertos, the Days of the Dead. The square fills with stands that offer all types of colorful figures allusive to death, the most popular made of sugar.
Markets are filled with the cempasúchil flower; this orange marigold was
the flower that the Aztecs used to remember their dead by. Its color represents the tones of earth and is used to guide the souls to their homes and altars.
Many families grow their own cempasúchil, believing that doing so is more
appropriate for their offerings. Through their work and their care, these flowers grow and will finally adorn their ofrendas and their tombs.
Very early in October, all over the country, bakeries offer the delicious Pan de Muerto, Day of the Dead bread, made with flour,
butter, sugar, eggs, orange peel, anise and yeast. The bread is adorned with strips of dough simulating bones and at the top a small round piece of dough that symbolizes teardrops. These
breads are placed on the altars or ofrendas, and are also taken to the tombs in the graveyard.
Another traditional dish prepared for the celebration is the tasty Calabaza en Tacha, Sweet
Pumpkin, a dessert prepared with pumpkin, cinnamon, and piloncillo, dark sugar cones.
Janitzio is one of the islands on lake Patzcuaro, with 1,500 inhabitants. Little white houses all
with red tile roofs crowd the island, and at the summit the stone statue of one of the fathers of
Mexico’s Independence, José María Morelos,
dominates the view.
To get to the island it is necessary to take launches that constantly go to and fro Janitzio, carrying
and bringing passengers as well as provisions and merchandise.
There is no busier times for the launches that on the days of the dead.
On the eve of El Día de Muertos, the boats are loaded with people that are
very busy taking the flowers and essential articles for the celebrations.
The island is dressing up with beauty and mysticism!
On the lake, one can also see the fishermen with their traditional nets that
grace the view. They are called Butterfly Nets. Watching the fishermen go out in groups is a bewitching spectacle, particularly during the early ours of the morning, with the mist and the
calming stillness of the lake.
The people of Janitzio have conserved this form of fishing, as well as other millenarian customs and traditions that are part of the enchantment of this island. Especially
distinctive is the way in which the women dress , and their methods of cooking.
In addition to fishing, they complement their economy with the production of
handicrafts for sale to the many visitors that come to Janitzio, and in many small inns they offer the delicious pescado blanco, white fish, unique to Lake
Many of the locals work and study outside the island. Since there is only an
elementary school on the islet, when the kids go on to high school they have to attend schools in Patzcuaro. You can imagine how striking it is to see the young students on
their rowboats, crossing the lake early in the morning to get to school.
By October 31st, all the houses and shops,
as well as the docks are decorated with cempasuchil flowers and fruits from this region. The whole community participates enthusiastically in the preparations of this festivity!
Ofrendas are set up in the houses for their dead relatives. Generally ofrendas are set up on a table covered with a tablecloth and papel picado. They are decorated with sugar skulls, candles, cempasuchil flowers, and paper
mache skeletons. Plates with the favorite foods of their dead relatives are also set on the ofrenda. Some have also liquor and cigarettes. On the ofrendas for the
deceased children they place toys in addition to the food.
Characteristic of this region are the wooden arches that the families create and adorn
with cempasuchil and fruits for the tombs in the cemetery. A very interesting tradition is that for the first three years that follow the passing away of a person, every November
first, it is the godparents of the deceased who decorate the arch. When they finish, they go to the parents’ house and lovingly offer it to them.
During the morning
of November 1st, the ceremony in honor of the Angelitos takes place in the cemetery.
The little angels or angelitos are the children that died and that could
never experience the happiness and sorrows of adulthood.
Very early the bells of the church start ringing, calling children’s souls and the
living relatives that will attend the ceremony.
At 6:00 A.M., in the small chapel of Janitzio, mass has already
begun. Remember, this is fundamentally a Catholic ritual. After mass, the women and children go to the graveyard to clean and decorate the tombs. They bring with them flowers, bread and
fruits in baskets covered with napkins that they embroidered themselves, as well as the copal, incense, that they will burn so that the aroma will help guide the returning souls.
Each family brings with them in honor of their deceased relatives.
A beautiful view enriches this mystical moment… in the distance, from
the graveyard the fishermen can be seen with their canoes starting their working day. The lake is so peaceful, as if welcoming the spirits that are returning home.
Slowly, and quietly, the cemetery begins to fill up. The music of
a band can be heard slowly approaching the graveyard. It is a family that is carrying an arch accompanied by the band. Their son died a few months before, and this morning is the first
Day of the Dead that they will be honoring him. This is why they have brought a band with them.
Music resonates fills the burial ground.
Around nine in the morning the ritual in honor of the deceased children
ends. In a couple of hours, at nightfall, the most impressive celebration will begin, the ritual in which the souls of the deceased adults are honored.
It is surprising how in such a little island, thousands and
thousands of visitors will arrive in order to witness this beautiful rite.
In the preceding hours, the carpenters laboriously work to set a
stage for the folkloric dances that will be performed as part of the celebrations.
At night, with everything ready, the dances begin. The
Danza de los Viejitos, Dance of the Old Men, representative dance of this region. In pre-Hispanic times this dance was performed as a ritual honoring the Sun.
Another popular dance is the Pescado Blanco, White
Fish, through which the inhabitants of Janitzio express their gratitude to the lake, since fishing is their most important economical activity.
Also at night, as a way of expressing their gratitude to God for
all the blessings they have been given, the fishermen go out to the lake with their canoes, lighting the way with torches and carrying out an impressive ritual with their butterfly nets.
At midnight it is the graveyard of the island the place in which living
and dead will reunite once again.
The bell at the entrance rings all night long, calling the souls to
return and enjoy the splendid ceremony. It is mainly the women and children who silently find the tombs of their relatives, on which they place the lovely embroidered napkins and set candles, the
flowers and food that their dead so much enjoyed when alive.
This is how the night goes by, with prayers and chants from the women and children, while the men silently observe what goes on. Their songs and prayers are elevated to the sky,
begging for the eternal rest of the souls and for the happiness of the living.
The essence of this beautiful ritual is to lovingly and happily
remember the dead relatives, their life, and in this way, give meaning and continuity to human existence.
The Day of the Dead is a grand celebration of life itself!
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