Down the stairs and then up an enormous hill, a steady stream of locals made their way to the cemetery which is located near the Museo de las Momias (Mummy Museum) in Guanajuato. A veritable party was happening along the street leading to the cemetery, which was actually only about a 3 minute walk through the ghettos of Guanajuato from our house (most of Guanajuato is very safe and really cool, but we happen to be staying in a seedy spot) . We’d decided to take the long route, in order to avoid being robbed or beaten on our way to the Day of the Dead celebrations at the cemetery.
For those who are interested, there’s an entrance to the cemetery in the parking lot of the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato, but the route that most people take to the cemetery is hard to miss during the Day of the Dead celebrations. The cemetery is like a drop of honey and the locals line up like ants along the streets leading to it. We were originally going to visit the cemetery around 11:00 PM on November 1st with a group of people who were going from Escuela Falcon, the Spanish language school where Lydian is taking classes, but it didn’t work out. In the end, we were glad we didn’t go with a group. It would’ve been an entirely different experience and we would’ve looked silly surrounded by a huge group of white folks. Instead, we meandered through the graveyard very quietly, observing the festivities.
It was a chilly evening, much like a cool, windy Halloween in Nebraska. Wind whistled
eerily through the trees as the sun set and candles flickered brilliantly on the tombs. One by one, men with the ladders made their way through cemeteries, lighting candles and doing the bidding of family members. There had to have been thirty different men carrying thirty different ladders through the graveyards. Back and forth and to and fro, the men with the ladders just kept moving. Slowly, as the sun set, more and more gravesites (both up high and on the ground) were “lit” with candles.
Families sat on the steps and poured salsa and beans on tortillas and had picnics before the sun fully set. I’d read about this, but pictured Mexicans on blankets with wicker baskets and plenty of fresh warm buns. In real life, however, the picnics took place standing up although a few people sat down on steps. The food vendors on the street leading up the cemetery supplied a lot of the food for the celebrants. As you can imagine, most of the food was very Mexican and rather portable (tortillas mostly). It looked more like eating-on-the-go than a picnic. Everyone in the cemetery seemed to be pretty busy overall.
I heard people calling to the “espiritas” as we walked by and lingered in the shadows. They talked about dead relatives as they stood over their gravesites. The marigolds seemed to be very important in summoning the dead. Petals were scattered and arranged carefully at gravesites. An old woman was stationed near the entrance to the cemetery with old jalapeno cans filled with water to keep intact marigolds fresh. The supply of marigolds was impressive. Trash cans overflowed with them. Truck beds were filled with them. Women stood in the streets with huge armfuls of them, selling them to passers-by. It seemed like a lot of work, this holiday. I wondered if people ever experienced some kind of evidence of spirits returning from the dead due to the efforts. What would constitute evidence of ghostly visits in this culture? I wasn’t sure (EVP’s? High EMF readings? A strange tapping sound?… ). And I didn’t even know if evidence of ghostly visits was necessary or even the goal of the celebration.
Day of the Dead has received a lot of hype since my childhood since it came out of the closet in 1965 (I was born in 1976), but a lot of the information I’ve gotten about it has been really confusing and mostly incorrect. Perhaps this is because every city celebrates the holiday in their own way. Indeed, every family has their own traditions. I think I expected for the family-oriented goings-on at the cemetery to be mixed with sugar skulls and Catarina dolls…
…Yes, that’s it.
That’s what I thought.
I thought that we’d go to the cemetery and find a bunch of people with painted faces and elaborate costumes. But the painted faces were on the streets of Guanajuato, downtown, gang-bangin’ at the bar, or going to the teen dance at the local community center. Meanwhile, an entirely different celebration was happening in a far corner of Guanajuato, at the cemetery. Families huddled to eat enchiladas before spending the rest of the night earnestly trying to conjure spirits like all good Christian people do.
On this chilly evening, men and women carried tiny babies bundled in blankets and you could see that this holiday was quite
possibly a pain in the ass to them. They were “required” to spend the entire evening in the cold, at the cemetery with the rest of the family. I watched other families with shriveled up old women in wheelchairs working together to carefully lift the invalids down long, steep staircases.
Good God, is that really necessary? I wondered.
As strange as this holiday is to me…as bizarre and therefore interesting as it is, I was really glad that we got to leave the festivities and get home just shortly past 8:00 PM. We weren’t required to participate in any official way. We got to gawk at those who were, assess the whole situation as outsiders, and then walk away.
Sometimes I yearn for Christmas or Thanksgiving celebrations. It’s been years since we’ve celebrated these holidays, but they never were what I thought they should be anyway. It didn’t matter who was in charge of making the turkey or decorating the tree. It was just never good enough. The reality of holidays seldom live up to what they’re meant to represent. And looking in from the outside, enjoying the view, and then going home whenever the whim strikes me to do so, gives me a very cerebral warm fuzzy that I’ve never had opening a Christmas gift or gnawing on dry turkey over awkward conversation.
So, in summary, Day of the Dead has all the trappings of a holiday. Families get together and do dysfunctional things together over food, candles, and their dead relatives while the black sheep go out and paint their faces like Santa Muerte, drink, and lament the fact that they just don’t fit in with all the good people of the world.