Celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico City this year, I was slightly at a loss of what to do. In Oaxaca, Day of the Dead takes over the streets and you can’t help but be swept into the spirit of it and find the celebration without the least bit of organizing. In Mexico City it is different. Life continues as normal and certainly where I stay there is little outward sign of the festival, bar the occasional Catrina (the famous upper class female skeleton figure) in a shop window. Day of the Dead is slightly more hidden around here.
After some research and asking around, I decided that Mixquic (pronounced Mis -keek) was the place to go, and with the new number 12 metro line, Linea Dorada, that reaches down to the far south of the urban sprawl, that is Mexico City having just opened, getting there was pretty simple. For anyone wishing to go next year, I suggest taking the Metro line 12 all the way to Tlahuac and from there, jumping on a bus that says Mixquic or taking a taxi.
Mixquic, according to our taxi driver means land of the dead, but after some research, I have found nothing to support this claim. However, on route we were confronted with statues such as El Muerte (Death) and Nahual (Werewolf), which certainly added to an eerie feel of the place. In addition, the surrounding towns had gone to great lengths to decorate for Day of the Dead, we saw a skeleton engineer fixing the phone lines and a werewolf chowing down on some tacos and a coca cola on the steps of a taqueria.
Arriving at the main plaza there was an Aztec dance taking place and the whole square was decorated in various depictions of Day of Dead, representing many different states around Mexico. We grabbed a quick bite to eat, Esquites (sweet corn, served with chili, mayonnaise, lime and cheese) and Tlacoyos (toasted corn flour patties stuffed with beans and topped with cheese) and walked the final kilometer to the graveyard.
It is the graveyard of Mixquic that people come from miles around to see. The natives of this little town have become nationally renowned for their celebration of Day of the Dead. From midday, a cardboard coffin is carried in procession from the plaza to the graveyard and this marks the beginning of a day spent with their dead ancestors. Families decorate the graves of their loved ones, and pass the day and night with them, eating, drinking, singing and talking by their gravesides.
For those of us not used to Mexican expressions of death (including many urban Mexicans) this ritual can seem very unusual, and visiting a graveyard, watching these rituals and taking photos can also feel uncomfortable and strange or as my friend pointed out it “felt a bit like crashing someone else’s party”. For people that are dealing with recent loss it can be a comforting experience or a very pensive and potentially difficult one.
We walked into the graveyard at dusk, when fires were starting to be lit around graves to keep families warm. I’ll admit I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, none of us were, but what I was greeted with was a feeling of celebration. We saw families laughing and joking together as they prepared the graves, or sat eating and drinking around them. Children were playing hide and seek across the graves and entire Norteño bands were playing songs at tombstones. Fireworks were being let off all around and most people were very pleased when we asked to take a photo of their loved one’s carefully prepared grave or asked questions about their departed family members. In some cases the tombstones had been decorated so elaborately that they were lit up for passing eyes to see with the creators deservedly looking very proud.
However, that wasn’t the whole story. There were also people in deep contemplation, quietly sitting with their loved one, clearly enveloped in their thoughts of them or waiting for them to return. One woman I saw had her loved one’s gravestone encaged by blue metal bars. She had lit a solitary candle and was sat inside the cage in such intense connection with her loved one that you hardly noticed her sitting there. Even writing about her now brings tears to my eyes. But tears of sadness or joy, I am not entirely sure.
Two old men also came to my attention. They were sat close to a wall by the graveside of their departed. They had a simple fire lit, that they tended to as they sat quietly in each other’s company. They looked on at the commotion of the graveyard occasionally as if watching a strange performance then focused back on their loved one whilst sipping on spirits to keep them warm.
Walking back to the main plaza, with a hot fruit punch to keep us warm, I quietly contemplated what I had just witnessed. Whilst I felt pensive at the thought of my loved one and was lost in thought about the music I would play for them and the way I would decorate a grave for them, I also felt delight in the way these families were able to dedicate time for the important people in their lives, despite them no longer being physically present in the world.
On the bus back to the metro, I thought also of the graves that were not attended to. Where were their families? Did these ancestors also return on Day of the Dead? What about the ancestors of people who had migrated away from Mexico? I also thought about the amount of elaborate, house-like tombs with no one tending to them. It was as if the money spent on the tomb perhaps negated the need for time to be spent there.
Though many say this tradition is making a comeback all over Mexico, I see the difference between the urban and rural parts of the country. Like with many traditions, they last longer in more rural, less “developed” areas. The elaborate tomb houses, alongside very basic graves of earth made me reflect on this. Perhaps these families who had bought elaborate house-like tombs were disconnecting themselves from death in the way I feel we have in Europe. We place a wall around it, keep it in its place, and spend money to keep it far away, as if death might be contagious. Please don’t talk about it or discuss the sadness that is all far too difficult and awkward.
What Day of the Dead does however is the opposite. It brings death into the limelight, gives it center stage and allows people to openly talk of their loved ones, to think of them, to connect with them and to honour them. Death is not taboo, sidelined or feared but it is sat with (literally when sitting on the earth grave) and given its rightful place as part of life.
I sat back lost in thought, looking at the colourful paper stars erected by families to guide their loved ones home that lit up the dark streets and thought about making a fresh cup of tea to put on my humble altar back at home.
Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist. Her work has been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, The Independent UK, Afar and The New Worlder among others. Check out her portfolio here. Contact Susannah by email, info [at] mexicoretold [dot] com and join her on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.