Dia de Muertos
Just don't call it Day of the Dead—a trip to Michoacán. Plus movie and book recommendations, and links.
Tell me, what is your impression, right now, of the “Day of the Dead”? Dia de Muertos (literally “Day of Souls”).
Me, I’ve known about it generally for years without really knowing what it was actually about. If you’d asked me to envision it a week ago, my mind would have retrieved the spooky opening of the James Bond movie, Spector, a parade of people in skeleton costumes interspersed with images of Daniel Craig holding a gun, or the delightful scenes from the animated Coco.
But it was nothing like that. Even the English translation, we learned, is inaccurate.
“The most appropriate translation from the native language,” says Alejandro Vilchis, who runs intensely intimate cultural tours in Patzcuaro and Morelia, where he was born and still lives. “In this case, Purépecha into Spanish, of the original name would be Ofrenda a las Almas (Offerings to the Souls) and La Fiesta de las Almas (The Feast of the Souls).”
Vilchis says that popularizing the name is the country’s desire to appeal to tourism along with the influence of American culture, Halloween and popular movies, in particular. But it comes at the cost of the actual, centuries-old rituals that derive from the indigenous people, Purépecha and their Pre-Columbian empire, whose capital was Tzintzunzan.
“It is a festival full of joy, color, and traditions related to the cosmovision of the Purépecha culture, with the universe and nature while honoring the souls of our ancestors.
“I cannot find better words to describe this celebration than that it is a family reunion, celebrated through rituals that reunite the family, some members in flesh and blood and others in spirit.”
In order to learn what the actual Dia de Muertos is and means, Ann and I traveled, with the help of Alejandro and our translator, Juan Carlos Foncerrada, to the village of Tzintzunzan and one one of the most famous cemeteries where Dia de Muertos is celebrated. Celebrated, not as a commercial gala with corporate sponsors, but as the days-long joining of the living and the dead as the Purépecha celebrated it. Indeed, we discovered that it is the most profound family reunion we’ve ever encountered.
We spent two days with Blanca Villagomez, chef of Casa de Blanca, and her brothers and sisters at her home and restaurant, cooking with her, and helping her family decorate their ofrenda, or offering, and stringing dozens and dozens of ropes of marigolds.
What you experience in the village of Tzintzunzan…
Because the Dia del Muertes experience was so intense and new, I can only offer a sense of what it’s like to be there on the celebration days, November 1st and 2nd.
The entire main street of the village feels like a street fair, lines of food tents serving all manner of chopped meat on griddles for tacos, communal tables lined with bowls of salsas.
The tables of Blanca’s restaurant have been stored to make room for family and friends and in the back room to create the elaborate altar to their father, who died this year, and their mother (the altar pictured above).
Blanca hadn’t slept the night of the 31st in order to make the food, which included 1,000 corundas, the pre-Hispanic style of tomales native to this state. The day before, I watched her make the wild duck (migratory birds shot by her brothers, a dish traditionally prepared for this day) in a guajillo chili and tomato sauce—not to eat but to put on the altar for her parents. Through all this work, her parents are at the front of her mind.
Ducks are first blanched, then seared in lard, before Blanca ladles a sauce of seared tomatoes, guajillo chilis, garlic and cilantro (so simple!) over the birds and braises them.
Brass bands in the streets; mezcal being poured, and cervezas freely flowing in the dry 70 degree afternoon; men carrying bottles of tequila and Squirt, pouring Palomas for their friends; and all the members of the families dressed not in skull costumes, but in traditional Mexican formal attire.
The march to the cemetery…
At 4 p.m., the families who have lost relatives this year line up in the streets, carrying the marigold-covered arches. We were invited to march with the family. I carried a basket of fruit, Ann, a plate of breads, as offerings. Others carried flowers, and others helped carry hundreds if not thousands of candles. Behind the Villagomez’s arch, marched a band of men in gray suits playing guitar, bass, trumpet, tuba, trombone, and clarinet, and the men danced and spun the arches through a street packed with spectators, both on the ground as well as watching from the balconies of the two-story houses and shops.
It’s an arduous half-mile or so to the cemetery, especially if you are carrying a heavy bowl of green oranges and yellow bananas, especially as the procession halts every few feet to celebrate. Over the course of an hour we made our way into a cemetery packed with grave sites and families decorating their own sites.
The arches are placed by the Villagomez’s site, already festooned with flowers and lighted candles. The food is placed, a brother sets a bottle of tequila on the grave. They talk, they hug one another.
The cemetery is forested and shaded by the abundant trees.
By dark the vast cemetery is filled with people observing the ofrendas, and though there is not a single electric light in what I’m guessing must be a 10-acre or 20-acre stretch of land, it is aglow with thousands of candles.
Brass bands play at many sites. Some families dance at their site. Some sites are humble, some sites display a family’s wealth.
By 9 pm, there are so many people it is hard to move among the narrow dirt pathways between the graves.
Members of the Villagomez family will stay all night long at the graves, because this is the day when the souls of the dead return to the site of their burial. There are hundreds of graves, and thousands of people, both families and spectators.
And back at Blanca’s restaurant, above, the family eats and drinks and their band plays in the street in front of the restaurant, and people dance and celebrate the Feast of Souls.
It’s important to understand the origin of the Catrinas…
Dia de Muertos is fast becoming commercialized, in no small measure because of American pop culture. Many, as I did, pointed to the James Bond film Spectre, which opens with a moody recreation of a Dia de Muertos celebration in Mexico City, and the Pixar movie Coco (which Ann and I loved). The imagery of death is compelling in both films, perhaps most dramatically by the skeletons in fancy dress, called Catrinas. At least half the people in Coco are skeletons in fancy dress.
But Catrinas originally had nothing to do with Dia de Muertos. In the early years of the 20th Century, a political lithographer, José Guadalupe Posada Aguilar, created images of skeletons in formal ware to satirize the wealthy who, ashamed of their origins, donned French apparel and wore pale make-up. A “Catrina” at the time referred simply to a dandy, a wealthy person in fancy clothes. Though the artist, Posada, noted that Catrinas were beginning to be coöpted by Dia de Muerto celebrations in the 1900s, according to Alejandro, these now-ubiquitous skeletons, these deathly fops, truly became associated with Dia de Muertos because of the two aforementioned movies. “You really didn’t see them before 2015 and Spectre,” Alejandro said.
All this being noted, I am fascinated by, and adore, the multitude of Catrinas we observed. We even purchased one, nearly two feet tall, which now sits on our mantle. And I have no problem with the fact that they have become attached to the ancient annual celebration. But I share the concern of the Villagomezes, who worry that the incoming generation will lose the appreciation and reverence and importance of these two days, which are spent in heavy labor, creating the ofrendas and cooking for people, and for the dead, keeping them ever present in their minds as they do.
For they are not dead. They are on the other side awaiting us, and we rejoice in this one brief day when they return to their burial site to be with us.
What we’re drinking…
Mezcal. And cervezes. But mainly Mezcal. Mezcal differs from tequila in that it can be made from various agave plants, not silver agave, and the cores are smoke-roasted in a pit before the juice is fermented and distilled. The best Mezcals are some of the worlds finest spirits.
What we’re watching and reading …
Because we’ve been traveling, usual pastime activities have been limited. We did see a fantastic movie called the Banshees of Inisherin, with Brendan Gleesan and Colin Ferrall, about the break-up of a friendship on one of the small, isolated Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. Remember the great indy film Local Hero with Burt Lancaster? It’s in that quirky, lovely, independent vein, completely unexpected, and this one not a little bit gruesome.
I started Stewart O’Nan’s latest book, Ocean State, about sisters, daughters, mothers in a working-class Rhode Island town, but I was so undone by the intense travel that I couldn’t combine the two until I’ve recovered from travel. But judging from the opening fifty pages, it may be among O’Nan’s best.
Ann is, of course, our constant reader:
Oh I loved MY PHANTOMS by Gwendoline Riley! I read it straight through on our flight from New York to Morelia, breathlessly. How to describe it? There seems to be no plot. Bridget Grant presents a scathing, darkly comic portrait of her parents and somehow by the end I felt like I’d read a wonderful novel. I was moved and mesmerized and astonished. So just read it and see for yourself?
How serendipitous and perfect that I brought Hilary Mantel’s BEYOND BLACK with me on our transformative trip to Michoacán! As you may know, despite her impressive trilogy, I am a bigger fan of her early fiction. This novel is about Colette and Alison, a shy, drab beanpole of an assistant and the charismatic, corpulent psychic whose connection to the spiritual world torments her.
It’s a big fat wonderful novel.
I’m already smitten with THE MAGPIE MURDERS. It is 100% beguiling. Susan Ryeland, an editor who is given an unfinished manuscript of author Alan Conway’s latest novel, has little idea it will change her life. On PBS. Perfect to knit to.
Concerned about those “consume by” dates on packages? Here is a man who subsisted solely on outdated food.
Last month we were lucky enough to hear two great poets read on Governor’s Island, Major Jackson and Sharon Olds. Shortly thereafter, the Times Magazine published this excellent profile on Olds and her sensual poetry. Powell obits
We travel out of the new Penn station often and often walk past a long bar there. We didn’t expect the bar to become a destination.
As someone obsessed with making sure I sleep well, I appreciated this Times piece on just that.
And writing about the commercialization of a Mexican holiday reminded me of this old post on my site from Chef Shaw Lash who laments the debasing of Cinco de Mayo.
Worrying about the treatment of our bags on long connecting flights, I remembered this funny and excellent country tune.
(FYI, the airline compensated him $3,000 for the guitar, but after the PR damage had been done.)
Hoping to put together a more comprehensive look at all we saw in Mexico, which was too much for a single newsletter. And of course I will, at the very least, be back here in two weeks.
Thanks for reading Ruhlman's Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Beautiful piece. I thank you for creating these newsletters. I appreciate your hard work in putting them together and the information you pass on. I’ve read many of your books and enjoy them, too. Please press on.
I just returned from Mexico City and witnessed all the Dia de Muertos celebrations including the flower market where all of Mexico buys their flowers. Millions of marigolds including petals plucked by children helping their parents. Americans give Mexico a bum rap but I'm singing her praises! The history! Arr! Food! And it's clean and we were in Roma Norte close to where Roma was filmed...our hotel was $50/night! Not the Ritz but with helpful, sweet, hardworking Mexicans making a living to support their families. Oh...took a fantastic baking class - Pan de Muertos - great fun and so delicious! And Diego's murals? Did I mention that?