Day of the Dead, a celebration full of life

By Antonio De Jesús Aguado

November is not just the most appropriate month to flirt with death, but also to show her that we are full of life. The modern traditions associated with the Day of the Dead have their roots in ancient Mesoamerican culture. Here in San Miguel many ofrendas, often called altars in English, are set up to honor the departed, and families gather in the cemeteries to commune with their loved ones who have gone before. The celebration of death is also the celebration of life, and during Day of the Dead there will be no shortage of celebration.

Tour through the parochial crypt

In 2003, the local administration started setting up a giant altar in the Plaza Principal (this year to pay homage to the former city historian José Cornelio López Espinosa, as well as to traditionalist Inés Soria). In 2010, Rancho Labradores launched a catrinas parade through the main streets of the city that has been growing year by year. La Calaca, the newest festival in the city, has been included in the celebrations, offering events and alternative art.

The celebration to remember “those who are ahead in the journey of life” is as ancient as the Villa of San Miguel el Grande (now San Miguel de Allende). According to the historian Graciela Cruz, there are documents that prove that in the 18th century people used to prepare food related to the season, such as alfeñiques (candies with an irregular knot shape), fiambre (cold meats), atole (cornmeal-based drink), tamales and candies made of pumpkin. In the past, the people in the villa also used to visit the churches during November in order to connect with their dead loved ones, and people attended mass and visited the cemeteries.

Cruz commented that in the past, the cemeteries were part of the churches. In San Miguel there was one in the current Plaza Principal in front of la Parroquia and one in the church of el Oratorio, among others.

The mezzanine of the Parroquia houses a crypt “fit for kings,” according to Maximilian of Hapsburg, the former emperor of Mexico who, in 1864 on his way to Dolores Hidalgo to celebrate the independence festivities, stopped there and made that pronouncement. In the crypt rest several well known figures from San Miguel who participated in the conspiracy meetings, as well as the former Mexican president Anastasio Bustamante.

The crypt is opened once a year on November 1 and 2 from 8am–8pm (closed during religious services) to the general public. A guided tour (to benefit the Biblioteca) will be offered by historian Graciela Cruz (with English translation) on November 1 at 6:45pm and at 3:35pm on November 2 (the meeting point is the patio of the Biblioteca).

This tour includes a visit to the first public cemetery of the Villa of San Miguel el Grande, the cemetery of St. Raphael. This space, according to Cruz, dates from 1770 and operated for 200 years, closing in 1970. When the cemetery of our Lady of Guadalupe was opened in 1950, the cemetery of St. Raphael stayed open for 20 more years. Currently, the pantheon of St. Raphael is part of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro appointed as a World Heritage site in 2010 by UNESCO. This cemetery is yearly visited by many people, among them the traditionalist Emigdio Ledezma, who told Atención that his little brother, Zeferino, who lived just a few hours, is buried there, as well as his sister, Carmela, who lived a year and a half. He says that because of his duties, he cannot visit the pantheon that often, but he offers masses for his dead siblings instead of bringing them flowers. Prior to the Day of the Dead, don Emigdio visits and cleans up the graves, and on November 1 he adorns them with flowers.

In 1850, Benito Juárez, then president of Mexico, published a law stating that marriages and burials were not matters of the church, but rather of the government, and prohibited burials in churches, so public cemeteries were constructed. Those dead could be buried a perpetuidad, perpetually, but in 1975 president

Luis Echeverría published a reform that suppressed that benefit, and every seven years relatives must pay a fee to keep their loved ones buried; if they do not pay, the remains are exhumed. In San Miguel the payment is made every five years.

Legends, myths and realities

The celebration of the Day of the Dead is a mixture of cultures related to the native Mesoamericans and the Spaniards (who arrived in Mexico in 1519); the natives as well as the Spaniards used to pay homage to their dead in different ways. According to historian Héctor Sansón, who will offer a talk entitled “Legends, Myths and Realities on Day of the Dead,” in Mesoamerica the homage to the dead is based on myths and legends such as the Legend of the Five Suns. Sansón explained that the legend talks about a world that previously existed, about creatures that inhabited the planet, its destruction and the sacrifice of the gods to create the sun, moon and stars.

That legend is related to the anthropogenic myth of creation, which states that after the gods created the world, they gathered in order to discuss who was going to inhabit it. God Quetzalcóatl went to Mictlán (place of the dead) and asked Mictlantecutli (God of the Dead) to hand over to him the sacred bones in order to create humans. During the process of obtaining the sacred bones, Quetzalcóatl had to overcome several challenges, and he had to appeal to his nahual Xolot (a person who can turn into a dog) to help him. According to Sansón, that could be the reason why in the ancient cultures they buried their relatives with a dog as well as some belongings that they could use on their journey to the Mictlán—which could last four years.

Quetzalcóatl fell into a hole and died, but he was resurrected later and with another sacrifice he created humans. From those myths and legends, the ancient Mesoamericans started placing offerings for their dead Gods and also started to offer all kinds of sacrifices. Through the talk by the historian attendees will understand why Mexicans celebrate death. The talk (with English translation) will take place at Sala Quetzal on November 1 at 5:30pm; tickets are 270 pesos (to benefit the Biblioteca) and will include a stroll to the main altars in the city.

Altar at La Aurora

Don Emigdio Ledezma worked for 30 years in La Aurora Factory. In 2003, by petition of the owner, Francisco Garay, he started setting up an altar. Garay (who donated land to build schools, a hospital and a sports area) passed away in 2012, so the offering will be an homage him. In his workshop—where some skeletons made of cardboard seemed to be staring at me—don Emigdio told me that this year he has been constructing a loom made of wood, which will be one of the main pieces of the offering. It will be operated by a skeleton. The offering will also include a calaca sculpting a stone and a carpenter. In the center of the altar will be Garay’s skeleton working at his desk, helped by his secretary. The offering will be ready in the central patio of Fábrica La Aurora on November 1 and will be removed on November 3.

Music, poetry and death

On November 2 at 6:30pm at the Pantheon of St. Rafael a free poetry event will take place, a reading of poems from the 19th and 20th centuries. The recital will include the poems written on the walls of the cemetery by Manuel de la Torre Oreda from Michoacán and sanmiguelense Indalecio Caballero. Other poems will be from Rosario Castellanos and Jorge Luis Borges, besides those printed as epitaphs on gravestones. The event will feature classical guitar music.

Other events

There will be many free events connected with Day of the Dead around town. Check the Qué Pasa supplement.

Who is interred in the parochial crypt?

Father Francisco de Uraga was the parish priest in 1810 when the War of Independence started. His headstone has one of the most interesting epitaphs in the crypt: “Where are you going so rushed, sanmigueleño?Turn your eyes to the shadowed place that contains the ashes of your beloved. Do not look at it so coldly! Spread your tears on it, watering it as the dew does the moss. Cry, since there lies—and I’m a witness—your priest and your best friend.” He died in 1830.

Father Juan Manuel de Villegas, parish priest from 1736 to 1776, was also the commissioner of the Inquisition in San Miguel. Villegas stamped his signature on Ignacio Allende’s birth certificate, which is safeguarded in the parochial archives.

Father Remigio González is also buried in the crypt. He was chaplain at the Shrine of Jesús Nazareno in Atotonilco, where he received Allende and Hidalgo leading the insurgent army on September 16, 1810.

One of the most famous graves is that of former Mexican president Anastasio Bustamante. He became president in 1830 but had to resign in 1833 because of protests over his ordering the murder of independence hero Vicente Guerrero. He became president for the second time from 1837 to 1839. He retired and moved to San Miguel, where he died in 1853. His heart was taken out of his body and sent to the cathedral in Mexico City, where it is entombed near Iturbide’s remains.


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