Day of the Dead in San Miguel

By Muriel Bevilacqua Logan

As a member of the foreign community here in San Miguel for 12 years at the beginning of November, I’m thinking of the celebration of the Day of the Dead and how we foreigners participate in this meaningful and most Mexican of holidays. It seems to me there are three levels of celebration.

The most public celebration takes place in the Jardín and surrounding business spaces and fountains. Altars are created for humble and prominent sanmiguelenses, some who made a major contribution to the town and have passed away in this last year. The Jardín is festooned with decorations above and below, including lovely carpets of flowers and colored sand. Everyone strolls in the evenings to pay their respect to those who have passed and to share in this time of honoring them. It seems perfectly natural and appropriate for us to be a part of this event, and some foreigners are inevitably honored alongside the Mexicans. Nowadays, the new La Calaca Festival provides a much more modern take on the holiday with rock music, costumes, an earth harp and many other events. Some love it and some don’t.

The totally private part of the fiesta consists of altars being built in the homes to honor loved ones that the family has lost, not necessarily recently, but whose absence they still feel strongly—their muertitos (little dead ones). A number of people give lectures and even lessons in making altars of this kind, using small mementos, flowers, photos and food beloved of the one who has passed, so we foreigners might understand and participate in this private and personal way of honoring our own loved ones.

The third, sort of semi-public celebration takes place on both November 1 and 2 in the local Panteón, and this is the one I would like to focus on. Families stream into the cemetery all day long on these days, bearing other mementos of their loved ones, as well as armloads of flowers and plants, buckets and water. Here they decorate profusely the gravesites of their muertitos and gather together as a family, eat, pray, play music or reminisce. There is a wide range of beliefs about the practice and meaning of all this. Not all actually expect their dead loved one to join them in this celebratory feast, although some do.

It seems to me a much more appropriate and fulfilling way for foreigners to participate in this part of the fiesta, rather than just coming to the Panteón with our cameras and intruding—some more sensitively than others, where these families are playing out their annual ritual—would be to participate. We too could bring armloads of flowers and other decorations or mementos to decorate the gravesites in the large section of the Panteón, which is reserved for foreigners. On these days of November 1 and 2, this section has been the saddest of places. It holds the gravesites of many foreigners, some who lived in San Miguel for many years and made outstanding contributions to the community, but whose families and contemporaries are no longer here to celebrate them. Why not change that and make our section of the Panteón glow with remembrance on those days. That way, we would be participants in a totally appropriate and inclusive way, and not just observers of the annual fiesta. Actually, many have taken up my request in the last few years and are transforming this section into one of honor and celebration. I invite you all to participate.


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