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This Is the City of the Dead

By Jesús Aguado

They say that the dead are left alone and also that when we die our senses vanish; touch, hearing, taste, and sight remain as a distant memory, but the smell… that expands, and if you do not believe it, ask the dead on November 1 and 2, the day they come out of their graves to smell what is delicious and see the banquets prepared to pay them honor.

On these days in November, the dead return from the great beyond to partake in this feast with their loved ones, and, although they are imperceptible, there are some among the “living” who feel their presence. Even when they try the food from the offerings, after one or two days, the tastes and flavors are gone. People say that is because through the smell, the dead have taken away the food’s essence. But the smell of the tequila or mescal—that remains. That is why the cap needs to be removed before placing it in the offering.

Nowadays it is hard to think that the rich culture we have in Mexico and in San Miguel de Allende was disappearing in the early 80s. According to director of Culture and Traditions, Gustavo Vidargas, Day of the Dead (at that time) was being defeated by “Halloweenization” and the closeness we have with the country to the north. However, as always, death won out and scared away the witches, mummies, magical creatures. They surrendered to our best representative, our Catrina, the elegant woman that shows up with elegant dresses and hats, a skeleton that happily walks the streets showing a toothless smile and skinny bones. Yes, they were defeated by that dreamy and ethereal character.

This is how Day of the Dead or Day of All Saints is celebrated in the city now.

Mega offering

The CDI (National Commision of Indigenous Towns) assures that Day of the Dead as a popular commemoration “is an act that leads from praying to partying, ”but most look for the party, a celebration where all the dead wander and try to make the living feel their warm presence. That day, death comes down to earth to partake with the living but always with its sharp scythe ready to strike.

Popular belief is that November 1 is dedicated to the “little angels” or children who have passed away. November 2 is for paying homage to departed adults. The CDI also notes that in some cities of the country, October 28 is dedicated to those people who died in accidents now and October 30, to children who died before being baptized and inhabit limbo.

Since 2004 a mega-offering has been set up at the Jardín Principal, dedicated to honorable sanmiguelenses. This year the offering will not be just for one person but for many people. Several organizations and families contacted the Culture and Education Department to decorate part of the offering and dedicate it to their dead. Around the Jardín, said director of the Education Department Verónica Rodríguez, students from public and private schools, organizations, and families will build smaller traditional altars with original pre-Hispanic carpets made of seeds and grains. These offerings will be dedicated to people who worked to benefit the city.

The volunteers and all those involved in the event will start working on the offerings in the early morning on Saturday, November 1. The inauguration will be the same day at 8pm, and it will feature pre-Columbian music, dancers, and poems. Bread of the dead will also be distributed among the attendees, as a courtesy by the students of the Technological University, who will bake it. The tourism students of that institution also offer guided tours through the offerings, explaining the meaning of each detail. Check the central pages of Qué pasa to find out what the main offerings in town will be.

The Original Catrina

Death is represented in many ways: as a simple skeleton, a skull, or a character wearing a hood and cap carrying a scythe. But our majesty is, with no doubt, the Catrina, a woman’s skeleton, elegantly dressed as in the pre-and post-revolutionary age (1880-1910). La Calavera Garbancera (the skeleton that plants, picks, or sell chickpeas) was the portrait of poverty in Mexico during the Porfiriato (Mexican period dominated by Porfirio Díaz 1877 to 1911). It was created by cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada, and it was a skeleton wearing just a hat with colored feathers. That image was a mockery of those people who had indigenous roots but pretended to be Europeans. It was Mexican artist Diego Rivera who created the Catrina—based on Posada’s image—dressing her with showy dresses and more accessories and painting her in a mural called Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at the Alameda Central).

There are two Catrina Parades in town, but the one who inspired them was Peggy Taylor. “I am the original Catrina,” she told Atención, revealing her identity. The first time she decided to use the legendary Catrina disguise was 16 years ago when she wanted to stroll though the streets of San Miguel. At that time, makeup was not as popular as it is nowadays and that is why she decided to use a mask. Since then, everybody has wanted photos with her. Nobody recognized her, not even her family. “I was laughing so loud behind my mask, laughing at them, having fun,” she confessed.

Peggy Taylor respects death as well as Posadas and Rivera’s Catrina, and she tries her best to be like the original. Six years ago, her friend Raúl Henderson decided to team up with her as a catrín (well-dressed man). Since then they have walked the world of the dead together. They are tango dancers, so it is not weird when they start dancing to the rhythm of folkloric music, cumbia, mariachi, or to any sound they hear. They cause a furor. They have been captured in thousands of images by locals and visitors. This year, they will walk in the Historic Center on November 1 and 2, but their schedule is unpredictable.

On Sunday, November 1, at 8pm more than 400 catrinas, mojigangas (giant puppets) and civilians will parade from the Rosewood Hotel to the Jardín Principal passing though Sollano. Another parade will leave at 8pm from Mesones 57 going though Mesones and Hidalgo to the Jardín. There will be a Catrina contest, and the winner will receive several prizes. The package for participation in this parade costs 250 pesos and includes makeup, candies, hat, and a drink; another package for 700 pesos includes a dinner. For more information contact Gretel Cházaro, 121 5615.

Another popular parade is organized by the groups of Casa de la Cultura. This year the procession will leave from Casa de la Cultura on Monday, November 2, at 5pm. There is an open invitation to all those who want to be part of it. Participants should to arrive at 4pm to receive make up. Those who want to participate and are dressed and ready can arrive at 4:45pm. The parade will go through calles Nemesio Diez, Zacateros, Canal, Hernández Macías, Mesones, Juárez, and San Francisco to end up at the Jardín for a special program.

Two worlds in one place

Like the poem, on Day of the Dead, the “Death of my heart” really is “of a thousand colors” because at the cemetery of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Salida a Celaya people can see balloons, flowers, food, cut paper, photos, and all kind of ornaments on the graves. The attendees have breakfast, lunch, and dinner with their loved ones—the living who cry, eat, dance, sing, sleep, have fun, and repeat the cycle—since 8am and until 7pm the music does not stop playing. Live it to understand it.

The Cemetery of San Juan de Dios (located on San Antonio Abad corner with Insurgentes) is a historical vestige. It was restored and opened to the general public in 2010. The celebration is not that colorful or emotional here, but the local government prepares special programs and sets up an altar.

Curiously, according to city historian Graciela Cruz, the first body was buried in this cemetery on a November 2, 1770. The man’s identity was unknown, and he was found dying at the entrance to the Parroquia. He was taken to the hospital of San Rafael and San Juan de Dios, where he died.

Cruz said that the cemetery was closed for 50 years but was used from 1770 to 1970, 200 years during which people from all social classes, ethnic origins, and locales were buried there. San Miguel was at that time an important crossroads, visited by travellers and merchants from all over Mexico and other countries. “It can be considered the first public cemetery since it belonged to a public hospital, although the term “public” was not used at that time,” said Cruz.

The historian added that the hospital took in the most patients during the epidemics and droughts in the 18th century, the worst being in 1785–1786 in this cemetery. During the independence movement both insurgents and royalist troops were interred there. Among the famous people buried in this cemetery are the conspirators José María Arévalo and Miguel María Malo, whose brother Luis died with Allende. During the War of Independence, Miguel Malo defended the village from the incursions of the bandit Bernardo de Lara, called “El Huacal,” who is buried in San Juan de Dios. Allende’s youngest sister, Mariana, is also buried there. Their gravestones cannot be seen anymore, but their burials are registered at the Parroquia.


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