This article is from the December 2000 - January 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Day of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende

by Gordon Jett 

Gordon Jett is a retired public relations and advertising executive. He and his wife, Betty, lived in Singapore and Australia, but always planned to retire in Mexico. They have lived in San Miguel de Allende for the past six years. Gordon wrote an excellent guide to RV travel in Mexico for the October and November 2000 issues of  Mexico File.  

San Miguel de Allende is always one of Mexico’s most colorful towns, but it outdoes itself November first and second each year. It is then that Mexicans celebrate a festival that predates the Conquest by thousands of years, the Day of the Dead.  

The Day of the Dead is really a two-day festival – November first honoring children who have died and the second honoring the “big ones.” Several days in advance you’ll see temporary stands springing up around town where the paraphernalia for the festival is sold. Skulls made of crystalized sugar come in all sizes and colors. Small animals, fruits, vegetables, and coffins, all made of sugar, abound. Skeletons (calaveras) made of wood or plaster are everywhere, almost all of them with great toothy grins. Many wear sombreros, or serapes, and play musical instruments or carry machetes. They are the Mexicans’ way of joking at death.  

About the time the stalls spring up, family members start to construct altars in their homes to memorialize their dead loved ones. The altar will consist of old photographs and personal belongings, plus the departed one’s favorite foods, tequila or beer, and cigars or cigarettes. Other very important items include something grown, which represents earth, and clay vases full of water, for the souls are very thirsty after their long journey. Each soul gets a candle, representing fire, and there is always an extra candle for the soul who does not have a family. There is always a kind of incense called copal, which is burned to attract the soul back home. Salt is displayed for purification.  

Each altar is also hung with great swaths of paper cutouts in bright colors. The cutouts depict flowers, birds, skulls and skeletons – and represent the wind as they waft over the altars. 

Marigolds are displayed in great profusion. These gorgeous flowers, called cempazuchits, are spread over the floor around the home altars and are used to decorate the graves in the cemeteries. The bright flowers help the souls find their way home. Early in the mornings of November first and second, crowds of people start streaming toward the cemeteries, or panteons. They carry huge armloads of cempazuchits and form a great golden river as they approach. 

Once inside, the mood is festive but respectful. The graves are meticulously cleaned and groomed, then decorated with flowers and paper cutouts. So many people show up to landscape graves and water the plants that the vendors stand outside the gates selling empty cans for carrying water. They are usually restaurant owners who save empty gallon cans all year to sell on the Day of the Dead. The municipal water truck is always on hand to provide enough water for the ritual.  

When the grave is cleaned up and decorated, the family puts the pictures and favorite foods and beverages on the grave. After waiting long enough for the departed soul to return and help him or herself to te offerings, the family “finishes” what’s left. Since the soul is almost always offered tequila and almost never finishes the bottle, the panteon is a very happy place by the end of the day.

Though the cemetery is studded with Christian crosses and Christian angels, the festivities of November the first and second are a reminder of a culture that goes far back into the mists of time. It is a proud and beautiful culture that build awe-inspiring pyramids and had astronomical calendars – and all of this when many of our European ancestors were living in mud huts and wearing animal skins. Think of that!

Where is San Miguel?

San Miguel de Allende is near the geographic center of Mexico, about 150 miles north of Mexico City. It’s located on the “alta plano” about 6,000 feet above sea level. It’s an easy two-day drive south of Laredo and McAllen, Texas, on good roads, and four to five hours east of Guadalajara.

What’s So Special About San Miguel?

San Miguel de Allende is one of three towns in all of Mexico that has been designated a National Historical Monument. The narrow cobblestone streets and brightly painted houses are exactly like they were two hundred years ago. In the 1940's and 1950's San Miguel was “discovered” by writers and artists from the States – and even today the town is a haven for creative people of all artistic temperaments. It is the home of several internationally recognized language and art schools. It is also the home of the Biblioteca Publica (library), the largest public bilingual library in Latin America outside of Mexico City. In addition to books, it houses a computer center, a stage/cinema theater, a gourmet restaurant and a weekly English-language newspaper. Because of the altitude, the temperate in San Miguel rarely gets above 80 degrees or below 40 degrees. The population is about 65,000, of which three to four thousand are gringos. There are two very nice RV parks in San Miguel.

How Can I Find Out More? 

San Miguel has its own website – unisono.net.mx There is also an excellent weekly English language newspaper, Atencion. Subscriptions are $20US for three months or $80US a year. Make checks payable to “Biblioteca Publica” and mail it to P.O. Box 119, San Miguel de Allende, Gto, 37700, Mexico.