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  • Maira Hernández

Día de Los Muertos

This long awaited day had been an adventure in itself, beginning with Halloween. I was off to Morelia to pick up the rental I had reserved so I would have a car to drive to Tzintzuntzan, the indigenous town that is known to have one of the best Día De Los Muertos celebrations in Michoacán. As I was waiting for the bus eating mis tacos de carnitas I realized I had an extra taco. So I gave it to the poor man sweeping the plaza. Only for him to return and take that gesture as an open invitation to try to spit game and sit next to me with a tequila bottle in hand asking what my name was and if I was married. In that instance my name was Jenni and yes I was married, and I was from a different rancho. He then proceeded to ask if I had any single friends I could set him up with. Somehow he ended up trying to teach me english and tell me his life story including his experiences when he lived in the U.S. I kept the conversation going to humor him, but the bus couldn’t get there fast enough! Before I left I mentioned if he wanted to date any of my friends he would have to stop drinking so early in the morning. What a way to start the day, but somehow I’m always that person that strangers tell their stories too.


On the bus ride to the city we passed through several cempasúchil fields with men harvesting the bright orange marigolds widely used for Día De Los Muertos. It was something else seeing these flowers from the field, to being sold in the plazas, to the cemetery where they would decorate many tombs.

After the bus and taxi ride, I finally made it to the airport only to get to the counter and have the four car rental agencies say that they didn’t have any automatic cars returned so nothing was available. This literally happened to me yesterday, which is why I was back expecting to have a car rental today given both my online and in person reservations. The day before I had spent much of my time at the airport calling all the car rental agencies on Google Maps and none had automatic cars available. Note to self: learn to drive stick shift. The miracle that happened next was that at the corner exit of the airport there was a small car rental business. I called and the man that ran the place and he said he definitely had an automatic car available for me. So off I went to Happy Rent-a-Car, where I was very very happy to be leaving in a car. #SupportSmallBusinesses

As I made my drive through Morelia I kept seeing kids and teenagers with their faces painted as catrinas and cempasúchil flowers being sold everywhere. There was a hint of excitement floating in the air with the big celebrations coming. It didn’t hurt that the car had a CD with all the cumbia jams that kept me in good spirits. I made my way to Quiroga as I was ready for my lunch tacos. It was beautiful to see how they had the plaza decorated with a huge Catrina in the middle of it and cempasúchil everywhere. As I made my way back home I stopped in town to buy two big bulks of cempasúchil to decorate my abuelo’s grave. The flowers smelled just as beautiful as they looked.


The night came, and I had my candy ready for the trick-or-treaters, only as I sat outside I realized none of the kids in our rancho were out trick-or-treating. My cousins stopped by after coming in from town and mentioned they had seen kids trick-or-treating in the other ranchos. So off we went in the car, giving out candy from the car window having the kids yell Dulce-Dinero-Truco. This would have definitely been frowned upon in the U.S., but in the rancho there is a sense of trust if you tell them what rancho you came from.


The next day finally arrived and Día de Los Muertos coincided with the toros in Coeneo. Which meant my cousins in the high school were dressing up as guares for the topa- the procession of people dancing their way to the stadium. I volunteered to drive them and I got to enjoy the banda and became the unofficial photographer for everyone at the school. It was an amazing experience seeing all of these high schoolers dressed as guares with a banda in their school as they all danced and spun to the beat inside the basketball court. It was a sight to see, and I was so proud to be from Mexico, but also a little sad that I didn’t go to high school here. Our school dances were wack, compared to this.

Once that ended I headed out to decorate my abuelos tomb. I remember the last time I had visited his tomb I felt a little sad for the loss. This time it was a day of celebration and I couldn’t help but run through the memories of my grandpa. I always remember him being happy and joyful when he would have us around. He would always take us to the store to buy candy or ice cream and as we would walk through the town he would always walk with his hands behind his back in a stroll taking in the sights of his rancho. Given that I have gotten to know my other abuelos so much, I wondered about all the stories I didn’t know about mi Papa Alvaro. But I was glad to be here today and pay tribute to him by decorating his grave on Día de Los Muertos.


We headed back to our rancho and I asked my cousins if they had asked for permission to go to Tzintzuntzan. I had been planting the seed for weeks before the day came around because I had to go with someone so my abuela wouldn’t freak about me going by myself. Thankfully after going with them to ask for permission I had a car full of primas and we headed off. On the ride there my cousins mentioned how Mama Coco was from a pueblo not too far from us, one that we would pass on the way to Tzintzuntzan. They said that Pixar was out there in the pueblos de Michoacan for research on the movie but that the family didn’t get anything out of it. It’s great to know that a lot of traditions from your culture are finally featured on the big screen but at what price? Coco is still one of my favorite movies but I also recognize how different our cultures of profit are. Americans tend to keep things for themselves, compared to ranchos that tend to share in one form or another with their community. Either way, I now have it on my bucket-list to visit Mama Coco before I leave Mexico, she is currently 105 years old and I’m curious to have a small conversation with her. The one thing that has been good for her is the publicity and the people that come and bring gifts when they visit.


About an hour later we found ourselves stuck in traffic heading into Tzintzuntzan. There is one road that connects Tzintzuntzan, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio and there were thousands of tourist heading in to watch the magic of Día de Los Muertos. In fact these are some of the Pueblos Mágicos de Michoacán, which explains why we saw so many tourist busses heading in to the towns. There was so much traffic that after a while I decided it was best to follow the cars driving on the opposite side of the road against traffic, thankfully there was a small road that lead into the city before any car heading in our direction reached us. We drove for a bit asking for directions towards the panteón. We got lost for a bit but we found some poster paper directing us to a parking lot. Somehow we got lucky enough to have found the second to last parking spot in the small lot of a family that was providing parking for the day. Again, another miracle given how many cars were driving into the town.


It was just before 8pm and we made our way in the direction of the panteón which was only a couple of blocks away. As we got closer we saw the church and we heard the music. We all looked at each other and said “Ya empezó! Le corremos?” And off we went running up the hill not wanting to miss a thing. What happened next felt magical. We walked through a wooden doorway next to the church that lead to a huge patio, it almost looked like a park with trees and grass everywhere. It was night time already, and there were small candles and cempasúchil lining the long walkways along the grass. It felt like that moment in Coco when Miguel first walks into the Land of the Dead, only better because this was real life and I could hear banda everywhere. I was so excited and filled with emotion that I was lucky enough to experience this in none other than the state of Michoacán, my motherland! Off in the distance we saw the bandas and a parade off people making their way out of the church grounds and towards the panteón. We were all in awe of how beautiful everything was and the excitement in the air. We made our way towards the crowd and it was amazing to see the families and the women dressed as guares with the indigenous garments used by the Purépechas, carrying the corona de cempasúchil and the ofrendas that will be placed in their loved one’s tomb. It was one family after another, each with their own banda, different songs flowing in the air as the celebration went on.


We made our way into the crowd of families and towards the panteón. As we exited the church grounds we walked into what looked like the town center as there were merchants everywhere selling artesanías and food surrounded by tourist making their way up to the panteón. We made our way, hand in hand, with so many people surrounding us as everyone walked shoulder to shoulder. Tzintzuntzan has two panteónes next to each other and you could see the candle light and hear all of the bandas even before you entered. We made our way to the panteón on the right hand side, what we forgot to consider was to bring better shoes since it had rained earlier and it was quite muddy. As soon as we stepped in we saw how beautiful everything was, tombs surrounded my candles, cempasúchil, food offerings, pictures, and their family members. We slipped and slid our way through the panteón maintaining our balance as we walked through the muddy grounds and stoped and admired all the different tombs and stood and watched as bandas serenaded families loved ones. I was in awe, and just as beautiful as it looked, it also smelled amazing with all the cempasúchil flowers surrounding us. We saw some families. With chairs and blankets, some even arranged a sleeping post next to the tombs as they were preparing to spend the entire night with their loved ones.


We then decided me wanted to see what the view looked like from the Yácatas, the pyramid ruins up on the hill of Tzintzuntzan. We made our way up the hill seeing all the different tourist walking around us. It was amazing to see how many people came to admire this tradition. We finally made our way up and one of my cousins mentioned how amazing Tzintzuntzan was and was in disbelief that she had never visited before- actually none of them had visited before. I was glad to have been able to share this experience with them, because being from the rancho people don’t always have the means or the permission from parents to venture off on little adventures like this. Being in the pyramid archeological site was also nice, though I wish to come back in the daytime to admire it in all its remaining glory. From the top of the hill we could see both panteónes flickering with distant candlelight and we could here bits and pieces of the music filling the air. We wished we could have seen the island of Janitzio out in Lake Pátzcuaro- they say on Día de Los Muertos the whole island lights up with all the candles placed on the tombs. I guess we will have to wait until next year to see that. I told my cousins to get ready for next year, this time I was planning on renting a hotel several months in advance because everything was already sold out in September.


We ate some tacos and got some ponche to keep us warm and made our way back to the car since it was nearing 10pm. There was still so much to do and so much to see but we had to make our way back to the rancho at a somewhat decent time. Most people stay out in the panteón until sunrise but sadly we had to head back home after two short hours of exploring. Before we left our uncle told us not to drive through certain towns because of the crimes that tend to happen once it’s dark. We took the long way back following a bus from Morelia as to not drive alone in the carreteras de Michoacán. Despite it’s beauty and wonderful people, there’s still dangerous circumstances in this state of Mexico. Like a car full of women driving in the middle of the night in distant pueblos. My cousins stayed up with me singing along to Adele and Drake as we made our way back home though the dark and winding roads. We made it home just before midnight and as I got ready for bed I was awestruck that this night had actually happened. Hoping and planning to do this again next year.

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