In the past weeks, we have explored ghost stories and scary attractions as part of America’s Halloween traditions. This week, we traveled to Mexico for Dia De Muertos to see this unique celebration in its home country. We saw first hand the pageantry and rituals that predated Spanish colonization and traced directly back to Aztec celebrations. We also witnessed an endearing and spiritual practice where the living reached back to their departed loved ones to ask for favors and to keep them alive in their hearts.
Derrik Chinn, from Turista Libre, was our guide for the day. We have been with Derrik to Lucha Libre, Tijuana Water Parks, and several other tours that we enjoyed immensely. When we saw he was offering a Dia De Muertos tour, we had to sign up.
Per usual, he met the group at the border in San Ysidro and escorted us to the waiting Turista Libre bus. The bus, like Derrick, was all dressed up for Day of the Dead. Our minds raced with questions and sensory overload. Why were we walking on a blanket of marigolds and where did the rest of the crazy iconography come from? On the way to the historic Mercado Miguel Hidalgo, Derrek told us the first layer of this story.
Long before the Spanish, Aztecs worshiped the goddess Mictecacihuatl, queen of the underworld. The ninth month of the Aztecs (about August) was spent in celebration of the departed and their new queen. With the introduction of Catholicism, the old ways blended into the new.
Instead of a month, the celebration (at least in Tijuana) spans four days. October 30th commemorates those who died in conflict, like crossing the border. October 31 the angelitos (spirits of children) come to visit. November 1st is All Saints Day, which honors both the traditional European saints and some indigenous New World compatriots. November 2 is All Souls day and the “official” Dia De Muerto, where families will go to the cemetery to visit with their departed in a fairly joyous memorial.
For a long time, the church suppressed the holiday as syncretizing pagan elements with Catholic Christianity. This was particularly true in Northern Mexico, where the Aztec traditions never historically existed. Several events helped bring these celebrations to Tijuana. About fifty years ago, the federal government made Dia De Muertos an official holiday. Also, Tijuana is a city of immigrants. It’s Mexico’s youngest city but the fourth largest. These people came from all over, including the deep south. They brought their traditions and beliefs north with them.
Mercado Miguel Hidalgo
This mercado is a very local farmers market in traditional Mexican fashion. Fresh produce, festive pinatas and a little of everything is offered for the native Tijuanas and not aimed at the typical tourist. Colorful skulls and other decorations were put up for the season. What a beautiful scene.
Since it was Sunday, the market was bustling. I couldn’t believe the parking skills of our driver. We left the bus and headed to the Oferendo, an altar built in the center market for offering to the dead.
At first glance, I saw a colorful explosion of orange surrounding some familiar iconography. I recognized the Christian crosses and calacas (those skeleton figures we all associate with Day of the Dead) surrounded in a sea of marigolds. We shared some pan de muerto, a traditional egg bread associated with the holiday, as Derrek explained what we were looking at.
- Marigolds: The flower of the dead. Their strong smell helps guide the spirits back to the land of the living. Also, orange is a color of grieving for the Aztecs. The orange represents the fire of life that is now extinguished.
- Dog statues: These dogs would guide the dead and protect them on their journey.
- Salt: A purifying agent for the deceased,
- Water: Sacred to Aztecs and as a baptism for the Catholic
- La Calavera Catrina: Based on a popular sketch by Jose Guadalupe Posada, these skeletons are iconic for the holiday and symbolic of the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl
- Sugar Skulls: Skulls are an Aztec symbol and an offering. They are often etched with the name of the beloved who passed.
- Copal: A native incense used ritualistically by the Aztecs
- Candles: To light the way for the dead to return
- Crosses and statues of saints: To give Christian blessing to the deceased
There was so much to look at but we didn’t have time to linger. We wanted to explore this vibrant mercado. Derrik, ever the playful guide, sent us out with a map and a scavenger hunt. Never one to turn down a challenge we started our search for:
- Huaraches (traditional Mexican Sandals)
- Café de olla (traditional Mexican Coffee)
- Lucha libre masks
- Chicharrones (pork rinds)
- Chapulines (dried crickets)
- Nopales (cactus leaves)
- Oversized Sombrero
- Habanero Chiles
- Donald Trump Pinata
Off into the fray, we went. Item by item was captured on our cell phone pictures. Pork rinds the size of a poster. Mole that made our mouth water. The Trumpster piñata ready to beat in effigy at some Mexican fiesta. We just couldn’t find those darn Chapulines.
We made lots of new friends asking for directions and we finally got some we could understand. They are right next door the smiling shopkeeper told us in surprisingly good English. Sure enough, in the display case, we found a bag of crickets waiting to be snacked on.
We boarded the bus, triumphant in our accomplishment. Some of our group were getting their faces painted. Others were taking shots of Mescal. We flagged down Derrik and showed him our photographic bounty, for our efforts we were rewarded with Cascarones – party eggs. These weren’t your usual party eggs that kids fill with confetti or flour and bash their friends over the head with. They were beautifully decorated with their own Dia De Muertos face painting.
Panteon Municipal Numero 1 (first public cemetery)
True to the nature of the holiday, our next stop was Panteon Municipal Numero 1, the first public cemetery in Tijuana. The flower ladies were outside selling, of course, marigolds. Inside was crypt of Tijuana’s unofficial resident saint Juan Castillo Morales, or simply Juan Soldado (Juan the soldier).
The European church doesn’t always recognize new world saints, much like they didn’t agree with new world religions commingling with All Saints Day. Still, many pilgrims and faithful come to this place to ask Juan Soldado for miracles. How much do these miracles cost? They only need to take a pebble with them but, when the miracle is performed, they need to bring that pebble back. Often, they would bring back more and leave it as a gift for Juan Soldado.
A mariachi band was playing for Juan Soldado when we arrived. We toured the small crypt that was filled with offerings for favor and plaques from the faithful who have been blessed and a pile of pebbles for the needy. All this activity brings up an obvious question. Who was Juan Soldado?
His story is like a telenovela or lucha libre fight. Juan, the hero was a working class man and the villains were from the rich and privileged class. In 1938, Juan was accused of raping and killing a young girl from a wealthy family. Many common people believed the true villain was a powerful general who had a certain affinity for very young women. The family wanted revenge and Juan was an easy target.
When Juan was arrested, there were riots at the courthouse that made the municipality think twice. However, the young man was also a soldier and the other suspect, a general. Juan was quickly tried in a military court and summarily executed by firing squad. He fell right where his tomb stands today.
Panteon No1 is a stone’s through away from the border (pun intended). Before the border wall was erected, the Puerta Blanca (white gate) crossing could be seen from Juan’s crypt. The first miracle that Juan performed was to grant safe passage to a woman who wanted to return north to her family. Today, many immigrants seek favor here for the arduous journey ahead. Is it not surprising that Tijuana has a local saint for safe border passage? Local celebrations evolve, much like the extra day they added to the traditional Dia De Muertos celebration for those who did not survive the journey.
Next, we visited the Gil family crypt. Here we learned the tragic story of Enriqueta Gil. She was a young woman from a rich local family who fell in love with a poor boy (Romeo and Juliet anyone?) She wanted to marry her love but her father forbade it. He locked her in her room until she recanted her love, but Enriqueta was strong and stubborn. She refused to eat unless she could be with her beloved. Her father bargained with her. Offered her trips to Europe and anything money could buy. All she wanted was love.
Finally, as she was clearly dying her father gave in. He called the priest and his daughter donned her wedding dress. Right as she said – I do, she died. To this day, Tijuana taxi drivers claim a woman in a wedding dress would hail their cab and ask to go to the cemetery. When they arrive and look back to get the fair, she vanishes.
The story was sad but Derrick had a happy surprise for us. He arranged for a singer to perform three traditional folk songs from the crypt of Familia Gil. She looked somber all dressed in black with her face painted for Day of the Dead. The voice rising from the crypt, however, was nothing short of angelic. As an American, it was hard to overcome the cognitive dissonance of beauty in the cemetery. As a person, I hope that my family will visit my grave and remember me. I hope that it is a beautiful experience.
La Casa de la Tlayuda
Our final stop for the night was La Casa de la Tlayuda for some Oaxacan cuisine. Our main dish was the restaurant’s namesake – tlayuda- which is a very traditional Oaxacan food. The region is rich in corn and the tlayuda is a large, chewy corn tortilla topped with meats and cheese, much like a pizza.
It was late in the day and we had built up quite an appetite. The first tlayuda out was piled high with all kinds of meats. My mouth watered at the carne asada and chorizo. I couldn’t wait to sample the carnitas and then the waiter said chapulines. Weren’t those the damned crickets that almost foiled my scavenger hunt? Sure enough, right next to a scrumptious piece of carne asada I could see the legs. In fact, one you start seeing them you couldn’t stop. Oh well, when in Rome…..(and hungry).
The next tlayuda’s were more traditional for the American pallet with my particular favorite being the mole. In many ways, this meal symbolized our day. Dia de Muertes originals from deep in the south of Mexico much like our Oaxacan meal did. Also, the ttayudas were vaguely similar to pizza but very distinctively Mexican. In the same way that Dia De Muertes is similar but different than the Halloween we grew up with. Thank you Derrik and Tuerista Libre for fantastic tour of an authentic Mexican holiday.