El Dia de los Muertos
An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

Personal Account by Mark D. Lacy

After nightfall, on a long drive, late in October...

We finally arrived in the small lumber town in the Sierra Madre around 10:00pm, an hour after the town's electricity generator cut off to signal the mill workers that it was time to trade in bar stools for a productive night of sleep. The little town, under dense autumn skies, was hidden in the darkest dark -- the smoke of chimneys not visible; all movement absorbed in the night; and no dogs dared to bark. Our headlights seemed a nuisance, so we found our way down a long cobbled street by the amber glow of our parking lights. Our destination was tucked away between two churches by the town square. A faint glimmer of light glowed at the base of the door, helping us find our way.

El Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead Home
Cultural Invasion of Mexico
Traditions of the Past
Sugar Skulls and Flowers
Dia de los Muertos Altars
Pan de Muertos
Index of Interviews
Fearing we were too late to check in to the Casa de Huespedes, we listened at the door and heard women singing songs in Spanish. At a pause we knocked lightly and were invited in. My road-weary companions and I stumbled out of the darkness into a candle-lit kitchen, where six women were gathered around a shoebox full of photographs, passing them around the table and laying them out carefully in rows. The pictures were of their father and each one evoked a sweet childhood memory.

Their father, Señor Cabrera, was returning home in a few days for a visit, one woman told us as she led us by the light of a single candle down a hall to our room. Piñon burning in a small stone fireplace cast an orange glow over the pine board walls and we settled in for the night under heavy wool blankets guarded by tall hand-carved pine bed posts.

We woke to clanging pans and the toasty sweet smell of pineapple upside-down cake. A woman in the kitchen told us that this was Señor Cabrera's favorite. The guests would enjoy all the things Señor Cabrera enjoyed during their stay this week at the Casa de Huespedes. The table Señor Cabrera's daughters had huddled around the previous evening was covered with a white cloth. A framed photograph of El Señor rested in the middle. Off to the side, the freshly baked cake was cooling.

The guests were served an elaborate breakfast featuring huevos con chorizo y Queso Menonita with sope de pollo, pink grapefruit, fresh tortillas and crushed jalapeño salsa on the side. The women closed the kitchen promptly at 9:00am and went out to the mercado to stock up on groceries and paper streamers for El Señor's return.

Briefly, as enthusiastic children ran from the guest house to greet the morning train, we imagined they might come back swinging a suitcase like a piñata full of treats ready to burst open and a kind old grandfather in tow. But in the light of day we realized what we had missed in the infinite darkness the night before. Señor Cabrera was not returning home from a nearby rancheria, or his job rigging timber on the mountain slopes -- he was returning from the dead.

Señor Cabrera had been returning home on El Día de los Muertos for nearly five years. As several women delivered more heavy wool blankets and a couple of men came around offering tours to nearby waterfalls, the small crowd that formed in our room proudly pointed to the gifts of Señor Cabrera's love for woodworking -- the pine dresser, beds, chairs, and notched walls. He worked the timber harvest until a leg injury sent him to the mill to supervise the cutting crew. Señor Cabrera retired to help his daughter Maria build the sprawling guest house that became the family business.

An assortment of Señor Cabrera's possessions accumulated on the table, including chisels he used as a wood carver and his favorite recordings. Los Freddys and Grupo Liberacion played throughout the day, until 9:00pm, when the women's sentimental singing and candles replaced the lively current of stereo sound, clanging spoons and buzzing incandescent light bulbs. With only a few days left in October, the women were contemplating this year's ofrenda, the necessary altar to welcome their beloved father back home on November 2, El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Over the kitchen table, they stacked pine board shelves on Pemex Oil cans to form a series of terraces like a cultivated mountain side. White cloth covered the entire structure and Señor Cabrera's photograph was placed on the highest tier with four candles. Incense and a small gourd rattle were placed on the altar to honor ancient Indian spirits and ward off any evil ones.
Image by José Guadalupe Posada
      Posada's famous esqueleto "Catrina."

By morning, El Señor's constant companion, his gata blanca (white cat), had made herself a nest among his scattered things on the altar. Her pointed chin rested on the woodcarver's worn leather work gloves. The little old fancy cat was appropriately named "Catrina," for José Guadalupe Posada's famous print image -- a skeletal woman fancifully dressed with a big hat. Though normally not allowed on the kitchen table, or even in the kitchen, Catrina seemed perfectly secure among El Señor's things, and she was not discouraged.

The cooks were visited in the morning by several children holding up big baskets full of freshly baked bread. The women grabbed at an array of pan dulce, which they handed off to the last guests who straggled in late for breakfast. They carefully selected a pan de muertos, with a frosted skeleton painted on it. The decorative loaf of bread for the dead was placed on the ofrenda. A shopkeeper delivered several calacas, little wooden skeleton figurines in action poses -- two men sawing a log, a man holding court at a bar, one dancing with a stack of assorted cakes, and another enjoying a siesta while petting a white cat.

By evening, the ofrenda was taking shape, and taking over the activities of the guests. Everyone at the Casa de Huespedes was getting involved, and getting to know Señor Cabrera. Following dinner, his grandchildren cut papel picado images in vivid colors of tissue paper to hang above the ofrenda. Several guests found themselves carefully folding and cutting floral designs and snowflakes to compliment the children's laughing skulls. By the light of the growing number of candles, El Señor's daughters proudly looked over their creation. They discussed where fresh food and drink would go as the arrival of their father drew near. Mother was to stop by the house the next day with fresh flowers from the valley. One of the sisters commented that they should put the television on the altar and it should be showing "that cop show he likes, 'Hunter'."

On the morning of October 31, the day Americans go to Mexico to escape more than any other (except perhaps Thanksgiving, Christmas and Tax Day), new utensils appeared among the pots and pans in the kitchen. Rakes and shovels were propped against the door as if to fortify it against living beings coming, or going. A high energy breakfast was served -- hot potato stew, scrambled eggs with tomatoes and peppers, and frijoles with a stack of steaming corn tortillas. As soon as the plates were cleaned and picked up from the table, the women hurriedly threw on coats and wrapped their heads in bright scarves, folded their arms around the tools, and invited the guests to join them at the cemetery to see how Señor Cabrera liked to keep things neat and clean.

We all returned tired by mid afternoon. The rocky soil was leveled and the picket fence around Señor Cabrera's grave was given a fresh coat of turquoise blue paint. Leaving a trail of orange petals of cempazuchitl flowers (marigolds) for their grandfather to follow on his journey from the cemetery to the family home, the children returned an hour later with sniffles and big guilty smiles that quickly turned into giggles, and then uncontrollable squeals of laughter. They had arranged his visit to take him the long way around the town square, by the news stand, taco stand, the churro vendor at the train station, and the church.

"Masked children 'Trick-or-Treating' in Mexico's big cities" was the lead story on the evening news just as the TV blinked and the power fizzled out, but only the aroma of burning piñon came to our door in the pure darkness of that Halloween night.

A fresh bushel of fruit, brought up from the Pacific side of the Sierra Madre earlier in the day, was distributed generously over the altar, like a lush mountainous landscape -- a patchwork of tangerine orange, plantain yellow and pear green -- reaching up to the sky.

The following morning, November 1, the cooks and Señor Cabrera's daughters left all of the guests preoccupied with a tall stack of pancakes and warm caramel, and slipped out the front door unnoticed. Sleepy-eyed children wearing pajamas wandered in to organize the guests into an assembly line of pancake makers and filled us in on the day's activities. The neighbor's infant son died earlier in the year and the women were delivering some of Señor Cabrera's hand-carved toys to the family on this special occasion for remembering little innocent ones, El Día de los Angelitos.

Señor Cabrera's widow returned from Parral, where she was busy taking care of her parent's grave site and creating an ofrenda for Señor Cabrera's father, a dreamer who brought his family from the south to look for Pancho Villa's gold. She carried a crate with fresh produce, dutifully prepared to fix Señor Cabrera's favorite meal -- chile rellenos con cacajuate, baked sweet potatoes, black bean soup, and radish slices chilled in lemon juice.

The grandchildren divvied up one of Señor Cabrera's many cakes that was baked during the week, and orange sodas, Penafiel Naranjas, that he brought home for the kids every Friday. They looked on as the altar was spruced up with fresh flowers, pine branches and salt, but their heads grew heavy and they were carried off to bed. The sink was scrubbed. A hand towel and yucca soap were left out on the counter for Señor Cabrera to freshen up at the end of his journey. A kettle of tea simmered on the stove. With the meal prepared and placed on the ofrenda, La Señora stayed in front of the candle-lit altar late into the night.

On the big day, November 2, we woke up extra early with great anticipation, like children expecting a magical surprise from Santa Claus on Christmas morning. Hot oat meal and a tall stack of crispy tortillas sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar were devoured. "Undelé," the women urged. We didn't want to keep the dead waiting on El Día de los Muertos. Breakfast was hurried as the sun was about to peak over the mountain east of the town. The cemetery would soon be in light and people were racing the bright yellow rays as they pierced through the smoke-filled valley.

Five turistas can do the work of one burro, and they are easier to load up. We carried bundles of fresh flowers as the family led the way with plates of hot food and hot chocolate. Steady streams of people from town came up the road and Tarahumara families filed down from the steep hillsides in the bitter cold morning, bringing Casteñeda cans full of peppers and beans, wreaths of flowers, boom boxes and stiff drinks in clear bottles. Broken by occasional bursts of firecrackers, the sounds of Los Pinguinos del Norte, Ana Barbara and Graciela Beltran echoed from the cliffs above the pitched resting places.

Burros and horses looked on with interest and a pack of sheepish dogs milled around outside the cemetery, patiently waiting to help the dead with their leftovers. Most families stayed by their loved one's graves for several hours in the frigid morning, sharing delicious food and stories. They flocked to mass in a cheerful melee of chatter, drying their eyes and leaving trails of evaporating deep breaths in the crisp air.

Following mass, several neighbors stopped by to revisit El Señor's life and look over the wonderful ofrenda. The snow white cat, still holding her place on the edge of the altar, and still too clean and fancy for a dusty lumber town, gladly received affections meant for El Señor. He was well remember and all went on their way with a hot cup of tea.

Everyone seemed pleased with Señor Cabrera's visit. We ended the day with an elaborate fiesta featuring beef stew, venison, fettucini noodles, and a tequila fruit punch. Sometime during the night, Señor Cabrera's portrait was returned to its usual place on the pine paneled wall, just above his grandchildren's academic achievement certificates.

I think each of us dreamed of Señor Cabrera that night and all left great friends and admirers of the kind grandfather. And we all understood, the dead really do return in the hearts and minds of those who so lovingly remember.

Read more about the Origins of El Día de los Muertos.

Copyright 2003, by Mark Lacy and Houston Institute for Culture.