The famed Day of the Dead ceremonies around Mexico’s Lake Patzcuaro were once again thronged with visitors on Monday, economic relief for a tourist-dependent region that suffered from last year’s pandemic shutdown of the observance.
In the lakeside city of Patzcuaro itself, tourists were treated to a parade, theater and music performances.
“Come and visit us, Patzcuaro welcomes you with open arms,” said Julio Arreola, mayor of the city in the western state of Michoacan that is famed for its colonial-era plazas and architecture.
But in some smaller villages around the lakeshore, residents tried to preserve the authentic, non-tourist flavor of traditions passed down for hundreds of years.
While kids in Mexico City donned Halloween-style costumes based on the Netflix series Squid Game, people in the village of Arocutín were more concerned with the flower arrangements and candles meant to guide the spirits of the dead home.
Residents of Arocutín started hanging up traditional garlands of marigold flowers early morning Sunday to adorn the entrance of the small local cemetery.
Arocutín remains a holdout: It is the only town in the region where the cemetery lies in the churchyard, and where all the tombs are dug directly into the earth, surrounded by a simple ring of stones, rather than the more elaborate cement and brick vaults used elsewhere.
“It’s all about preserving tradition as much as we can,” said Alma Ascencio, the representative for local artisans. “Tourism has distorted everything. This is a celebration, sure, but a religious one, so there is no music or much alcohol. It is very private, a completely different thing.”
While the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro is the site best known for colorful Day of the Dead celebrations, the tiny island remains remains closed to visitors to avoid crowding. That raised concerns that tourists might flock to smaller villages nearby.
Those concerns may be overstated. The only American in Arocutín Monday was Georgia Conti. A retired healthcare manager, she decided to move to Arocutín precisely because of its beauty and traditions, and she now lives here with her dog.
When she was building her house with her late husband, they found bones that were believed to be those of a soldier killed in 1915 during the Mexican Revolution.
“Some tourists do come around here, but here is a different world. I really respect their traditions,” said Conti. “Villagers are really welcoming and told me I could lay my mother’s ashes here, next to the unknown soldier. I will probably be buried here when I die.”
The Day of the Dead originated in Indigenous cultures and has been celebrated for thousands of years, but tourists started arriving in Arocutín only in 2002. Residents are open to sharing their costumes, but resistant to changing them in any way.
“We don’t celebrate Halloween here. We are not American, we celebrate our dead. Our culture is rich enough here in Michoacán and Mexico,” Ascencio said while preparing marigold garlands.
Preparations for the Day of the Dead start on the 31st with residents adorning the tombs with marigold arches and candles. That is the night Mexicans celebrate their deceased children, while the night from the 1st to the 2nd is dedicated to the adult dead.
Arocutín is one of the few communities where a church bell rings to call the souls and guide them back to the land of the living, to prevent them from getting lost. Each community has a different sound. This is also one of the few communities where people stay up all night, offering food and presents to the deceased.
“We coexist with our dead. We bring them all the things they liked when they were alive. Sometimes it is a beer, or a tequila with a cigarette,” said Alma Ascencio.
Elizabeth Ascencio lost her newborn 20 years ago and every year comes to adorn the small stone tomb with marigold petals to guarantee his return for the night.
“This is a special day, a beautiful day,” said Elizabeth Ascencio. “We try very hard to welcome our dead.”
Every year, the town erects a big decorated arch at the entrance to the cemetery. To many, this is the door through which the dead enter. According to tradition, the only force that allows residents to lift the tree trunks that form the arch are the souls of the children who respond to the sound of the bells and come to help.
Bunches of Mexican marigolds adorn another monumental wooden arch that lies on the floor of another small cemetery not far from Arocutín. A group of residents patiently tie the flowers to the tree trunks, while others rest or enjoy a taco under the sun. The villagers decorate the arches, then lift them into place.
Cecilio Sánchez, a construction worker and a resident of the neighboring town of San Francisco Uricho, learned how to make the flower arch from his elders. “But for all of us, our arch is much more beautiful than the one in Arocutín,” Sánchez said.
Maria Ermenegildo, 69, is a traditional embroidery artisan who has lived in Arocutín her entire life.
“We’ve always done it this way,” said Ermenegildo, while finishing the last marigold garlands ahead of the big night. “No other village can decorate and celebrate the way we do. We feel very proud every time tourists tell us how beautiful everything is.”