Posts

Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people's homes overlooking the whole thing -- a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.

POTW: Restos: The Cemetery in San Miguel de Allende

At the rear of the Panteón Municipál, the city cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, is a columbarium, the wall of nichos where the urns of ashes of those cremated are interred. It holds memories and tells stories. It also tells us about cultural differences and ideas about life and death.

Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people's homes overlooking the whole thing -- a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.

Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people’s homes overlooking the whole thing
— a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.


I like Mexican cemeteries. To me, they seem very real and very human. They are not sterile, tidy places. They are not manicured. They are certainly not uniform. They are a reflection of the life that came before them, the untidy lives lived by the people that now inhabit—and perhaps haunt—them.

They are not like the cemetery in southern California where my mother lies buried. It is one of those “Green Hills” type places, the kind they don’t even call a cemetery anymore. It’s a “Memorial Park” or something like that and looks more like a golf course. Like no one is buried there. You are not allowed to have an actual gravestone in such a place. Nope. No monuments or statues or mausoleums. None of these overdone, over-wrought tombs with weeping Victorian angels like the ones that adorn and beckon from the cemeteries we love to visit on our travels, cemeteries like the lovely Pére Lachaise in Paris or Highgate Cemetery in London.

No, these “memorial park” pseudo-golf courses allow only a simple plaque marking the plot where love now resides. A stone or metal rectangle, flush with the manicured lawn. No headstone or tomb or even a cross is allowed to break the clean, un-dead line of the rolling hills of grass.

No Grass… but Ahhh… Life Among the Dead

But Mexican cemeteries! Ahhh, now here we have signs aplenty of the actual people behind the graves, both living and dead. The Mexican graveyards I know and love are much like life in this rich and colorful country—varied and many, often untidy, frequently haphazard, exuberant and overdone. Ranging from the professionally correct to the lovingly hand-crafted. Seldom perfect but invariably heartfelt. There are large and fine mausoleums housing whole families with carved marble columns and weeping angels aplenty. They sit next to roughly hewn crosses with hand-painted remembrances. There are live flowers, in full flush or wilted, but they are usually outnumbered by an overabundance of plastic posies, frequently red, often faded to old-lady dusty rose.

At the back of the Panteón Municipál, the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, is the columbarium, a wall of small nichos where the urns or boxes of ashes of those who have been cremated are placed. Each nicho has its plaque, its shelf for vases of flowers or perhaps a candle. But except for their square size, the nichos’ only uniformity is their lack of sameness. Some are bricked up. Others have rather plain cement slab fronts. Some have marble, others stone. Some are white, others pink; some have the names and dates carved, others are written by an unsteady hand. The creators of my mother’s cemetery would, ahem, be turning in their graves at the untidiness of it all.

But to me, the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende is a far more inviting place, despite the fact that at my age I have way too many friends now silently residing there. It is vivid… in the true sense of that word. It reflects life rather than death. It is vibrant with the whole mess of human feelings and actions and levels of being.

At my mother’s “memorial park,” every one of those dead souls, who was so much a vibrant being full of individual tastes and feelings and favorites and hates and loves, is reduced to the exact same-sized plaque in a rectangle of pesticide-fed lawn, all marching in lockstep down the rolling hillsides of the “park” at the precise same distance apart.

A flat carved grave plaque in a flat lawn in a cemetery in California, with roses.

My mother’s grave plaque in a “Green Hills” type cemetery in Calfornia–just like every other stone


The Music in the Air of the Cemetery in San Miguel

When I visit an American “memorial park,” I never hear music in my head. The only notes I might hear would be the somber hymn of a funeral in progress under a tent canopy on the next rolling hillside over. But in a Mexican graveyard, I always fancy I hear music, even when the place is empty. It might be the Cucurrrrucucu of “La Paloma Triste” or the weeping notes of “La Llorona.” Or maybe I just hear the small voice of a child singing “Las Mañanitas,” the birthday song. But it is always there, just below the surface.

During the night of Dia de los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende, the music rises up and becomes real. For days beforehand, the cemetery in San Miguel, like those across the country, is cleaned and weeded, the graves scrubbed and painted. Flowers, especially cempazúchitl, the Mexican marigold, are carried in by the armload. Candles, sugar skulls, gold paper decorations, and other items are brought in to decorate the graves.

On the night itself, the whole place becomes party central. Whole families basically camp out at the graves of their loves ones, eating and drinking and having a fine fiesta. The music might be a radio or iPod. Or it could be mariachis. By morning, it could turn into a fairly drunken version of “Caminos de Guanajuato” with its refrain loudly declaring “No vale nada la vida…” “Life is worth nothing…”

Yes, Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende.

Make Mine Mexican

For me, the choice is pretty clear. Unless you can sprinkle me over a mountain top or throw me wildly to the wind and the waves, I’ll take the messy but vivid life and fullness of a Mexican cemetery over the tidy uniformity and dullness of a Stateside “Memorial Park.” Just bury my heart in the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende.

Dreamy girl conchero dancer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

The 5 Best Times to Visit San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Fireworks, San Miguel de Allende, MexicoLet’s say this right off—there is no bad time to visit San Miguel de Allende, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the celebrated colonial heart of Mexico. Its gracious and hospitable people, colonial architecture and cobblestoned streets and its sense of warm embrace operate at all hours and in all seasons.

But there are times when the oft-mentioned “magic” of San Miguel grows exponentially, turning itself into a cauldron of love potion that has captured uncounted visitors. “Stay,” it whispers. “You don’t really want to go home, do you? Stay and live in this magical circle of color and sunlight and celebration forever.”

So what are the very best times to visit and perhaps succumb to San Miguel’s magic? When are the days of passion and pomp, of fiestas and fireworks, of days over-spilling with bright people and warm welcomes and fascinating things to see and do? Grab your calendar and let’s look at what I think are the five best times to visit San Miguel de Allende.

Dia de la Conquista

The first Friday in March is when the conchero dancers arrive. Named for the anklets that rattle as they stomp, jump, turn, step, lunge, and stomp some more, they dance hour after hour, in a religious ritual that is a mix of indigenous and Catholic beliefs.

The groups of dancers begin arriving early in the morning and dance into the evening, their movements a homage to “Christ of the Conquest,” symbol of the acceptance of Christ by Mexico’s indigenous people. Beyond this Catholic veneer, pre-Christian traditions take over. The dancer’s costumes offer an over-the-top modern version of Aztec fashion. Huge headdresses are topped with 6-foot pheasant feathers, some dyed to a neon glow; loin cloths and dresses are covered with Aztec symbols appliqued in blazing metallic lamé. And the sound! Try to hear this in your head—deep drumming pounded out on huge oil drums; notes strummed on armadillo-shell mandolins; the mournful note of a blown conch shell. Mix in the pungency of copal incense wafting around, add in the movements of the crowd trying to capture the spectacle on memory cards, and you get some idea of why you need to be in San Miguel de Allende on Dia de la Conquista.

Dreamy girl conchero dancer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

 

Semana Santa – The Pageantry, Passion and Solemnity of Holy Week

If the Conquista dancers have Aztec roots, Semana Santa in San Miguel de Allende is all Catholic, all religious, all the time. It is the best possible mirror held up to the deep spirituality and passion of the Mexican people.
It starts the Friday before Holy Week, with Day of the Altars to honor the Virgin of Sorrows.

Semana Santa Procession in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoEvery fountain in town is decorated, enormous and elaborate altars appear in public places. But the most telling and charming altars are built in private homes, their doors and windows open to the street so passers-by can enjoy their beauty and piety.

Religious processions go on all week, peaking on Good Friday when a statue of Christ is put on trial in the courtyard of the Parroquia, then paraded around the Jardin only to come face to face with a statue of his mother. Amid a silence so deep you can feel it on your skin, the statue of Christ actually bows three times to Mary. The collective gasp of the crowd can suck the breath right out of you. The Good Friday sunset procession is the biggest, the longest and the most solemn. Silent but for the dirge of drums, it winds through the streets in black and purple and lamplight. Even the huge crowds are now silent. It is profoundly moving.

See more on Semana Santa in San Miguel de Allende at experiencesanmiguel.com

Las Fiestas Patrias

September is pure secular fiesta time, beginning with Mexico’s Independence Day. At 11 pm on September 15th, El Grito is called out by the mayor from the balcony of the Allende House at the same moment it’s happening in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta and every town and city in the country. “Viva Mexico” rings across the square as the crowd repeats the joyous cry of independence, waving flags and sporting red-white-and-green flags painted on their faces.

Following the ceremony, one of the best fireworks shows of the year takes over the skies above the church, including giant castillo towers that send showers of sparks raining down onto the paving stones, where crazy young men dance among them.

The Voladores de Papantla performing in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoThe festive spirit continues for the next couple of weeks, capped by a giant party in honor of San Miguel himself, on or about September 29th. The alborada celebration starts at 3 am (don’t ask me why) with music, dancing in the streets and, this being Mexico, a lot more fireworks. A tall pole is also erected in the Jardin, where the famous “Voladores de Papantla” also perform their death-defying ritual. While one man stands on a tiny platform atop the pole and plays a flute, four others do the “flying.” With ropes tied to their ankles, they fall backward from the top of the pole. As the ropes unwind, they spin slowly around the pole, getting lower and lower, closer to the ground, with each cycle. It is a wondrous sight to see.

Dia de los Muertos

Publid Day of the Dead altar in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoDay of the Dead is a big deal in San Miguel de Allende. Beginning on Halloween night, you’ll see throngs of people with faces made up to look like skulls—pretty skulls, horrible skulls, lacy skulls, skulls adorned with flowers and whorls and flourishes and sunken eye sockets. Altars appear all over town, honoring those who have passed, decorated with sugar skulls and pan de muerto, dried fruit and marigolds and photos of the deceased. Favorite brands of beer, cigarettes or food will be added to tempt the dead to return for one night.

On November 1, the crowds move to the cemetery. The graves have been white-washed and decorated with flowers, and the people spend the whole night there by the graves of their loved ones, eating, chatting, drinking, laughing and making music through the night. You are welcome to come along.

In front of the Parroquia, giant altars and elaborate displays are set up, great for strolling past and snapping photos.

Navidad – Christmas in San Miguel de Allende

Christmas tree in the Jardin, San Miguel de Allende, MexicoChristmas activities in San Miguel begin with a colorful Christmas market set up in the Plaza Cívica. On or about December 16th, the town Christmas tree is lighted in the Jardín. That night also begins Las Posadas, the traditional processions that take place every night for nine nights in different neighborhoods. They represent the futile search by Mary and Joseph for a place to spend the night. The final posada on Christmas Eve begins at the Monjas church and ends at the Parroquia.

Christmas Eve Mass is a very big deal in San Miguel, as it is throughout Mexico. Christmas day itself is quiet, a day for family. But because San Miguel is a tourist town, you won’t have trouble finding a great Christmas dinner at one of the varied restaurants in town.

Magical San Miguel

To repeat, there is no bad time to visit San Miguel de Allende. But my suggestion is to visit sooner rather than later. While San Miguel is holding its own well against most developers, especially in the UNESCO-protected centro, there are clear signs of gentrification going on. Shops that used to line the Jardin can no longer afford the rent. The same is now happening farther out. On the Ancha de San Antonio, once lined with hardward stores, car mechanics, and tiny family eateries, you’ll now find organic markets, artisan cheese shops, and trendy restaurants in what has effectivally become a “restaurant row.” I have mixed feelings about this. Read this about Penang, Malaysia, to get an idea why.

The bottom line is still the same. Come to San Miguel de Allende. It is still magical. And if you can schedule a trip around one of these events, you’ll get the most and the best of San Miguel all wrapped up in a festive bow.

But be warned, San Miguel de Allende is contagious. Once exposed to its magic, you may never recover.


Pin it For Later

Pinnable image--Day of the Dead, one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende, MexicoPinnable image: The Parroquia, a symbol of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico


While you are in San Miguel de Allende, you may want to explore a bit farther afield. Guanajuato City, the state capital, is just an hour away. It is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth making the short trip. Colorful, hilly, culturally rich, with the young vibe of a university town, Guanajuato might just steal your heart. Learn more about the best things to do in Guanajuato City in this post by our friends at the LiveDreamDiscover blog.