Día de Muertos in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán

Día de Muertos, is upon us. Although a tradition that defines our culture, every town in Mexico celebrates this season differently with their own customs, making each place unique. In particular, Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, holds a world-famous tradition that is recognized for its breathtaking emotive customs. So recognized that creators of the famous Disney movie Coco inspired many of the events and images in this town. For that reason, in Lolo, we invite you to join us in highlighting Pátzcuaro during Día de Muertos and enjoy one of the most iconic Mexican traditions that are part of the identity of Mexico.

One of Mexico’s favorites, Pátzcuaro is one of those places that has not lost its everyday authenticity despite the influence of outside tourism; with its beautiful colonial architecture, this is a place rich in history and culture. Here, one goes back in time walking through its pebble-stone streets, enjoying its tranquility, passing by adobe houses and tile roofs, and surrounding oneself with the warmth of its kind and beautiful people. 

In pre-colonial times, Pátzcuaro and its surroundings were established as headquarters of the political power of the Tarascan or Purépecha state. Its large open spaces make historians think that they served to bring together important population centers before the arrival of the Spanish, making this a city of prominence. This place of importance was affirmed centuries later with Spanish colonization in 1540, when the Bishopric of Michoacán was transferred from Tzintzuntzan to Pátzcuaro, granting the city the category of capital of Michoacán for a short period of time, later turning to the current state’s capital, Morelia (named Valladolid at that time). 

Pátzcuaro has an unparalleled charm; there’s a reason ancient inhabitants of Michoacan, in the times of the Purépecha reign, chose it to be a place of recreation for the indigenous nobility, and in turn, a place of worship in their temples. Its name means "la puerta al cielo/the gate of heaven," since it was believed that the gods ascended and descended here, and it was the main religious center of this civilization. They were not far from reality, because the city and its surroundings are peaceful and beautiful places.

In Pátzcuaro buildings and constructions retain their colonial essence, as if they had just been built yesterday. Visiting this place accentuates the magic and lucidity of history and culture. Due to its privileged geographical location within a valley, Pátzcuaro stands out among many other communities in Michoacan. Located here is the emblematic Lake of Pátzcuaro, where one can go out on a boat ride through its calm waters. The excursions through this lake usually have as destination the islands of Janitzio, La Pacanda, Tecuena, and Yunuén.

Among the largest and most celebrated festivals in Pátzcuaro are the Señor del Rescate de Tzintzuntzan, Holy Week, and, of course, today’s highlight, Día de Muertos, a spectacular indigenous ceremony of international recognition, which takes place from October 31st to November 2nd, when offerings are deposited to the deceased in the municipal cemetery. As we have mentioned before in other blogs, Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is an ancestral indigenous festivity around the memory of loved ones who are no longer with us.  These ancestral celebrations for the dead, make the pre-Columbian tradition coexist with the Catholic tradition and are one more example of the ethnic and cultural plurality of Mexico and Pátzcuaro is a highlight of this tradition for its solemn and majestic beauty.

The Island of Janitzio, located in the center of Lake Pátzcuaro, becomes the epicenter of Day of the Dead celebrations in the region. At dawn one is greeted with the mixture of the scents of the cempasuchil flower and incense, as well as the lighting of the candles and the first rays of the sun; making the mysticism of this ritual reach its maximum splendor when the souls return to the world of the dead. It all begins before midnight on November 1st with songs and traditional music, among which the danza de los pescadores, or the dance of the fishermen, stands out as a typical tradition worth witnessing. In this dance, the hunting of the "sacred duck" is carried out, where a group of fishermen or hunters is equipped with spears and go out at midnight to hunt for the "Pato Sagrado”, or “Sacred Duck." This is not only practiced for ceremonial purposes, but also as a sport, recognizing those who excel at this “dance.” Moreover, this duck is not meant to be an offering for altars, but food for family and community members who spend the whole night at the cemetery next to the grave of their loved ones. When sailing, these same fishermen illuminate the lake with their rafts, creating a breathtaking path of lights. 

Shortly before midnight, the inhabitants of Janitzio leave their houses and walk in procession towards the Tzirumútaro cemetery, with solemnity and respect. Around midnight the Janitzio cemetery, Tzirumútaro, is filled with floral offerings, music, and anticipation. When arriving at the graves of their loved ones, they place beautiful embroidered napkins on the tombstones and place the deceased's favorite foods on them. In addition, they decorate their graves with cempasúchil and other flowers as well as candles. The night passes between songs and prayers, together with the melancholy sound of the bell placed in the arch of the entrance of the cemetery, which invokes the souls of the deceased to travel safely to our world.

Visiting the Tzintzuntzan cemetery at night is a surreal experience for those who are not familiar with this Mexican tradition (and also for those who are!). It is spectacular to see the cemetery illuminated by the dim light of the candles, with the cemetery filled with flowers and orange cempasúchil petals, and it is even more emotive to see the relatives of the deceased eating together around the graves, while remembering their loved ones by telling stories and anecdotes. Although some graves are more ornate than others (the wealthiest even hire bands to liven up the evening) each and every one of the tombstones has some kind of adornment during Día de Muertos celebrations.

It is important to note that the festivities are not limited to November 1 and 2, starting from October 28, with October 31, November 1 and 2 being the most important dates. Also, it is not only the island of Janitzio that is recognized for its traditional celebration of the Day of the Dead, but also different surrounding towns, among which are: Jarácuaro, Tzurumutaro, Ihuatzio, Cucuchucho, and Tzintzuntzan. As well as the islands of La Pacanda, Yunuen, and Uranden. In these places cemeteries are filled with ofrendas, with cempasuchil flowers, candles, music, and feasts. In communities such as Santa Fé de la Laguna, Cuanajo, San Andrés Tziróndaro, and San Jerónimo Purenchécuaro, attached to their traditions, they also make ofrendas inside their homes and the beauty of these is such that they were another source of inspiration for the famous Disney movie Coco—there are rumors that the Disney character Mama Coco is real and lives in the town of Santa Fe de la Laguna (though denied by the movie's creators on Twitter).

Since we know words sometimes cannot make justice to this celebration, here’s a small clip that provides a visual glimpse of all we have described:

 

So, what do you think about this magical tradition in Pátzcuaro? Would you like to visit during these or any other times? Unfortunately, this year for Covid-19 restrictions, the island of Janitzio will be closed to tourists. This has been decided by the local government; during the night of november 1st, locals will not be able to leave the island and outsiders will not be able to disembark there. However, surrounding vecinities such as ​​Pátzcuaro, Quiroga, Tzintzuntzan, and Erongarícuaro will accept tourists but will limit their cemetery occupancy to 80% to maintain social distancing. Nonetheless, we hope that this blog inspired you to travel to Michoacán and Pátzcuaro and learn more about the diversity behind this beautiful celebration. Let us know if this is the case, we love reading from you!

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