While this time of the year brings the fun of Halloween to most of the Western world, the Mexicans have their own unique way of ‘celebrating’ those who have passed away. On 1st November – the Day of the Dead – we had an awesome opportunity to visit a local village buzzing with people around the cemetery in a festival full of fascinating traditions to honour their family members and friends who are no longer with them.
We arrived at Romerillo, a village not far from San Cristóbal de las Casas, in a group of 10+ people from the hostel to find a field full of people, food tents and ferris wheels along with other quirky attractions that at first glance reminded me more of a summer funfair than an event to remember the departed.
Weaving through the endless lanes of taco, fried plantain and fruit water stalls, we reached the cemetery. The sea of yellow flowers adorning the hundreds of humble graves backed up to a row of 22 huge blue crosses decorated with flowers and pine branches. Standing tall and proud, the crosses representing the 22 communities located in and around Romerillo acted as an impressive centerpiece of the cemetery.
Lucky for us, we had a local friend, Marco, to explain the traditions we were witnessing in this area. As the legend goes, these 22 massive wooden crosses used to keep falling down back in the day – according to the locals, the monkeys (which I understood to be more spiritual figures than actual cheeky animals) were responsible for this. For this reason, now on the Day of the Dead a group of musicians dress up as monkeys and make their way around around the whole cemetery playing music and dancing in order to protect the graves and prevent the crosses from falling again.
The families of the no longer living come to decorate their graves on the day – they lay flowers on the graves, light candles and oddly enough, pour carbonated drinks like Coca-Cola on them too. Apparently, this symbolises cleansing the soul – as coke makes you burp! It’s also a super cheap drink here which is accessible to everyone – hence its use to represent the cleansing process.
The crosses on the graves are actually Mayan, not Christian and the colour of each cross also signifies a distinction – white crosses are for children, blue or green ones for adults, while the black ones represent the elderly resting in the grave. The number of crosses on the grave also signifies the number of people sharing the same spot – as Marco told us, sometimes people are buried one on top of the other, by digging the graves deeper into the ground rather than wider to the sides.
On this day, food plays a big role in the festivities – people believe that on this day, the departed come back to walk with the living, so ‘sharing a meal’ with those who have passed away is an important part of the day.
We also enjoyed the sun, some food and a great conversation with a local young man from a neighbouring community. Wearing his white sheep’s wool vest, which signifies status of religious, political or other authority, he approached us as we were soaking in the sun sitting on the grass. He surprised us with his level of English and his enthusiasm to practice it. We couldn’t believe he had learnt the language so well just from interacting with the few foreigners that wonder through this part of the country. Super impressive!
As we were heading back from Romerillo, I was feeling super grateful to have authentically experienced this beautiful local tradition of honouring the dead before returning to the streets of San Cristóbal, full of young people with Catrina sugar-skull painted faces and crazy costumes, ready for a wild night.