Spirits of the dead are arriving to reunite with their loved ones. Few living souls can see them, but there is little doubt that the deceased walk among us. We feel their presence on this Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) here in the corazon (heart) of Mexico. San Miguel de Allende is ground zero for this celebration, and here is where you’re likely to encounter La Calavera Catrina; the elegantly clad skeletal lady who waltzed out of a Diego Rivera mural to become the embodiment of those who’ve departed, and an icon of Mexican culture.
Altars are everywhere. In parks, homes, restaurants, cemeteries. Offerings beckon the ancestors to reunite with their families, if only for a few moments. It is widely believed that the dead lose most of their senses, and that their spirits often roam the earth in confusion. The sense of smell, however, is retained and enhanced. In order to make the departed feel at home, flowers are used in abundance. The city and the altars are filled with scents to soothe troubled souls.
Although altars vary somewhat in theme, there are many customary elements. Water to refresh the weary travelers. Palm straw to be used as a resting place. Incense and candles to guide the spirits home. And food; chicken mole, tamales, bread (pan de muerto), and any comestibles once enjoyed by the departed. Also open bottles of mezcal and cups of hot chocolate. This is perhaps the only time of the year in Mexico when food is widely discarded. After several days on the alter, only the aromas of the food items have been consumed by passing souls. The mezcal, of course, is recapped and retained, even though the spirits may have enhaled much of its vital essence.
Millions of troubled spirits wander the mountains of this tropical desert highland. Mexicans throughout recorded history have been involved in what must feel like an endless, often hopeless quest for freedom and justice. Those slaughtered or enslaved by gold-crazed Spanish Conquistadors are some of the most ancient spirits still seeking their final rest. The city of San Miguel de Allende itself is testament to the bloody conquest, rape, and pillage. 500 year old Spanish colonial architecture is carefully guarded and preserved in this World Heritage site.
Other troubled spirits include Father Miguel Hidalgo and Ignacio Allende. Their souls must be weary after more than 200 years of seeking rest. Father Hidalgo is widely considered to be the Father of Mexico, and a father three ways: A priest, the father of his country, and father to several children. His “Grito de Dolores” (Cry of Dolores) is widely credited with inspiring the Mexican War of Independence and the final overthrow of Spanish rule. The nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo now bears his name. Ignacio Allende’s name was added to his hometown, which was formerly called San Miguel el Grande, in honor of his valiant battles against the Spanish occupiers. Neither man lived long enough to see victory, rather met their deaths at the receiving end of firing squads in 1811. Allende’s dead body was decapitated, and his head put on display for those who would attempt to emulate his example. The spirits of the two warriors now roam the countryside, searching for final rest, undoubtedly visiting local altars. Ignacio Allende’s headless spirit must be especially restless.
The next hundred years validated the old adage that power corrupts. Mexico’s new government turned out to be nearly as toxic to the poor, downtrodden masses as were the Spanish. Those in power grew wealthier and you know the rest of the story. Pancho Villa and Emelio Zapata rode to the rescue during the ten year long Mexican Revolution. This war resulted in the eventual overthrow of the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, the establishment of some semblance of democracy, the imprisonment of Villa, and the execution of Zapata. Their spirits now accompany those of Hidalgo and Allende, searching for peace and justice.
A few decades later, Manifest Destiny stepped in to take advantage of a fledgling Mexican democracy in turmoil. The United States decided that the northern half of Mexico would be better suited to become the American West. It took only about a year and unknown numbers of dead bodies to complete the defeat of President/General Antonio Santa Anna’s army. The American Invasion of Mexico increased the size of the United States by an area the size of Europe, and all for the price of fifteen million dollars. Quite a bargain basement deal in exchange for California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. 1847 turned out to be a very good year for American government and business.
Ghosts of those who gave their lives defending Mexico against history’s various invasions walk with me today. Frida Kahlo and husband Diego Rivera are here too. Their immortal artwork celebrated life while condemning domination, poverty, and inequality. I’m pretty sure I caught a fleeting glimpse of Che Guevara. Although Argentine, he trained for the Cuban Revolution with Fidel and Raul here in the Central Mexican highlands. A handless spirit, he searches for peace alongside headless Ignacio Allende.
I share lively conversation with Jose’, my waiter at a local restaurant. He’s 30 years old, and knows more about politics and world history than I do. He admires my Che Guevara t-shirt and hates most national governments, especially those of Mexico and the U.S.A. They are basically the same he says…plutocracies…corporatocracies. Elections fixed through misinformation and fraud. He hopes that soon there will be another revolution. I concur, and assure him that the two of us will become brothers in arms if an unlikely world insurrection materializes anytime soon. Unfortunately at this point in time my youth has fled, leaving not much more than enthusiasm in its wake.
Later in the evening I get together with Jose’ at a local cantina. We share a bottle of fine mezcal, with sangrita chasers. With each shot it becomes more apparent that we’re being joined by spirits. Looking around, we realize that Miguel, Ignacio, Pancho, Emelio, Antonio, Frida, Diego, and Che have arrived. They’ve been undoubtedly attracted by living kindred spirits and the sweet scent wafting from the open bottle of mezcal. Our alter to some of history’s best and bravest.
In the ensuing conversation, the spirits of dead revolutionaries do most of the talking. Jose’ and I are told that the most dangerous aspect of revolution is the probability that a bad government will be replaced with an even worse government. We are warned against underestimating the resolve of the entrenched and powerful. Thankfully we are assured by our comrades that they will be with us in spirit. Always. Spirits seeking freedom and justice may never find rest.
Perhaps at this point you’re wondering whether or not Jose’ and I really did see and communicate with the dead? There’s only one way to know for certain. You’ll need to share a bottle of mezcal with a kindred spirit in the dim light of cantina in San Miguel de Allende during Dia de Los Muertos. Hasta la victoria siempre!