The outdoor stage is lit in ghostly pale, icy, blue and white lights. Smoke wafts up eerily from the footlights.
A line of young girls in jewel-toned, hoop – skirted, colonial dresses appears stage left. The turquoise, purple, scarlet, and emerald dresses sparkle in the stage lights. Their picture hats are wide and adorned with paper flowers and lace, their hair is plaited and interwoven with ribbons. They stop, turn and face forward. The audience gasps in delight and breaks into loud applause. The girl’s faces are painted in death masks. The eerie smile of a skeleton’s head. It is Day of the Dead in La Paz.
And when family and friends want to visit, we try to get them to come for Day of the Dead. This is an authentic celebration, a genuine community event. If you haven’t yet attended, do it this year. You will not be disappointed. Day of the Dead in Mexico is on November 1st, also known as All Souls Day. It is believed that the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest at this time. It is a time to pay homage to relatives and friends that have died. And to poke fun at death. And ghosts walk among us.
The distant sounds of the city are like a whisper on the wind, a sound not relevant to the mix of life and death we are celebrating.
Traditionally the family would gather at the grave of their loved one, bringing their dead relative’s favorite foods. They tell stories, sing songs and eat. All over Mexico in cemeteries big and small this celebration takes place. And in La Paz we have an additional celebration. In the parking lot of the Teatro de La Ciudad booths are set up like a fair. Except each booth is a “grave” or an “altar”. Different organizations and clubs and businesses dedicate their grave to someone they admire, a fallen colleague or one year in the case of the women’s center, to bring attention to domestic violence. And another year a dedications was made to firefighters.
Girls and women dress up as La Catrina, the elegant skeleton women created by Jose Guadalupe Posada and then later popularized by French artist and art historian, Jean Charlot in the 1920s. Last year a group of students from the Autonomous University (UABCS) built an award-winning booth about Jean Charlot and La Catrina.
In 1913 Posada created a tintype called “La Catrina” and then continued to depict famous people as a Catrina and added a poem.
Costumes range from simple, to elegant, to super–cool. Each participant wears a number so the public can vote for the best Catrina. They wander through the crowd and strike poses, they will allow you to take their photo and will pose with you, but they will never utter a word.
Flowers and corn and colorful sand paintings tell the story of the graves honoree. To help bring back the dearly departed for a night, pieces of their clothing, their favorite book, a guitar, their picture, and in one case a favorite teacher’s entire living room complete with reading glasses and shawl was recreated.
And we viewed it through a window. On hand are the grave creators to tell the story of their honoree.
Other booths sell Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead Bread) a round, sweet loaf decorated with bones made of dough. Clay pots of café de ollo simmer and it is from them the cinnamon emanates. It is a wonderful strong- sweet coffee drink.
There are constant performances on the open air stage. But once you have toured the graves and sipped your coffee, bought a tamale, and a sugar skull, stop and watch the crowd. The young cool crowd has artfully painted only half their faces. And the “sexy dead” have black veils, crimson roses and almost see-through dresses. There is one I call Bianca Jagger with her gorgeous black lace dress, silver tipped cane and cigar.
We love this celebration, and we mix Halloween with Day of the Dead. My 3D cardboard pop-up Day of the Dead altar has been dedicated over the years to my friend Gina Holguin, Paul Newman and Mary Travers and this year I will honor my grandson, Thomas Fogel.
And every year we attend with anticipation and are never disappointed. It is at Teatro de La Ciudad on November 1-2. Sometimes it starts a day earlier. My beloved and I attend at least two times. We invite friends over for pumpkin soup and then head out to town. It has become a special holiday for us.
Get there early (just before dark) parking is scarce you will have to park and walk.
The theater is located on Navarro between Altamirano and Heroes de Independencia.
You can read more of Susan’s La Paz slice of life musings on her blog: www.mexicomusings.com Photo courtesy of Gabriel Larios.