Public and private altares de muertos, altars, commemorate the departed and entice them back for the night. While each altar is unique, common elements include photographs, an arch, papel picado, seasonal flowers and fruits, sugar skulls. Each element is symbolic and may vary according to regional traditions.
In Plaza Santo Domingo, university students constructed altares to commemorate those killed in the protests of the Mexican Movement of 1968, which occurred in the build-up to Mexico hosting the Olympic Games that year. These were powerful installations, often with strong graphics and Mexican social, historical and political references unknown to me.
We visited a modest home on the city fringes en route to the local cemetery. Under cover in the courtyard, the altar was personal and intimate to the family. Inside was another, a little more elaborate.
It was dark, and raining. We walked along busy cobbled streets to the cemetery, crossing paths with men carrying between them enormous saucepans of food, chairs, flowers, umbrellas. Via loudspeaker we heard prayers from the chapel. The cemetery was congested; we moved to a clearing from which to respectfully and unobtrusively observe families gathering for the night at decorated graves, playing music, singing, talking and laughing, eating.
How privileged we were to engage so intimately with such a significant aspect of a community’s life, at once personal and communal, and for this I must thank our intelligent and culturally-sensitive guide.