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DAY OF THE DEAD: Part I, About Town and the Market

Pátzcuaro, Michoacán
October-November 2002

Dia de los Muertos…how can one resist this ancient holiday intricately melding ancient cultures and Catholicism into one? For Rick and myself, our only first-hand experience has been in the area surrounding Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. After twelve consecutive years of visiting Pátzcuaro we always discuss exploring this most special event in another part of Mexico…but never do. And so once again we readied our Pátzcuaro apartment for guests, this year arriving early to enjoy a brief moment of quiet before the wonderful chaos of the holiday unfolds.

A few words to the uninitiated before attending this "world event". Hotels rooms in Pátzcuaro are at a premium, and range from around $85.00 US to $400.00 US per evening. Hotels in Pátzcuaro were 100% occupied this year, nearby Morelia was also 100% occupied, and Uruapan's hotels were 80% occupied. Plans to attend should be made several months in advance, there is usually a minimum 3-4 night stay required, and all rooms are paid in full at the time of reservation with no refunds for late cancellations. Guests from the previous year(s) receive first preference to rebook for the following year.

In the category of "still under $100.00 US, decent rooms, and excellent location on/near the large or small plazas are the following hotels (listed in no order of preference):

  • Fiesta Plaza
  • Mansion Iturbe
  • Hotel Meson de Gallo
  • Rincon de Josefa

Even after twelve previous years of experience, we were in for some wonderful surprises thanks in large part to Rene Carrillo, the new Director of the Casa de Artesenia of Morelia. With delight we saw poles and professional tents being erected around the perimeter of the plaza with lighting for nighttime shopping. The years of blue tarps obscuring the plaza and the yards of extension cords haphazardly draped from all directions were gone! Furthermore, only artesania from Michoacán was allowed on the main plaza. And, the diagonal rows of glorious folk art from Ocumicho, Cucucho, and Zinepecuaro were back just as they had been set-up ten years prior (in recent years these villages were sadly relegated to the limited space outside of the plaza sidewalks, cramped between other booths and parked cars). Furthermore, the food stands, cause for much crowding and commotion, were moved to side streets leading up to the Basilica. As if this wasn't enough, Rene had planned a special tent which enclosed one of the beautiful plaza's fountains and set the stage for the concurso, the much anticipated juried show of folk art submissions, to be held right in the midst of the artesan's market. For years it had been held in Pátzcuaro's beautiful Museo de Arte Populare on the hill, but few visitors were ever aware of the juried show or were hesitant to leave the excitement and buying in the Plaza de Quiroga, aka the Plaza Grande.

Left: The artist's concurso (juried show) magnificently displayed around one of the Plaza de Quiroga's beautiful fountains.
Right: The glorious flower market located on the side of the Basilica on the road leading to the old panteon (cemetery).

This transformation was started by the previous mayor of Pátzcuaro, Presidente Antonio Garcia, over the last three years. The installment of the beautiful "gaslights" along the centro's streets, the moving of all non-Michoacán artisans to the hill by the museum and Basilica, the greatly increased police presence, and the relocation of the fabulous Day of the Dead flower market to the side of the Basilica convenient to the Pátzcuaro panteon, were all Antonio's improvements.

The smells and tastes of the holiday dazzle the eye and senses. In addition to the much photographed sugar skulls and calaca candy, it was the warmth of the bakery and the making of pan de muertos that caught our attention. Other culinary delights include ponche (warm fruit punch), candy skulls now modernly made of white and dark chocolate, and crispy charales-the tiny white fish of the region.
Left: Example of Pan de Muertos of the region.
Right: Baker making huesos, or bread bones, that will adorn the bread of the season
Pan de Muertos.

Artisans began unpacking and setting up their puestos (assigned booths) about seven days before the Noche de los Muertos, November 1. Early visitors are often rewarded by selecting the best folk art before the masses arrive, but those who linger later are also likely to enjoy wonderful bargains as no one wishes to return home on the bus with merchandise. Others collectors wait for the concurso held on the morning of November 1, anxious to purchase the top winners for that year complete with the winning ribbons attached.

Yes, the catrinas, pineapples, and devilish Ocumicho pottery dazzles the eye, but all are quite familiar to collectors and visitors to this region. Instead I have chosen to show some quieter moments during the fabulous Day of the Dead Market, even though pottery and ceramics continue to be the star attraction.

Left: November 1 is a holiday for all in Pátzcuaro, and children revel in dressing up for this most festive occasion. Center: Not to be overlooked are the fabulous textile arts of Michoacán that include lavishly embroidered apronscalled galvanes, cross-stiched tops, wonderful woven fabrics, belts and knitted sweaters, and gorgeous rebozozos (women's shawls) of wool, cotton and silk (actually, finely spun rayon). Right: Spending day and night in their booths for nearly ten days, the artisans pass the hours by working before your very eyes…sewing, painting, and carving while chatting happily with one another in the Purépecha language.

I would be remiss not to mention the masterful woodcarvers of Tocuaro showing some of the best masks that I have scene in years. And there's the lacquer arts of the region which is functionally displayed on everything from hair ornaments to batellas (carved wooden platters). And then there are the master spoon carvers, the basket weavers of Tzintzuntzan, the country furniture of Cuanajo…so much more than clay, and far too much for my camera and this short story to capture. One simply must be there to absorb the scope of this market scene!

With certain risk of making this e-mail too large for anyone's mailbox, I had to include this photo of the Segrario and its ancient walls…one of the most memorable walks and scenes in the oldest part of the city. Above the chaos of the market, a quiet moment can always be found here…even during Day of the Dead. Pátzcuaro is magical; blessed by the lake, the volcanic mountains, pine forests, and the rich heritage of the Tarascan people and their crafts. But during Day of the Dead, Pátzcuaro shares its magic with the visiting world…and everyone present is forever touched and changed by this experience.

November 20, 2002
By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO