If you think that Halloween is just for kids you haven’t been to San Miguel de Allende for Day of the Dead. Like the Santas that start appearing in stores in October, the catrinas have arrived a good two weeks before Day of the Dead decked out in elaborately painted faces with flower festooned hats and trailing dresses. At a recent gallery opening, the twenty plus catrinas stole the show.
Linda and I thought we would get a jump on the Day of the Dead celebrations as well, and painted this week in a cemetery before the flowers, food, music, relatives and departed souls arrive. (During Day of the Dead, it seems voyeuristic to be painting in a cemetery.) We are experienced painters of capillas and other historic structures but found the jumble of a Mexican cemetery a challenge.
This small cemetery, along the highway to Queretaro, was in the process of being cleaned for the festivities soon to take place so floral decorations were limited to plastic or dead flowers. I chose to paint a double grave with markers slightly askew and with dead flowers not yet removed in the cleaning effort underway. The cactus guarding the graves….those spines are lethal…is a garambollo cactus easily identified by its candelabra-like shape.
Linda captured more of the complexity of the scene; however, neither of our paintings does justice to the variety of structures, large and small, in close proximity to each other….concrete, wrought iron, brick, wood, stone and in many colors. Some graves are simple in design and others elaborate with religious statues or ornamentation. Life is rich and unpredictable…so too should be the markers of death.
The visual complexity we tried to paint is nothing compared to what one sees on Day of the Dead when each small plot is decorated with elaborate and fresh floral arrangements and, often, offerings of food and drink for returning souls. In addition to the family and friends of the departed there are musicians and, of course, tourists
Since we painted before the Day of the Dead, here is a peek at what is to come….
Color figures hugely in all things Mexican and the flowers traditionally used to decorate graves and altars during the Day of the Dead are no exception. Most commonly used for Day of the Dead in San Miguel are the Cempasuchil (Tagetes erecta) and Terciopelo Rojo (Celosia cristata) known to gardeners north of the border as marigolds and cockscomb. Marigolds were originally used by the Aztecs in their funerary rituals. You might see petals of marigolds sprinkled on the ground: their pungent scent and jarring yellow-orange color serving as a guide for returning souls. The red cockscomb symbolizes the blood of Christ.