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Playing Music to the Scent of Marigolds: The Day of the Dead in Michoacán
Zaidee Stavely

The women sit quietly in the dark, rearranging their shawls around their shoulders, whispering and laughing and moving closer to the warmth of the candles on the graves. The flowers arranged in tin cans and glass jars behind them graze their heads and arms. All around them, the scent of cempoazúchil, or marigolds, hangs in the air, sweet and musky. The graves are covered with petals, flowers, fruit, bread, candles and photographs. Another woman approaches, coming to pay respects to her mother after spending most of the night watching over her in-laws’ tombs. The others greet her, smiling in the cold. It is close to morning.

This is Day of the Dead in Tzintzuntzan, in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. The women are not in mourning, but rather, in remembrance, keeping watch. All day families have been arriving at the graveyard, come to decorate their relatives’ resting places and spend time with cousins, nephews, grandchildren, aunts and uncles far-removed. Some of the graves are decorated with elaborate arches covered in flowers and fruits; others bare simple glass jars filled with long red amaryllis flowers or carnations among the cempoazúchil, and candles. But there is no stone left untouched.

Among them is Pedro Dimas’ family. The musicians can be heard far off in the dark, Don Pedro’s fiddle singing with many tones, the tololoche bass plucking deep strings in the night. No words are sung, only music played in the long-ago tradition of the Purépecha people. The women here laugh at the sound. “Papá is still playing,” they say. “If we don’t watch out, he won’t ever stop.”

The women are in charge of safekeeping the tombs, it seems. Here at Don Pedro’s wife’s grave, his daughter Leonila and daughter-in-law Eugenia keep watch. His eldest daughter, Ofelia, is in charge of her husband’s parents’ place, where she has sat most of the night. The women are also the ones who swept and arranged the flowers, who lit the candles, with the help of sons and nephews, who come and go, eager to spend the night with friends walking around town and between the tombstones. The men, at least in this family, are busy playing music.

And they have been playing music for several days. All week, there have been cultural festivities at the Tzintzuntzan plaza, where dance groups and string “orchestras,” as the traditional Purépecha bands here are called, have competed and entertained an audience ranging from European and American tourists to locals who know the difference between a good Purépecha tune and a bad imitation. And at home, too, in the small houses the Dimas family owns in Ichupio, on the edge of Lake Pátzcuaro, the Mirando el Lago stringband has been playing music together.

On October 31, there was a mass in Ichupio to commemorate the one year anniversary of Fidel Estanislao’s father’s death. Fidel is the tololoche or bass player in his father-in-law Don Pedro’s band. After the mass in the tiny church overlooking the lake, the family went back to his house with the entire community to pray and sing and eat purple pozole, or hominy soup, made from local red corn. The arch in the shape of a church, with its central nave and bell tower, which now crowns Fidel’s parents’ graves, was set up as an altar then at the house, and people from the community took turns filing in to leave bowls of fruit and sing long songs in harmony, praying for old Fidencio’s soul.


[For the rest of this article, purchase the Fall 2005 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

[Zaidee Stavely spent several years working as a freelance journalist in Mexico City, while learning to play "son huasteco" on her fiddle.]

Photo above:Don Pedro Dimas plucks strings during a tune at the cemetery during Day of the Dead (by Zaidee Stavely)