We recently returned from Mexico, where we joined the observations of the Day of the Dead in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Wherever we went, the air was filled with the vaguely pungent, slightly rank smell of marigolds. Farmers filled the beds of their pickup trucks to lug vast heaps of flowers to market. Native to central Mexico, “cempasuchitl” (the Nahuatl name for marigolds) are abundant in the late October rainy season. By tradition, their bright color represents the sun lighting the way for souls to return on the Day of the Dead. Their aroma also draws the deceased back to the world of the living. Marigolds abound in public spaces and private homes, where people use them to brighten the ofrendas so central to the celebration of Día de los Muertos. As in the photo above (in the Lake Patzcuaro island village of Janitzio), people also cover the graves of their loved ones with the bright flowers.
Feeding the spirits
If bright flowers don’t draw the spirits to cross back to the land of the living, then maybe a nice ripe mango, a bottle of charanda (sugar-cane liquor), or a plate of mole will. At least, that seems to be the theory behind the displays of many ofrendas. In addition to candles, incense, and photos of the deceased, ofrendas are laden with fresh fruit, candies (especially sugar skulls), pan de muerto (a rich yeast bread flavored with orange and anise), and dishes that the deceased enjoyed. Sharing food and drink—already one of the most enduring bonds among the living—serves equally well to bridge the gap between life and afterlife.
The ofrenda at right honors the Mexican entertainer Juan Gabriel. He was born in Parácuaro in the state of Michoacán, and the people of the state have always claimed him as their own. He died in 2016, and a lady who was making and selling sopes had set up the ofrenda in his honor. A true son of Michoacan, he was apparently a fan of aged charanda and mezcal. But she also knew he would appreciate a plate of enchiladas.
To feed someone—living or dead—is an act of love. Food is what draws us home. It is a long way back from the afterlife. Those spirits are truly the hungry travelers.
In the next few posts, though, we will be talking about the food enjoyed by the living.