Day of the Dead Hits North of the Border

by Joseph Toone

This Day of the Dead I was gobsmacked by an unexpected amount of American tourists and did a bit of research to figure out what it was about.

Last August I visited my hometown of Hershey, PA to surprise sister (my much older sister) on her 60th birthday. There I was surprised to see all the catrina art available in the stores. Granted, all the skeletal figurines were made in China instead of Mexico, but I’d never seen Day of the Dead decorations travel so far north.

Two years ago the Day of the Dead passed relativley unnoticed by English-speaking tourists. Last year, I was sure I just needed an event to motivate tourists. With my newly released bestseller on Day of the Dead in San Miguel and a well-publicized event at the Catrina Museum I thought I would reach them. And I did, all four of them.

It was a lesson in the obvious, that English-speaking tourism doesn’t really kick in until after Christmas and leaves by Easter, the period when Canadians come down to escape winter’s chill.

This Day of the Dead I knew better than to have cemetery tours on the actual days of the Dead so I promoted having tours the days before. The cemetery is so crowded on November first and second that to speak loudly enough to be heard only confirms my stereotype that Americans are loud people who prefer to live quiet lives while Mexicans are quiet people who prefer live loud lives. I received tour reservations for eight people and so I was happy to have doubled my numbers from the year before.

I also had a number of requests for interviews from journalists as far flung as Beijing and Teaneck, NJ. I had had an article about my cemetery tours in October’s International Living. I assumed that had stirred the journalistic pot some.

But I was wrong. It turns out that the Day of the Dead publicity has been reaching epic proportions of Americans. I had no clue they were coming. Their flooding into town affected not just me, but businesses all over town from hotels and restaurants to bakeries selling out of bread early each morning.

The town was riding the wave of “experiential tourism,” on the heels of the stellar heights of Halloween’s popularity. Americans love to wear a costume and scare themselves while still being completely safe. For example, at a movie, like the Catrinas in the newly released, Coco, or in a haunted house. Toss in a large dash of Mexican culture filtering into mainstream American culture and San Miguel de Allende being both Travel and Leisure’s and Conde Nash’s top destination. Then the icing on the cake was Mexico City’s non-stop advertising of Day of Dead with stellar videos on YouTube that played endlessly before any requested video. Combine these ingredients and the excitement was about to boil over.

Adding fuel to the fire, according the reporters and travelers I interviewed, was that another Day of the Dead hot spot, Michoacán was seen by foreigners as being dangerous and another, Oaxaca is still recovering from natural disasters. However, San Miguel is internationally promoted as a tourist-friendly Day of the Dead traditional celebration site which is easy to get to.

For many coming to San Miguel was an opportunity to dress as a Victorian-clothed skeleton and parade around town. That’s certainly a part of Day of the Dead but it is the equivalent of experiencing an American Christmas as nothing more than dressing like Santa Claus.

The difficult part of experiencing Day of the Dead as a foreigner is that one needs to build an altar to welcome your loved ones back. To do so it helps to understand what an altar is about from its pre-Hispanic origins to the notion that to attract my father back from heaven I need a lot of photographs of Angie Dickinson.

Of course, you can photograph a Mexican decorating a grave but unless you know death is the beginning of life, you’ll simply be confused. (The reporter from China thought the notion of her ancestors coming back from the dead was terrifying.) One cannot, and not should try to shimmy into someone else’s altar in the cemetery. Yes, Mexicans will be very friendly and honored you’ve an interest in traditions and culture, but the actual experience needs to be more personal to you.

Between tours I spent the Days of the Dead exploring cemeteries in campos and surrounding villages. As always, folks were welcoming. I was respectful, appreciative of the notion that what we do or think here is so very temporal and what matters is what lies ahead on our birthday into eternal life, or our appointment with death; notion we can joke about on Day of the Dead.

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Joseph Toone is Amazon's bestselling author of the San Miguel de Allende Secrets series of books and TripAdvisor's best rated historical walking tour guide. For more information contact toone.joseph@yahoo.com or visit History and Culture Walking Tours or JosephTooneTours.com, also on FaceBook.

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