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Americans Unexpectedly Popularize the Dead

by sanmigueltimes
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To surprise my way older sister on her 60th birthday I visited her this past August in our hometown of Hershey, PA and 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’ve never seen Day of the Dead decorations travel so far North.


Last year at Day of the Dead I had a newly released best seller on Day of the Dead in San Miguel and had organized a well-publicized event at the Catrina Museum.  The year before Day of the Dead passed completely unnoticed by English speaking tourists, but last year I had confidence I just needed an event to motivate tourists.  And I did, all four of them.


It was a lesson in the obvious fact that English speaking tourism doesn’t really kick in until after Christmas and leaves by Easter as that is 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 loud enough to be heard only exasperates my notion that Americans are loud people preferring to live quiet lives while Mexicans are quiet people who prefer loud lives.

Angel Trumpet
Bing Kevin
Bitch said what...
Cloister Altar
Lupita Family
Mortysha Cemetery

I received tour reservations for eight people so I was happy to have doubled my numbers from the year before.  At the same time I had a similar number of requests for interviews from journalists from such far flung locales as Beijing to Teaneck, NJ.  Luckily I had an article about my cemetery tours in October’s International Living so I assumed that stirred the journalistic pot some.


I was wrong, as Day of the Dead was reaching epic proportions of Americans I had no clue were coming! Impacting not just me but businesses all over town from the obvious like 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 also scare oneself (at a movie, like the Catrinas in the newly released, Coco,  or a haunted house) while still being completely safe.  Toss in a large dash of Mexican culture filtering into mainstream American culture with the city 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!

High Heels
Tour Rainbow
Wedding interruption

Adding fuel to the fire, according the reporters and travelers I interviewed, was that Michoacán (another Day of the Dead hot spot) was seen by foreigners as being dangerous and Oaxaca as 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 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 the 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 can’t, 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 are welcoming and I’m respectful, appreciate 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.  A notion we can joke about on Day of the Dead!




Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series.  All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays.  Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA.  Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkingTours.com, and JosephTooneTours.com.




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