Day of the Dead in San Miguel has transformed in recent years and this year’s results add to the ever-changing face of foreign tourism in town.
Five years ago when I expanded my tours from just doing fundraising for children’s’ literature at the bibliotheca, I ventured into touring our oldest, active cemetery. That year I garnered two folks interested.
The following year, I had a best-selling book on Day of the Dead in San Miguel and an event at the Catrina (skeleton person) Museum drawing four foreigners. The year after I had reservations for eight so I was happy with doubling my numbers each year. Imagine my surprise when that year, and last year, I found 60 to70 people a day lined up for tours up to a week in advance. What happened?
The movie, Coco, for one. The children’s movie did a great job visually explaining a difficult concept (life after death). There was also the new administration in the US. Obama’s administration did a banner job making Mexico scary in the press killing foreign tourism. The Trump administration did much the same, but less subtlety, oddly enough increasing foreign tourism. Then there was the ever increasing popularity in the North to celebrating Halloween.
This year hotels have reported a 30 to 40% decrease in bookings and I’ve noticed much the same with tours, though restaurants in Centro tell me they have had a banner week (despite being boney, Cartinas are a peckish bunch and eat a lot). Also book sales on Day of the Dead in San Miguel climbed back up the top sellers’ list.
I can’t say with certainty if crime was a factor in the decrease in visitors, or simply the release of Coco was now three years ago and interest has dwindled for Day of the Dead.
That being said, foreigners’ obsession with a skinny Mexican, the Catrina, has not abated. This year make-up trays were set up all over the jardin, and town, with folks getting their deathly pallor applied for Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Skeletons gamboling around town all three days was a first, as normally, the make-up was reserved for the second, the Day of the Dead for adults.
The Rosewood’s Catrina Parade, a largely foreigner attended event, reached record numbers with the dead-ish lining the street waiting to sashay across town luckily oblivious to the woman being killed nearby at exactly the same time after making a fifty dollar ATM withdraw.
The next night’s Art Walk at the Fabrica was the siren’s call to the Catrins and Catrinas though with the decrease in overall tourism, the event itself was far more enjoyable minus wall to wall people.
A difference in foreign Day of the Dead tourism this year was the volume of school-aged children taking some time off academics to experience Mexican culture. I was both fascinated and stunned as a parent took my kids across the US to experience Halloween in different cities each year. (Plus my oldest son was a “dead” baby being born on All Saints’ Day, the day after all hallow’s eve, or Halloween.)
I had a young lad about eight on a tour that wouldn’t shake my hand or tell me his name but at several points along the tour he just started talking about the Celtic history of Halloween in a baby doll voice. Leaning over to hear him each time I was completely awed how he had all the details correct! He even got the end of the tour quiz correct for the entire group though he still too bashful to tell me his name!
The town itself, even three years in, isn’t quite sure how to cater to the week’s sudden increase in foreigner tourism and largely ignores it baffled by the three days of traffic gridlock. In the town’s defense, foreigners aren’t the target demographic for tourism, and the government seems baffled by our interest in visiting then.
Even the hotel I meet my tours in front of was uncertain what to make of events. One day a manager came out to chastise me for allowing my guests to use the restroom. This baffled me as I’ve often been the keynote speaker at conferences held there and know the more folks you pull into the lobby, the more will, at some point, stay there.
The following day two more general managers came out and all I could think was “Who used the bathroom this time?” Instead they kow-towed more than a geisha encouraging me to bring my folks into the hotel for coffee or the crapper, whatever it took to get folks in their lobby.
We foreigners are equally confused, with many complaining to me how the Guadalupe cemetery closes at 6PM and isn’t open to all night vigils. It never has been and always closes promptly at 6PM. A very prudent decision given the woman’s nearby death around 8:30PM.
Speaking of cemeteries it looks like San Juan de Dios will be the home for public altars for the foreseeable future as the mayor and church’s priest have a good relationship. Pity as access is difficult and it was much easier for me to be a dead mojiganga (large paper-mache puppet) in Parque Juarez with the wide paths.
What paths foreigners will take into town next year for Day of the Dead has yet to be seen, but bony fingers crossed they’ll keep coming back and taking a bit of Mexican history and culture back North with them!
by Joseph Toone