Dia de los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende Mexico

Once there was an Aztec queen called Mictecacihuatl. She was known as the “Lady of the Dead”. When Mictecacihuatl was just an infant she was sacrificed and sent to the underworld to wed King Miclantecuhtl – the one who ruled the underworld.

As the wife of the King of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl had several complicated roles to fulfill. One of those convoluted tasks was to watch over the bones of those who had passed from life on our side of the upside down. Those old bones were the seed of new life. Her job was to make sure that no one took those bones. Her job was to stop the creation of new life. But….so goes the story, with every bone that was stolen from that bank of bones part of Mictecacihuatl’s life itself would go with those bones to continue protecting them. Every year she would turn up in the living world to check on those stolen bones, the lives they created and the piece of her life that had gone away.

In this way Mictecacihuatl became both the keeper of the dead and the giver of life. Life balanced death.

At that time of year when Mictecacihuatl came to the living world the Aztec’s celebrated her and honored her for her work both protecting the bones that created new life and to gain protection for those who had passed.

No doubt the roots of Dia de los Muertos extend far deeper in history than the relatively recent Aztecs but the cult of and the legend of Mictecacihuatl was the practice when the Spanish invaded Mexico five-hundred years ago. And it’s this legend that helped create the modern Day of the Dead celebrations we know today.

Dia de los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende Mexico

The dead don’t appreciate sorrow. The Irish know this as well as the Mexicans. In fact the dead are insulted by the mourning and sorrow. Many Americans and northern Europeans see Dia de los Muertos as a sort of macabre celebration of death. In fact, Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life. It is a celebration of the lives of those who came before and those who are here today. The day recognizes that death is normal. It is not the end but rather another stage in life. On the Day of the Dead  the nether world becomes accessible to those on this side of the upside down and the dead can dance with the living.

Dia de los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende Mexico

For this year’s Dia de los Muertos I was invited to join the party in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico by Tom and Sharon of Eat the Peach Travel.

Eat the Peach is a boutique travel company running small-group unique tours to Mexico, Ireland and Costa Rica. In fact, I’ll be leading the wildlife photography portion of their Costa Rica tour in 2019. But more on that later. Tom and Sharon donate a portion of the money from each Day of the Dead trip to a school for children of single parents in San Miguel de Allende.

The Dia de los Muertos trip encompasses the full week leading up to the big night and the outrageous, street-crowding parade through San Miguel de Allende. I made all these photographs and the video during that week in San Miguel.

Where ever the genocidal Spanish went in the Americas they brought death and change. Few places were hit harder than what is today Mexico.

The Aztec celebration of Dia de los Muertos was one of those countless things that changed as the Medieval Spanish culture collided with that of the far more sophisticated – but equally as bloody – Mesoamericans.

It didn’t take long for the Spanish, after seeing this Aztec tradition, to find ways of blending the Spanish traditions of All Saint’s Day and All Souls Day with the indigenous systems and beliefs. Anthropologists call this syncretism. One example of syncretism between Catholicism’s All Souls Day and the indigenous Día de Los Muertos are the heavily decorated skulls and skeletons (calacas and calaveras) that inhabited both cultures – something that is ubiquitous in San Miguel in the week leading up to Dia de los Muertos.

The highly decorated “sugar skulls” or calaveras de azucar are small treats sometimes eaten but more often left for the dead in the personal altars erected for the celebration known as ofrendas.

As I mentioned above Día de Los Muertos may translate as Day of the Dead in English but the holiday is not a celebration of death but rather, of life. It is a party. A happy celebration that brings family together.

The tradition has morphed from honoring Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld to honoring those that have passed and those that are still here today.

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After the first of the year I’ll be writing more about the week leading  up to Dia de los Muertos and posting a slew of fresh photos – San Miguel de Allende is a visual FEAST in the week leading up to the big day.

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  1. Comment by Ron Hagg

    Ron Hagg Reply December 11, 2018 at 7:30 pm

    hard to find words for this – thanks!!

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply December 11, 2018 at 7:33 pm

      Ron. You are the best. I hope you are doing very very well.

  2. Comment by j. madison rink

    j. madison rink Reply December 11, 2018 at 9:57 pm

    Wow! Extraordinary photographs and video, Jim! Didn’t think you could possibly out due yourself….. thanks!

  3. Comment by Kenny

    Kenny Reply December 13, 2018 at 7:13 pm

    Great write up..im live in san miguel..you nailed it

  4. Comment by John Bohnel

    John Bohnel Reply December 13, 2018 at 7:16 pm

    Great job my friend! ….you’re a very talented photo-journalist. Thrilled to see Maggie and I made the cut! So….WHEN are you moving down?

  5. Comment by Sharon Gonzalez

    Sharon Gonzalez Reply December 17, 2018 at 12:10 pm

    Jim! This is absolutely wonderful – you’ve captured the essence of why we do this…thank you, dear man. It was a treat to have you onboard…so much fun. Sharon & Tom, Eat The Peach Travel

  6. Comment by jim corbett

    jim corbett Reply January 18, 2019 at 2:23 am

    Mexico is the great city. You captured the things very well. Thanks for this great content, you covered things very well.

  7. Comment by Agness

    Agness Reply January 30, 2019 at 10:49 pm

    Hello Jim, I like your photos. Its just so colorful and vibrant.

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply January 31, 2019 at 12:31 pm

      Thank you so much, Agness!

  8. Comment by Jonny Blair

    Jonny Blair Reply February 14, 2019 at 2:58 pm

    A Mexican friend told me about this day and it looks crazy. Poland has a similar day called All Saints Day but we go to the graveyards on that day and light candles in respect of our fallen ancestors and family members.

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply February 15, 2019 at 12:39 pm

      Yes. That also happens in Mexico. The Dia de los Muertos celebration is multi-faceted.

  9. Comment by Ioana Stoica

    Ioana Stoica Reply October 3, 2019 at 11:14 am

    Your pictures are incredible. I hope to get to spend Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico sometime, it seems like a unique experience. I love their tradition of celebrating life. Very cool.

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply October 4, 2019 at 12:42 pm

      Thank you! It is super fun. I cant wait to get back!

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