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The Calavera Catrina has become the de facto face of Mexico’s Day of the Dead remembrances.
The Calavera Catrina has become the de facto face of Mexico’s Day of the Dead remembrances.Patricia Harris for the Boston Globe

PÁTZCUARO, Mexico – Does anyone know where I can get a couple of bushels of marigold blossoms at the end of October? For all the color and pageantry of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, it’s the piercing pungency of marigolds that brings me back to my journey to Pátzcuaro. Their scent wafted through the mountain air when I arrived in the sprawling Michoacán town of 80,000 souls last October.

Almost too famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations, Pátzcuaro has become the go-to destination for travelers from throughout Mexico and the Americas seeking something more meaningful than candy and tacky Halloween costumes as October slides into November. I went for the beauty, the spectacle, and — to be honest — my love of rural Mexican food. I did not know it at the time, but my brush with the Mexican way of death would make Pátzcuaro much more than another checkmark on my travel bucket list.

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I arrived a day ahead of the Nov. 1-2 observances, fully expecting a subdued ceremonial scene. Instead, a party was in full swing on Plaza Grande, Pátzcuaro’s main square. A huge arts and crafts market filled the center, while open-air restaurants squatted around the edges. Under the arcades of the handsome colonial buildings, musicians serenaded diners enjoying plates of enchiladas and steak a la plancha. Stall after stall was piled high with elaborately decorated sugar skulls that attracted bees and little children in equal measure. Women of all ages sat patiently to have their faces painted as Catrinas. The most famous of the satirical skeletal figures created by printmaker José Guadalupe Posada in the early 20th century, the Calavera Catrina has become the de facto face of Mexico’s Day of the Dead remembrances.

On one corner of the plaza, a group of teenagers was gravely constructing a towering altar to the departed. This somber moment amid all the bustle hinted at the deeper level of emotion underlying the bravado of Catrina makeup. But overall, I felt like I had tumbled into the screenplay for Disney’s “Coco,” complete with competing tinny strains of mariachi music.

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Early on the following morning, farmers began to arrive from the countryside with sheaves of marigolds overflowing from the backs of their pickup trucks or tied to the tops of their cars. As the day progressed, orange petals carpeted the edges of Plaza Grande. At the gates to the municipal cemetery, the local bodega sold charcoal, wood, and heaps of flowers. I followed families carrying armloads of marigolds into the cemetery, where the peace of the dead was interrupted by the industriousness of the living. People scrubbed their family grave plots with brushes before scattering marigold petals and leaving vases of gladiolas, photos, and personal remembrances.

I was hesitant to approach the family groups until one woman paused in her work and smiled at me. (In this largely indigenous corner of Mexico, my blue eyes and henna hair signaled that I was just visiting.) She and her children were tending the graves of her grandparents, parents, and several siblings. We spoke in Spanish, and soon she was telling me stories about her loved ones, bringing them back to life. I asked her if the Day of the Dead ceremonies made her feel sad. She hesitated only a moment before replying that no, she was not sad, she was “contento.” That is, content. In the presence of her departed family members, she was completely at peace.

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Nearby, another woman paused at the graves of several family members, including her own child, who had died a few years earlier. She gestured skyward with a glance and explained that her lost child was always in her heart. She, too, was “contento.” I had been fortunate, I guess, not to have lost a loved one in a long time, but I was no stranger to the raw ache of grief. The woman’s determination to speak of her loss with acceptance rather than sorrow seemed to me uncommonly brave. Clearly I had a lot to learn from the Mexicans. I found myself openly weeping, so I left the cemetery quickly before I spoiled the mood of the day.

Back in the center of town, the festivities continued unabated. Visiting with the dead was clearly a reminder to live while you can and take pleasure in the company of family and friends. A printed program listed all the activities I had read about in glossy magazine articles. They promised parades and folkloric dances, but honestly, only a handful materialized on time or at the scheduled place. As tourists groused about missing their photo ops, Mexicans continued to eat and talk and shop and flirt and laugh and just thoroughly enjoy life.

I thought about taking a ferry across Lake Pátzcuaro to the island of Janitzio where local people carry lit candles through the narrow streets to the cemetery while visitors jostle to join the procession. But I was discouraged by the hours-long wait for the ferry and the prospect that the little island might sink under the excess weight of all that humanity. Instead, I settled into a pew in the basilica of Nuestra Señora de Salud where the Michoacán Symphony Orchestra and a full choir performed Mozart’s Requiem. The stirring music echoed off the walls, closing out the day with an uplifting air of formal solemnity.

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By the next morning, the long lines for the ferry had vanished, and I walked right on board for the half-hour crossing. The trip is worth making at any time — the steep island surrounded by mountains seemed to emerge from low-lying mist as the ferry approached. Fishermen clustered near the docks. As if on cue, they performed a graceful choreography as they raised their nets in unison and dipped them into the lake. After everyone aboard the ferry had snapped plenty of photos, a couple of fishermen paddled over to collect our tips.

The walk uphill to the cemetery is steep, but eateries with tempting displays of food at each doorway line the street. I have seen some pretty cemeteries in my day, but nothing quite prepared me for Janitzio’s municipal cemetery. Perched on a flattened ledge, it seems to float above the lake. It’s a dramatic resting place on any day. Graves covered with flowers and offerings of food and drink gave it a magnificent, almost excessive poignancy. I chatted with a mother and daughter from Peru as we lingered over framed photos of the dead. Stubs of candles were still lit, filling the air with the mingled aromas of burning wax and sharp marigolds.

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Once I returned to Pátzcuaro, I couldn’t resist buying a bouquet of marigolds from an older couple standing on a street corner with a small heap of bedraggled flowers. The man clasped my hand as if I were his first-ever customer. “May God bless you,” he said, as I walked back to my hotel room.

That small heartfelt blessing has stayed with me, a reminder that the real purpose of travel is to gain a new perspective. Mexico and its kind people gave that to me. Shortly before Christmas, my mother died. The holiday, her favorite, passed in a blur. As the weeks went by, I found myself thinking more and more about the Day of the Dead. My Irish-American mother would have found the festivities to be utterly alien, but she would have admired the quiet strength and determination of those women in the graveyard in Pátzcuaro. They showed me that it was possible to accept death with grace and continue to live with joy.

Now, about those marigolds for the end of October — I’m going to need them to blanket my mother’s grave. I, too, look forward to being contento.

IF YOU GO . . .

Hotel Mision Pátzcuaro Centro Historico

Álvaro Obregón 10,
Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico

(011) 52-434-342-1037, hotelesmision.com.mx/en/

Restaurante El Patio

Plaza Vasco de Quiroga #19, Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico

(011) 52-434 -342-0484


Patricia Harris can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.