JANITZIO, Mexico — Hundreds of candles flickering, the smell of Cempasúchil flowers freshly collected and an ethereal mist fill the cemetery as Mexicans honor their deceased loved ones during the Day of the Dead on the small island of Janitzio.
The festival is one of Mexico’s most rooted traditions. It has been alive for over 4,000 years and is celebrated by millions throughout the country, attracting tourists from all over the world.
In Janitzio, in the state of Michoacan, a group of indigenous people called Purepechas exercise self rule over the island in the form of a cooperative, and each year they prepare themselves to honor their loved ones in the old-fashioned way. They receive thousands of tourists wanting to witness the folklore of the island. For the Purepecha people this represents a double-edged moral issue: On one hand the excessive flow of tourists prevents them from performing their rituals and honoring their deceased in peace, but on the other hand, tourists provide an important source of income to the local economy that cannot be ignored.
The celebration starts on October 31, when friends and family gather together to create a huge wreath of marigold flowers, fruits and sweets which will be taken to the cemetery on November 1. A feast in honor of the deceased is held in which the taste of traditional food delights the palate of those present; meanwhile, locals start preparations to receive the biggest flow of tourists the island will see all year — boats, life jackets, handcrafts, spectacles, everything must be ready for their arrival.
In the cemetery of Janitzio at 5 a.m. on the first of November, families of the deceased are carrying marigold flowers and offerings. This will be the only part of the day when they can enjoy their time with the dead in peace. A mass takes place at the cemetery and in the distance the first boatloads of tourists are slowly making their way to the island. A heavy mist can be seen from the cemetery, perhaps the announcement of the arrival of another kind of visitor — those who don’t belong to the living world.
Text and Images by David Córdova