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Ann Murdy | profile | all galleries >> Los Días de los Muertos en Huaquechula y Atlixco, Puebla, Mexico 2014 tree view | thumbnails | slideshow

Los Días de los Muertos en Huaquechula y Atlixco, Puebla, Mexico 2014

When I visited Puebla, Mexico in 2013 I had a book in my hotel room that was published by the Puebla Office of Tourism. There was a section about day of the dead in Huaquechula. I later found out that Huaquechula was only thirty-seven miles west of the city of Puebla. Huaquechula is known for its monumental altars that are made from pleated white satin fabric and they take up an entire wall in a family’s home. As I was looking for a new destination to document Day of the Dead, I decided this is where I would venture in 2014.

I decided to spend time in Atlixco before venturing onto Huaquechula. Atlixco is also west of the city of Puebla and north of Huaquechula. The word Atlixco comes from the Nahuatl phrase “water in the valley”. This city was founded in the early colonial period. It is a regional industrial and commercial center but it is better known for its production of ornamental plants and cut flowers. During Day of the Dead the city makes a huge floral carpet on the zócalo that is on display until November 10th. Normally, it is made up of 150,000 marigolds, chrysanthemums, amaranth and coleus plants. The designs this year were three skulls and a Catrina created from the flowers. The Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada created the image of Catrina. She has become an icon for Día de los Muertos. The local market had a section set up selling pan de muerto, skulls made from sugar, chocolate and amaranth alongwith an assortment of animals made from sugar, candles, incense burners, copal and flowers.

Huaquechula is about a thirty-minute drive from Atlixco. This little pueblo of 3,000 inhabitants dates to 1110 A.D. The original indigenous groups were the Xicalancas and the Teochichimecas. In 1200 the Nahuas took over the area. The Spanish arrived in 1520 and built the convent of San Francisco. In the 17th century Huaquechula became a part of the Spanish Crown and it was incorporated with Atlixco. In 1895 it separated from Atlixco and became a separate pueblo.

The word Huaquechula comes from the Nahuatl word meaning “eagle with rich plumage”. It is nestled between the volcanoes of Ixtaccihuatl, Popocatepetl and Malintzin. It is in the Tlaxcalteca Valley. It is an agricultural region that produces corn, alfalfa, avocados and flowers. The land was rich since pre-Hispanic times. In the colonial period fruit trees, wheat, barley and other crops were introduced to the area. Eventually, all of this food found its way to the markets in Atlixco and Puebla. Today fruits, flowers and herbs are still grown in the area.

The first record of altars from Huaquechula is from 1540. This tradition has been passed on from generation to generation. The first altars were built from carved stone and a pan of oil filled with egrilla seed. Eventually wax candles replaced the pan of oil. Around 1750 the style of the altars began to change. They now had a table with a purple tablecloth covered with bread, flowers, fruit, chocolate and mole. More modifications were made in 1850. At this time the purple tablecloth was changed to black. The ofrendas continued to change with the usage of white satin fabric and electrical lights. This is the current style today. The altars are decorated with various styles of bread such as hojaldras, rosquete, pan pichon and pan de muerto. Other items that are placed on the altar are flowers, angels, candles, weeping children known as “lloroncitos”, handicrafts made from clay and the favorite food and drink of the individual who passed away. Homes sprinkle petals of the marigold flowers from the street through the front door and ending at the foot of the altar. There are altars in all of the homes to pay respect to those who have passed away. Only the homes where there was a death within the year have the monumental altars. These are known as “ofrendas nuevas”. Only a few artisans from the community make these special altars. They are constructed from wooden crates, tables and planks of wood. About eighty-seven yards of white satin fabric is pleated to adorn these altars. Also added are “barandales”. These are hand-punched cards. These altars can cost between $237.00 to $1,400.00 for their construction.

These monumental altars have three levels or tiers known as “nivel”. The first or lower tier represents life on earth for the deceased. This level is also known as the underworld. Pan de muerto is placed on this level. In Huequechula each of the four types of bread used have symbolic meaning. The hojaldras bread represents the head. The rosquete bread represents the face. The pan pichon represents the soul. Lastly, the pan de muerto that is shaped like a body that has red sugar sprinkled over it, represents blood. The individual’s favorite food and drink is placed on the first level. There is also a photo of the deceased on the first level and it can only be viewed indirectly with a mirror. The mirror represents the entrance to the underworld symbolizing that this person is no longer on earth. One can also see the lloroncitos on this level as well. These figures represent the suffering of the relatives. Supposedly, their origin is pre-Hispanic. Wax candles are also placed on this level to give light to the darkness, twelve angels representing each month of the year and copal incense. There can also be sugar miniatures of animals such as sheep, burros, chickens and ducks.

The second tier of the altar represents the union of heaven and earth, the human and the divine. A saint or virgin is added to this tier. The white satin fabric is usually arranged in whimsical folds to resemble clouds.

The last tier usually has a cross placed on it if an adult has died. This level of the altar represents the divine, the celestial apex and communion with God.

All three of these tiers are supported by Baroque columns. These columns are pleated as well and one-dimensional paper angels are placed on the columns. These altars are also known as pyramid altars. They take on the appearance of a wedding cake. After the first year of one’s passing, the altars are then simply a table with food, flowers, candles and saints. These altars are known as ofrendas viejas.

Día de los Muertos in Huaquechula is celebrated from October 28th - November 2nd. At two o’clock in the afternoon the church bells begin to ring and the doors to the homes are opened. October 28th is the day of San Simón. This is the day for the souls to return who have died in accidents or by acts of aggression. The souls visit on this day because San Simón was a martyr. October 31st is the day that the souls of the children return. The children are known as muertitos. Children who died as babies and up to the age of eighteen return on this day. November 1st is the day that the adults return. The people open up their homes on each one of these days at three o’clock in the afternoon to welcome family, friends and visitors. Guests are taken to an outdoor patio where they are served chicken mole over rice, bean tamales alongwith a refreshing glass of agua de jamica, agua de tarmarindo or hot chocolate. On November 2nd the families go to the cemeteries where they decorate the graves and spend time with their loved ones. The graves are decorated with daisies, gladiolus, marigolds, cresto de gallo, chrysanthemums, bay leaves and rosemary. Copal is burned over the tombs.

Just minutes before the church bells begin to ring, the families gather outside of the house. Normally, a family member who was directly related to the individual who has passed away carries a large incense burner full of copal. For example, if a child died, the mother or father would carry the incense burner or if a husband had passed away, his wife would carry the incense burner. Another person carries a bucket full of marigold petals. Once the bells begin to chime the family returns to the house as the person with the bucket of marigold flowers begins to create a path of petals back to the house where it ends at the foot of the altar. The pathway of petals is sprinkled with holy water. Copal is burned all over the altar. The family gathers for prayers and the rosary is said. In some homes there was a cantadora who sang as the prayers were said and the incense was burned over the altar. It was a moving experience.

This year for the first time Huaquechula had a food contest or concurso on October 28th. Different cooks from Huaquechula took part in the concurso. They were judged by a cook from Spain. After the food concurso there was another contest for La Reina de Cempuschutl. This was also a first for the village. Seven young girls from the region competed in the contest. The contestants spoke about the customs from their respective villages, their traje and their response to questions by the judges. A young girl named Sharon from the village Huiluco was chosen to be La Reina de Cempushutl 2014. She was the only contestant to give her presentation in both Nahua and Spanish.

On October 31st Huaquechula celebrated the “Plaza Grande”. This market takes over the entire zócalo of the municipality and it only happens once a year. People from neighboring towns come in the night before and set up their stalls. One could purchase candied fruit, fresh fruit, flowers, alfeñique (sugar paste animals, baskets, etc.), chocolate, pan de muerto, copal incense, ceramics, cooking utensils, wood and crafts. It was bustling with activity.

On both November 1st and 2nd folkloric dance groups from the southern part of the state were brought in to entertain all the 7,000 visitors who descended upon the town on the west side of the zócalo. The voladores from Cuetzalan were also on hand to perform next to the Ex-Convento Francisco. I was also fortunate to stumble the home of Nacho Peralta who is in the “Grandes Maestros de Mexico” book. He was the most delightful man. He makes brightly colored candlestick holders and incense burners. His colorful ceramics could be seen on many of the monumental ofrendas and the ofrendas viejas.

Lastly I would like to thank my friends Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo, Antonio Cazabal Castro, Silverio Reyes and Paloma Nuearce for their help and assistance while I spent my six days in Huaquechula. I was completely captivated by the beauty and customs of this delightful village and their celebration of Los Días de los Muertos. It was a wonderful experience!
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A Tender Moment
A Tender Moment
Ramón's Altar
Ramón's Altar
Sharon La Reina Cempasúchil
Sharon La Reina Cempasúchil
Viewing the altar
Viewing the altar
Altar for Fausto Animas Flores
Altar for Fausto Animas Flores
Altar for Rafaela Hernández Cabellero
Altar for Rafaela Hernández Cabellero
Adding candle to altar
Adding candle to altar
A Moment of Reflexion
A Moment of Reflexion
Altar viejo por la familia Castro Blas
Altar viejo por la familia Castro Blas
Candles in front of the altar
Candles in front of the altar
Detail of altar for Aurelia
Detail of altar for Aurelia
Detail of top tier
Detail of top tier
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