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Ann Murdy | profile | all galleries >> Day of the dead in Huaquechula, Puebla 2016 tree view | thumbnails | slideshow

Day of the dead in Huaquechula, Puebla 2016

In October and November of 2016 I returned to photograph how Día de los Muertos is celebrated in Huaquechula, Puebla. I had visited this pueblo of 3,000 people two years ago. I really fell in love with the monumental altars that are made for their Día de los Muertos celebration.

Huaquechula is located about an hour southwest of the city of Puebla. The word “Huaquechula” comes from the Nahua word “eagle with rich plumage”. It is nestled between the volcanoes of Ixtaccihuatl, Popocatepetl and Malintzin. It is in the Tlaxcalteca Valley. The entire valley is vibrantly green with agriculture, flowers, nopal cactus and intense blue skies. During this time of year the fields are blanketed with marigolds and cresta de gallo. You feel as if you have been transported into an old scenic Mexican print from the late 1930’s to early 1940’s. The view of Popocatepetl is outstanding here.

When I visited Huaquechula two years ago I became friends with the two young men who run the office of tourism Silverio and Antonio. Two years ago Dolores Mercado one of the curators at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago made a visit to Huaquechula as well. She asked Silverio and Antonio if they would be interested in participating in her Día de los Muertos exhibit that she was curating the following year called “La Niña Muerte” by constructing one of their monumental altars. They were overjoyed to participate in this exhibit as the National Museum of Mexican Art hosts the largest day of the dead exhibit in the United States.

Last year I flew to Chicago for the opening of “La Niña Muerte” as I had three of my photos from Huaquechula taken in 2014 in the exhibit. I also gave the museum permission to borrow my painting by Ray Abeyta who was originally from Santa Cruz, New Mexico to be shown in the exhibit. Ray, an incredibly talented painter, died in a motorcycle accident in Brooklyn, New York in December 2014 at the age of fifty-six. Dolores decided she wanted to honor Ray in the exhibit so she borrowed the painting I own by Ray titled “Mano A Mano”.

Both Silverio and Antonio were so excited to see me the opening night of the exhibit. The monumental altar that they built was in remembrance of Antonio’s brother Johnny. It was sumptuous! It was the first piece of artwork you saw when you entered the museum. I had originally planned to go back to Huaquechula in the fall of 2015, but my good friend and master weaver Don Isaac Vásquez's wife died earlier that year. So I returned to Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca to pay my respects to him and his family. However, I did promise both Silverio and Antonio that I would return in 2016.

My main focus this time around was to document all of the monumental altars. As Huaquechula is such a small village the only way one can get around if you don’t live there is to walk, since there aren’t any moto-taxis as there are in other small villages in Mexico. You definitely get your exercise in when you go there to see the monumental altars!

The tradition of altar building in Huaquechula dates to around 1540. Modifications to the altars occurred in 1850. At this point in time flowers, candles, angels, weeping children known as “lloroncitos”, handicrafts made from clay, food and drink were added to the altars. This was the beginning of the usage of the white satin fabric and lights that became a prominent element of these monumental altars which is still popular today. One can only see these altars the first year that an individual has passed away. They are also known as ofrendas nuevas. In Huaquechula it is believed that those who died tragically in accidents their souls return at 2PM on October 28th, the souls of babies through teenagers to the age of eighteen return at 2PM on October 31st and all the souls who died a natural death return on November 1st. All of the above souls depart on November 2nd.

Huaquechula has four distinct breads that are used to decorate their altars. They are hojaldras, rosquete, pan pichon and pan de muerto. Each of these breads 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 with red sugar sprinkled over it, represents blood.

These monumental altars have three levels known as “nivel”. The first tier, which is the lowest tier, represents life on earth of the deceased. This level is also known as the underworld. Here a photo of the deceased is placed. It can only be viewed indirectly with a mirror. The mirror represents the entrance to the underworld symbolizing that this individual is no longer on earth. The statues of the lloroncitos are on this level too. They represent the suffering of the relatives. Wax candles are placed on the ground in front giving light to the darkness. Figures made from sugar called alfeñique such as sheep, burros, chickens and ducks can also been seen too.

The middle tier represents the union of heaven and earth, human life 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 top tier usually has a cross placed on top if an adult has died. This level of the altar represents the divine, the celestial apex and commuication with God.

Baroque columns support all three of these tiers. The columns are pleated as well. 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, drink, flowers, candles, saints and a photo of the deceased. These altars are called “altars viejos”.

The monumental altars are constructed from wooden crates, tables and planks of wood. About eighty-seven yards of white satin fabric is needed to create these altars. Another important element of these altars are the “barandales” which are hand-punched cards that usually separate one tier from the other.

Only a few artists from the community create these altars. This year Silverio constructed the one in the Casa Cultura along with another one in a home and Antonio created two home altars. Most of these altars are very expensive to build. As that is the case some of them are very elaborate whereas others are very simple.

At two o’clock on each of the respective days the church bells begin to ring. Just before this happens all of the families gather outside of their homes. At that time some one from the family will carry an incense burner full of copal. If one’s husband or wife passed away, their spouse would carry the incense burner, if a child died his mother or father would carry the incense burner and so forth. One individual carries a bucket full of marigold petals whereas another individual throws water on the ground while the individual with the bucket of marigold petals begins to create a path with petals. They will end at the foot of the altar. A cross is created from the petals. It is placed directly in front of the altar. The incense burner is placed in front of the first tier and all of the candles are lit.

Afterwards, all the visitors to each home are invited to an outdoor patio where comida is served. Most of the comida consists of chicken mole, rice, bean tamales, sometimes beans cooked in olla pot, bread, hot chocolate, agua de jamica or tamarindo.

On October 31st the “Plaza Grande” takes place. This market takes over the entire zócalo of the municipality. It only happens once a year. People from neighboring towns come in the night before to set up their stalls. One could purchase candied fruit, fresh fruit, flowers, alfeñique, chocolate, copal incense, ceramics, cooking utensils, wood, incense burners, lloroncitos and crafts.

Early on the morning of November 2nd the families go to the two cemeteries in town, La Trinidad or Santa María. Two years ago I photographed La Trinidad so this year I went to Santa María. The graves are decorated with daisies, gladiolus, marigolds, cresto de gallo, chrysanthemums, bay leaves and rosemary. Copal is burned over the tombs. There was a lively mariachi band that was playing in the corner of the cemetery. The family members were joyously singing along with the musicians as they decorated the grave. After the graves are decorated the families return home for breakfast. At noon on November 2nd they open up their homes again to the nearly 5,000 visitors that come to Huaquechula to visit the monumental altars. The department of tourism provides maps to all the visitors. There are teenagers who serve as guides who will help you go from home to home if needed to take you to the monumental altars.

This year there were three altars for people who died in accidents. Two of the altars were in Santiago Tetla that was a colonia a mile and a quarter outside of Huaquechula. My friend Paloma who was helping in the tourist office found me a guide to take me to this colonia. She eventually met up with myself and my guide at both of the two homes. When visiting a home the custom is to bring a candle to add to the altar or a plate of food that the individual enjoyed eating from his lifetime.

There were dancers that were brought in for the festivities. The Voladores de Cuetzalan Caballeros Aguila were present again. They performed during most of the celebration. On November 1st as I was photographing the altars on the calle principal I ran into a group of dancers known as Tecuanes from Acatlan de Osorio. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much have time to photograph these dancers, as my main focus this time around was to photograph all of the monumental altars. I spent five and half-hours on November 1st photographing most of them. On November 2nd I photographed the final six.

The rest of my time spent in Huaquechula was devoted to delivering photos to the homes I photographed two years ago. Fortunately I still had my map from 2014 and I used the help of the teenage guides to find the homes, as there weren’t any house numbers on the map.

Prior to visiting Huaquechula I spent time in Atlixco, which is a thirty-minute drive from Huaquechula. One can take a combi for only 13 pesos to get from Atlixco to Huaquechula. I also spent time in the city of Puebla as well. The highlight of my trip though, was seeing the monumental altars in Huaquechula again. This year two of the altars were actually recreations of the Basilica for Our Lady of Guadalupe outside of Mexico City. I was told that the women who had passed away were so devoted to the virgin that their altars were a recreation of the basilica. Every trip to Mexico is always such a time of discovery, joy and kindness by the people.

Once again I would like to thank Silverio, Antonio and Paloma for making this visit so special!
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Little girls viewing the altar
Little girls viewing the altar
Burning copal at Gerardo Alexis altar
Burning copal at Gerardo Alexis altar
Altar for Jacobo Poblano Paredes
Altar for Jacobo Poblano Paredes
Altar for Leonardo Asaf Rosas Cabellero
Altar for Leonardo Asaf Rosas Cabellero
Altar for Tomás Cruz Rosario
Altar for Tomás Cruz Rosario
Altar for Teresa Ramírez Yáñez
Altar for Teresa Ramírez Yáñez
Detail of altar for Emanuel Soriano Tapia
Detail of altar for Emanuel Soriano Tapia
Altar for Magdalena Molina Domínguez
Altar for Magdalena Molina Domínguez
A moment of reflexion
A moment of reflexion
Altar for Antonia Crespo Balbuena
Altar for Antonia Crespo Balbuena
Backside of altar for Leonardo Asaf
Backside of altar for Leonardo Asaf
Altar viejo with many santos
Altar viejo with many santos
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