“I wish we could be there to welcome them,” she lamented.
The orange-petaled marigolds that line Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma are back. But little else about this year’s Día de los Muertos resembles the vibrant celebration that typically draws millions to the capital.
A public art display of large, brightly painted calaveras, or skulls, has been hidden away to discourage people from crowding together for photos. Yellow caution tape bars entry to the parks, traditional gathering places where Mexican families assemble flower-crowned altars, called ofrendas, to their dead.
Parades have been canceled. Cemeteries throughout Mexico City and across the country will be closed. Even family gatherings have been discouraged — the government is asking Mexicans to avoid groups outside of the people with whom they live.
In a year of so much loss here — authorities have confirmed more than 90,000 deaths in Mexico from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and estimated another 100,000 excess deaths this year — families are being thwarted on the day set aside to remember loved ones.
The Day of the Dead, which begins on the evening of Nov. 1, is at once an intimate family celebration and a vibrant, sometimes raucous party to honor the dead and the eventual end of every living person. Family members gather to eat and tell stories about the ancestors. They make altars with photographs and brightly colored paper cut into ornate designs. They decorate the graves of relatives and celebrities with bright flowers and offer the dead food, alcohol and fruit.
Families struggling to make ends meet during the country’s still-raging coronavirus outbreak are having difficulty buying the usual trappings for their altars. Some will be baking their own pan de muerto, the traditional bread of the dead, and downsizing their elaborate ofrendas.
“Mexico is a community in suffering,” said Guadalupe Loaeza, an author and cultural critic. “Mexico is a very happy culture, festive, full of life. But we are in a terrible reality and it affects everything.”
By tradition, families sit by the graves of relatives for hours overnight. They break bread and drink spirits with their lost loved ones.
If they’re not there on the one night a year that their ancestors are able to mingle with the living, will the dead think they have been forgotten?
“Here in Mexico, death is life,” she said. “We go to the cemeteries to bring them flowers, to talk to them, to say, ‘I am here. I did not forget.’ The way we live with death, the way we consider it part of life, affects how Mexican families feel about their dead — that they are very, very present.”
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has declared Nov. 1 through Nov. 3 days of national mourning for those lost in the pandemic. The Mexican flag is to be lowered to half-staff and an ofrenda will be assembled in the presidential palace to honor the dead.
“Look, there is a lot of pain that this pandemic is leaving us,” López Obrador told reporters this week. “Many, many have lost their lives. … It’s not a number. They are people and there is a lot of sadness among families, friends.”
Clemente Flores, 56, who paints cars in Mexico City, watched his brother succumb to the deadly virus four months ago, leaving a wife and three children. He said it happened fast — he came down with a fever, then a cough. Two weeks later, he stopped breathing.
Because Rene Flores was infected with the coronavirus, his brother said, his remains were cremated. That means there’s no grave to visit.
Clemente Flores said his family plans to celebrate at home. He’s already affixed a photo of his brother to the altar.
“Our parents can come to the house,” he said. “The dead are not only [in the cemetery]. They are in here, too.”
Staying home and focusing on the meaning behind the event could bring some Mexican families closer to the original intent of the day, said Celerino Felipe Cruz, a professor of philosophy at the Michoacan University of Saint Nicholas of Hidalgo.
The dead, he said, were always meant to be celebrated at home. The practice of festooning graves in church-adjacent burial plots reflects Christian influence.
“It is more than just making an offering — that is the material aspect. You offer material things,” Cruz said. “The other aspect consists of telling stories about a hobby they had or bringing them items they left. Don’t just leave us good things. It’s a community commitment.”
Cruz, a member of Mexico’s Indigenous Purépecha people, says the commercialization of the holiday in recent years — the Disney film “Coco,” the proliferation of Día de los Muertos merchandise and public celebrations marketed to tourists — has pushed the holiday further from its native roots. Big parades such as the one typically held in Mexico City reflect Hollywood, not Mexican culture. Cruz says he has been emphasizing the day’s origins in an effort to convince families that they don’t have to go to the cemetery to honor or engage with their ancestors.
Still, many families have visited cemeteries early, before they close. Rosas, a 58-year-old stay-at-home mom, was afraid that if she waited too long, she would miss her chance.
The ritual of slowly placing her colorful blooms among the headstones and tombs was comforting. Her family has suffered economically during the pandemic and is planning smaller altars, fewer flowers, offerings made instead of bought.
She’s disappointed she won’t be able to visit Sunday evening with her three children. She hopes the flowers will send a message to her ancestors: We haven’t forgotten. We are waiting for you — at home.
Gabriela Martínez contributed to this report.