Yesterday (sometimes earlier) families in various countries came together to honor their loved ones in the annual Dia de los Muertos. The holiday is often associated with Mexico, where its historic roots are deep and its celebration extravagant, but here in Nicaragua, as elsewhere it is also celebrated, albeit a simpler, more focused version. Unlike Mexico, the celebration does not begin until the 2nd of November, and there are not altars or food and drink offered to the dead. However, to anyone familiar with the heavy, muted atmosphere of cemeteries in the United States it certainly represents unfamiliar territory as I learned in my visit to the cemetery yesterday.
Upon arriving, you are funneled into the cemetery by 30 yards of tents and tables selling food, flowers (in case you’ve forgotten to already buy them), and my personal favorite item; colored “snow.” It is the only snow I can expect to see in Nicaragua, even if it is just colored Styrofoam. Tomás Pastora, who often hosts foreign visitors in his house, is my tour guide for the day and he is careful to explain everything to me.
Inside the cemetery, the gravitas I am accustomed to in cemeteries is decidedly absent. In its place is an
atmosphere closer to a community picnic. People walk around greeting each other and asking about their families, who they are “visiting,” and generally chatting. There are no tears, no dark colors, and no overtones of death. Instead children whiz by on bicycles, men sell ice cream, and families chat in the shade once the flowers have been laid down and the “snow” spread out over the grave. To me it is bizarre.
Tomás first takes us (his daughter and a Peace Corp volunteer are also with us) to the oldest grave in the cemetery. He does not know who it is, and the letters are too faded to read, but he offers it as the first site on our tour. Over the next 30 minutes he also shows us plots of his relatives, those of the family I am staying with, and the grave of the first female doctor in Central America! All the while, he stops to chat with friends and extended family.
The flowers and the snow are not the only colorful part of the cemetery; pastel colors are commonly applied to graves and fences, many of which have just recently been repainted in blue, green, and pink. The air is filled with the sounds of conversation and the competing music of at least three mariachi bands. Tomás tells me that they are playing for the dead, who enjoy it. As we exit the cemetery, another mariachi band enters to perform for the deceased.
Dia de los Muertos is a beautiful tradition. In a country that places a premium on family it is not surprising that honoring the dead is more of a community event than a personal one. Sauceños like Tomás proudly point out how the community comes together to clean the cemetery and how great it is to have the day off to remember family. Family is the lifeblood of Nicaraguan life, shared by both the living and the dead.