Mexican Traditions — Funerales

An acquaintance died yesterday. That means that today everything stopped, as family, friends, and acquaintances dropped everything to attend a gathering to comfort the family, followed by a funeral service, and a long walk to the cemetery (panteon) bearing the remains.

I am always amazed by the differences in cultures. How births are celebrated and deaths mourned are especially unique to each culture and even location within that culture. Some cultures raise the body high in the air and let the natural processes take care of the remains, others place the body on a boat, set it afire and let it drift across a lake or downriver. Here because it is a hot country, the tradition is to bury the body fast, and if you are Catholic mourn for 9 days afterwards.

Visitations are held in the sala, or front room, of the deceased or a family members house. Furniture is moved to make room for the casket, and all pictures, mirrors, etc. are removed. If there is no room inside, perhaps the casket is placed in the yard. People come at all hours of the day and night, from early morn to well past midnight, expecting the deceased’s family to provide food and drinks. Thoughtful guests bring something — a kilo (almost two pounds) of sugar is a common choice — to sweeten the coffee or fruit water the family is serving, or possibly some bread or cookies. Others bring flowers, traditionally only white. Sometimes people who don’t even know the family come for the free meal or “professional mourners” come to cry over the deceased for a fee.

There are no open caskets here, perhaps again due to the climate, the deceased is seen only through a glass window. I find this very eerie, as if the person inside is not really dead at all but like Sleeping Beauty, just waiting for their prince or princess to come and awaken them with a kiss. For the family it is difficult, they want to touch their loved one, hold their hand or stroke their face as they talk to them, but they can’t. Only later at the grave site will the casket be opened and the family allowed to “say their goodbyes,” which, as you might expect, becomes an extremely emotional time with all those pent up feelings finally allowed free expression.

After a funeral service, the casket is put into a hearse, and all the mourners, bearing the white flowers, walk behind, clogging the street for any motorized traffic. Since there is pretty much only one way through town and the cemetery is on the far side, it can be a long, slow, frustrating time for drivers trapped behind.

When my hostess’s son died recently, the funeral process only lasted for about 36 hours. It seemed much longer and we were all exhausted by the time it was over. I cannot even imagine repeating the process day after day for nine days.

Mexican Traditions — Semana Santa — Taxco Style

Boom, Boom, Boom       Boom, Boom, BoomBoomBoom                                             

That is the sound of Semana Santa, “holy week,” in Taxco de Alarcon, Guerrero, Mexico — a spectacle like no other. Probably one of the most revered of all celebrations in Mexico, Semana Santa, like many Mexican celebrations incorporates elements of pre-Hispanic cultures with Catholic traditions.

Starting on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, with the traditional blessing of the palms, most houses, shops, taxis, and combis are adorned with woven palm frond crosses and other designs. For days ahead of time, indigenous people sit  in the shade of church domes and on the side of the calles, weaving simple and intricate patterns in the stiff grass.

The streets, especially the main cobblestone calle that winds through town and past my house, are filled with the devout, proudly parading their church icons to the zocolo downtown. With its 1500s colonial period whitewashed walls, red tile roofs, and cobblestone streets, Taxco has the  atmosphere of a medieval fair, minus the castle walls, with makeshift silver shops, souvenir and food stands popping up everywhere there is an empty room or a few feet of space.

Every night there is a procession or more than one. Don’t even think of heading downtown unless you are willing to walk the miles jostled by the crowd — no  vehicles of any kind are allowed, not even taxis or combis.

On Monday, it is the procession of the virgins. Every church for miles, and there are a lot of them, bring their statutes to town and hand carry them on a bier, the mile or so from the edge of town to the center. The icon bearers are surrounded by candle holders, incense bearers, little children dressed as angels, girls dressed in white (think communion outfits), and a host of other helpers.  And let’s not forget those drummers and the occasional fiddler playing a tune that sounds oddly Celtic. The groups seem to be spaced out about every 30-40 minutes, so with my bedroom facing the action, just about the time I think it is safe to go to sleep, down the street another group comes with its boom, boom, boom cadence.

Tuesday, the observances that have been happening throughout the Lenten period, take on special significance. The street is quiet, but the churches are alive with people and their traditions of the season.

Wednesday, there is a special mass representing the disciples abandonment of Jesus and a procession of “lesser saints” — Cecelia, Joseph, and others are paraded through town.

Then, Maunday Thursday arrives and it is chaos everywhere, in preparation for the biggest procession of all.  Starting about 1 pm the contingents from out of town arrive. Cars, open pickup trucks, and huge dump trucks, filled with parishioners hooting and hollering, roll into town honking that same solemn cadence.  There was even a group on motorcycles and sometimes groups come on horseback or bicycle.

People line the streets and throw buckets of water on the people in the trucks. The opposite of an American parade where the people in the vehicles throw candy to the spectators.

The night culminates with the most solemn procession of all — that of the penitents. Dressed in black robes, a horse hair belt, and their faces covered by a hood to conceal their identity, they gather along with their own entourage of young children dressed as angels, older girls barefoot and dressed in white dresses and veils, and an assortment of assistants. Of course, their patron saint is carried along for blessing.

Taxco appears to be one of the last remaining places where the three brotherhoods, the Animas (or Bent Ones), the Encruzados (the crossed), and the Flagelantes (Flagellants) reenact events from Jesus’ last day on earth in such a strict fashion.

Animas (the Bent Ones), Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico

The Bent Ones, walk bent over with chains around their ankles and candles or small crosses in their hands. This being the only group that accepts women, you will often see a nunnery of penitents walking as a group.

Flagelante, Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico

The Flagelantes carry a rosary and  a 6-7 foot wooden cross, representative of Jesus’ final walk to Gogotha. When the procession stops, they hand off their cross, kneel, and whip their bare backs causing blood to flow. Most gruesome.

Encruzado, Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico

Then, there are the Encruzados who carry rolls of blackberry thorns, weighing up to 100 pounds, across their back and shoulders on outstretched arms (some sort of variation of the crown of thorns?) they might also carry a cross, rosary or candles in their hands.

On Good Friday,in the gold adorned Santa Prisca church, the praying statue of Jesus is mock captured, jailed, and crucified before the penitents. This is followed by another procession.

Saturday night they hold a candlelight vigil until midnight when it is announced that Christ has risen and then all is quiet.

A native told me, the first year I was here, that I had to “see the show” at least once. I have to say this much, it is an interesting show even if it keeps me awake all night most of the week.

Since I have a little computer issue I am going to link you to slide show from last year.

Mexican Traditions – Dancing Kings

The civil “Flag Day” ceremonies over, the afternoon was quiet, then as the sun just started to drop behind the mountain, some merry music made its way closer to my door. I looked out just in time to see the dancing kings entourage go by.

Apparently, as they do during Navidad and Las Posadas, each church in town takes a turn hosting a special Lenten event. Tonight, the Ex-Convento took their statues of Mary and Jesus out of the church and paraded them through town, to the accompaniment of merry music and dancing kings.

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I wonder how the dancers in their heavy costumes and full face masks, and the musicians too, manage to keep this merry pace up for over a mile all the way through town. They wear me out just watching them skip and dance down the street.

As the sun began to drop behind the mountain,  the music paused at the local church where airworks and church bells filled the air. Then the music and festivities began anew culminating in some beautiful fireworks, the real thing this time, with fire.

Oooh, ahhhh!

It appears that in addition to the marching bands and celebrations on all the Fridays of Lent, I have a first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth Tuesday to look forward to as well.


Mexican Traditions – Flag Day

The house where I live is just off of Calle de Benito Juarez, the main street of Taxco. Every, and I mean EVERY, parade, procession, or protest marches right past my balcony.

Last Friday was the first Friday of Lent, celebrated with airworks boomers and bandas roving the city to remind people of this sacred time.

Street band observing Lent, Taxco de Alaracon, MexicoBut there were more bands on Saturday, then Sunday marked a taxi protest clogging the streets with taxis with nobody inside them, and yesterday, more bands, one with children in 3 kings outfits (like those below) skipping down the street.

Three kings parade participants, , Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico

Parade, Taxco, Mexico

What is going on? I thought all this was reserved for Fridays?

After a weekend of boomers and parades marching by day and night, I thought things were finally settling down when a somber drum cadence could be heard marching closer and closer.

It is February 24, Mexican Flag Day and every school drum and bugle corps with their honor guard is marching toward La Garita to observe a flag honoring celebration. It was a solid hour and a half of snare drums bang, bang, banging a slow march cadence past my door.

Talk about a headache!!!!

Mexican Traditions — First Friday

This morning I was awakened before dawn by airworks – those booming cannon shot sounding fireworks (with no fire.) They continued throughout the day culminating in special church services, bandas parading through the streets, people singing, jumping into fountains, and other festivities.

Street band, Taxco de Alarcon, MexicoWhen I asked why, the only answer I would get is, “First Friday,” like I should know what that means. Since I am not Catholic and the only thing I know about Lenten traditions is that it is a time of penance, that follows the all out debauchery that is Carnival/Mardi Gras, and lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, I decided it was a good time to find out.

In Mexico, the word for Lent is Cuaresma, which comes from the word for 40 representing the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. With Mexico being one of the most Catholic countries in the world, Lenten observances are an important part of the culture, filled with solemn observances, processions, and merriment. It is a time of church and family activities, sobriety and abstinence, with most Mexicans giving up eating meat on Fridays.

So what is this First Friday all about? On the first Friday after Ash Wednesday,  processions of “The Lord of Mercy” goes through the main streets of town, imploring mercy for sins. Rag tag bands of all sorts, wander the streets, which usually attract more of a Pied Piper following than any kind of solemn observance.

Street band, Taxco, MexicoMy first year here, before I knew about First Friday and all the other Fridays that follow, I was told that the bands were to remind people that it was a holy time, which was really amusing considering they came marching over the hill playing Roll Out the Barrel, a quintessential drinking song.

I now know that each Friday from now until Easter I will be awakened with airworks and serenaded to sleep by brass bands, each marking a special observance such as Dia de la Samaritana or Viernes de Dolores, the Friday of Sorrows, observed on the last Friday before Easter week in recognition of Mary’s loss of her son. All of this leads up to the influx of thousands of penitents and onlookers for Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Taxco.

Holy Week in Taxco de Alaracon, MexicoEnough of a lesson for now. More later. Or visit the GoMexico Website.

Mexican Traditions – Ash Wednesday

I arrived back in Taxco from my week in the country (in El Ocotito with Lili’s family) and the first thing I noticed after stepping off the bus was that a guy had a smudge of dirt on his forehead. As I continued home, I saw another person, and then another but this time the smudge looked like an X.

Ah, it dawned on me, it is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Lenten season for Catholics around the world. That’s why there was so much coverage of Carnival (in Rio), Mardi Gras (in New Orleans) and party celebrations in other locations on the television last night! (Not speaking Spanish I had no idea what the announcers were saying, I just recognized the partying and city captions; it didn’t even dawn on me that it was Tuesday.)

Though, in Taxco, there were likely some parades and partying, church bells and airworks (fireworks with only the boom) until midnight, then church bells and more airworks at dawn…

Night life, El Ocotito, Mexicoit was amazingly quiet in our little town.

I didn’t even see any ashes on foreheads until I came back to Taxco. And that is saying something since I traveled through Ocotito, Chilpancingo, and Iguala, in a truck, two buses, and a taxi.

Tonight the church bells are ringing and the airworks booming but when the day is done, it will be quiet at least until Friday when parades and bandas will roam the streets to remind people that it is a sacred time (see photos and read more about Fat Tuesday traditions here). This scenario will repeat itself every Friday as it all leads up to what a student of mine calls “the big show,” semana santa or holy week, when it is really crazy in Taxco.

Stay tuned. As my student says, you really do not want to miss the show.


Mexican Traditions – Three Kings Day

Band in the street, Festival of OUr Lady Guadalupe, Taxco, Mexico


The holiday season in Mexico just goes on and on. First there is the The Feast of Our Lady Guadalupe which begins on December 1st and culminates on December 12th with marching bands playing repetitive music, feverish dancing, and of course fireworks.

Las Posadas procession, Taxco, Mexico




Then on the 16th, Las Posadas start and the calles (streets) and barrios (neighborhoods) are filled with the sound of children singing and pinatas breaking, along with candlelit processions, and more fireworks.


Families gather for Christmas Eve and Christmas but unlike back home, these are only days for family to be together; no gifts under the tree to open — well maybe a small gift or two.

Tonight is the night that Mexican children most look forward to. They set out their shoes in eager anticipation of finding them filled with gifts in the morning. Three Kings Day, January 6th, marks twelve days after Christmas Day, when supposedly the three kings appeared before the baby Jesus and presented him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

At midnight, the sky will be punctuated with the sight and sound of fireworks and airworks (fireworks with only the boom), church bells will peal, and if they do not sleep though all that noise, children will open their gifts. The day will be marked with yet another family gathering where Rosca de Reyes (Wreath of Kings) bread will be eaten and whomever finds the baby Jesus in their piece gets to host the final holiday celebration, Dia de Candelaria, on February 2.

(To learn more about these Mexican traditions, follow the links above.)

Three Kings Day, Taxco, MexicoNo doubt there will also be another parade down my street. Can’t wait!



Mexican Traditions — Las Posadas

With a few days rest after the 12 day observance of the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe, culminating December 12th, December 16th marks the beginning of Las Posadas. For 9 nights, the barrios (neighborhoods) and callejons (small streets) around my house are filled with children singing and shouting, pinatas breaking, and of course, fireworks.

With roots in Catholicism, possibly started by Spanish friars who combined the December Aztec celebration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli (seen as the sun) into the celebration of Christmas, December 16, marks the start of 9 days (possibly representing the 9 months of the virgin Mary’s pregnancy) of nightly visits to the homes of friends and neighbors.

Las Posadas procession, Taxco, MexicoA little like carolers going from house to house in the US, Las Posadas include a procession with participants representing Mary and Joseph and other characters from the nativity scene, visiting the house of a neighbor. They sing a song asking for entry into the “inn”. The resident sings a song acknowledging the travelers and eventually invites the party, into the “inn” where everyone gathers around the nativity scene, prays, and feasts. Individuals may actually act out the parts — Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds — with the person playing Mary actually riding a donkey (or burro).

Breaking the pinata, Las Posadas, Taxco, MexicoChildren may carry poinsettas. Usually a star shaped pinata ,with candy and fruit hidden inside, is broken as a symbol of faith overcoming the seven deadly sins as represented by the points on the star.

Pinatas, Taxco, Mexico






In my observance, though I am sure there are many who are devout in their observance, it appears, as in many cultures and many observances, that Las Posadas, for most, is just another reason to for a fiesta.

pinatas for sale, Taxco, Mexico


Mexican Traditions — Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Today is the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe, probably the biggest religious festival in all of Mexico. Hundreds of thousands travel to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City where supposedly the virgin Mary appeared to a simple peasant, named Juan Diego, on December 9 and December 12, 1531.

As the legend goes, Mary told Juan to ask the bishop to build a church on Tepeyac Hill but the bishop needed proof of Juan’s encounter and asked for a miracle. Juan returned to the hill to find roses where previously only cacti had grown. Juan Diego showed the roses to the archbishop and revealed an image of the Lady of Guadalupe she emblazoned on his cloak (this cloak is on display at the Basilica), convincing the bishop of the miracle so the church was built. An little detail I find interesting is that Mary supposedly spoke in the indigenous Nauatl language, causing many indigenous people to convert to Catholicism.

The festival actually starts on December 1st when ardent believers begin their pilgrimage, often by foot, bicycle, burro, or as I saw today, horseback to Mexico City or any town (like Taxco)with a church in honor of Guadalupe. Some show their devotion by arriving to the church on their knees. Children often wear authentic costumes, while adults wear clothing imprinted with images of the virgin and carry candles and icons. Cars and trucks are decorated with images, three-dimensional icons, or mini altars honoring Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Click here for pictures.

The main celebration, as I noted in yesterday’s post, begins the night before the feast day (December 12) with bands marching solemnly through town playing pretty much the same song (maybe two)over and over. Gathering a crowd as they march, the processions eventually lead to the Church of Guadalupe far up the mountain beneath the Cristo statue. There the music continues with fireworks and airworks (fireworks with only the boom)adding to the cacophony. Often, conchero dancers (the name probably comes from the word concha, meaning “shell,” suggested by their mandolin-shaped instruments made of armadillo shells) often in colorful traditional dress (blending indigenous traditions with the Catholic celebration), offer their art to the virgin by furiously dancing to the endlessly repeated accompaniment. The celebration continues into the wee hours of the morning, with a midnight mass, church bells pealing and more fireworks and booms, ending about 1 am.

The following day, December 12, the festival continues from morning to night with more music, dancing, feasting, and of course, fireworks.

I wandered downtown to, as a Mexican friend puts it, “see the show,” but other than a good sized band of cabello hombres (men on horses) carrying their Guadalupe pennant and saying something over a loud speaker (which I could not understand) I did not see anything unusual. It just seemed a little like the day after Thanksgiving back home, with lots of people wandering around and shopping. Of course I did not go to the top of the mountain where the church is located either.

Now that the sun is going down, the bands and fireworks are becoming more prominent again.


Any excuse for a parade

Taxco, like Madison, is considered by outsiders to be a party town. Perhaps that has something to do with the frequent celebrations often including marching bands, parades, and fireworks.

At least once a week, if not more often, a parade goes by my house, filling the main street in town with children, balloons, queens, kings, costumed characters, and of course, marching bands, bringing traffic to a screeching halt and pedestrians, trying to get to their destination, weaving in and out of marchers, dancers, and balloon waving participants.

Today is December 11th, the night before the Festival of Guadalupe (the Mexican Virgin) and official kick-off of the holiday season in Mexico. So far, at least 4 drum and bugle corps have marched by. The streets are filled with processions carrying icons of the virgin followed by the reverent often carrying candles and smaller icons of their own (click here for pictures). The drums echo through the streets and off the mountains. Every so often, “air works” (fireworks without the fire, only the boom) add to the cacophony.

1211141956c-qprI think this is one of those nights when “there is no rest for the wicked.”