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Uppers, Downers & All Points in Between

Día de los Muertos in Michoacán
Author: Martín J. Rodríguez

I dedicate this narrative history to the men and women 
who died attempting to cross the border between Mexico 
and the United States. This border is like a scar that 
will never fade. 
My name is Rafael. I am a purépecha boy and I live in 
a chichimeca city called Zacapu or Tzacapu Maruati, 
which means “street of rocks.” It is a city in the 
state of Michoacán, México. Michoacán means "a place 
of fishing." 
During the year, my community has different holidays, 
and we celebrate each one in a special way. One of the 
most important is Día de los Muertos (Day of the 
dead). In October, a few days before Dia de los 
Muertos, the Monarch butterflies come to our state to 
let us know that the souls of the dead are coming and 
we start preparing to receive them. We call these 
butterflies animas, and we take care of them. 
We start the preparations on October 22, ten days 
before this holiday. Early in the morning before the 
sun rises, men use a skyrocket to announce the arrival 
of boys and girls who have died just a year ago, who 
we call Angelitos (little angels). We decorate our 
doors using yellow flowers to welcome the angelitos 
and prepare baskets of food for them to eat so they 
are comfortable. In the baskets we put things the 
angelitos like, such as skyrockets, cookies, candies, 
bread, sodas and fruits. We also put flowers and a 
little candle to give them light. This basket stays at 
home until November 1st. Then it goes to the 
We make big crowns called coronas de muertos (crowns 
for the dead). They are made of wood and grass. Then 
we add color paper and flowers. Every year my mother 
and I prepare a crown for my grandmother. The baker of 
the community begins cooking bread called pan de 
muerto a week before this great celebration. These 
breads come in quadrangular, rectangular, or circular 
shapes, and are covered with decorations. They are 
baked for both the living and dead and are placed on 
ofrendas and graves. 
We have an altar at home where we put candles, 
flowers, papel picado (a type of paper) made into a 
skeleton, and a picture of whomever we are honoring, 
like my grandmother and brother. This is how we honor 
and remember them. Also we put out calaveritas de 
dulce (sweet skeleton treats). The purpose of the 
calaveras is to make fun of death. Popular calaveras 
are La catrina, Jarabe Ultratumba and Don Quixote. 
Four days before the celebration, we decorate the 
cemetery. We take out the old plants and rocks and we 
plant new flowers around the tomb. The little temple 
of the town is cleaned for the priest who will make a 
mass in honor of each one of the deaths. 
On October 31st, the day before the celebration, we 
prepare a basket with the favorite food of the dead 
adult, similar to the basket for the angelitos. This 
basket needs to have a new table cover and food 
dedicated to the dead; “this enchilada goes to my 
grandmother Aurora, this bread is to my brother 
Francisco, this pulque is to my padrino Javier….”  
People who know a relative or friend that died less 
then a year ago also make a cross with the resinous 
center of a pine-tree, called ocote. This wood is 
strong and will last for a long time.
We do all of this carefully so we have everything they 
like. Things such as mescal (a type of wine), 
cigarettes, beer or soda are included. That way the 
dead can rest and get something to drink and eat. A 
night before this celebration we need to have 
everything that is necessary, including yellow flowers 
of cemplasúchil, candles, fruits, bread, skyrockets, 
cookies and liquor. Each altar will have flowers of 
cemplasúchil that represent the sun and death.
On November 1st we honor the teens and children who 
have died. We start skyrocketing before the sunrise so 
we can guide the new dead to us. After that we take 
candles as gifts for our families. When the sun rises 
we decorate the wooden cross. We put flowers, lemons, 
guayabas, oranges, canes, bread, color paper, liquor 
bottles and sodas around graves. This first day is 
dedicated to the teens and children.
November 2nd is when we honor the adults who have 
died. During this day the cemetery has many visitors 
who decorate the graves with flowers and candles. In 
the little house of the cemetery is a mass that is 
dedicated to the dead that come to visit us. The 
cemetery has a happy atmosphere with families and 
friends talking with the dead. I believe that the dead 
feel very happy that we remember and honor them. 
The celebration ends at night when the people burn the 
remains of the candles in their homes. We do this so 
that the dead will know their way back home.
I would like to hear your comments about this 
narrative story. Send me an e-mail: