Mexicans celebrate restricted Day of the Dead amid coronavirus upheaval – The Guardian

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José Porfirio Martínez Castro and his wife Nery Urioles Nájera were tidying up their family tomb at the municipal graveyard in Morelia. They built a small altar for two of José’s siblings and adorned it with marigolds, sugar skulls and tiny bottles of Coca-Cola – his sister’s favourite drink.

Normally, they would spend the night of 1 November here, lighting candles and remembering their loved ones. But this year the cemetery will be closed because of Covid-19 restrictions, so they made their visit a few days early.

“I never imagined doing this,” said Martínez, from the tomb’s shady portico. “Everything has changed in 2020.”

Oceans of marigolds still adorn Mexican boulevards, sugary pan de muerto is still on sale and images of skeletons decorate everything from store windows to billboards.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has upended Day of the Dead plans. The effusive celebrations of recent years – parades inspired by the James Bond movie Spectre and “mega” altars in town squares – have been cancelled or made virtual.

Cemeteries across the country have been ordered to close, forcing many families to mark the occasion at home.

Mexico’s coronavirus death toll stands at around 90,000, but officials admit that the true figure may well be at least 50,000 higher.





A woman waters her father’s grave at the Valle de Chalco municipal cemetery on the outskirts of Mexico City on Thursday.



A woman waters her father’s grave at the Valle de Chalco municipal cemetery on the outskirts of Mexico City on Thursday. Photograph: Fernando Llano/AP

The pandemic has shattered thousands of Mexican families – but it has also interrupted many of the country’s traditional ceremonies for commemorating the dead: churches have been closed; wakes cancelled; and communities unable to gather for novenas – prayers offered for nine consecutive days.

Families who have lost loved ones in the pandemic have also suffered a social stigma in a country where conspiracy theories over coronavirus and its transmission have swirled.

“They say it was diabetes, or they died of a heart attack … or it was kidney problems,” Father Raúl Vázquez, a Jesuit priest, said, describing how relatives of Covid victims refer to the cause of death. “They’re scared of being rejected by their neighbours.”

The inability to properly commemorate loved ones has left many Mexicans still searching for closure.





Merchants in the Jamaica market offer their products for the Day of the Dead festivities, in Mexico City.



Merchants in the Jamaica market offer their products for the Day of the Dead festivities, in Mexico City. Photograph: Sáshenka Gutiérrez/EPA

“Death has a festive side in Mexico. But there’s also a very human side of deep pain. And the pain of death during the pandemic hasn’t had a place to be expressed,” said Abraham Villavicencio, a gallery curator in Mexico City, who studies Day of the Dead.

As in other countries, coronavirus victims are often cremated instead of interred. Cemeteries have limited access, preventing large family funerals and the mariachi bands that traditionally accompany them.

When Sandra Águila’s husband, Raúl, died of Covid-19 in June, she received a box of ashes from the funeral home and watched via Facebook as a priest offered prayers for multiple pandemic victims.

“It was very cold, very devastating,” recalled Águila, in her home in the Xochimilco neighbourhood of Mexico City.





People decorate a relative’s grave before the Day of the Dead at the Municipal Pantheon in Valle de Chalco, Mexico state, on Wednesday.



People decorate a relative’s grave before the Day of the Dead at the Municipal Pantheon in Valle de Chalco, Mexico state, on Wednesday. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

She still planned to construct an altar on Sunday night, but will keep it small and adorned with simple items: fruit, chocolate skulls with her husband’s name and calabaza en dulce – a traditional dish of pumpkin cooked in syrup.

“Money’s pretty tight,” said Águila, a teacher. “This festival was always so beautiful, but it’s going to be pretty quiet this year.”

Águila’s community of San Gregorio Atlapulco, is famed for its marigolds, which have been grown on manmade islands known as chinampas since pre-Columbian times. Normally they are harvested in time for the Day of the Dead, but this season, sales have crashed, leaving greenhouses full of rotting flowers.

“We used to sell everything and prices would increase as the Day of the Dead approached,” said flower farmer Roberto de los Santos, who figured his sales would plunge 60% this year.

In recent years, the Day of the Dead has become big business in some parts of Mexico. Michoacán, a state to the west of Mexico City, drew thousands of tourists to sites such as the island of Janitzio where the indigenous Purépecha people celebrate rites with boats full of flowers and candles.





A woman transports cempasuchil (marigold) flowers ahead of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City.



A woman transports
cempasuchil (marigold) flowers ahead of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. Photograph: Agencia Press South/Getty Images

“We broke records in 2019,” boasted Roberto Monroy, the tourism secretary in Morelia, the state capital. “We also broke records in 2020 – just the wrong records,” he added.

Some 55,000 visited the city’s municipal graveyard last Day of the Dead. This year, the cemetery was closed on 30 October.

Beforehand, long lines formed outside as people armed with buckets and brooms and clutching bouquets of marigolds waited to decorate their relatives’ graves. Only two people per family were allowed in; children, musicians and fresh food for offerings were banned.

“It’s sort of sad, just like all of this year,” said Karla Tejada, a jewellery seller, as she placed marigold petals on the grave of two uncles, along with a bottle each of Coca-Cola and Victoria beer.

“It will be different, but we’ll celebrate at home,” she said.





A relative of Alma Delia Romero Sánchez, who died from Covid-19, prepares an altar in her honour for the Day of the Dead in Mexico City.



A relative of Alma Delia Romero Sánchez, who died from Covid-19, prepares an altar in her honour for the Day of the Dead in Mexico City. Photograph: Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images

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