Friday, October 30, 2015



The wonderful tradition of Halloween is almost upon us which means Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations are also about to begin in Latin America.  In recent years many of the traditions of Halloween are being incorporated in the more traditional festivities of Latin America and especially in Mexico.  Having just returned from a weekly market excursion in Puerto Vallarta I was happy to see Halloween decorations and treats on display. The lines between cultures and traditions have definitely begun to blur in some of the larger communities of Mexico!

We will be busy beginning this weekend with the many activities of Dia de los Muertos celebrations offered in Puerto Vallarta. Just trying to determine which parade and which cemetary to visit is a daunting task, but one we are looking forward to with great anticipation.  In the meantime,  I am re-sharing my two previous Dia de Los Muertos blog posts for your immediate pleasure which include celebrations in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and the Dia de los Muertos Giant Kite Festivities of Guatemala.  Enjoy and trick or treat!


Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de los Muertos) is a holiday observed throughout Mexico, but also in many other cultures around the world. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. 

Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and lively celebrations, a typically Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism which was brought to the region by Spanish conquistadors. In most regions of Mexico November 1 is the day to honor deceased children and infants whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2. This is indicated by generally referring to November 1 mainly as Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents"),but also as Día de los Angelitos ("Day of the Little Angels") and November 2 as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos ("Day of the Dead"). 

The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to pre-Colombian times. More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now central Mexico, they encountered the native population practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate. A ritual known today as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

In the pre-Hispanic era skulls were commonly kept as trophies and displayed during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess known as the "Lady of the Dead", corresponding to the modern Catrina. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual such as the use of skulls. 

Today people don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives. The wooden skulls also are placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. Sugar skulls are made with the names of the dead person on the forehead, The Day of the Dead is a time for the dead to return home and visit loved ones, feast on their favorite foods and listen to their favorite music. In the homes, family members honor their deceased with ofrendas or offerings which may consist of photographs, bread, other foods, flowers, toys and other symbolic offerings. 

Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Dia de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Dia de los Muertos the dead are also a part of the community awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones. 

The most familiar symbol of Dia de los Muertos may be the calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls), which appear everywhere during the holiday. They appear in different forms including candied sweets, parade masks, and as dolls. Calacas and calaveras are almost always portrayed as enjoying life and often in fancy clothes and entertaining situations. The Dia de los Muertos celebrations are filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations. 

People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and to build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls in order that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed. 

What a wonderful way to celebrate the lives of our dearly departed ones! I hope you can visit Mexico during the annual Dia de los Muertos celebrations and get caught up in the spirit and magic of the festivities! The photographs for this posting were taken over three sequential years in San Miguel de Allende during their Dia de los Muertos celebrations.  


After living in Mexico and loving the country and the experience, we decided it was time to spread our wings. We chose Guatemala as our next living destination. We had previously visited Guatemala during their incredible Semana Santa (Easter week) celebrations in the old capital of Antigua. The beauty of the country and the indigenous culture had intrigued us. We decided it was time to head south to Guatemala and what was to become the beginning our “nomadic life.” By luck we arrived in Guatemala just in time for their wonderful Dia de los Muertos (English: Day of the Dead) celebrations. We were in for a wonderful experience and one I wish to now share with you. So here we go to the All Saints Day Kite festival in Guatemala!

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated annually in many Latin American countries on November 1st & 2nd in honor of deceased family members and friends. However, the festivities differ in each country. Mexico celebrates with the building of ofrendas (altars) with personal mementos of the deceased and with offerings of the deceased favorites foods and libations. Guatemala, on the other hand, honors their departed loved ones by flying ‘barriletes gigantes’ (giant kites) over cemeteries.

For centuries, rural communities throughout the highlands of Guatemala have celebrated with festivals featuring kites that carry messages to ancestors. The largest of these kite festivals occur in two communities near Guatemala City, Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango, on November 1st during the All Saints Day Kite Festival.

This uniquely Guatemalan tradition is based on the belief that the kites are able to convey messages that are tied to their tails to the spirits of the deceased loved ones. While smaller kites are flown throughout the day,by the local populace, the largest are exhibition kites which can range from eight to twelve meters and larger in diameter. These ‘barriletes gigantes’ (giant kites) provide a focal point for the festivities and their imagery may on occasion convey current political and moral messages.

The vibrantly colored designs on the kites more often than not depict religious or folkloric themes and are flown in honor of the dead. The kites are made of cloth and tissue paper on bamboo frames, Traditionally the building of the kites takes 40 days. On the first day the village's unmarried men head out to the coast to collect bamboo for the kite frames. Many other materials for the construction of the kites are also found in nature. The glue is a mixture of yucca flower, lemon peel, and water The ropes are made from the maguey plant. And the tails are made from hand woven cloth.

The Kite Festival of Santiago Sacatepéquez is about honoring the dead and communicating with them. The giant kites of Santiago Sacatepéquez are masterpieces that take great skill and patience to complete. Kite teams work for forty days to design and construct these amazing kite creations which are revealed for the first time in public at the cemetery on November 1st , Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). These kites bring team members great honor and respect from their peers and the community while honoring their deceased loved ones. There are prizes for best design, but for the winners, the cheers and admiration of the crowd are reward enough.

The locals in the small municipality Santiago Sacatepequez dress up in colorful clothing and head to the cemetery on November 1st to spend the day cleaning the graves and decorating them with flowers. After the graves are properly cleaned family members and friends of the deceased enjoy picnics at graveside.

On the day of the festival, locals take their homemade traditional-sized kites to the nearby cemetery in Sacatepéquez which they fly in honor of their departed loved ones.. This tradition of flying colorful kites on Dia de los Muertos is derived from various religious practices, including Christianity, and locals believe it’s a way to communicate with the dead. It’s a happy celebration where people have fun and honor those who are no longer with them.

The giant kites are brought to the cemetery in the morning by their respective teams where they are on display throughout the day for all to admire. The "barriletes gigantes," however, do not take to the skies until dusk. It is an incredible spectacle seeing groups of locals struggling to get their huge masterpieces airborne. It is only when they succeed, and the colorful kites head for the great blue sky that the festival is complete.

The strong autumn winds can shred through the paper easily, but the brief moments of seeing the giant kites fly “to the heavens” is a beautiful thing. Not always do the winds co-operate with the flying of these giant kites. And in reality, these extraordinary kites are not realistically expected to fly.

They are more a symbolic art form, prayers for God, and messages for those who have passed away. Actually taking to the skies is a wonderful bonus, but not a given expectation. What really matters to the participants and the observers is the beauty of the crafted designs and the intent behind them. The beauty of the kites is fleeting, but the show is incredible!


Copyright Patrick Murillo

 Copyright Patrick Murillo  
Copyright Patrick Murillo

I remember hearing many years ago that a picture is worth a thousand words. Those words definitely contributed to and inspired me in the creation of MEXICO AND BEYOND: LAURA'S PHOTO JOURNEY. The following links take you directly to the originally published postings: 



You may scroll down to the bottom of this page in order to access the posting ARCHIVE and the FOLLOW BY EMAIL link to receive automatic posting notifications. I sincerely appreciate hearing from my readers with their questions, comments, and suggestions. Until then, gracias and safe travels! Laura

Memories are just a click away!

Friday, October 23, 2015


The Huichol (pronounced wē-ˈchōl in english) of Mexico are an indigenous tribe of people with a unique and fascinating culture. Who the Huichol are, where they came from, and why their culture is so special will be highlighted with some of the facts I personally find intriguing about this indigenous people.  In Part Two of this introduction to the Huichol I will also be touching on what makes this culture "tick" including the practice of shamanism and their art.  I hope you enjoy this peek into a very interesting and unique people of Mexico.

The Huichol are Native Mexicans living in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in the Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Durango. They are best known to the larger world as the Huichol, however, they refer to themselves as Wixáritari (Huichol pronunciation: /wiˈraɾitaɾi/ or phonetically as: we-SHA-re-kaareor) meaning "those who dress in honor of our Ancestors." I dare you to say Wixáritari a few times rapidly!

The origins of the Huichol is an on-going debate by anthropologists, historians, and the Huichol themselves. Some believe the theory that they are a branch of the same family as the Aztecs both having migrated from their original island homeland near the Pacific coast named Mexcaltitán

Aerial views of the Island of Mexcaltitán in the state of Nayarit, Mexico

Others say they migrated north from the Valley of Mexico and were forced to take refuge in the Sierra hundreds of years ago by warring Indian tribes. Another theory is that they originated in the state of San Luis Potosí, but later migrated westward to the parts of the rugged Sierra where the Huichol are currently found. Evidence has been found that the Huichol have lived there for thousands of years according to carbon dating of the ashes from their sacred fireplaces! Irregardless of the many theories, it is fact that the Huichol call the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain area their home.

The Sierra Madre region before the Spanish Conquest (see the Huichol territory in lime)


The Huichol number is roughly estimated at approximately 24,000 most of whom live in the sierra mountains of the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Zacatecas. Having withstood the Spanish invasion, they are still striving to keep their culture alive and viable despite the ever increasing physical and cultural encroachment of the outside world. They live in scattered extended family settlements (ranchos) and rely entirely on oral tradition. They are intensely religious and see their time-honored responsiblity as protecting nature’s creations. Their shamen perform elaborate ceremonies to a pantheon of gods to ensure bountiful crops, health and prosperity as well as to preserve nature and heal the Earth.  (See Part Two of this posting for insight into the Huichol tradition of shamanism)


The Huichol often refer to themselves collectively as “the healers." For centuries, hidden away from the modern world and protected by the natural barrier the mountains provide, the Huichols have performed ceremonial rituals they believe heal the Earth and keep nature balanced. Key to the ceremonies is the ritual offering of the white-tailed deer to their nature-deities.

The Huichol have no word for “god,” but incorporate into their eco-religious philosophy the natural wonders of their environment. The mountains and rocks of the Sierra are the physical embodiments of their ancestors who stand guard with love willing to teach and guide their descendants in their obligation to care for the Earth. The rivers are veins of Mother Ocean conveying her lifegiving blood inland to their lands. Father Sun warms the earth and produces the crops, but when he becomes too strong offerings must be given to Grandmother Growth (aka Nakawe) who brings the rains to balance the drought.  Keeping this balance in nature is central to the Huichol's philosophy of life and vital to the well-being of Earth in their culture.


Most Huichol provide for themselves by growing their own food. Maize (corn), beans, squash, and chilis are common crops. These crops are cultivated with animal-drawn wooden plows and digging sticks. Most families own livestock such as cattle, donkeys, horses, pigs, chickens, and turkeys.

Huichol men wear brightly embroidered cotton or muslin shirts as part of their ethnic trajes (outfits). They also wear leather sandals and braided palm hats. Women wear colored skirts and blouses and decorate themselves with bright necklaces. The Huichol embroider their clothing with the symbols of nature which offer them strength and life a few of which are:  the flower, a prayer for rain; the deer, a request for love and bounty of their nature-deities; and the scorpion to ask for their protection.

Huichol marriages are arranged by the parents when children are very young and often occur between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. Extended Huichol families live together in rancho settlements. These tiny communities consist of individual houses which belong to a nuclear family. Each settlement has a communal kitchen and the family shrine, called a xiriki, which is dedicated to the ancestors of the rancho. The buildings surround a central patio. The individual houses are traditionally built of stone or adobe with grass-thatched roofs.

A district of related ranchos is known as a temple district. Temple districts are all members of a larger community district. Each community district is ruled by a council of kawiteros, elder men who are usually also shamans, or witch doctors. The marakame, or shaman priest, plays a central role in everyday Huichol life. He is the nexus with the gods, invoked through the ceremonial use of peyote, and receives instructions from the spirit world through visions, dreams and trances.


Don José Matsuwa was the renowned Huichol shaman from Mexico who passed away in 1990 at the age of 110. He was a farmer, healer, master ceremonial leader, and a revered and respected elder throughout the Sierras. He dedicated his life to completing the sacred path of the shaman.

Through the ceremonial use of peyote (see above) Shamans receive instructions from the spirit world through visions, dreams and trances.


The Huichol people are a culture in transition as modern life encroaches upon their traditional ways. Among the many challenges the Huichols face is the disregard for the ecology of their homelnd including deforestation, commercial mining, encroachments by ranchers, and disregard for water conservation by the surrounding mega-cities.  Many have migrated to cities such as Tepic in the state of Nayarit and Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco for employment.  Others struggle with poverty and illness caused by the pesticides used in the tobacco plantations where many find work as day laborers.

The Huichol feel their pact with their nature-deities has been broken by forces beyond the control. Their sacred white-tailed deer could no longer be found in the Sierra forests and the Huichols were unable to perform their ancient ceremonies to please and honor their deities and heal the Earth.* In despite of these huge challenges, the Huichols have amazingly found a way to hold on to their ancestral beliefs at least for the time being. Their tenaciousness is to be admired, respected, and honored.

The following is a ray of hope that the Huichol and their lifestyle will not be entirely lost:

The Huichols, seeing themselves as stewards of the planet, decided to take action.  In l986, they made a 600 mile (965 km) pilgrimage to Mexico City to ask the government for a white-tail deer from the National Zoo. They were given 20 to revive the white-tail deer population in the Sierra Madre mountains.  Huichol elders now work with the National Indigenous Institute on educational, economic, and health programs....The Huichols were awarded Mexico's National Ecology Prize in 1988 for their genuine efforts to save the environment.  Bravo!


The preceding paragraph was compiled from the outstanding book "MEXICO -Cultures of the World" Second Edition by Mary-Jo Reilly and Leslie Jermyn in the section entitled "The Real Treasures of the Sierra Madre."  Thank you!

We can only hope that the challenges of the Huichol will not be ignored.  It is a plight that reflects on all of us as fellow citizens and keepers of Mother Earth. The following quoted words from Charmayne McGee's book SO SINGS THE BLUE DEER are especially moving to me:

"The rich cultural heritage of the Huichol is indeed the real treasure of the Sierra Madre. The Huichols teach us that man must be a steward of the Earth, he must feel in his heart the pain of the wounded animal, the crushed blade of grass. For all souls are linked. The universal life force, kupuri, flows through all nature’s creations. And when man destroys nature, he destroys the finest part of his own being."   

"Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians is a story about the Wixárika People and their struggle to preserve Wirikuta, their most sacred territory and the land where the peyote grows, the traditional medicine that keeps alive the knowledge of this iconic people of Mexico.We enter the Wixárika world accompanying the Ramírez, a typical family of the Sierra Madre, in the traditional pilgrimage to Wirikuta held every year to honor their spiritual tradition. But this time something is different. The “Heart of the World”, where everything is sacred, is in serious danger."

                            Memories are just a click or smile away!                                                                                                                             

I remember hearing many years ago that a picture is worth a thousand words. Those words definitely contributed to and inspired me in the creation of MEXICO AND BEYOND: LAURA'S PHOTO JOURNEY. Below you will find my WEB ALBUM which has additional photos for this posting. 


I hope you have enjoyed this visit to the Huichol of the Sierra Madres in Mexico. I will be posting Part Two covering the Shamanism and Art of the Huichol in the near future. Until then, gracias and safe travels!  Laura

DISCLAIMER: Images taken from the Internet are assumed to be in the public domain. In the event that there is a problem or error with copyrighted material, the break of the copyright is unintentional and the material will be removed immediately upon request.