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Day of the Dead
in San Andrés Mixquic

by DKJ

Nahuatl is still spoken in Mexico. Most Nahua —i.e., speakers of Nahuatl— live in the general vicinity of the Valley of Mexico and adjacent areas of Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Morelos. Within the metropolis of Mexico City, the most densely Nahua districts are Xochimilco and the Milpa Alta area just to the east of it.

This page deals with the town of San Andrés Mixquic, as described by Cipriano Gutiérrez-Martínez in a tiny pamphlet called Mixquic: Un Pueblo Rico en Magia y Tradición: Las Ofrendas a los Muertos y Sus Rituales (privately published, 1997). At the time Gutierrez wrote his booklet, Mixquic, located about an hour’s drive southeast of Mexico City and once part of the Aztec empire, was divided into four barrios and included about 22,000 inhabitants, of whom roughly 90% were Catholics, and about 80% were farmers.

Mixquic Place Glyph

The name Mixquic is said to derive from the Nahuatl word mizquitl (or mīzquitl), “mesquite,” plus the suffix -c, “among.” The place glyph associated with it (at right) shows a house (= settlement) with two protruding mesquite plants: “Mesquite-Arbor Village.”

Mesquite wood can be used as a building material and its fragrant smoke is still used to flavor barbecued meat. The seed pods can be ground into flour to make bread, tortillas, &c. Since Mixquic was originally a lakeside village, however, and not a prime mesquite-growing habitat, mesquite hardly seems like a very salient name for it. César Macazaga Ordoño has proposed that the name may actually refer to a long vanished but possibly once prominent sacrificial temple on the site which was associated with penitential practices, such as bloodletting using mesquite spines. (César MACAZAGA-ORDOÑO 1979 Nombres Geográficos de México Mexico City: Editorial Innovación, p. 104.)

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Mixquic traces its history to the mists of time, but the earliest hard date in local lore is 1116, when the Toltec city of Tula was being destroyed by the marauding Chichimecs. (Most writers put the destruction of Tula some decades later than that.) Many formerly proud and lordly Toltecs, leaving their ruined capital, flooded as refugees into the region of Mixquic.

This history allows the Mixquiqueños to claim descent from both Chichimecs and Toltecs, as any Aztec would have been proud to be able to do, since both of these earlier peoples were admired for their martial prowess.

According to the Mendocino Codex, Mixquic was the first town conquered by Itzcóatl (Aztec Emperor 4) in 1430 and became a tributary state beneath Tenochtítlan. On his accession to the throne in 1440, Moteuczóma I Ilhuicamína (Emperor 5) had a temple to Huitzilopóchtli built in Mixquic, using materials seized from several conquered towns, apparently because they had rebelled against his succession and Mixquic had not. (For an overview of Aztec history, click here.)

However, this “favorable” treatment did not make the Mixquiqueños less resentful of their Tenochtítlan overlords. Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote:

We spent the night in another town on the lake, which I think was called “Mezquique” (which later was called “Venezuela”). It had many whitewashed towers. The chief [Chalca-yáuhtzin] and elders accorded us much honor and made a present of gold and of rich blankets, worth four gold pesos, and Cortés thanked them profusely. There we preached things about our faith, as we had done in other pueblos we had visited. It appeared that people in this pueblo were very negative toward Moteuczóma and had many grievances, and they complained of him. Cortés told them that things would soon be remedied when we got to Tenochtítlan, if God was served and would understand everything. Fuimos a dormir a otro pueblo que está poblado en la laguna, que me parece que se dice “Mezquique”, que después se puso “Venezuela”, y tenía tantas torres y que blanqueaban y el cacique de él y principales, nos hicieron mucha honora y dieron a Cortés un presente de oro y mantas ricas, que valdría el oro cuatrocientos pesos, y nuestro Cortés les dió muchas gracias por ello. Allí se les declaró las cosas tocantes a nuestra fe como hacíamos en otros pueblos por donde veníamos y según pareció, aquellos de aquel pueblo estaban muy mal con Moctezuma de muchos agravios que les había hecho y se quejaron de él y Cortés les dijo que pronto se remediaría, ahora que llegáramos a México, si Dios fuese servido y entendería todo".

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As the Spanish gradually moved to bring down the Aztec state, Mixquic, like Tlaxcala and many other towns, was among their allies. Under the subsequent Spanish administration, the local chief, Chalca-yáuhtzin, clearly a survivor, continued as leader of Mixquic, now with a Spanish title —cabecera— rather than a Nahuatl one.

Augustinian missionaries, who arrived in 1533, gave the town the name of San Andrés Mixquic, in honor of Saint Andrew, the apostle, and the town church is dedicated, of course to San Andrés Apóstol.

Mixqiqueños, at least as represented by Gutierrez, are quite proud of their Chichimec-Toltec derivation, their opposition to their Aztec overlords, and their alliance with the Spanish against Tenochtítlan. And they apparently harbor a strong sense of independent identity that is manifest not only in continuing to speak Nahuatl but also in a good deal of pride taken in many local festivals, including the details, however minor, that are seen as particular to Mixquic.

Here is a description of the way in which the Day of the Dead is observed in Mixquic, broadly paraphrased from Gutierrez’ pamphlet.

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The Household Altar

The observation begins with a thorough cleaning of the house, which takes place the week before October 31. It is important that the visiting spirits have a clean environment in which to rest after their long journey back to the place that was their home in life. There is even a belief that if the house is not neat and clean, souls may get upset, and undesirable events may “occur,” so cleaning house is not exactly optional.

A family altar must be arranged with offerings. These must include nine essential elements:

  1. Water. As the source of life, water is offered to the spirits to slake their thirst after their long journey and strengthen them for their return.
  2. Salt. This is associated with purification and rendering the fleshly body incorruptible.
  3. Candles. Candles are associated with light and eternal life and with the triumph of a soul passing from this life to immortality. In churches, candles represent the presence of Christ.
  4. Copan incense. Used since antiquity in offerings, it transmits prayers and veneration to heaven, as well as warding off evil spirits.
  5. Flowers. These include white wallflowers because white is associated with purity and tenderness (and hence children), and yellow marigolds because gold is associated with wealth, but also with the sun —the god Tonátiuh— which provides light to help the souls on their way.
  6. A mat. These were traditionally used to lie or sit on for rest or banquets or to sleep. They were even used as shrouds for the dead.
  7. Toys. These are for any of the dead who may be children, but should include the dog who helps souls to find their way in Míctlan, the land of the dead.
  8. Bread or tortillas or tamales. These are a basic food, of course, but also represent the body of Christ.
  9. Neck & reeds. This refers to a wheel-shaped bread supported on a piece of cane, and it represents the pre-Hispanic tzompántli or skull-rack, where skulls of human victims were displayed on poles. [This may replace or supplement the sugar skulls widely used in Mexico. —DKJ]

In addition to these things, an altar usually includes things the deceased enjoyed in life, such as wine, beer, pulque, mole, cigars, &c. Fruit is included, in season, and in Mixquic a local specialty called “Mix-Mole”: a kind of fermented fish sauce.

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October 31

At noon on October 31 a celebration begins dedicated to children as the parish church chimes twelve, followed by a solemn peal to show the arrival of the children’s souls. On home altars a small candle is now lit, the water, salt, and white flowers must be on the altar, and white flower petals are scattered to provide a path from the entry of the compound to the household altar.

At three pm a peal of bells announces it is time for prayer, and fruits, bread (or tortillas or tamales) must be on the altar, as well as sweets, chocolate, atole, toys, and incense, and more candles are lit.

November 1

When the church bells chime 8 o’clock on the morning of November 1st, the altar is provided with breakfast for the souls of the children. At 11 am a mass is held, and the souls of children are sent on their way.

At noon, as the clock strikes 12, the souls of the children have departed, and the adult souls arrive. There is a story that within the mysterious supernatural realm of Chichihua-cuáuhco there is a maternal tree with breasts that feed children before they are born. The tree also feeds the souls of children who die prematurely, nourishing them until they can be reborn four years later. (Reincarnation is possible only for children. Adults never return to earthly flesh again, which is why children and adults are separately commemorated.)

At 3 o’clock in the afternoon they ring the church bells, and everyone lights a candle for each known deceased person and then for all the forgotten souls.

The offerings are now complemented by seasonal fruits and adult foods, including things people liked in life.

At 6 pm the church bell tolls once more, announcing the “bell ringer’s hour” (hora del campanero), a long-standing practice in which groups of children carrying a bell and a bag visit relatives, friends, and neighbors, where they pray and then beg, chanting “To the blessed souls we bring their candles. Bell-ringer don’t give me my tamal from the table, for it will make me sick.” (A las ánimas benditas, les prendemos sus velitas. Campanero, mi tamal no me des de la mesa, porque me hace mal.)

November 2

On the morning of November 2, more food offerings are provided of all kinds, and throughout the day chiming bells call for prayers. This is the day to visit the cemetery, which becomes the dwelling of both the living and the dead. The graves have been cleaned and made ready. By 6 pm the tombs are decorated with marigolds, and candles and incense are burnt. The rising smoke is considered to represent the prayers and communion between the living and the dead.

In a custom called the “lighting” (alumbrada), candles —previously bonfires— are kept burning throughout the night. Everyone should be in the cemetery this night, as an act of love and respect for the family dead.

November 3

From November 3rd onward there is an exchange of gifts among friends and relations. One approaches a family at their home, bringing the gift, and one says something like, “Compadrito, here is the gift that the muertitos left for you.” (Compadritos, aquí está la ofrenda que dejaron los muertitos para ustedes.) Then people talk about how they spent the day of the dead, and everyone (to the delight of the children) is now free to eat anything on the household altar. (The owner says something like, “Take what the muertitos left for you.” (Llévense esto que los muertitos dejaron para ustedes.)


Gutierrez-Martinez, the author paraphrased in this description, is not optimistic about the future of indigenous, specifically Nahua, identity among the Nahua. Mexico city continues to expand over all in its path, and one-time farmers take off from rural areas to find work in cities, returning with different values and perspectives. He doesn’t say so, but the national school system, while today no longer actively condemning localism, nevertheless necessarily promotes a sense of citizenship in the modern nation of Mexico rather than concern with one’s Mixquic-ness or even Nahua-ness.

Still, this festival (and many others) may be Catholic, but it is not a Catholicism of Rome. It is Mexican Catholicism, perhaps specifically Nahua Catholicism or even Mixquic Catholicism. Chalca-yáuhtzin probably wouldn’t worry about the changes. He rolled with the punches last time, and no doubt as a visiting spirit would expect his descendants to do the same.

Chalca-yáuhtzin would be right, it seems, and Gutierrez-Martinez’ pessimism may be unjustified: A quick check of Wikipedia (link) suggests that Mixquic’s very local Day of the Dead has become famous across central Mexico. Indeed, the English entry is even considerably longer than the Spanish one. And YouTube brings several videos of Mixquic’s event to the whole world (link), complete with instructions for the preparation of Mixmole Rojo à la Mixquic (link). Mixquic-ness hardly seems at risk after all.

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