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Mexicans' Ancient Tradition Of Honoring Their Ancestors

Youthful reverie continues to encroach on country's 'Day of the Dead' holiday

Gloria Estrada sits quietly by her father's grave in the humble cemetery of the central Mexican village of Tzintzuntzan, a shawl pulled close around her shoulders to ward off the night chill.

Following the tradition she has kept every Nov. 1 for six years since her father died, Ms. Estrada will spend the night here, occasionally changing the candles that illuminate the fruits and breads adorning the memorial of cempasuchitl flowers - the large electric-orange marigolds that have been the flower of choice for the occasion since the Aztec era - she carefully constructed over the afternoon.

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Like dozens of other Mexicans in this cemetery suffused with the fragrance of wood and candle smoke, damp grass, and marigolds, Estrada is continuing the ancient Mexican traditions of the Day of the Dead. Observing a custom that is a mix of pagan, old-world Roman Catholic, and Mexican indigenous rites helps to keep alive her sense of love for her father, she says. "I remember what he liked and how he talked," she says smiling, "and it does make me feel like I am doing something for him and sharing another moment with him."

Although Mexico's Day of the Dead is a cultural event marked throughout the country, it is most assiduously observed in the most heavily indigenous regions, such as the villages surrounding the beautiful colonial town of Ptzcuaro in the state of Michoacn. Tzintzuntzan, the ancient capital of the Purpecha kingdom - the old ceremonial center's ruins visible (and visitable) on a hill above the cemetery - is one of those villages.

But each year the sense of communion with close ancestors that people like Estrada experience at this season becomes more difficult as a modern, more secular and less reverent Mexico invades this traditional space. Even as Estrada shares her thoughts with a curious visitor, the din of the world beyond the cemetery gates makes that communication or the quiet prayers of others around her more problematic.

No matter that it is past 2 a.m., the night is young for the revelers who choke the highway that runs through Tzintzuntzan. Motorists caught in the bumper-to-bumper traffic rev their motors, honk their horns, and offer unrequested tunes out open car windows, while police use bullhorns to try to keep the crowd moving. Visitors on foot sing songs, whistle, and call out to others. Many carry beer bottles or plastic bottles with home-mixed alcoholic drinks.

"They come in here and they laugh, they trample our offrendas" - the painstakingly prepared altars to the departed - "and they destroy the peaceful atmosphere," says Rufina Prez , who sits with a sister by her parents' graves. "It wasn't like this before."

In the last few years the student-age population has come from as far away as Mexico City - some five hours away by car - to turn the night into a party, says Ms. Prez. It's not that the Day of the Dead is supposed to be a sad rite, she adds.

Indeed, as the smiling clay and paper mache skeletons available in local markets suggest, for many it is an optimistic remembrance of the deceased suffused with a mocking approach to death. But it is a time of respectful memory, at odds with the ever-encroaching tendency to simply use the occasion as an excuse to go a little wild in the streets.

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Every year crowds now fill Ptzcuaro to overflowing on the occasion - as we discovered to our crying children's dismay one evening when overwhelmed restaurants ran out of food early. And the island of Janitzio in adjacent Ptzcuaro - long a traditional Day of the Dead pilgrimage site - can almost rival Daytona Beach or Texas' South Padre Island in March.

"We met a young woman who described Janitzio as having a 'real spring break atmosphere,' and I guess that pretty well describes it," says Beth Parnell, who makes frequent buying trips to Mexico for her home-decorating shop in Houston.

BUT others counter that anyone searching for uncontaminated tradition can find it. "Go outside Ptzcuaro to some of the less-known villages and the night is like it was hundreds of years ago," says John Higgins, a roaming Chicagoan who leaves his Wyoming ranch part of the year to run a small restaurant off Ptzcuaro's main square.

It is indeed a testament to the strength of Mexican traditions that, in the face of the onslaught of a party-prone youth culture and American Halloween - visitors should prepare their pockets for the children who hold out carved pumpkins seeking not candy but loose change - a visit to Ptzcuaro and the surrounding Michoacn state countryside is still a magical experience.

By the end of October the seasonal rains have ended, leaving a riotous palette of wildflowers along mountain trails and highways. Unlike many of the outlying areas around overpopulated Mexico City, Guadalajara, or Monterrey, the Michoacn landscapes are largely unspoiled and the vistas can be quite simply breathtaking.

Then there is the pageant of life in Ptzcuaro and its surroundings, surprisingly indigenous in flavor, with the largely unaltered colonial architecture thrown in. Markets overflow with the arts and crafts that the 16th-century Catholic Bishop Vasco de Quiroga either introduced or encouraged each indigenous pueblo to continue producing as an early self-help method to improve the Indians' economic lot in life. On display in street stalls and shops are bowls and vases reminiscent of Asia or the American Southwest, finely hammered copper pots, handmade guitars, hand-knit sweaters, hand-carved woods and tooled leathers, and the sugar-paste candies and smiling clay skeletons that are the hallmark of the Mexican fall season.

The survival of these crafts, along with the arrival of crisp nights after a damp summer and the acrid aroma of the cempasuchitl flowers, reassures people like Tzintzuntzan's Prez. "Maybe it's my state of mind, but I am able to keep most of the noise and the intrusion out," she says.

Fortunately, the visitor who really tries still can too.

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