HORNITOS – At once exciting and nearly ethereal, a candle-lighting and procession in the old Mexican town of Hornitos winds its way from plaza to cemetery each year on November 2, to celebrate All Souls Day, and Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Hornitos in Spanish means “little ovens,” as the town in Mariposa County is said to be named after Mexican tombs shaped like square baking ovens that sat above ground in mounds. Located about 45 miles from Oakhurst up historic Highway 49, it’s a beautiful route driving through picturesque countryside, and takes over an hour to arrive.
By the mid-19th century, the authentic Mexican village of Hornitos stood smack in the path of the Gold Rush. Seemingly overnight, the place went from a quiet family village to the bustling, bar-filled home of miscreants and dreamers, like much of the west. Incorporated in 1870 as the first city located in Mariposa County, Hornitos today still looks much the same as it did over 150 years ago.
For chocoholics and history buffs, it’s interesting to note that one of Hornitos’ early residents was Domingo Ghirardelli, an Italian confectioner whose last name is nearly synonymous with chocolate in some of its finer incarnations. Unsuccessful at mining, Ghirardelli opened a general store in Hornitos in 1852, selling chocolates to miners with a taste for sweets. He later moved to San Francisco and made a tremendous fortune producing Ghirardelli Chocolate. The company has been in continuous operation since 1852.
Masonic Hall, and a perfectly restored little church perched atop the cemetery.
It was this cemetery we drove to one afternoon years ago on Nov. 2 for Dia de los Muertos, arriving way before the suggested 5:30 meeting time in the plaza. That gave us plenty of time to park, walk about, and settle into the scene just as the sun began to set in the west.
The plaza began filling up with regulars and first-timers alike, some in Mexican garb to honor Dia de los Muertos, as a few vendors hawked T-shirts and burritos. The people-watching was some of the best.
As the square continued to come alive, the darkening skies begged for candlelight, and we were all happy to oblige. For a donation of a dollar or more you can purchase a candle for the procession, or bring your own. We did both.
It seems as though the Hornitos affair is a modern mix combining Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican day of prayer and celebration, with All Souls Day, the Catholic tradition with the same intention but a far less exuberant, less colorful presentation.
Some kids were off to the side of a building getting their faces painted, but this seemed to displease the kind and hard-working ladies of the Hornitos Patrons Club. They asked that the face-painting cease pending the arrival of the Bishop who would lead the candle-lit procession up to the cemetery for a blessing to culminate the religious portion of the evening.
Once the Bishop did arrive, he was jocular and seemed unfazed by make-up on Dia celebrants whom we had heard would be upsetting for him. Making his way through the crowd, the Bishop was shaking hands, giving blessings, laughing and smiling as he clambered up some stairs to speak to us from a slightly elevated position.
His words were a balm to my ragged soul that year. We’d lost a beloved family member months before, after a lengthy illness and some depression, and our family was still reeling from the pain of this patriarch’s passing. As sometimes happens, the family seemed to dissolve into a fragmented version of what it once was, while pain exhibited itself as anger and feelings were hurt, some beyond repair.
The night in Hornitos continued to veil us like a Spanish mantilla for mourning, and I let the Bishop’s words transport me to a contemplative and peaceful place inside myself. My photographer friends left the plaza to rejoin the tripods they’d placed earlier up in the cemetery, while some of us decided to walk with the crowd, in procession with candles, to a place where the dead were waiting for the living to walk among them.
The Bishop had reset the tone of the evening, and as he fell silent, so did the crowd. We began to walk slowly out of the plaza and up the street. No one rushed. Old and young, all nations, under the stars and by the light of fire, we moved through old Hornitos as a river of people with a common goal. I walked, concentrating on a candle, thinking of those who’ve left us recently and long ago.
It was a blessing, to be so deeply in one’s thoughts and in such community with others, mostly strangers, as well. To have time to concentrate on loss, to dwell on forgiveness and prayer, to be able to think of the dead while clearly living, and to for once let go of the “it’s okay, I’m fine” of it all… was a gift I didn’t expect.
My breath caught as the light from a hundred candles crested the hill ahead of us: the river of light had reached the cemetery and yet the river continued to flow upward as more and more people gathered, culminating in a final prayer led by the Bishop.
Now the mood lifted, as though the light had cleansed us communally of some degree of suffering. While the pleasant, slightly spacey feeling brought about by the slow procession remained for a day or so, it was time to head back down into town for a donation-only Mexican dinner that was truly delicious.
The drive back from Hornitos that night was long, and it’s pitch-black darkness for most of the way. Still, the memory of our loved ones, the celebration of their lives and honoring of their passage, together with the memory of the processional glow, was enough to light the path I wanted to travel for some time.
Day of the Dead Candle Lighting and Procession takes place this year in Hornitos on Friday, Nov. 2. Meet in the Plaza at 5:30 and be prepared to wait as the procession starts at 6 or 7 p.m. Candles are available for purchase or you can bring your own.
Join the town after the procession for refreshments compliments of the Patrons (donations accepted) in the Golden Stag Hall.
Photographs by Virginia Strauss and Kellie Flanagan