What would you do if someone invited you to a fiesta in a graveyard? Would you go? Or does the mere idea of it give you a major case of the creeps?! Well, you’re not alone, amigo. In the USA we try to deny, cheat and minimize death.
Not so in Mexico. In Mexico, the symbol of death is a grinning, fleshless beauty called La Muerte-Lady Death (La Catrina). An elegantly and colorfully clad skeleton wearing a flower-laden hat, created by press artist José Guadalupe Posada (1853-1913), she’s an amazing metaphor of life embracing death. You can feel this in her name, for she goes by La Catrina-Fancy Lady, La Flaca-Skinny, La Huesuda-Bony and La Pelona-Baldy. There’s humor here, not fear. What’s up with that?!
The renowned Mexican poet, Octavio Paz put it this way back in 1959:
“The word death is not spoken aloud in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite toy and his most lasting love.”
How did nextdoor neighbors-the US and Mexico-develop such wildly divergent attitudes toward death? And how did what was originally a pagan holiday survive the invasion of Catholicism? History holds the answer to those questions. Día de Muertos has its roots in pre-Columbian tradition where the people felt deeply connected to and lived harmoniously with the Earth. They viewed the cycle of life-conception, birth, growth, maturity, decline and death as part of a great and mysterious whole. Spiritually, rather than materialistically grounded, they felt themselves to be one with all that had ever existed or would exist-on this planet and in our universe. For these reasons, death didn’t scare them, nor did they try to outsmart it.
Although the holiday’s exact origin is uncertain, it’s believed that it began with the Olmecs about 3000 years ago. They saw life as an illusion and believed that in dying, human beings truly awakened and their souls were set free. The Olmecs transmitted their ideas to the Toltecs and Mayans in Central America, who later shared them with the Aztecs, Tlaxcaltec, Chichimec, Tecpanec and other Indians native to Mexico.
When the Spaniards defeated the Aztecs in the 1500’s, they converted the Indians to Catholicism. However, they encountered resistence when attempting to eradicate all native religious traditions. In a compromise sanctioned by the Church, Día de Muertos was merged with two Christian holidays-All Saints Day on November first and All Souls Day on November second. This makes it a thoroughly unique, cross-cultural holiday, effectively blending two very different traditions. In that regard, it is symbolic of the Mexican people, for they are also a synthesis of the brown-skinned “people of the earth” and their white-skinned conquerors, the “people of the “sky”-as the Spanish were initially called.
True to its roots, Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead is a celebration, not of death but of the continuum of life. It consists of prayerful reflection, joy and revelry honoring those who came before. In a culture without written family trees, parents and grandparents pass stories on to their children. These aren’t boring lists of names, facts and dates, but lively, humorous tales about those who came before. Their favorite foods, passions and possessions are discussed, along with their triumphs, their foibles and all sorts of other anecdotal details about their lives-forging a tangible, emotional link between the past and the present.
So now that we have a little background on the holiday-onward-to the graveyard fiestas, amigo! One more thing before we go. Be advised that there’s no connection between Día de los Muertos and Halloween whatsoever. This holiday is as important to Mexicans as Thanksgiving is to us. It’s a time when people travel long distances to be with their families, some coming from as far away as the northern US.
So-here we go! It’s the last week in October in a rural Mexican village. Along the sides of the roads and in the open-air marketplace, homemade stands pop up. They’re filled with pan de muerto – a special sweet bread with crossed bones on top (recipe follows article), amaranth seed skulls with raisin eyes and peanut teeth, candied Marzipan and chocolate skulls called calaveras, roasted corn or elotes, dancing skeletons or calacas carrying cardboard coffins, votive candles, and mountains of golden yellow marigolds-the flowers used to summon the spirits of the departed.
By October thirty-first, we see altars springing up in every home. As we stroll down the cobblestone streets, we notice that the front doors are wide open. We see entire families joining together in decorating tables topped with wooden crates and lace table cloths. They’re covered with marigolds or zenpasuchitl, along with the purchases from the street vendors. There’s an abundances of candles, pictures of saints and photos of the deceased. In homes where there have been children who died, we see toys, balloons, piñatas. Even clothing and tiny pairs of shoes. Suspended from the ceilings are rectangular sheets of yellow, pink, Orange, blue and green papel picado-tissue paper with cutouts-that impart an airy feeling reminiscent of the sky at sunset. We inhale pungent, delicious aromas. The smell of the marigolds. The strong odor of copal incense, mixed with the chocolate-nut-and-chile aroma of mole and the earthy, meaty smell of tamales. We see pottery urns of mescal or pulque (native drinks made from cactus) and bottles of tequila. Our attention is momentarily diverted by a band of mariachis strolling down the middle of the sidewalk, playing, singing and laughing, followed by a troop of children.
November first, All Saints Day is reserved for honoring the children, or angelitos. Early in the morning we head toward the local graveyard, where the family members are cutting down weeds, raking, touching up chipped plaster and repainting the tombs. Decorations are springing up here too. We see crosses made from marigold petals, elaborate multi-colored floral wreaths and artificial flower arrangements, along with more of the fruits, vegetables, goodies, photos, personal mementos and statues we saw in the homes. It’s colorful. It’s powerful. It’s noisy. At 2:00 p.m. a hush falls over the crowd as the priest appears to conduct an open-air mass. Relatives huddle together, mourning their dead with la llorada-the weeping. It chokes every one of us up. At sunset, hundreds of candles are lit, mingling with the powerful scents of the food, incense and flowers. At midnight, the church bells begin to toll, summoning the dead. Many families will spend the entire night here, remembering their loved ones with recitations of the Rosary and praying that they will come and partake of the aromas of their favorite foods.
On November second the entire village gathers in the cemetery for the big fiesta. It’s packed. Every family has a picnic basket, plus beer and tequila for toasting the departed. Street vendors are selling tacos, tamales, shrimp and fruit cocktails, drinks and fireworks. Mariachis compete with one another and with the occasional radio blasting Mexican Ranchero music. At the close of the all-day festivities, multi-colored explosions light up the sky. Then the ancestors return to heaven and it’s over until next year.
To celebrate Día de Muertos in your own home, try making an altar to honor and remember your ancestors. Then cook up some Pan de Muerto, some colorful Sugar Skulls and serve after a luscious, soulful, authentic meal consisting of Mole and Tamales. Some real Mexican tequila for slow, thoughtful sipping with this feast just might be in order too!