by Iván Sandoval
Dia de los Muertos celebrations have appeared in movies like James Bond, Superman, The Book of Life, and Coco in varying degrees of accuracy to the holiday and its authenticity of Mexican culture. Although I love seeing the festivities dear to my culture on screen, there are a couple misconceptions about what Dia de los Muertos represents to Mexican people.
It’s most common to see American representations of Mexico in the context of the Day of the Dead. Superman gets revered by people with skull face paint, the Book of Life and Coco have the protagonist travel to the Land of the Dead where everyone is a skeleton. There’s even a mural on the most recent Spider-Man game depicting the entrance to the Latin American Museum with a marquee for an exhibit showing a couple of Guadalupe-Posadas-inspired art: the Catrinas, which are the skeleton ladies with big hats. All of these, and countless others, have a couple elements in common: the skulls, the costumes, the Catrina makeup. Mostly aesthetic, these representations do have a basis in the celebration, but it wouldn’t be fair to assume that they are the main theme of the holiday.
Before the Spanish Conquest, the Mexicas (commonly referred to as the Aztecs) had a tradition similar to ancient Egyptians of burying their dead along with earthly possessions and offerings, and were often joined by a Xoloescuintle dog that served as their guide in the afterlife. There were ceremonial dates to remember the dead according to the way a person died. Warriors and women who died giving birth were remembered as equals, while those who had died of old age or as casualties of natural disasters were remembered on a different date. These ceremonies were remarkable in their use of food and dance to honor the dead, and Mexicas had a respectful reverence for Mictecacíhuatl and Mictlatecuhtli, the gods of Death.
With the arrival and invasion of the Spanish, and the forceful evangelization of the indigenous population the existing religious rituals were transformed in order to fit in with Catholic traditions. The combination of the Spanish “All Saints’ and All Souls’ days” with Mesoamerican celebrations resulted in two dates celebrated one right after the other, collectively called Día de Muertos. Since Spanish presence and Mexica influence were concentrated in the middle and southwest regions of the Mexico, the holiday is not usually observed in the northern parts of the country. On a side note, there still exists a direct cult to the Santa Muerte (Holy Death), mostly associated with the criminal underworld and the drug cartels, but it has no relation to the rest of the celebration.
The relationship between Mexican people and death is very peculiar. In our culture, death is feared and respected.
Speaking ill of the dead is taboo, and funerals are as somber and serious as they are in any other country. However, Día de Muertos is different. Although it implies a great deal of melancholy and sadness towards the departed, the holiday emphasizes the remembrance and tribute to them in a way that does not demand pain and suffering from us. In Mexico, due to both cultural and consumption reasons, the entire month of October is used as a stage for Día de Muertos celebrations. Decorations are up since late September, and there’s a particular phenomenon that takes place when you mix the Halloween themed merchandise with typical objects associated with Día de Muertos. This is an entire cultural clash that I will explore further in this piece, but first, we have to make an assessment of what Día de Muertos means to our society. Every month after August has a particular look and feel in Mexico. September is the month in which we celebrate our Independence, it is commonly associated with patriotism and national pride. November is a buffer for December, a kind of peace before the storm, rest is almost imperative (or literally mandatory on the 20th, because of the anniversary of our Revolution). Christmas and its warm and fuzzy feelings take the country during the last month of the year.
October, however, is the month to prepare for the Halloween parties and the Día de Muertos rituals. Cold stars to settle in, fields of cempazúchitl (pronounced zehm-pah-zoo-chi-tl, the ceremonial flower), pan de muerto appears on every bakery and supermarket, and the color palette of entire cities change. Many people say that they prefer this season over any other, and that brought me to reflect on the relationship we have with the holiday.
As I wrote before, we have a peculiar relationship with Death. It has been revered as a God, hailed as a saint, feared, represented in art, trivialized, accepted. In a country that has lived through so many tragedies, it’s inevitable to feel the presence of death in our lives.
Older people, regardless of their living conditions and even look forward to it.
Catholics would argue that it’s religion and the promise of eternal life is what brings hope and acceptance towards death. While scholars would point out the Mesoamerican traditions dealt with death every day and managed to maintain that relationship to this day. Artists would argue about the romanticism, and the common folk like to attribute it to heritage and the perseverance of Mexican traditions that don’t need to be explained or understood.
Personally, I would propose the idea that we Mexicans have an overwhelmingly optimistic outlook on life, so why not over death? Mexico has a history filled with Death and tragedy: Mesoamericans practiced human sacrifice; the Spanish slaughtered and enslaved the indigenous population; our independence threw the country into chaos; we fought against our northern neighbors and lost half our territory, war that left the country in disarray; and now we’re facing threats from organized crime and drug cartels. Despite all of this, Mexico has prevailed. We endure tragedy with a sense of humor, learn from our mistakes and move on, and generally look out for one another. Our nation has been through so many changes that it feels as if we’ll make it out okay, no matter what. Death represents the most profound change that can happen to a human being. Therefore it makes sense to me that we would make a party out of such an important event.
Halloween v.s. Dia de los Muertos
Since I was a kid, there has been a cultural debate going on about the conflict between those who wish to celebrate Halloween here in Mexico, and those who argue that it goes against our national identity. Every year, when October begins and both holidays are advertised. It is not an official holiday of, but most people know of the tradition of dressing up and going out in our equivalent to Trick or Treat: pedir calaverita. Halloween parties are popular amongst teenagers and university students, and they are used to wearing costumes to school during this holiday. Stores have big “scary” sales with design elements that appeal to the Halloween aesthetic, and the movies in the theaters and at home almost exclusively feature American horror films.
Since a lot of our media, products, and advertising techniques are influenced by the USA, it’s easy to see the protectionist outlook that argues that Mexican values are being displaced in favor of Americanism.
People who defend Catholic traditions associate Halloween with demonic celebration. It doesn’t help that the name for the holiday in Spanish is “Noche de Brujas” (Witches’ Night). Combined with the nationalist perspective of protecting one’s culture against foreign influence, it has become a persistent dispute in households and schools.
There is also a push for the coexistence of both celebrations, which takes into account that they occur one right after the other. October 31st, November 1st, and November 2nd are thought of as a single three-day event. This is the posture I agree the most with. As a Mexican who has become familiar with American culture and celebrations, I enjoy celebrating both.
I realized that we have a particular appreciation for Halloween. Americans have a general idea of what Día de Muertos really is, but are not familiar with what the elements that comprise it really signify for our culture. Día de Muertos is more than an aesthetic representation of skulls and a reverence to death itself, it’s a day dedicated to paying our respects to the dead, rekindle our relationships with them, honoring our traditions, and enjoying the company of family and friends united by a bittersweet celebration of the biggest event of the human life.
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