The Day of the Dead: the tradition that allows you to feel your memories


Mafafas Mosguitos

A couple of Mexican philosophers amazed by the infinite range of possibilities that their country offers.

As we saw in the previous post, the Day of the Dead dates from Ancient Mexico where the souls of the deceased were already venerated, although the current festival originated from the syncretism of pre-Hispanic rites with the dates brought by the Catholic Church, the Dia de Muertos is a characteristic sign of the Mexican and has a unique stamp. Why? We will try to discover what it currently consists of and, above all, what this great Mexican celebration represents.

It must be said that celebrating the Day of the Dead is not something that all families do, due to different beliefs since there are many that adhere to either the Catholic tradition or the Halloween custom. Despite this, the Day of the Dead is before the world a representative icon of what Mexico is and as Mexicans – whether we celebrate or not – we must feel proud and better understand such an ancient, colorful and unique tradition.

Photo by KareNehuatl, @karenehuatl

In order not to be confused, Halloween has Celtic origin, as Samhain was celebrated on November 31, which was the end of the harvest (the Celtic New Year) in which a space was opened to another world, but when Europe converted to Christianity, this tradition changed and the celebrations of All Saints’ Day and the Holy Day were established. of the faithful departed (November 1 and 2 respectively). In fact, the Celtic tradition of October 31 began to receive the name of “All Hallow’s Eve” (the vigil of All Saints, because it was the day before the Christian celebration) but over the years this name became the most famous Halloween. Currently people mix all the celebrations between October 31 and November 2, there seems to be no great distinction, but the Day of the Dead should not be confused or diluted with any other date because it represents, to a great extent, the spirit Mexican.

Day of the DeathOfficially, on November 1 and 2, the Day of the Dead is celebrated, but the celebration begins earlier and, as with any great party, there is weeks of anticipation and preparation. The bakeries begin to smell like delicious bread of the dead, the flower stalls take on an orange tone characteristic of the date, the street vendors pass through the streets with skulls of all sizes, people prepare the altars of their dead in their homes. ..

Sara Alvarez, @ saralvarez10 

Currently in San Isidro Buensuceso (Tlaxcala) and in La Huasteca (Veracruz, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo) the celebration begins on October 28, attending a little to the Mexican origin of the festivities that commemorated the different types of death. The festival in Janitzio (Michoacán) is perhaps the most iconic, since, traditionally, children and women congregate in the cemetery and with all solemnity they place their offerings on the graves of their deceased, adorning with flowers, candles and the delicacies that their dead they preferred; while the men surround the cemetery and participate from outside in the ritual that consists of prayers, songs and ringing of bells that last all night so that the souls of all the deceased can participate in the celebration with which the November 2 dawns .

Photo by Israel Farcierth, @ifarcierth

In 2003 the Mexican tradition of pre-Hispanic origin of the Day of the Dead was proclaimed by UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Although in many places in Latin America there are celebrations similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead, they do not seem to have pre-Hispanic origin, but are due more to colonization and the syncretism of cultures. For example, in La Paz Bolivia the festival of “las Ñatitas” (flat noses) is celebrated every November 8 in gratitude to the dead, in which decorated human skulls are venerated. People venerate remains exhumed and passed from generation to generation because they believe that they protect and accompany them. And so there are also similar celebrations in Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras, Costa Rica and Bolivia.

The Day of the Dead in Mexico is the day -or the days- in which the souls of those who have already departed, upon being remembered, return to be received with immense joy. Offerings, food and music crown Mexico’s most iconic tradition. On that day, the world of the living is in charge of honoring, remembering, and celebrating the lives of their deceased. A link between two dimensions through the eternal duality of life and death. The Mexican does not see death as something bad, but as something natural that begins the path to rest for the soul, but that does not, for this reason, separate him from his loved ones. Something curious happens, because these days Mexicans take the mockery of death to its maximum splendor, what does death matter if I can still remember my deceased so that they return this day and be with me again?
The offering Obviously, the celebration would be nothing without their offerings. Mexicans prepare altars that honor and remember their deceased so that they can find their way to their celebration and be with them that day. The memory fans the flame of the Day of the Dead. For this reason, each altar is unique and must be prepared specifically for the dear departed. However, there are several elements that traditionally must appear in the offering and contribute to the symbolic load that the entire celebration poses.

Typically the offering has levels, depending on what it is intended to represent: two for heaven and earth, three to add the Underworld and seven resembling the levels that the soul travels when dying. Also in the offering the four elements must be represented: the earth with the flowers and fruits; the wind represented with the movement of papel picado; the fire, the hope and the light that illuminates the path, with the candles; and water, the source of life, with vessels, pulque, alcohol, etc. The souls of the deceased, after their way to their offerings, arrive with appetite and thirst, so there must be something in them that can satisfy them. The unmistakable orange of the marigold flowers is not lacking in any offering, as its characteristic smell permeates the atmosphere of the Day of the Dead and serves as a guide for the deceased towards their offerings.

Other traditional elements of the altars are copal and incense -which cleanse the environment of evil spirits so that the souls of the deceased are not in danger-, salt -which purifies-, the mat -as a tablecloth and symbol of rest-, food -whose aroma permeates the air and serves as an invitation to the deceased, which is why the deceased’s favorite dish is usually prepared to put on the altar- and bread -as a symbol of brotherhood-. The bread of the dead is one of the typical delicacies that the Mexican palate tastes in time of the dead and is not lacking in the offerings. Its origin dates from the Conquest -when the flours arrived in Mesoamerica- and they represent the dead: his bones and his skull. It is part of the delicacy of this festivity for its delicious flavor and its great significance.

Offering to Isidro Fabela, Museo Casa del Risco (CDMX)

The portrait of the deceased usually crowns the altar, because it is to that person to whom the offering is made. It is she who is remembered. For this reason, the objective of the offering is not to fill it with typical objects, but to provide it with what specifically remembers and commemorates the dear departed, so that although there are constituent elements of the offerings, in reality, you can add whatever: from toys and sweets, even clothes and books or figures of saints and religious elements. The purpose of putting the offering is to recall the person, to remember them and not to forget them.

The skull When one says “skull” on these dates, one can imagine many things. This exhibits the cultural diversity that the Day of the Dead festival brings with it and the importance of the Mexican conception of death and life.

Photo by @neomexicanismos

On the one hand, the calaveritas are traditional verses of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Formerly called pantheons , they are rhymes that were born as social criticism as epitaphs (normally they are written dedicated to someone as if they were already dead or as if La Flaca -as Death is also known- were to take him that day) . The literary skulls perfectly portray the tone that the Mexican has towards death: a mixture of mockery, respect and joy.

On the other hand, the drawing of the skull is another icon of the time. José Guadalupe Posada’s original engraving was not made for the Day of the Dead but also as a social criticism for twentieth-century publications, but it is associated with the date due of course to its allusion to death. La Catrina, probably the most famous of her engraved skulls – it is said that Diego Rivera baptized her with the name with which she is known worldwide – was born as a criticism of the indigenous, the garbancera-as it was originally called-, which with the Conquest adopted European traditions and tried to separate itself from its roots. However, the stole that normally adorns it alludes to Quetzalcóatl (the feathered serpent), the origin that always remains, and is portrayed as a calaca because rich or poor, death ends up taking us all. Death makes no distinctions. In any case, Posada’s engraving became an unmissable character on the Day of the Dead that is also identified throughout the world as an icon of Mexican tradition.

Calavera Catrina, José Guadalupe Posada (1910)

Of course, the skulls are also the skulls made of clay, chocolate, sugar or amaranth that adorn the offerings and represent the deceased. But there is a fourth form of skull. These days it is customary to hear people, and children, “ask for a skull.” The origin of this custom is somewhat debatable, but it is assumed that it dates back to ancient times when an orphan boy painted his face to ask for food cooperation. Macario’s film (1960), set on the eve of the Day of the Dead, illustrates the skull as a gift to workers. Nowadays, in times of the dead, in the streets many are still sung “Can you give me pa ‘my little skull?” although in some towns (such as Xochimilco and Mixquic) the skull request is accompanied by more elaborate songs such as the following:

Macario by R. Gavaldón

“Chilindrina has already arrived to ask for his mandarin, Jorge Negrete has already arrived to ask for his neck, the grandparents have already arrived to order tamalitos. With my grandmother’s bones I am going to make a ladder and shout MY SKULL! ” .
In any case, asking for and giving calaverita seems to be in the same tone of offering and thanking, which characterizes everything related to the Day of the Dead.

The day of the dead in literature, film and music in addition to the verses of the famous skulls, literature has also touched on the theme of death and its relationship with the Mexican. For example, Under the Volcano (1947) by Malcolm Lowry and Macario (1950) by Bruno Traven -which inspired the Mexican film of the same name- are foreign novels that allude to the Day of the Dead. And, of course, on the national side, Pedro Páramo (1955) by Juan Rulfo is one of those key works to visualize how the Mexican relates to death. In the cinema, although there are some short films, such as Hasta los bones (2001) and Día de los muertos (2013), which have addressed what is the festival of the dead and despite the fact that there are multiple films that in some scenes include allusions to her or even take place during these celebrations, it seems that Macario (1960), El libro de la vida (2014) and, of course, the most recently released Coco (2017) are the feature films that have focused on bringing, as such, the themed to the big screen.

The Book of Life (2014)

In music, although of course there are songs with references to the Mexican tradition, the theme does not seem to have been exploited too much, in fact, one of the songs that most identify with the Day of the Dead was not composed for that purpose. The song La Llorona, a son originating in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Oaxaca) from the time of the Revolution, has been sung by more than 50 interpreters with multiple variations in the lyrics and has been associated with the Day of the Dead. This is due, perhaps, to its most recurrent themes: love and death, and to its references to the celebration, such as the cempasúchil flowers. It could be a story of a love that ran into Death, but that reaffirms the love bond and defies death itself through memory: “Even if my life costs me, Llorona, I will not stop loving you … They will take me away from loving you, Llorona, but never forgetting you ”.

Understanding the Day of the Dead in its entirety is something that perhaps only some Mexicans achieve. For this reason and for its immense symbolism and variety, the theme could well still be taken up in multiple artistic expressions typical of the Mexican, since there is no doubt that this holiday is something that is felt.

Remember in the face of death As we have seen, the Day of the Dead is charged with a mysticism that only the Mexican seems to fully understand, and not because he can give an explanation of what happens on that day, but because he lives it firsthand. Ask someone who has tasted a bread of the dead that was in an offering how it loses its flavor, as if someone had absorbed it; To those who observe how the marigold flowers – the flowers of the dead – bloom only at this time of year and have an intense and very particular smell; to those who shudder listening to an ” even if life costs me … I will not stop loving you ” and inevitably remembers who has already gone ahead; who sleeps in the cemetery to spend one more night next to his deceased.

Octavio Paz wrote in El laberinto de la soledad that “A society that denies death also denies life”, and that seems to be what enhances the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead. The Mexican believes that their dead return to share, to enjoy the banquet that is prepared for them, to celebrate life. He believes it because the memory abounds in his mind which is what allows his deceased to live despite death. The Mexican people affirm death and with the celebration of the deceased takes this statement to its maximum splendor; it exalts the diversity, the color, the joy, the festival, its traditions and customs, the family, the feeling and the bond that binds it to it. Memory keeps alive the essence of those no longer present. The tradition The Day of the Dead not only characterizes us worldwide, but also honors death and exalts the fact that, as Posada portrayed him with his Catrina, one day we will all be calacas but, at the same time, defends life, which remains As long as someone can remember us The Mexican celebration of the dead exalts the bond -love- that we create in life and that through memory remains despite death. An invitation for us to delve into our traditions, recover them and never stop remembering …

Fun facts* The best-known children’s song on the Day of the Dead is Chumbala Cachumbala, which explains to children some of the things that happen on the night of the Day of the Dead.

* Los Claxons have a song titled Day of the Dead that addresses the theme of life and death, and the power of love to always keep in mind those who are no longer there.

* The flowers of the cemetery is another popular Mexican song of the Day of the Dead that makes an analogy between the marigold flowers with the dead they adorn.

* The short film Hasta los bones (2001) has the record of being the most expensive in Mexican animation (approximately 3 million pesos).

* 007: Specter (2015), the 24th James Bond film, takes place in Mexico City during a Day of the Dead. Although it does not address the theme as such, in the opening scene there is a parade full of catrines and floats that try to show what happens on this date. 

In fact, since 2016 the monumental Day of the Dead Parade inspired by the one shown in the Bond film has been held. This year he paid tribute to the victims and heroes of 19S.

We take advantage of this space to suggest that, if you have not already done so, go to your nearest cinema to see Coco . In truth, the film has a sensational plot and its narration is a respectful and worthy reflection of the spirit of the Day of the Dead and of multiple Mexican traditions. There is no doubt that the six years its creators spent researching the lore of the dead were worth it. Do not miss it!

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