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Trying to understand Mexico's Dia de Muertos (Part 1)

Day of the Dead

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Our excursion was rather surprising. Better than I thought it would be. Wednesday, 2nd November, was Dia de Muertos , the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, and I was determined to find out what exactly was behind it. It's taken some time to digest. This is my third Day of the Dead.

The first one took me unawares. We hadn't been in Mexico for very long and suddenly skulls and skeletons and candles and offerings appeared all over the place. Marc came home from school, announcing that he had to write about the symbolism of the calavera or skull in the celebration of the Dia de Muertos. I looked at him to see if he was joking but, no, he wasn't. I suggested he looked it up on the Internet. Next day he came home saying that he was supposed to take candles to school for their altar or ofrenda. I drew the line at the candles as I didn't think it was appropriate for us. He looked relieved. Then Cristina arrived, talking about pan de muerto which translates into English as "bread of the dead". My imagination ran a bit wild as I wondered what on earth they used for flour. But it turned out to be a pleasant sweet bread bun that looks like it has knobbly bones on top. I still felt a bit spooked by all those skeletons dressed up in shop windows laughing at me but that year, I had more than enough on my plate. Like trying to work out how to drive the automatic car, decipher the rules of the road in Mexico City, find out where on earth you could buy epazote or even what it was, or how to find my way back to that supermarket tucked totally out of my internal GPS' range among the winding roads which followed the deep ravines behind our house. So Dia de Muertos came and went that year and in the end I managed to keep away from it.

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Coloured tissue-paper banners

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Altar set up in a shopping centre

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An organ-grinder with a sense of humour

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Candy skulls waiting to be given to children

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Pan de muerto or bread of the dead

Last year was different. I knew it was coming. Right after Halloween, and the Halloween junk had been up in the shops since September. More or less the day after the Independence Holiday was over. So I summoned up a bit of courage and decided to look the skulls and skeletons straight in the eye socket and try and understand what this day was all about. That's when I discovered that Dia de Muertos is a syncretic celebration mixing pre-Hispanic traditions and Catholicism, creating a unique Mexican tradition. Most definitely not Christian. Very broadly speaking, many Mexicans believe that on one day a year, specifically November 2, the souls of people who have died can return to the world of the living for 24 hours as spirits to visit their family and friends. So families prepare altars at home or around their graves, with their loved-ones' photos or portraits and place their favourite food and drink there to welcome them back on this special night. Candles and copal incense are used to guide the souls to the right place, as is the scent of golden marigolds or cempasúchil o zempoazxochitl, the flowers which are typically used to decorate the altar and graves. Then November 2nd is spent in the company of the souls of deceased family members or friends with the celebration of fiestas and picnics. It is a festive occasion when they talk about the dead as if they were alive, a time of remembering, re-living and enjoying. There is also a widespread belief that the soul of angelitos, children or babies who have died, arrive first on November 1st and in some areas, all-night candlelight vigils are held by the graves of the family members.

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An altar with food and drink

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An ofrenda set out complete with chairs around it

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Typical dishes which the deceased person liked

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The scent of marigolds is believed to attract the souls to the altar

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A Day of the Dead altar prepared by a family

Armed with that background information, I went along to the Zócalo last November to see what they called the mega-ofrenda or mega-offering. Towering up over the Panteón del Zocalo was a huge, rather strange, papier-mâché figure called the Árbol de La Muerte Florida, the Flowering Death Tree. Death was represented on one side and life on the other. The mega-offering was actually a joint affair by many of DF's associations and organisations and altars representing the different states of Mexico and consisted of lots of stands, each with skeletons in the guise of firemen, wrestlers, teachers and even passengers on a bus and train. I was surprised to see that many of the altars were full of humorous scenes, with grinning skulls, dancing esqueletos and even mariachi bands of skeleton musicians clutching instruments and wearing Mexican hats, basically having fun. This was definitely not my idea of a sombre, rather solemn All Saints' Day like we have back in Europe.

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Panteón del Zócalo in Mexico City

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Bright colours and flowers are used in the decoration

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Huge Árbol de la Muerte Florida sculpture in the Zocalo

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Skeleton wrestlers

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A man preparing the coloured base for the altar

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Dancing skeletons

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Train with spooky passengers

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Children posing for a photo in front of a skeleton-decorated bus

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Humour plays a big part in the fiesta

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The Fire Department's stand

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Even a skull with a punk hairdo!

Hundreds of families were flocking around the stands, pointing out the funny things, nodding approvingly at the colourful and highly creative scenes and posing for photos in front of them. That's when I began to understand that Dia de Muertos, far from being a time of mourning, was actually full of life, colour, excitement and food. It was a way of recognizing the cycle of life and death that is human existence. And it certainly had nothing to do with the horror and gore of Halloween. Even so, I was still rather taken aback to see people wandering around the streets dressed up as catrinas (high-society female skeleton figures popularised by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada) who passers-by would pose next to for photos. Peering in the shop window of a cake shop, I could make out scores of small figures, all skeletons, enacting out a funeral and I struggled to imagine a similar scene in Spain or England. All around were candy and chocolate calaveras or skulls to be given to children, much like our chocolate Easter Eggs, I supposed. The sugar represented the sweetness of life, the skull the sadness of death. It was all a bit overwhelming but at least I was starting to unravel the meaning behind Mexico's most important festival, el Dia de Muertos

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Passers-by having their photos taken with a Catrina in the street

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A Catrina figure in a jewellery shop

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Small skeleton figures in a cake shop window

This year, I got bolder and took another step.

(To be continued in Part 2)

Posted by margaretm 10:26 Archived in Mexico Tagged colours traditions mexico_city zocalo day-of-the-dead

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