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Trying to understand Mexico's Dia de Muertos (Part 2)

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This year, I felt more relaxed about Día de Muertos. Those unnerving grinning skeleton figures or calacas didn't seem so ghoulsome. I was obviously getting a bit more used to seeing them around. Since they were springing up all around the city, in all places, from shopping centres, shops, museums, even restaurants, there was no way I was going to be able to avoid them.

At the end of October, I was wandering around the Centro Histórico when I was beckoned by one of these laughing calacas to enter through an enormous doorway. Curiosity got the best of me and I summoned up courage, having just seen a family with small kids go in. I mean, it couldn't be too horrific if they were taking their tiny offspring in there, could it? I crossed the threshold and found myself in the innards of an old colonial building where I stumbled on a Tianguis de Día de Muertos, a kind of craft fair selling all kinds of items related to the Day of the Dead. The smell of incense clogged the air and colourful tissue-paper decorations fluttered overhead between the stands where skulls (calaveras or calaveritas), joss sticks, catrina figures, candles, papel picado decorations, skeletons and sweets were being made by craftsmen and on sale. All around me were families with young children picking out their calaveritas and other things for the festival. The scene seemed a bit surreal. The stands looked like something you would find in a Mexican Camden Town but the family atmosphere didn't quite fit. On stage in the central courtyard, were three actors and musicians giving a show about life and death. As I emerged into the bright sunlight again, a small tot was bawling out her eyes as her parents were trying to persuade her to touch the skeleton at the door. I was glad to see I wasn't the only one who was reluctant to do so.

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A not-so-spooky welcome to the Tianguis de Día de Muertos

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Stands at the craft fair

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Comical mariachi band and skulls for sale

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An outing for all the family

A little further down the road, in a street where the church leans disturbingly sideways, visibly sinking down into the soft ground of the former lakebed, I came across an ofrenda set up in honour of "Cantinflas", Mexico's most famous comedian who was born 100 years ago. With heaps of orangey-gold marigold decorations, candles and comical skeletons, it was proving most fascinating to the two small boys holding their mum's hands. My mind boggled at the sheer number of craniums and calacas staring at me from the ofrenda and placed on each step of a nearby staircase. Counting them would have been an impossible task for the short time I was there. I began to wonder who would want to take their kids into a place like that but was beginning to see that most Mexicans are brought up from a young age to view this as normal. Death is not hidden away but rather is part of life. At this time of the year, it is brought out into the open and assumed. I was thinking about this on my way back to the car when I passed the same cake shop with the small figures I'd seen the previous year. The front window was crowded by a group of teenagers giggling about the funeral scene. That seemed to be the mood of the day.

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Decorated street

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Ofrenda in honour of Cantinflas

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Teenagers at the cake shop

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Miniature funeral figures

The Day of the Dead was approaching and I was stuck in the traffic, listening to the radio, as daylight was fast disappearing on November 1st. I was amused to see an army of miniature pumpkins, catrinas, and other small children in fancy dress costumes, escorted by their parents, making their way up Virreyes, a street lined by exclusive properties with guardias to answer the bell. The older kids knocked at the doors and tiny hands clutched plastic pumpkin or skull bowls to collect sweets and chocolates. Halloween is gaining ground too here in Mexico. On the radio programme, the presenters were extolling the virtues of the Mexican celebration of Día de Muertos over American Halloween. "Es que Halloween no es nuestro, no es tradición en nuestro país," one of the speakers was reiterating. Halloween isn't a Mexican tradition, it doesn't belong to the Mexicans, he was saying. Until one of the ladies on the programme pointed out that Día de Muertos is also a mixture of European All Saints' Day brought over by the Spanish Catholic Church. "And we took it on, we blended it in with our pre-Hispanic traditions. Who knows if the same is happening with Halloween?" she said. True, though at the moment Mexicans regard Halloween as a bit of fun for the children whereas their Day of the Dead is the more serious fiesta, celebrated by everyone. They continued with the programme, asking people to ring in from all over Mexico and share how they celebrate this day in their region. The account given by a listener in Campeche made my hair stand on end. "When people have been dead for more than three years, we dig their skeletons up and give their bones a good clean. If they still have any hair, we brush that and make them look nice before putting them in a box called an osario. After the all-night vigil and celebration on Día de Muertos, we bury them again in the box." Even the presenters were taken back. Left speechless for a few seconds. Then came a comment. "Not sure if I could dig up la Abuelita and do that to her!" Obviously traditions differ a lot from one place to another and some are quite alien to others.

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Halloween is also celebrated

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A tiny pumpkin tot

So what do Mexicans do on the actual Día de Muertos, 2nd November, when they aren't visiting the cemetry, or having a family reunion attended by live and dead members, I wondered? Graves, tumbas, cemetries, camposantos... I really didn't want to go along there. So I decided to tag along with some friends on the the Newcomers' trip which was going to visit three museums to see the altars set up there. Lynda Martinez del Campo, an expert on most things Mexican, would be delighting us with her knowledgeable explanations. First we went to the Museo Dolores Olmeda in Xochimilco, followed by the Museo de Anahuacalli created by Diego Rivera to house his collection of pre-Hispanic pieces, ending up finally at the Blue House, or Casa Azul as it is known here, which was Frida Kahlo's home in Coyoacán. It was an eye-opening excursion, to say the least. They all not only had riotously coloured altars on display but a whole host of other activities... a play, a children's workshop for decorating their own calaveritas (skulls), craft and food stands and, of course, the museums themselves. And they were teeming with families, young people, older couples. In the midst of the jovial atmosphere, I had to keep pinching myself to remember that this was Day of the Dead and not some summer festival. Although the holiday was associated with "death", there was decidedly more life and colour and festive excitement than I have seen in most places.

MUSEO DOLORES OLMEDA - A museum in an old hacienda in Xochimilco

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Part of the old house

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Mariachi band

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A skeletal Hernán Cortés and his horse

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Grotto-like ofrenda in honour of Dolores Olmeda

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Actor in the play

MUSEO DE ANAHUACALLI - Set up by Diego Rivera in Coyoacán

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The museum building made of black volcanic stone

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Altar to Diego Rivera

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A typical hanging altar for people who have drowned

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White is the colour for those children "in limbo"

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Kids decorating their own calaveritas

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One of the finished works of art

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Lady selling gorditas

MUSEO DE FRIDA KAHLO - Also known as the Blue House, in Coyoacán

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La Casa Azul

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Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera lived in the Blue House or Casa Azul

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The bright colours of Frida's altar

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Frida's portrait

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Food items making up the ofrenda

COYOACÁN - The festive atmosphere in the town centre

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The church in Coyoacán's main square

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People everywhere in the square

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Eating tostadas

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Seen on the front porch of a private house

As a European, I have to admit it takes time to comprehend this festival, to understand how Mexicans seem to feel comfortable with reminders of death around them, how natural it is for them to look at "death" in the eye and make fun of it. We, on the other hand, try to hide it, pretend it isn't there, that it isn't part of life. Maybe Judy King sums it up well in her description:

"The Mexican flatters and woos death, he sings to her, dances with her, lifts his glass to her, he laughs at her. Finally, he challenges her, and in the challenging, death loses her power to intimidate him. Once he knows death intimately, death is no longer wrapped in a cloak of mystery or causes him to fear the darkness. Once the fear of death has been defeated, the clutch she has on the hearts and minds of the living is lessened once and for all. Death's morbid side is buried under music and remembrances, while skeletons laugh and dance and sing as Mexico celebrates life in its embrace of death."

Let's see what I'll be bold enough to do next year. Maybe eat a sugar calaverita with my name on its forehead? Still not sure about that.

Posted by margaretm 13:51 Archived in Mexico Tagged museums colours traditions mexico_city frida_kahlo offerings day-of-the-dead diego_rivera dolores_olmeda

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