Day of the Dead in Mexico

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“ A civilization than denies Death ends up denying Life.”

Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude

In the tree-lined plaza, a tall couple, dressed as the dead in 19th Century black satin and lace, cavorted playfully around a group of delighted on-lookers. The two skeletons looked as if they were on their way to a fancy dinner. Her face, painted ghostly white under an enormous veil-draped flowery hat, had blackened circles for eyes and a cadaverous mouth. He wore a black tuxedo, white skeleton face under a tall, black top hat. Arm in arm, through the crowded plaza, posing for photos, they paraded their rendition of Eternal Love and Death. During the three days of Day of the Dead celebration in San Miguel de Allende , Mexico, there would be hundreds more adults and children dressed as personal interpretations of the dead.

Every culture has unique beliefs about the meaning of death, divinity and rebirth shaped by thousands of years of literature and custom. In Mexico, the philosophy and customs around death have shaped a national identity. Many ancient traditions inherited from ancestors have fallen away, but not their reverence for and ability to laugh, party and dance with death.

Our American Halloween on October 31st, is a shrunken, anemic version of the Mexican Day of the Dead or Dia de Los Muertos. As a child, my favorite Halloween costume was Wonder Woman. Year after year, I made gold belts, silver bracelets and got very adept at her crown and magic rope. It was all about an alter-ego costume, ghosts and goblins, scary images, spider webs, carved pumpkins, candy and parties. As North Americans, we knew nothing about the deeper, more philosophical and spiritual meaning of this pan-American holiday.

Since ancient times of the Aztec, Maya, Zapotec and Chichimecca, Mexicans hold that once each year souls of the dead can and should be invited back to earth with treats, candles, flowers and incense. They hold this as a spiritual duty to the departed. Souls of dead children return on November 1st and adults on November 2nd. Their pre-Christian ancestors celebrated the Day of the Dead in August at harvest time to assure there would be an abundance of sustenance to offer the returning souls. In the 15th Century, the conquering Spaniards brought a very similar holiday, Todos Santos or All Saint’s Day. After the absorption of the pagan faith into Christianity, the two holidays were joined by Pope Gregory in 835.

Until I came to Mexico in the 1970’s for the first time, I too had no idea of the origin or deeper meaning behind our Halloween – or All Hallow’s Eve. On November 1st, 1970, I arrived with a group of hippie friends in the small mountain village of Tlacotepec, Guerrero to be astounded by the beautiful, spiritual custom unfolding before my eyes. At dusk, residents of the town of seven thousand, paraded through candle-lit streets singing hymns, and carrying baskets of bread to the cemetery to feed the dead. There, on low, rolling hills of Guerrero, they spent a cold, windy night in the midst of a family picnic shared by thousands of relatives and neighbors. Countless beeswax candles threw eerie, soft light on the cemetery all night while the faithful sang, drank hot chocolate and stayed awake to greet their departed loved ones who, they believed, would surely come to dine with them. While musicians played and children frolicked, a somber priest went from grave to grave sprinkling holy water and reciting Latin prayers for the dead. For the next several days, children, dressed in back-to-front and inside-out adult clothing ran around town begging for sweets. A designated group of adults dressed as the dead donned masks and crazy outfits to go from house to house playing music on a wooden box, the jawbone of an ass and a violin. Here was the original trick or treat. Representing the returning dead, the band of musicians asked to enter your home to be fed . They played and danced a short while and each household fed them with tamales. If refused, they would play tricks on the household like pull you into the street to dance with them or paint the outside wall of the house with a bar of white soap.

There are two levels, two different realities to Day of the Dead in Mexico; one is fanciful and the other is more serious. In modern Mexico, on November 1st, — Day of the Little Angels —- it is tradition to dress children up as the dead in elaborate costumes that harken back to the 19th century. Stuck in my memory this year is a 6 month old baby in his stroller costumed as the dead with white painted face, blackened eyes and his baby skeleton costume. Here in San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato, during celebrations the town square was crowded with these little romping “calacas” or cadavers asking for candy from visitors and locals. Some little girls, barely able to walk, toddled bravely around the square holding on to veil-draped, flower-covered bonnets and long, hooped skirts.

In the afternoon of November 1, altars or “offrendas” are set out in homes and public places around town to honor those adults who have passed on; to remember their contribution to your life; to invite them back to earth to visit and request their counsel with loved ones. The heart and soul of this celebration, the offrenda, is replete with symbolic meaning. Mexicans say that Offrendas are made for people and altars are dedicated to saints. A combination of flowers, religious icons, water, candles, colored cut-out paper, incense and favorite foods of the deceased, they are bright and heartwarming tributes to the dead. Most offrendas are constructed in several levels to signify the layers of the Underworld that the dead must traverse. Seven is the most typical number of levels as it represents the stages the soul must pass through before finally resting in peace. Each level of the offrenda is adorned with specific items. The highest, representing the spiritual world where the souls now dwell, is the place for religious icons of Jesus, Mother Mary and saints. The 2nd level is dedicated to the poor souls in purgatory. Lower levels are for salt, water, bread, flowers, favorite dishes, pictures of the deceased loved one and finally a representation of the earth that might be the brightly colored marigold and celosia flowers or different seeds, and corn. Some simpler altars, made of three levels, represent Heaven, Earth and the Underworld. Whatever the number, each level, usually made of boxes, is covered in brightly colored cut-out papers, cloths and a carpet of marigold petals.

Iconic flowers, stars of the show, are everywhere for Dia de los Muertos : the yellow Marigold or cempuazutchil, in Aztec (means “twenty flowers”}; the Red Cockscomb (amaranth, celosia, prince’s feather) and the white Baby’s Breath or nube (cloud). The yellow flowers, representing earth, white for heaven and purple to represent mourning attract and welcome the spirit and perfume the space.

Another iconic item of this national festival of death are colorful, life size or miniature skulls made of sugar that usually have the name of the deceased written over the forehead. According to tradition, if not eaten after the offrenda is taken down, the skulls must be smashed.

The rich aroma of copal incense is everywhere in streets and public squares; burned in front of the offrenda, it purifies the atmosphere and prevents Evil Spirits of the dead from disturbing the journey of the returning dead or the homes of the living.

Pan de Muerto or Bread for the Dead , made from a special recipe, is expertly decorated with bone-like images and sprinkled with sugar. Some roll out the dough and form it into the initials of the deceased which are then baked into the top of the bun. Households lucky enough to have grandparents, will be able to remember and bake bread for deceased relatives from three generations ago. An offrenda may have dozens of these little loaves of bread – each one dedicated and made for a single person to sustain them on their journey from the realm of the dead to the living.

Cut paper banners (papel picado) of many different bright colors hung over offrendas symbolize the wind, joy of living and serve as a reminder that even though our loved ones are gone from life, we must continue to enjoy ourselves and appreciate the beauty in our lives.

Candles, to symbolize the ascension of the soul, are often placed in a cross pattern to symbolize the four directions. Water, placed in clear glasses, is for the spirit’s thirst and to symbolize life energy. Food offered is the favorite when the person was alive. So, amongst the skulls and flowers, you will see prepared dishes of tacos, rice, chicken and enchiladas. Personal items dear to the deceased may be placed on one of the levels. I saw one offrenda with a horse racing sheet prominently displayed because the deceased liked to go to horse races. Traditional candy artists create an endless array of little sugary figurines. A pet’s offrenda had a little pink dog house, another a wedding ring, a beloved red hat, even a pair of candied tango shoes. Altars for children are decorated with candy toys, angels and even cribs.

Costumes do play a role, but there is only one theme – Death. Babies, children and adults adorn themselves in well-made skeleton outfits, white faces with blackened eyes and boney jaws. The most iconic are the Catrinas or dead society ladies of the 19th century created by the artist Paneda. At midnite on November 1, the hundreds of Catrinas dressed as the returning dead or “calacas” parade through the streets to the town plaza where they are greeted by a packed crowd. Popular “calacas” are the bride and groom who must have died at their wedding or met and fell in love after death. One of the shop windows displayed a skeleton in later stages of pregnancy – that certainly evoked some wild images.

Every time I am in Mexico for this celebration, it gives me a sense of the deeper meaning of death, the gift of life and love that never dies. For weeks afterward, I feel nostalgia and allow myself time to contemplate the meaning of those departed loved ones in my life. I remember my immigrant grandparents, siblings and aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who were once here as vitally alive as I ,but now dwell among the dead. I contemplate what contributions they made to my life, what I learned from them and just enjoy the sweet sadness of their passing.

Death, universally common to all people, must be faced by each of us one day. Everyone will die and everyone has someone to mourn and everyone can be enriched by remembering their beloved who have passed on. After offrendas, prayers and fun of Day of the Dead are long over, I remain in a heightened meditative state over the meaning of Death and Rebirth. For weeks, I am closer to my deceased relatives and all those dearly departed in my life. I think more and dream more of my Italian grandparents, my Iranian aunts and grandparents, my brother and I feel close again to my parents. Flitting and fluttering in the colored papers of our gringo-style altar, they surround me to receive the flowers, water, candles and prayers — grateful to be remembered.

his year, in San Miguel, in front of a 16th century public fountain, was a scene that, to me, epitomizes Day of the Dead in Mexico. Neighbors had obviously labored long to produce a thought provoking scene of skeletons in which a man, a woman and two small children picnicked in a playground. High above them was a hand-written sign in Spanish, that to me, perfectly depicts the Mexican philosophy of the Dead.

“Como tu eres, yo era. Como tu me ves, tu seras.”
“As you are, I once was. As you see me you will be.”