Probably you know a bit about this tradition due to the curiosity about the “celebration of Death”. Well, Death is a topic with different points of view in the world.
As a Mexican there are many things that still surprise about this festivity, mainly because it is celebrated in different ways all along Mexico. Oh yeah, last year I made a video with the historical background and main topics of it. I recommend you to watch it before proceeding with the lines below.
I assume that you now understood that Mexicans are not celebrating Death, in the same sense that we are not having parties to say good-bye to our beloved dead.
“Día de Muertos” is literally translated as “Day of Dead”. It is, however, used in English as “Day of the Dead” with ‘the’ in the middle, just because sounds more complete. In Spanish you may refer to ti as “Día de los muertos” with the article ‘los’ in the middle and it is still ok. Nobody in Mexico will bat an eye about it.
The Day of the Dead is actually Days of the Dead, because for us is a continuous celebration from 1 to 2. Half of Mexico stays awake during the festivities. People want to share as much as possible with the visiting souls. There are only 2 days a year, let’s not waste them sleeping.
It is a tradition with deep roots in the Catholic background brought by the Spaniards long time ago. But I would like to think about it as “excuses” to celebrate.
While in other countries the special Catholic days are devoted for praying and seclusion, in Mexico they have been used as means leading to Celebration.
But the Day od the Dead has a deeper meaning, as it is also influenced by the protoamerican cultures, who found Death a simple mean to move your essence to the divine plane. The space where Gods and many mythological beings are living, where ancient spirits are moving, and the powerful deities converge.
La Catrina is a skeleton created in the shape of a rich lady by the artist José Guadalupe Posada and originally named as “Chickpea Skelleton” (Calavera garbanzera). Later it was named “Catrina” by Diego Rivera when he painted her in his mural “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central“.
La catrina is an example of a “calavera” (skeleton), but they were used before in the mexican festivities. An inseparable element of mixture of religions.
And talking about religions, Mictlan is the place that anyone with enough curiosity should read about. Oh, that’s right, read. Here are some books about this celebration that might enlight you vision of the Day of the Dead.
- The Labyrinth of the Solitude from Octavio Paz. Beautiful masterpiece of the mexican identity. My personal favorite book.
- The buried mirror from Carlos Fuentes. Not everything in Mexico has its origin in the American continent. Without forgetting that Mexicans are the result of the “mestizaje”, Fuentes gives an interesting portrait of the cultural clash of the old and new continent.
- Aztec thought and culture – Miguel Leon-Portilla. He is one of the most respected researchers of the mesoamerican cultures, especially mexica, who is clear and passionate about the mexican cultures.
- Cosmogonía de Mesoamérica (Spanish) – Laurette Séjourné. This historian dedicated several years of her life to explore the mexica spiritual thinking. This posthumus work shows the result of her work. Although I wouldn’t agree with some conclusions, I highly recommend it to have a better understanding of the prehispanic culture.
- Pedro Páramo from Juan Rulfo.
- Terra Nostra from Carlos Fuentes.
- Like water for chocolate from Laura Esquivel.
- Aura from Carlos Fuentes.
- Aztec from Gary Jennings.
Films (some are in Youtube with subtitles in English):
- Macario (1960).
- El río y la muerte (1954).
- Cronos (1993).
- Hasta los huesos (Shortfilm – 2001).
- Hecho en México (2012).
- La Llorona (My favorite version is from Nayeli Cortez in nahuatl).
- La Bruja. (My favorite version is from Tlen Huicani).
- La Catrina (My favorite version is from Susana Harp).
- El preso número 9 (My favorite version is from Chavela Vargas).
- Morir en paz.
- Dios nunca muere.
- La calaca (My favorite version is from Amparo Ochoa).
- La calaca flaca.
- Rogaciano el Huapanguero.
- Las golondrinas.
- Viene la muerte cantando.
- En un rincón del alma.
La Llorona is a popular story about the spirit of a woman that walks on the dark streets of the cities and cries for her lost children. The origin of the story is so far unclear, but many advocate for the idea that it refers to the goddess Tonantzin (Mother Earth) that looks for her lost children: the nahua, who are now praising the Catholic Mother of the church: the virgin Mary.
Many people in Mexico find Halloween as a threatening and disrespectful costume that destroys the original mexican tradition. I personally don’t, as the very mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead was itself a mix of an invading culture with the original from Central Mexico, that later spread to the rst of the country. All traditions start like that. My goal is to preserve my tradition without the rejection of the foreign. These details enrich our culture.
However, the tradition itself is still defining its origins and development. There is no “standard” way to celebrate the tradition, because people see it different in Mexico. Perhaps the places where it is visually impressive would be in the towns of Central and Southern Mexico, where the prehispanic cultures were more diversified and dense than the north.
Towns or cities to visit during these days might include:
- San Andrés Mixquic, Distrito Federal.
- Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán.
- Pátzcuaro, Michoacán.
- Xochimilco, Distrito Federal.
- San Cirstóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.
- Oaxaca, Oaxaca.
- UNAM (National University), Distrito Federal. They organize the largest and most creative contest of ‘Altares’.
- Xico, Veracruz.
- Tempoal, Veracruz. The fest of ‘Xantolo’ is very unique.
I could tell thousands of things about this tradition, but by now it’s time to sleep here and I have to go, but I’ll update this with more tips to enjoy the festivity.