“The cult of life, if it really is deep and total, is also a cult of death. Both are inseparable. A civilization that denies death ends up denying life.”
Few phrases like this one by Octavio Paz better define the position that Mexicans maintain in the face of death and which they boast with tremendous pride every year on the Day of the Dead.
While in much of the planet this date is marked by sadness and tears, in Mexico it is surrounded by a halo of party and color, of celebration of life and of reunion with the deceased believed to return to our world for a day.
And far from losing strength over the years, this particular way of celebrating the Day of the Dead it goes from generation to generation. As in the case of Gabriela Luna, a young woman from Mexico City who took up this tradition after the loss of her maternal grandmother.
“She would put up a giant altar, so when she leaves, I take on the tradition that she taught me and I dedicate the offering to her every year. I feel that those who are not, accompany me “, he tells BBC Mundo.
“Without a doubt it generates an identity for us Mexicans, because at the core of this practice our main code is found: the family”, assures this artist of wool modeling.
The covid-19 pandemic this time limits the traditional visits to cemeteries and pantheons in Mexico by family members who, every year, share their favorite food and music with those who are no longer there.
It will also prevent the classic parades where the catrina, the iconic smiling skull popularized by Diego Rivera, it was his greatest symbol.
Without a doubt, the Day of the Dead in Mexico is full of a mysticism that provokes curiosity and fascination in equal parts in the rest of the world… although it also confuses those who find it difficult to understand this position of Mexicans in the face of death.
Day of celebration, not sadness
To understand the origin of this relationship, we must go back to Mesoamerica thousands of years ago. Some of the native peoples organized festivals to guide the dead on their journey to the Mictlán, the underworld of Mexica mythology.
Others set up altars with offerings to remember the dead and skulls were placed as symbols of death and rebirth.
According to an ancient legend, Quetzalcóatl -the god in the form of a feathered serpent- went down to the underworld and deposited his semen on some ground bones to give life to the human being, so for those peoples the remains of bones symbolized in a way the seed of life.
Because, without a doubt, if there was a central message in these commemorations towards the dead, it was the belief that their souls end up returning to the world of the living.
So, why associate the Day of the Dead with sadness if, according to the indigenous worldview, it is precisely the day those who left our side come to visit us?
For them, death was nothing more than a symbol of life that is represented on the altar offered to the deceased.
Thousands of years later, millions of Mexican households continue to place their altars with great affection and detail in which a multitude of symbols, food, confetti and photos of deceased people are combined.
It is precisely this memory of those who are no longer here that allows – together with the help of the candles and the fragrant marigold flower – that the souls of the departed find their way back home to live with the family and enjoy the food arranged on the altars in their honor.
“It is a great party perhaps comparable to Christmas in Europe. It is a party because there is that memory of the dead who return. There are even legends about families that do not put an offering, and the dead come to remind them to do so,” he says Andrés Medina, of the Institute of Anthropological Investigations of the UNAM.
But the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexico radically influenced the celebration of their Day of the Dead.
For example, it was they who made the feast of the dead of the indigenous people coincide -that lasted two months- with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints and All Souls Day (November 1 and 2).
Currently, the Mexican Day of the Dead is the result of a mixture of these two cultures, pre-Columbian and Catholic traditions.
Although judging by how different the celebrations are today in Mexico and Spain, it seems that the first culture weighed much more than the second.
For the writer and anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz, One reason is that the “modernization process” of death rituals that has occurred in Europe and part of America since the 18th century did not have the same effect in Mexico, which was already nearing the end of its colonial period.
“Spain was already going to war in Europe and the Crown had financial problems to worry about this,” the author of “Ideas of death in Mexico” tells BBC Mundo.
“In addition, in Mexico the presence of the Church -especially in the 19th century, but also before- was less strong than in Spain, so the popular cult could flourish much more to be less dominated by the clergy “, adds.
This stance towards the celebration continued even after the independence of Mexico.
“Even liberals like Benito Juárez, who were very anti-clerical and contrary to these rituals that they considered superstitious, they ended up accepting this celebration saying that it was a national popular holiday and avoiding their close association with the Church, “says the expert.
The unprecedented of the Mexican celebration
Some of these traditions are not, however, exclusive to Mexico: some can also be found every Day of the Dead in places in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia or part of Central America, among others.
What does make the case of Mexico unique is how it proudly “nationalized” these customs as a symbol of the country.
“In other countries they are folkloric customs or they can be seen as something old-fashioned. For years, the celebration of the dead was inhibited as not modern or contrary to liberal values”, says Lomnitz.
“On the other hand, in Mexico the party grew enormously. Only here was there a cultural elaboration of this as something that reflects the national collective spirit, he is unique in this. ”
And that nationalism was further exalted from a key episode in the country’s history: the Mexican Revolution.
“Apart from the tradition of the peoples, came the promotion of a government with eagerness to reproduce a very strong nationalist discourse “, thinks Medina, who celebrates that this day continues to be commemorated although he regrets that part of the population does not really know its meaning.
“On the Day of the Dead Children (November 1) there are places where groups of children go from house to house asking for their skull as an offering, a sweet. They represent Those kids dead who return for those days, although they may not even know it and for people they have lost that idea, “he tells BBC Mundo.
What does this reflect about Mexicans?
For Lomnitz, this vision of death reflects the close relationship of Mexicans with their deceased. “Not with death in general, but with their deceased,” he stresses.
And on the other hand, he thinks it reveals a very special macabre sensitivity and sense of humor that the country shows, for example, when it comes to using death to make political and social criticism through the texts known as “literary skulls”.
Own André Breton, the French theorist considered the father of surrealism, described Mexico as the homeland of black humor for its many customs that reconcile life and death.
However, experts deny that this celebration supposes that Mexico makes fun of death or that it does not receive the arrival of this moment with sadness and pain.
“The celebration of the dead does not mean that Mexicans are not afraid of death. Rather it is joy because the dead return. But I think there has been a misinterpretation, a cursory reading of our party “explains Medina.
This idea is also partly held in the many countries where the Mexican Day of the Dead has become very popular in recent years.
Georgina Larruz, a 30-year-old Mexican studying in Russia, had to explain to her Spanish students that this celebration that they knew in good part (like millions of people in the world) thanks to the animated film “Coco” it’s much more than fun, songs and alcohol.
“It is a party that unites us as a community, and the fact that I put my offering here, thousands of kilometers from home, makes you feel that connection with your family, with your dead. Y, definitely, with what you are “, he tells BBC Mundo from Moscow.
From Mexico City, Gabriela Luna agrees how satisfying it is to think that there is a bridge thanks to which the deceased relatives return this day “honoring and accompanying us.”
“By virtue of that alone, it seems to me that we should continue to preserve those colors, which also make us Mexicans so characteristic and so unique in the world “, she says proudly.
After the celebration of this atypical Day of the Dead, another year will have to pass until the memories in the memory of the living in Mexico make their return, at least for a few hours, from the souls of their deceased.
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Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.