A couple of weeks ago I went to the Cervantino Festival in Guanajuato and then took a day trip to nearby San Miguel de Allende. They’re both beautiful colonial cities, colourful and built up the side of hills to really test your stamina in the mid-day heat. I went with a group who had hired a bus with a driver among friends, and we slept on said bus to save money on accommodation. It was very effective in terms of saving money, though the attempted cleansing in the nearby gas station was less so. Sleeping on a main road, it was perhaps not the prettiest location (and the dead dog at the side of the road didn’t help with the ambience) but the cities in themselves were truly beautiful. With big parties from the Colombian hosts and tons of walks and museums to see, my favourite being Diego Rivera’s house in Guanajuato, which also had a special exhibition of contemporary Latin American artists. It was a great, tiring weekend!
The next weekend was the lead up to day of the dead. As my friend’s mum was coming to visit Mexico City, we thought we’d spend a nice weekend there too. We visited, among other things, what is quite possibly my favourite site in Mexico City, the Palacio Nacional. Free entry for all, with a beautiful garden and incredible Diego Rivera murals. My kind of place.
It seemed even busier than usual, especially around the Zócalo with the Desfile de Día de Muertos. We decided it was too much hassle to stay around and watch it and I felt bad at first, for missing such a key Mexican tradition…until it was revealed that the Desfile had actually been inspired by the James Bond film and it wasn’t a tradition at all! Throughout the city there was a lot of iconography, art and costumes relating to the day too.
I think, despite the view that the day is perhaps being commercialised, Day of the Dead is one of my favourite Mexican traditions. As most people know, it’s a holiday (though not in every state) where families gather together to remember loved ones who have passed and help them along their spiritual journey. People even gather in graveyards to speak to their deceased. Families also construct elaborate “ofrendas” of the things their dead friends and relatives loved, along with displays of flowers, usually Marigolds, skulls and other decorations. Here are a couple of examples:
I’m told that death is something that is spoken about with children in schools and, I think, the idea that there is a specific day to talk about people you love who have passed away, seems more healthy than the western suppression of the topic. That’s not to say that people here are more accepting of death or mourn less when it comes. In fact, a member of the family in my friend’s house passed away, and it seemed very solemn and painful for them. There were in days of praying, singing and crying, perhaps in keeping with the Catholic tradition of the Novena. Nonetheless, I think the Day of the Dead is able to promote a healthier attitude in the future, as you can celebrate the life you’ve shared rather than what you’ve lost.
Although it now takes on some Catholic elements, Day of the Dead is a tradition rooted in Mesoamerican culture. The idea of the ofrenda I’d seen before when studying the Tumbos de Tiro, where the communities made little statues and left them in the tombs of their loved ones. They could be of people, animals, vegetables but often they were of dogs, as it was believed they acted as guides to the underworld. In fact, the family who had a relative die recently told my friend they believe the spirit of their grandmother is in their dog.
There does seem to be a big spiritual and supernatural element to the day. For example, I found it interesting that a few houses had written “Bienvenido Papa” (Welcome Dad) or something similar in marigolds. People here really seem to feel that link between the dead and the living much more strongly than at home. It doesn’t at all feel morbid though, the colours and messages are bright and vivacious. When we contrast it with the typical bleak image associated with a wake in the UK, it is truly staggering.
While I don’t see my parents and my friends heading to the graveyards to chat to the deceased anytime soon (definitely made harder when your relatives have all been cremated and reunited with nature), I think that there are things we can perhaps learn from Day of the Dead. I think having a time to reflect on the people that you’ve loved and lost, with those who love you is a wonderful thing. If nothing else, it might help children or grandchildren learn about the relatives they never got to know. It can be a chance to get together to with family and friends and, ironically, I think it’s a great opportunity to celebrate life.