My friend Flor Cordero wrote and photographed a children’s book called M is for Mexico. The book depicts the alphabet with examples of Mexican culture (A is for Alegría), followed by a short explanation of each associated word. When I read the book with my young son, his goal was always to reach the letter R, because “R is for Ritual”. The example in Cordero’s book is a photograph of a sugar skull like the ones they sell in the markets all over Mexico as part of the celebrations for the Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos. My little boy loves his sweets.
In the same way that the legend of Haitian Zombies has evolved into one of creepy creatures with rotting flesh whose only purpose is to eat people (Haitian slaves believed death would allow them to escape back to Africa as free spirits, but they feared dying and being turned into zombies because it would mean being enslaved for eternity), in the U.S., Mexico’s Day of the Dead has evolved into an unusually hip holiday where people celebrate by dressing in black, painting their faces like skulls, and dancing around like they’re Diego Rivera or Frida Khalo. In some places Day of the Dead is going the way of Cinco de Mayo. Corona with lime, anyone?
In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos, is officially celebrated on November 1 and 2, but preparations and rituals may begin a week earlier. Also known as All Saints Day in the Catholic world, Day of the Dead is a national holiday in Mexico. The ritual of the Day of the Dead goes back to the Aztecs. Its purpose is to take time to remember and honor dead family members. The celebration is in fact spread out across three days, despite November 1 and 2 being the official holidays. One day is for the dead children, or angelitos, one for the unknown dead, and the final for adult relatives.
The ritual involves building altars at home, decorated with marigolds (cempoalxochitl), and pan de muerto, a special bread made only during that time and for that occasion, candy skulls, atole, tequila or mezcal, photographs of the deceased, toys for the children, and mementos that belonged to the deceased. It is not a morbid or grotesque celebration as many believe, but a time for families and communities to come together and remember their loved ones.
During the Day of the Dead, families also visit the cemetery, where they clean up and decorate the graves of family members. They light candles, pray, and talk. It is a time when, according to the belief, the gates of heaven or what in Aztec mythology is known as Mictlán—a kind of middle ground where most everyone except warriors and mother who die at childbirth go after they die—opens up so the living can spend time with their dead family members. The basic idea is that life is fragile, but is a long, continuing line that does not end with death. As a matter of fact, in Mexico, it is believed a person retains his personality after death, and that he or she is aware, or cognizant until after the final rites have been administered by a priest.
As the Day of the Dead approaches, the markets in cities and towns are filled with marigolds and other flowers, which are sculpted into crosses, crowns, ropes, and wreaths used to decorate the altars and graves. Special candles, candy skulls, pan de muerto and incense appear in market stalls.
Many people in both Mexico and in the U.S. associate the lithographic prints of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) with the Day of the Dead, because Posada’s prints show skeletons—calaveras—as people involved in everyday tasks. But Posada’s art was satirical. His work was critical of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. For a while he worked for La Patria Illustrada, a newspaper edited by Irenio Paz, the grandfather of the noble prize winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz. Posada died in poverty, but the French artist Jean Charlot discovered Posada’s work while visiting Diego Rivera. Since then, copies and imitations of Posada’s artwork have become popular and are associated with the Day of the Dead.
Day of the Dead is an important holiday in Mexico. It’s not a sad time, but a time to remember dead relatives. Families get together, reconnect and build community. In many ways, it’s almost like a Mexican Thanksgiving, and nothing like the “hipster holiday” it has become in the U.S.