27 Oct Dia de Muertos
Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is by far my favorite holiday of the year, and spell-bindingly so with its array of vibrant marigolds and raspberry colored coxcombs, multi-colored cutout flags strung between buildings, hanging over streets, altars to the dead adorned with everything from rice and beans to candles and tequila, the warm, social energy of the season, and last but never least, the incredibly aesthetic tradition of Catrina.
Often, people outside of Mexico don’t understand Dia de Muertos and consider it morbid or confuse it with Halloween. Though the dates are close and both holidays are tied to Catholicism, they are actually quite different. For Halloween, we dress up as something scary to frighten away lurking spirits, or even death itself. So, in a sense, Halloween tells us that Death is to be feared and avoided.
Not so in the Mexican tradition, which falls on November 1 and 2 (All Saints Day and All Souls Day). Life is celebrated – the memory of a loved one, including all of their favorite foods and bevies, and honoring the family lineage by remembering those who have passed on. Acknowledging ancestors is the order of the day. Mexico places great importance on Dia de Muertos. With an immense cultural reverence for the value of family, it makes sense that this holiday is celebrated with exuberance.
The celebration of Day of the Dead in Mexico reaches back 3000 years to the Aztecs who spent the 9th month of the Aztec calendar revering the goddess known as “the Lady of the Dead,” who is, in modern times, has become the Calavera Catrina. The Catrina is still the most prominent symbol of Day of the Dead here in Mexico. Skeletons dressed in elegant dresses, gloves, and enormous hats with flowers. They may appear in sculptures and paintings, rice and bean mosaics, and even as tequila drinking fools (like yours truly) who dress up as Catrinas to celebrate (with respect of course). Other symbols include delicately decorated sugar skulls (less gruesome than the real thing) and prayer flags.
The most iconic symbol for the Day of the Dead is the Catrina, a woman dressed in fine clothing with a skeleton face. She represents the materialism that you can’t take with you when you die.
La Calavera Catrina (“The Elegant Skull”) initiated with a famous print by José Guadalupe Posada which showcases a wealthy woman in an elegant gown but with a skeleton face. This striking image mocking the values of the Mexican upper-class at the time still resonates today: what will you bring with you into the afterlife? Can your riches survive death?
The modern celebration includes building altars for the loved ones who have died in the recent past or to honor long-since passed ancestors. Often, people create altars for famous public figures who have died, like Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera. The altar usually consists of a photo of the person surrounded by their favorite things and fresh marigolds. Their favorite things typically include food and drinks, particularly of the alcoholic variety. As you can imagine the most popular booze around these parts is tequila or mezcal …and so we indulge in honor of those who have gone before us and of the many agaves that died to produce our beverages of choice.
In San Miguel de Allende, which was my home base for over 10 years, many people dress as Catrinas (or Catrins if they’re men) and parade through town or go to social events. There is an array of parties, like the Calaca Festival, art installations and performances, and in every interaction, people confront the idea of their own death with warmth and playfulness. Now I live in a remote part of Oaxaca where Day of the Dead is very different. It’s more centered around personal family altars and preparing traditional dishes, welcoming friends, family and neighbors over to eat and spend time together.
Thinking back to the first time I experienced Dia de Muertos, I remember feeling guilty, like I had barged in on a private, solemn moment – conflating the American version of death and mourning with the Mexican one. The San Miguel cemetery was bustling with life, locals and tourists rubbed shoulders as they walked along in single file lines in and out of the grounds, the sound of different mariachi bands playing along the cremation wall and through the aisles of the remembered dead.
Later, Sean took me to the cemetery in Puerto del Nieto, a rural gem outside of town. Dirt graves marked with iron crosses and decorated with coke and beer bottles. A giant agave planted at the head of a plot has grown enormous, covering the grave in its entirety. I wondered if the agave could be considered sacred, an extension of the loved one lost, feeding off their energy. I loved thinking about how the energy could be reborn in something new.
But on Dia de Muertos, there is no fear of the dead. They are honored guests, welcomed into the space of the living. They are offered their favorite snacks and drinks, like Pan de Muerto and mezcal. They’re surrounded by vibrant marigolds and deep purple coxcomb to celebrate their visit. It is a happy, shared space where both the living and the dead are at ease. It celebrates the idea that if we remember those who have died that they live on in our memories.