Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Día de Los Muertos


If not the act of dying, but the dead and death itself are seen under a different light in Mexico. People do not fear those who have departed. Rather, they are kept as a very real part of the family. Mexicans celebrate dead whereas most people fear it. It is intrinsic to our nature. So much so that we have a whole holiday dedicated to such celebration! Octavio Paz described this feeling better than anybody else has, "para el habitante de Nueva York, Paris o Londres, la muerte es palabra que jamás se pronuncia porque quema los labios. El mexicano, en cambio, la frecuenta, la burla, la acaricia, duerme con ella, la festeja, es uno de sus juguetes favioritos y su amor más permanente. Cierto, en su actitud hay quizá tanto miedo como en la de los otros; más al menos no se esconde ni la esconde; la contempla cara a cara con paciencia, desdén o ironía.
Translation: For the resident of New York, Paris or London, death is a word that must not be pronounced because it burns their lips. The Mexican, however, frequents death, laughs at her, caresses her, sleeps with her, celebrates her, she is one if his favorite toys and his most permanent love. Of course, in his attitude there is perhaps fear as that of others; but the Mexican does not hide from the fear nor does he hide the fear; contemplates death face to face with patience, disdain or irony.
Día de los Muertos, known as Day of the Dead, is one of the biggest holidays in México, but has gained some favor in other countries in recent years. The holiday is a Mexican tradition dating back to the time of the Aztecs and honored Mictecacihuatl, the queen of the underworld. In the present, the holiday revolves around building altars honoring the dead in each family. These altars are called ofrendas -offerings- and include the favorite foods and beverages of those who are being honored. Toys are also included for the children who have passed as well as tequila and mezcal for the adults.  Sugar skulls and cempasúchiltls -marigolds- are also part of the altars. Cempasúchiltls are also known as flor de muerto because their aroma is believed to attract the souls of those honored.
These altars also include dulce de calabaza -caramelized pumpkin-, and the famous pan de muerto -bread of the dead-, which is sold around Mexico only for this occasion. Blankets and pillows are part of the altar as well as it is believed the dead will come back to spend the night and their family wants them to be comfortable. These altars are usually set at the home of the departed, but they are often also set at the tombs where people have picnics as a way to spend time with those who have left. Many people believe, the souls of the departed actually come back to share that night with those are still alive.
One of the biggest celebrations in Mexico occurs in Janitzio, an island located in the Lake of Patzcuaro. The cemetary becomes the center attention in the town during this holiday. The cemetery is cleaned in preparation for the holiday as any house would be for a party. The Lake is light up as the people travel from the city in the Mariposas -the fishing boats used in the lake- to the cemetery to spend the might with their loved ones. Many people actually travel to spend the night of November 2nd at the Janitzio cemetery even if their loved ones are not buried there, that is the extent of the celebration there. Many people actually travel to spend the night of November 2nd at the Janitzio cemetery even if their loved ones are not buried there, that is the extent of the celebration there.

Another important part of this celebration are the calaveras or epitaphs for those who are still alive, which are often funny. This practice is only a couple of centuries old, however. They are published in newspapers in poem form. A very well known goes reads as follows: 
Calavera vete al monte. 
No señora porque espanto. 
Pues, ¿a dónde quieres irte? 
Yo, señora, al camposanto. 

Here is one I wrote for myself:
Armada con pluma y papel
decidió esperar a la calaca,
no sabiendo que las palabras
no le servirían como armas,
y cuando la calaca llegó
sólo sus huellas por escrito dejo.
 
xoxo,
R

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xo,R