By Ellen Johnston- When I was living in Mexico City this past spring, I experienced four earthquakes in under two months. Almost nightly, thunderstorms raged across the sky. The supernatural just seemed to exist in everyday things. A water stain in the Hidalgo metro station was said to represent the Virgin Mary. Narcotraffickers, addicts and thieves venerated their very own saint, San Judas Tadeo, and carried his statue through the streets on the 28th of each month in order to thank him for his assistance. Old women sold magic potions and herbs in the Mercado de Sonora. Even one middle class mother I knew begged her son, who was going away to study in Europe, to be back before the Mayan calendar ran out on December 21st. Nearby, the volcano Popocatépetl released a constant stream of smoke—a continual threat of explosion, a persistent reminder that life is precious. Sidewalks cracked and buildings swayed thanks to the swelling of Lake Texcoco, buried along with the Aztec capital, Tehnochtitlan, under the great metropolis, always reclaiming itself, always reminding locals that no matter how strong the forces of Catholicism, the Spanish conquest or modernity might be, the ghosts of the past are always there. And it’s the literal ghosts of the past that are most relevant now, as we approach the Día de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead. For many Americans, the rituals of the Día de los Muertos can not only seem surreal, but also frightening. Death is not part of daily discourse here, and people certainly don’t go out of their way to remind themselves of its realities. The Mexican Day of the Day, famous for its skulls and candid depictions of death, does the opposite. But we in the United States are not actually as far removed from the Día de los Muertos as we think we are. Nor is it as scary as it appears. Like our Halloween, the holiday is a blend of pre-Christian traditions (pre-Hispanic in their case, Celtic in ours) with the Catholic holidays of All Saint’s and All Soul’s days, which fall on November 1st and 2nd respectively. Unlike modern day Halloween, however, the Mexican Day of the Dead is not simply about parading death, but actually about the celebration and veneration of those who came before, and the family ties that reach across generations. The celebrations surrounding the Mexican Day of the Dead are a multi-day affair. Traditionally, Mexicans believe that the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31st, releasing the spirits of the dead back to earth. The children return first, for 24 hours, to reunite with their families. Because of this, November 1st is known as the Día de los Inocentes, the Day of the Innocents. November 2nd, the Día de los Muertos, is devoted to everyone else who has died, and is the day when their respective spirits return to earth. Celebrations actually take place over a three day period, though the last and final day remains the most famous. But though this is a truly Mexican celebration, the connections with the original European and Catholic holidays of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days are very easy to discern. Innocents should be, like the saints, free from sin. And the Muertos remembered on November 2nd are just like the souls: the common folk, the ancestors. The dead who must be remembered and prayed for. In Mexican folklore, death is actually considered a threefold thing. Firstly, you die a physical death, and the soul escapes the body. Secondly, your body is placed in the ground, and therefore returned to the earth. Lastly, you are forgotten. Your death is definitively sealed when no one remembers you. This is why the Mexican Day of the Dead is so powerful, because through remembrance and veneration of those who have passed, death is never truly final. “I am not a typical Mexican”, says Lorena Zaragoza in the Chilanga accented Spanish of the capital city. From her home in the neighborhood of Cuauhtémoc, it’s easy to see why. Working as a graphic designer, and living alone in an area of modern apartments, multiethnic restaurants and office buildings, she seems a million miles away from traditional stereotype of a Mexican woman who makes her own tortillas by hand. But like almost all Mexicans, she grew up in a Catholic family, one which celebrated the Día de los Muertos. “I was raised in the Catholic religion,” says Lorena, “my mother would not let us eat the offerings that she had lain out.” Because Mexicans traditionally believe the souls of the dead return to visit during this period, food is lain out in the form of ofrendas (offerings) for them to eat. These foods include pan de muerto (literally “bread of the dead”), traditional beverages like mezcal or atole (a masa based beverage) and pumpkin. Marigolds also grace many of these altars, as do painted skulls made out of sugar. Though Lorena no longer does this herself, her mother and sister still construct ofrendas in their houses each year. “My mother really believes that on the first day the dead children will come to eat, and on the second, the adults. She has dead for whom to celebrate,” continues Lorena. “My older sister does it because it’s a nice tradition and because she likes to make it look good. But it is also an excuse for Mexicans to put up flowers, altars and food…and it is an excuse to party as well.” Like American Halloween traditions, the party does, indeed, seem to take up much of the experience. “I like to tell foreigners that we celebrate death” says Lorena. “Their frightened faces make me laugh. I like to tell them that the days are holidays where there is no sadness. There is music, food, and there are parties, colorful and with traditional food.” In Mexico City the parties are more subdued, more family affairs. It’s in the pueblos, the small towns, Lorena tells me, that the tradition is best enjoyed. “In the pueblo it’s a party for the whole town,” she says. “People interact with each other a lot more. There is much more color, atmosphere, the masses are longer and everything in general is just much more beautiful. I see it as folklore, and I identify as Mexican by the customs. But they surreal than his own paintings. In many ways, it’s easy to see why. 49 ARTNOIS No 1, Agust 2012 echo in my heart because of my cultural identity, not because of my religion or my beliefs.” I ask Lorena if it’s possible to celebrate the holiday in a secular way, to participate without faith in the religion, which she obviously lacks. “The Day of the Dead is a pre-Hispanic adaptation,” she replies, perhaps more consciously than many. “In reality it has secular origins, but later the church adopted it along with many other customs in order to have acceptance. We are a Catholic country and I think it would be very difficult to separate the day now with religion, because once you die…where do you go? In Mexico, you go to heaven and are buried in a Catholic cemetery. I cannot conceive of the idea of the Day of the Dead separated from the Catholic religion, because it is actually a religious holiday, which is perhaps why I do not celebrate it.” Despite her strong identification with Mexican culture, it has been this basic break in faith that has prevented Lorena from continuing to practice the traditions of the Día de los Muertos. Unlike Halloween, which has become an essentially secular holiday in the United States, the connections to Catholicism in the Mexican Day of the Dead still remain strong, despite its obvious pre-Christian origins. “I have never raised an altar, offering nor have I have been to any cemetery on those days,”, says Lorena, describing her life since her break with Catholicism. “But I repeat, I am not a typical Mexican.” Though Lorena Zaragoza may not be a typical Mexican, her loss of traditions is a typical consequence of modernity. But there are many modern Mexicans who look at the Día de los Muertos in a different way. To Daniel Reyes Guzman, who grew up in the Estado de Mexico, just outside of Mexico City, there are many non religious aspects to the holiday. “In many places in the provinces,” he says, “it has nothing to do with religion but, rather, a relationship with death. There are no gods involved. It’s about ritual, repetition, tradition.” On a personal level for him “the date simply signifies a way to remember family and friends who have died. Many of the traditions come from pre-Hispanic times (especially outside Mexico City), and most people do not know the meaning of these traditions. They simply observe the holiday as a day of memories, as in my case.” These sentiments are echoed by Adel Milan, a self described Pantheist who was born and raised in Morelia, Michoacán. “Being born in Michoacán, one of the main states of México that is well known for its celebrations of the Día de los Muertos, I was raised in this tradition,” she says. “In my house in particular we never put up an altar, but we did in some occasions go to the grave yards to bring flowers and visit my dead grandparents. We also went to the small pueblitos like Patzcuáro, Zirahuen and Zintzunzan where the indigenous people put lots of food and bread, candies, candles, and flowers on the tombs of their loved ones. They stay all night there, only women and children are allowed to stand vigil in the graveyards, men wait outside.” As for her own personal celebrations now, she says it’s a simple affair. “I do not celebrate with any particular ritual or so on. I might just have some thoughts of my loved ones, and maybe light a candle and buy some flowers. For me, it is more simply a day of remembering them. But like in any country, these traditions are stronger and have more meaning for the indigenous people.” After all, despite the fact that it’s tied in with a Catholic Holiday, it’s the indigenous, pre-Hispanic, traditions that have shaped many of the rituals and much of the imagery of the Día de los Muertos. Like most societies, the ancient Aztecs had deities who ruled over the underworld. Mictecacihuatl, the queen of the Mictlan (the Aztec underworld), was responsible for guarding the bones of the dead, and presided over the festival devoted to them. This festival occurred in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, and was dedicated to her. One of the most famous symbols of the modern Día de los Muertos is the Calavera Catrina, a skeleton dressed up in flowers, a fancy feathered hat, and elegant attire. The resemblance with Mictecacihuatl is uncanny, as she a goddess with a skull face. Though she may not have the same name, the modern Lady of the Dead is quite obviously derived from her ancient counterpart. And, as a matter of fact, skulls were just more commonly a part of every day life in ancient Mexico, being regularly on display in rituals in order to symbolize death and rebirth in society. The Catrina not only symbolizes a pre-Hispanic past, but also the Mexican culture’s long held belief that death is something you should laugh at, and keep close, instead of avoid. As an elegantly dressed lady, the Catrina reminds everyone who sees her that death is an equalizer, that no matter how rich or powerful you are in your worldly life, we are all the same in the end. Though her evolution occurred over a long period of time, the modern Calavera Catrina was first depicted by Jose Guadalupe Posada, a highly influential printmaker and illustrator, in 1910. Created in the run up to the Mexican revolution, this elegantly dressed skull represented a death knell for the privileged classes, and also satirized those who ignored their own Mexican culture in favour of a European ideal. Catrina’s influence was so powerful that she became a national symbol, taken up by the likes of Diego Rivera, who famously painted her standing next to his wife, Frida Kahlo, in his mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park”), and holding the hand of a ten year old version of himself. Posada stands to her left, holding her other hand. The ancient and modern come together at once in this painting, representing the Mexican past and the future, destruction and reconstruction, death and remembrance. “México is a product of infinite syncretism,” continues Daniel Reyes Guzman, referring not only to the mixing of pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions, but also to cultural blending that has occurred in the country, as well as to the ever creeping influence of the outside world. The Día de Los Muertos is undeniably a product of this syncretism, and will continue to evolve because of it. But though variations will always occur, and differences may become exaggerated as urban Mexicans continue to modernize and indigenous and rural people may not, it is important to bear in mind that remembrance, like death, is universal. And that’s the point isn’t it? To remember.