Thursday, November 19, 2015

XLVI. Día de los Muertos

Day of the Dead

The cemetery is a happening place on All Soul's Night, November 2. This year,
from Ajijic's panteon our oldest daughter hiked the parade route to the plaza
where we joined her for the festivities. 
I’m not certain when I first heard of the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead. Sometime over thirty years ago is my best guess. I do know that I was so straightaway taken with the name that it challenged me to learn more about the celebration. I gained a bit of knowledge: the cemetery vigils at makeshift shrines to commune with dead loved ones, the calaveras—decorated skulls usually made of sugar paste with colored frosting and spangles—and catrinas, the skeleton sculptures modeled on an old etching, dressed in clothing denoting all manner of lively and everyday occupations. 

On the street leading into the parish  Catholic church in Ajijic a
block-long "painting" of colored sawdust is just being finished.
It was a Phoenix museum display of life-sized catrinas made of papier mâché and dressed in costumes ranging from bargirls and society matrons to cowboys and businessmen, even with their skeleton dogs and horses, that sealed the deal of my infatuation with this holiday. The images were illustrating the truth that we are all just a collection of similar bones underneath the proud finery of our clothing, and the distinguishing covering of our often pampered skin, with its underlying layer of idiosyncratic fat and muscle.

A decade later I took a trip to Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, during the first two days of November when this holiday is celebrated. Altars dedicated to dead loved ones and sidewalk “paintings” composed of different-colored flower petals were the principal daytime features marking the occasion. It was at night, though, that the most distinctive moments occurred. A candlelight procession to a small town cemetery revealed families lounging, drinking, eating, playing, and quietly talking at the newly spruced up grave of their loved one. They brought to
An Ajijic plaza altar is visited by the lady in magenta pants who carefully
stepped over the marigold decorations being applied. Notice the small white
candles on the sidewalk in the shape of a cross, guiding the soul to the altar.
this occasion those things that were most memorable in the person’s life, and with which they might have decorated an altar—guitar, soccer ball, bottle of mescal, or recording of a favorite song might be some examples. 

I read that here, in Mexico, the celebration of these days is an amalgam of pre-Columbian observance of ancestral deaths and the three-day Catholic celebration of Allhallowtide, which includes the now completely secular Halloween. Probably typical of most Christian families in the United States, this playful comfort with death was missing from my upbringing. I enjoy having it as part of my new culture.

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