I’ve been waiting a lot to write this post because El Día de Muertos is my favorite celebration in México. I love this festivity because it mix different practices and traditions that indigenous peoples have in México. In fact, this celebration is such an important festivity that, in 2003, was declared by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.
The cult of life, if it is truly profound and total, is also the cult of death, because the two are inseparable. A civilization that denies death ends by denying life.
Octavio Paz, “Todos Santos Día de Muertos”, El Laberinto de la Soledad, 1950.
One of the most deep and dynamic traditions of many indigenous peoples in Mexico is certainly El Día de los muertos. Celebrations related to death, in Mexico, are the result of the combination of catholic traditions with pre-Columbian traditions, and their main purpose is to meet with their ancestors in order to express their gratitud and admiration.
Indigenous celebrations related to death are mainly located in the center and south of the country. This celebration takes place in 20 different sates among the 31 states that comprise Mexico. Approximately, 97.2% of the total indigenous population in Mexico take part of this festivity. We Mexicans celebrate el Día de Muertos on November 1st and 2nd.
La fiesta de Día de Muertos is often referred as one of the multiple effects of the meeting between two worlds: Spaniards and Mexicans. And this celebration is not only perpetuated in the festivity itself but in the cultural legacy of many Mexican artists such as paintings from Jose Guadalupe Posada, writing by Octavio Paz and poetry from José Gorostiza. See below one of the most famous cartoons of the typical “Catrina” by José Guadalupe Posada.
Another representation of the Catrin and Catrina, full of color.
As I told you before, this celebration is a way in which Mexican indigenous can express their gratitude to their ancestors. They do this trough different practices and activities like the reception and the good-bye of Las ánimas, the Ofrenda o Altar de Muertos, visiting their ancestors graves and vigils in cemeteries and. So, this celebration is definitely a different conception on death; it is like looking at the issue with different eyes and feeling “grateful” for all the legacy that our dead friends and family left us instead of just “feeling sorry”. In this way, this celebration is not a duel, it can’t be a duel! How could we receive family and friends that we miss so much with tears in our eyes? The visitor must be received with abundance and with the pleasures that he or she used to enjoy back on Earth. Below you can appreciate a photograph of a Purépecha woman (Michoacán indigenous peoples) the nigh of the celebration, in a family grave.
Death can not reach us as long as there is someone that remember us
José E. Mendoza Luján, “Que Viva el Día de los Muertos”a Ofrenda o El Altar
I strongly believe that, as many other different traditions (not only in Mexico but around the world) this celebration has been suffering some changes through the years, and this is when it gets “tricky” because all this “changes” are subject to criticism. People who think that traditions must stay the same as 200 years ago is denying the way our culture is build. Many celebrations and traditions often go through a processes called aculturalism, in which a group of individuals acquire a new culture or specific aspects of another culture, for example: colonization. This happens with el Día de Muertos, so communities are keeping traditions but have been adapting to the acculturation, by introducing new elements like the Catrina or the Papel Picado.
One of the beauties of human beings is our ability of being adaptable, not only biologically but also culturally. Thus, it is imposible for us to claim that celebration of Día de Muertos is an evocation to our prehispanic past, actually, it’s quite the oposite! it is a re-creation of a syncretic culture, that is to say, a culture that has being feed by different doctrines.
So, while I started doing some research about celebration of Día de Muertos, I found out a lot of controversy in its origins. I can not generalize (because I have not read that much) but many anthropologist, in their eagerness of understanding the past, they demystify everything we believe is a tradition. As if this endless Halloween – Día de Muertos fight wasn’t enough, there is also a lot of questioning about if it’s really a Mexican tradition or if it’s again, a tradition imposed by Spaniards, if the Altar de Muertos was done since the beginning of the celebration or it’s just an added element, etc. Also there is a group of people that severely condemn tourism as they main reason why our traditions are dying or are in danger of extinction.
As far as i’m concerned, this discussion ends as we learn to understand the true meaning of our traditions, and respect other’s traditions as well. It is extremely valuable labor to search the origins of traditions, but that doesn’t mean they should stay the same forever. Introducing new elements, according to our reality, is the way in which men leaves its mark through the time.
Second, this excessive fear about the introduction of foreign traditions to our society, such as halloween, shouldn’t be that worrying because this two are not opposed, they are just different; as long as we understand they both belongs to different coding systems.
Finally, as Mexicans, is our responsibility to preserve and defend our traditions, specially all this paraphernalia around Día de Muertos and death celebration; tourism, more that a damage, could represent potential economic benefits to actually preserve this celebration, which has a very especial meaning for us beyond commercialization.
Each year, I like to build a small Altar de Muertos with some things that I have at home; also, even all markets are full of Pan de Muertos, I love doing my own recipe! In my next post, I will explain the meaning of some important elements about Día de Muertos, specially in Michoacán, and I will also share with you my Pan de Muertos recipe!
El muerto a la sepultura, y el vivo a la travesura!
Feliz Día de Muertos :)!
CONACULTA (2006). Patrimonio de la Humanidad. La festividad indígena dedicada a los muertos en México.
Mendoza J. (2006). Que viva el día de los Muertos. Rituales que hay que vivir de acuerdo a la muerte. La festividad indígena dedicada a los muertos en México, CONACULTA.
Hiriart C. (2006). Noche de Muertos en Michoacán. Reflexiones sobre su manejo como recurso turístico cultural. La festividad indígena dedicada a los muertos en México, CONACULTA.
Maldiva E. (2006). La festividad de Todos Santos, Fieles Difuntos y su altar de muertos en México, patrimonio “intangible” de la humanidad. La festividad indígena dedicada a los muertos en México, CONACULTA.