Dia de los Muertos: Fast becoming Americanized
By Joe Olvera ©, 2011
From the Dia de los Muertos parade in Milwaukee, WI, to the more traditional “ofrendas” in El Paso, Texas and other parts of the United States, the Day of the Dead has almost taken on a national holiday atmosphere. Also known as All Souls Day on November 2nd, it is the one day of the year in which dead ancestors are presumed to return to earth to visit relatives who have been pining for their return.
To welcome their arrival in El Paso, in the United States, and in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking nations, families gather at the grave sites, usually in festive moods, to focus on five important elements to honor the dead, including;
*Honor – The Mexican tradition is very different from Roman Catholic rituals. Instead of mourning the dead, it’s a joyful and vividly-colored celebration. This attitude towards the dead stems from the Aztec belief that souls do not die; that souls live in Mictlan – the ninth level of death in Aztec cosmology – a place of rest, until they return home to visit relatives during this special day;
*Beliefs – Mexicans, for the most part, hold the belief that death is a transition from one life to another, albeit in different levels where there is communication between the living and the dead. Although Spanish conquistadores tried to force the Aztecs and other Mexican tribes to forego what the Spaniards felt were pagan beliefs, they did not succeed. To the Spanish, the indigenous people were mocking death, more than fearing it;
*Celebration – the festivities take part in two phases – Nov. 1 is to honor the souls of children, using white flowers and candles. On Nov. 2, the souls of adults are remembered with a variety of rituals;
*Honor – to honor dearly departed loved ones, the offer is made through the fragrance of flowers, usually, marigolds also known as cempazuchiles, the light of candles, the aroma of special foods which the dead had enjoyed while still alive, and prayer. It’s also common to make fun of death, usually through Calaveras or skulls, especially sugar skulls. Mexican poets also offer Calaveras, or poems, as remembrances;
*The altar – or shrine, contains items that once belonged to the dead. These highly decorated tables offer fruit, vegetables, and very special dishes, such as mole, and, yes, even drinks – such as tequila and beer. Each altar also offers the four main elements of nature, including earth, wind, water and fire.
Dia de los Muertos originated as an observance more than 500 years ago when the Aztecs – the ruling tribe in Mexico before the Spanish arrival – honored the dead with dancing, music (some say, sacrifice), and other traditions particular to that time, place, and people. But, the bottom line, as far as they were concerned, is the still existing Mexican lack of fear when it comes to death. Even the famous Mexican writer and poet, Octavio Paz, recognized the Mexican disdain for it. “Undaunted by death, the Mexican has no qualms about getting up close and personal with death,” Paz wrote. “He chases it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.”
Although in Mexico, the celebrations and commemorations are exciting and elaborate, those in the United States are more subdued. American cemeteries don’t allow such festivities to disturb those who are supposed to be resting in peace. In lieu of holding observances in the cemetery, Americans normally build altars and the like in the home, dedicating them to the dead. This is very unlike what happens in Mexico. There, entire families gather at the grave, clean it, sweep it, place a tablecloth over it, if at all possible, and spread the foodstuffs, candles, candies, and other items, directly atop the deceased person’s personal space. With each approaching year, however, Americans – mostly of Hispanic origin – edge closer to celebrating El Dia de los Muertos as they do in Mexico. Soon, it will be a world-wide tradition, wherein dead spirits will dance upon their own graves and where, at least once a year, they will come back to life. Or so it would seem.