4 Nov 2007

Día de los Muertos

Posted by Deborah

    Day of the Dead is a huge tradition in Mexico, and I’m so glad I got to be here to experience it. All week in school, we had special activities to learn about this holiday, which celebrates the day when the souls of dead loved ones are believed to return to Earth for a brief visit. In our “conferencia” we learned that Aztecs saw death as the gateway to a better place, and therefore something to look forward to. Apparently, on Day of the Dead there used to be continuous human sacrifices until sundown and people would just line up for the chance to die! It makes me think of suicide bombers, though suicide apparently wasn’t allowed in Aztec civilization.

We watched videos about the ofrendas, literally offerings to the deceased, that are put out as a kind of altar. The idea is to fill the ofrenda with all kinds of things the person liked in life for him to enjoy on this day that he returns. A few items are always required: water, candles, salt, bread, fruit, marigolds (the color the Aztecs used to represent mourning), a trail of flower petals to lead the person to his/her ofrenda, and a photo of the person. All of this is supposed to be on a table with four corners to represent the four stages of life. Other items on the table should be things the person liked, such as favorite foods, or things to represent him or her.

On Wednesday, we got to see all this in person at a public high school in Temixco that was having an ofrenda competition. There must have been at least 20 different ofrendas, many of them very artistic and creative. One of my favorites was a map of Mexico that was dedicated to all the immigrants who’d died crossing the border or in the US. Another that I liked made me think of Thanksgiving because of all the fruits and the live turkey that was chilling in the corner. Others were tackier, like a student streaked in blood who played dead in front of her group’s ofrenda to the dozens of women who died in a rash of serial killings in Juarez, or the live “ghost” who moved ever so slightly while his group explained their ofrenda to the judges.

Note the turkey in the righthand corner.

On Thursday, we made our own ofrenda at the school using papel picardillo, or tissue paper cutouts, that we’d made two days before. It was pretty cool. One of our teachers, Osvelia, brought sugar skulls that she’d personalized for each of us. Here, it’s like a little friendly joke to give someone a personalized skull – it’s more to say “You’re my friend,” than, “Here’s my death wish for you.”

Later that night, we saw the real thing in Ocotepec, a neighborhood north-east of Cuernavaca. That was really interesting. We basically walked around the pueblo until we saw a house with a line and went in. We’d hand a candle to the person standing beside the ofrenda, express condolences as best as we could and maybe ask a few questions about the person, snap some pictures, accept food and drink, sit for a few minutes to eat and then move on to the next house. The whole thing felt so strange to me. I kept trying to understand why these families would want to spend all this money to make elaborate alters and provide food for total strangers. I mean, we didn’t have any sort of connection to these people, we were just there to gawk and eat. It was like some sort of twisted trick-or-treating or something. But I can also see how a tradition like this could be sort of comforting to a grieving family. It’s a procedure, something the family can put energy into and maybe afterward feel a better for having done something for their loved one. That’s my theory anyway.

If the person died in the last year, you’re supposed to form the shape of their body along with clothes and some kind of skull for the head.

We visited ofrendas in two churches and three houses. The most compelling was a 16-year-old girl named Monica who’d died about a month ago from a heart attack. She left behind two twin 6-month old baby girls. You could tell that many of the ofrenda decorations had come from her recent quinceaneras party.

The next morning we went back to Ocotepec after grammar to see everyone sitting with their loved ones in the cemetery. Some people spend all day there just hanging out until after dark. Most people also decorated the graves, similar to the ofrendas but not as involved. We saw two of the families we’d visited the night before, including Monica’s.

This is one of the most adorable little old ladies I’ve ever seen. She was trying to get her (great?) grandson to sit in that chair, and he wasn’t cooperating.

Later that afternoon, we went to see more ofrendas on display in the zocalo. It was nothing compared to the elaborate creations the high school students had come up with. But it was nice, and there was also a series of about 20 life-size Katrinas, or skeletons that symbolize Day of the Dead here, all designed by different artists. At night, we watched local folkdancers in the Jardin Borda and zocalo plaza.

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