Maybe you came to read this either because you are bored in Hartley, waiting for the bus in the interchange or in the best case you actually found our altar in the Bridge’s entrance and want to know more about “día de muertos” (pronounce it like this to impress Mexicans: dee-a the mooh-r-toss).
First of all, and as you and your Halloween costumes for the parties last weekend should know, día de muertos is not the only celebration related with “darkish” topics, this has an important reason related with evangelization, when cristianity was expanding all through the world some analogies in the calendars where used to adapt christian celebrations to other pre-christian religions celebrations to consequently allow a somehow easier conversion.
Apart from this cultural briefing, for us Mexicans día de muertos it’s not a “party/tequila/dancing” kind of celebration, the roots of this celebration come from a much deeper tradition settled even before Spaniards even arrived to America. The cult of dead and the significance of life and dead was different to our prehispanic ancestors (Aztecs, Mayans, Tontonacans and Purepechans) where the step between life and afterlife didn’t have as many moral implications as for Christianity. To give an example, for Aztecs, depending on your death you could end up in different places, Tlalocan (for people that died in circumstances related with water), Omeyocán (for warriors, sacrificed war prisoners and women that died giving birth), Mictlán (for people whose death came naturally) or Chichihuacuauhco (for the children that died before their consecration); Every of these places would guarantee their inhabitants different destinies.
To make a long story short, there were 3 different periods of 20 days throughout the year to celebrate death in it’s different circumstances. A tree called xócotl was decorated and a lot of different offerings and sacrifices were made to it, dances with precious feathers and rattles where held around, and at the end of this periods of celebration, little “altars” were placed in people’s homes to remember those people of their families who passed away into afterlife.
Xantolo is the name of another form of celebrate día de muertos, in this celebration Huastec and Nahua people from the Huasteca region of Mexico offer some of their maize crops harvested, in a celebration dedicated to pay respect to those who are no longer with us. According to their calendar, around this dates, the souls of their loved ones are allowed to visit them and with the smell, sounds and flavours of the altars dedicated to them, they remember the time when their soul lived along with a physical body on earth. For them the underworld is present at all times really close to our living world and; even the body goes back to the ground the soul stays within the living.
Later on in the XVI century Spaniards and Christianity brought the “All Saints day” which syncretized with the prehispanic celebration giving as a result our culturally rich celebration catalogued as a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity” according to UNESCO.
Other symbols where acquired throughout time, a few examples:
Catrinas: As usually wealthy people used to go visit cemeteries in the morning wearing European style black dresses and suits, Catrinas (companions of catrines who are gentlemans with refined manner) started to be part of the cultural imagery even before José Guadalupe Posada drawed them as skeletons with the characteristics of Mexican aristocracy in 1910.
Flowers and candles: To decorate graves with them became popular around the 1850’s and the well-known “Cempasúchil” flower or Mary gold is mainly used due to the belief that it’s beautiful and eye catching colour attracts the souls of those souls visiting, acting like a guide and also to their characteristic of growing after the rainy season of the year (summer).
So now you’ve got a bit more knowledge of this colourful remembrance to our ancestors and loved ones, hopefully next time you storm through the SUSU building heading to the Day of the Dead Mexican party you’ll remember a bit of the cultural origin of this celebration, result of hundreds of years of history, tradition and diversity that we as Mexicans are proud of sharing with you.