The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is an interesting celebration in Mexico, with its roots in both Pre-Hispanic Indigenous and colonial traditions. Although it falls right after Halloween, it has many differences from our familiar kids-centric candy-gorging spook-filled costume-donning celebrations (not that I myself don't love the costumes and candy and spooking. The Day of the Dead honors family members who have died, inviting them back for a visit. On this day, families erect altars to their deceased loved ones which include items that characterized who that person was (favorite foods, familiar articles, and so on) to entice them and make them feel welcome in this world.
To learn about these traditions, the kids and I took a field trip to the city’s Panteon Cemetery with a group from a Spanish language school. The feeling at the cemetery was both playful and joyous, as well as sad and contemplative. Bands played throughout, carts with food for sale were aplenty, and the colors were incredible. We saw several tombs being painted by the family members themselves. It was fascinating to see the variation in burial sites from huge walk-in buildings to tiny wooden tombstones, given what I am accustomed to in Jewish cemeteries where all the tombstones are the same size ('we are all the same in death').
That evening we attended the city’s crowded festivities with altar competitions, skeleton costume competitions, traditional dance performances and skits (for the latter, it must have been good because the audience was in stitches but we couldn’t understand a word!).
What’s most fascinating to me is the Mexican people’s perspective on death. It’s somewhat playful and funny while still respectful. There is not nearly the same fear of dying and death as in our culture – pehaps that’s why parents carry their kids in their laps in the front seat of their cars? – and they seem to live life with a much more carefree attitude. I, for one, feel there is much more freedom in approaching death in a more playful way, and living life without having that ‘pink elephant’ syndrome. That’s not to say I don’t still wear seatbelts in cars and helmets on bikes.
-Barb in La Paz