Día de Muertos in Mexico

BY: ALE BORBOLLA

The day of the dead, or Día de Muertos, is a Mexican celebration that as you probably guessed, honors the dead. It takes place on November first and second, all souls day and all saints day, respectively. It is now celebrated in some countries in south America as well as the U.S. and Canada since the Mexican population has grown over the years. Some other countries celebrate it too, and wherever there’s a Mexican person they will most likely celebrate it. In 2008, Día de Muertos was declared as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

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The transition from life to death is often a cause of fear, admiration and the uncertainty of the matter rattles human conscience; no one has ever “crossed over” and come back to tell us really what it’s like.

We are not the only culture where death has such a big impact, but I am pretty sure Mexicans are the only ones who celebrate and mock the end of life. Since our country is so rich in culture and traditions, the day of the dead has become almost symbolic and a synonym of who we are. There are far too many rituals and traditions around Día de Muertos to count.

The first celebrations of death were recorded before the Spaniards came: Mexicas, Mayans, Purépechan and Totonacan people had their own rituals. It was common to keep the skulls of ancestors as trophies or to use in ceremonies.

It has to be mentioned, though, that Halloween has also made its way into our culture, but Día de Muertos is by far more beautiful, nourishing and interesting than you might know.

Before the Spanish came, Mexico was divided by tribes and most of them had some variation of what we know today as Día de Muertos. I think that the celebration today is a mixture of all of them.

Teotihuacan, what is now the valley of Mexico, is a place where people used to make honor offerings to the dead all the time: long, intense and exhausting rituals took place to ensure the safe arrival of the deceased to one of the four heavens; food, incense, vessels, knifes, precious stones and seeds and Xoloescuincles- hairless Mexican dogs- were sacrificed and buried, all had an important part in the ceremonies to help the dead walk the underworld safely to reach the sacred paradise. There were four heavens depending on age and each section had strict burial laws. The first heaven was for kids, toddlers, babies and the unborn who were buried in the fetal position. The second heaven was for teens, who were buried with vegetables and animals. The third heaven was for adults, both men and women. These were incinerated and their remains deposited in special vessels, buried with sugar canes and typical food dishes. The fourth heaven was for the elders, who were also cremated in wood fires, it was believed they came back to earth as animals.

The Mexicas in what is now Mexico City believed that death did not have a negative moral connotation: there was no heaven and hell, no good and bad, no punishment nor reward. For them, the soul of the deceased depended on the type of death they had, not by their behavior during life. There was a paradise that belonged to the god Tlaloc (lord of the rain) and everyone who had died involving water went there; drowned, struck by lighting, gout, and sacrificed children. Tlalocan was a place for rest and abundance. Omeyocan was God Huitzilopochtli’s heaven. He was the god of war, and only those who died in battle, captivity and women who died during birth had a place. It was a place of permanent joy; where the sun was celebrated and there was always music, singing and dancing. After spending four years in this heaven, the people “came back” to the world and turned into birds with beautifully multi-colored feathers. Mictlán was for those who deceased of natural causes, where Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl -the lord and lady of death- lived. It was a very dark place because there were no windows, it was inescapable.

Chichihuacuauhco was the place for the children who did not get “baptized” (not like the catholic baptism, but a similar ritual), where a huge old tree fed them with milk from its leaves. The kids who reached this place would be sent back to Earth once the current race was destroyed: this way from death, life would rebirth. If you had a chance to watch Coco, you will remember the hairless dog. Xoloitzcuintles were special pets (Mexican hairless dog) who would get sacrificed and buried with their master. The dog was their guide to help them along a four-year journey to reach the heaven they belonged to, and finally, a river. Depending on which paradise they were sent to, the soul of the deceased had to pass different tests. Another similarity to what we do today is that the deceased was buried with two types of objects: the things he or she used in life and the objects that would be needed in their journey through the underworld. These items were meticulously fabricated and are what we find in museums today. The Nahuas, who settled in the central-south portion of Mexico, did not have a day of the dead per se, but 60 days divided into three 20-day periods, dedicated to those who “lifted their shadow,”

They had celebrations in July, October and March. Their celebration began with a journey into the woods, where the Nahuas would timber a Xocotl tree, strip the bark and cover it in flowers. Everyone participated in this celebration and there were daily offerings for 20 days. This is where the altar we know today was born, all the offerings were placed at the foot of the tree.  Nahuas and Mayans honored warrior men and women who died in labor alike.

How these rituals were transformed into what we know today was a consequence of the Spanish conquer around the sixteenth century. The Spanish in need of colonization had to math their traditions to ours. The day of all saints was already a tradition in Europe, so to merge both cultures and unify the native people into one, Día de Muertos was created.

Some other factors have influenced the celebration today, for example; the epidemic that nearly wiped out the native Mexican people forced them to have cemeteries, which are now a key piece of the puzzle that is the day of the dead. Around 1859 the tradition to adorn tombstones with flowers and candles was consolidated, which led to the tradition to travel to the holy ground. Back then, however, the mornings were reserved for the high class and the afternoons for the poor.

There are several important parts, symbols and traditions in Día de Muertos, and the skull and skeleton are some of the most iconic. We have the word calavera, which can refer to a rhyme dedicated to the Catrina, graphic representations like the Catrina, or sugar skulls.

The altar and offerings are the main event consisting of various elements with different significance. The sugar skulls; with the name of the deceased written on the forehead. Bread of the dead; representation of the holy bread, with symbols of skull and bones. Flowers; cempasuchil mainly to attract the soul to the cemetery- symbol of the sun, the origin of everything, it means the soul of the deceased has not been forgotten (remember the song in the Disney movie?). The offerings and the visit of the soul; it is believed that the kid's souls visit us on the first of November and the adults on the second, the altars are filled with offerings to the souls after the long journey from heaven. A portrait of the deceased; placed at the very top of the altar, should be placed backwards with a mirror in front so only the deceased can see thyself. Representation of the purgatory; in case the soul is in that limbo, this is placed to ask for permission to travel to earth only for that night. Twelve candles; can be less but always in pairs, for orientation. Cross; introduced with Catholicism, can be made of salt, ashes, dirt or chalk. Candied pumpkin; a blessing. Papel picado (not sure if there’s an actual translation but the pretty tissue paper that has cutouts); for joy and to dance with the wind. Stick; (tejocote) with that stick the soul will make its way back to visit the family, that is why the thorns should not be removed. Cane and flower arch; transition to purification from terrane life. Incense; prehispanic element to cleanse and purify the energy of a place, sanctifying the ambiance. Water; greatly important, reflects the purity of the soul, regeneration of the soul, harvesting, and to quench the thirst of the soul after the trip. Food; the favorite dish of the deceased to enjoy after the journey. Alcoholic drinks; usually the favorite in life, to celebrate. There are three types of altars depending on the number of levels they have. An altar with two steps symbolizes the division of heaven and earth.

A three-step altar represents heaven, earth and the underworld, or the holy trinity according to the catholic church. An altar with seven steps is the most traditional, it represents the seven stages a soul has to go through to make it rest in peace, representing the seven deadly sins, or the seven heavens the Aztecs believed in.

Nowadays Día de Muertos has gained spectacular popularity, having movies, cartoons, videogames, series, fashion and house furnishings inspired by it. The biggest celebration takes place in Michoacán, where thousands of people take little boats to the island where their deceased are buried. This is now so big, reservations in hotels must be made a year prior, but most locals do not appreciate as many tourists being on their way anymore, it interferes with their tradition. All around, Mexico Día de Muertos is celebrated in big ceremonies, often with prehispanic dances, peregrination with offerings to cemeteries.