In this fifth instalment of my Mexico City travel blog, I collect a range of experiences of being in and around the city for the ‘Day of the Dead’ festival 2011.
Episode 5.1: Experiencing the festival of ‘The Day of the Dead’
Being in Mexico in the run up to and beyond the Day of the Dead offers an opportunity to see the festival from different angles. My trip has let me build a lexicon of different versions of the festival, including the commercial, the traditional, the family, the local neighbourhood, the State, the artisan, the politicised, the artistic interpretative, the rural, the ironic, the Church and the indigenous versions, and there are many others beyond these. If there are elements that all versions share they must include skeletons and skulls, vibrant colour – especially bright orange and deep red – and ritual. In the run up to the days themselves (1st and 2nd November) the amount of related activity and display has grown and grown, and the mood (surprisingly if you’re new to the whole concept) is certainly not morbid or sad, instead it is festive, excited, industrious. As the days arrive the mood builds, saturating everything, passes through, and moves on like a wave. For me it has been difficult to distinguish what is purely a layer of tourist offerings and what is more for local people, so I’m sure the two will intermingle in these brief impressionistic descriptions.
1) The commercial Day of the Dead
For sale, filling almost every market stall on the streets as well as shop windows and on posters is an excess of iconic images in a vast array of different forms. These range from the cheapest paper-cut scene, for a few pesos, of skeletons dancing, to two- and three-dimensional depictions of skeletons and skulls in every conceivable style (from heavily gothic to very homely), material (from sugar, metal, plastic or fabric to ceramic), as well as every price. Amongst this excess of skeleton characters, some carry tequila bottles, wear sombreros and blankets, ride horses, others crawl out of coffins or play instruments – the variety is endless.
For me maybe the most surprising aspect of the commercial festival is the wide assortment of witches and pumpkins for sale alongside the skeletons. The commercial concept of ‘Halloween’ as marked in the US and the UK is very present, and jars with the distinctive death-mask macabre aesthetic of the more traditional merchandise. Talking to local people most find this growing cultural mix amusing, inevitable, and actually very Mexican, because wherever you go here, and whatever you do here, what you find is the juxtaposition of clashing cultural imagery, slammed together in what one artist described to me as a modern-day baroque sensibility. This ‘baroque’ flavour is further heightened by the drawing into the frame of decorative styles – for example adorning the hundreds of ceramic skulls for sale – using Aztec or Mayan symbols, or other imagery and icons with indigenous or Christian religious roots. Suns, plumed serpents and hieroglyphic narratives mix with gothic horror, blood and teeth. The effect is to ensure the skulls and skeletons are intriguing rather than sinister.
2) The traditional Day of the Dead
My hosts explain that there are many customs in the marking of the festival that have long roots. There are themes that come through the eclectic diversity of imagery. The traditional use of the bright orange Cempasúchitl and blood red Pata de Leon or Moco de Pavo flowers of the dead, to dress anything Day of the Dead-related, is everywhere.
Specific characters appear, such as the ‘Catrina’, a female skeletal figure dressed in European Victorian or Edwardian clothes, with a huge hat, who people tell me symbolises several aspects of Mexican cultural history, for example the struggle of some Mexicans in the colonial past to climb the social ladder by adopting European ways. She is portrayed by some as a prostitute. This seems to me a complex cultural phenomenon, because this dark image is a character people never the less seem to view with affection.
3) The family Day of the Dead
In the family home people create temporary altars using all the imagery and flowers described above. They use candles and heavy incense, and place photos of dead loved ones on the altar, which they then fill with these people’s favourite foods (special, sweet ‘bread of the dead’, fruits) and treats (alcohol, cigarettes, sweets). These are laid out as an offering, to welcome the spirits of the dead back to the house, and give them sustenance while they visit. In many homes a trail of yellow petals is laid out leading from the altar, out of the front door to the outside of the home, supposedly to guide the spirits into the house on their visit. I came across this at the home of one family’s gardener, where incense and the yellow petal pathway spilled out into the yard. This ritual is maintained for two days – the first day being for dead children (Día de los niños), and the second for adults (Día de los adultos). A Mexican friend of German heritage here told me that the real power and value of the Day of the Dead tradition only came home to her when she lost her daughter to cancer, and found an immense release in the process of family memories and celebration of her daughter’s life, shared with her bereaved son in law and grandchildren.
4) The local neighbourhood Day of the Dead
In each area of the city of Mexico that I’ve been in we found a focal point in a public space, where people were contributing to and enjoying a local expression of the festival. Neighbourhood festivities are advertised with huge pride on posters and in the paper, and I have heard several people say that their neighbourhood has the best show or exhibition in the city this year. Out and about over the week leading up to and through the festival families have been flocking to local plazas, munching sweet bread and sipping spiced, milky hot chocolate, Atole – a maize-based cinnamon spiced drink, or hot punch, viewing the ‘ofrendas’ (offerings or altars) made by local groups, schools, artists, and enjoying as well as creating – through their congregation and socialising – a local neighbourhood response to the Day of the Dead.
For me, it is a strange thing to look at public altars in public spaces, which bear personal, family photographs of individual children or adults who are missed, and being remembered and celebrated, but who are anonymous to most of the audience. These poignant photographs open up many questions and lead to all sorts of imagined narratives, none of which can possibly be accurate… but maybe that’s the point? Some of the photographs will be of people well-known in the local community, but most of them become symbolic of all deaths and losses, and can trigger memories and thoughts far beyond their own stories.
5) The rural Day of the Dead
Although almost all of my time in Mexico has been spent in Mexico City itself, I have been able to visit the small rural town of Tlayacapan, South of the city, in the state of Moreles, for the second day of the festival. Here what has been fascinating is the wonderful dressing of graves in the community cemetery. Families have come, with spades, flowers, and individual ideas for how to make the graves of their loved ones as bright and as individual as possible. Every grave is different, and families have come with picnics, small children in tow, working all day or longer on their creative visions. The effect is dazzling, and some graves begin to look freshly dug, with new earth and stones piled or patterned along each tiny patch of ground.
It’s like an exotic cake decoration display, with hundreds of rectangular, richly patterned spreads competing for attention
After the effort in the intense heat here, several local people were stretched out under trees looking disturbingly like new corpses, sombreros over their faces, taking siestas with their boots still covered in dust and earth.