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El Dia de los Muertos

November 1, 2011

Guadalajara celebrates the Day of the Dead, Mexico’s most idiosyncratic and surreal festival

Preparations in Guadalajara were well underway this week for Mexico’s most surreal festival – “El Dia de los Muertos.”

The Day of the Dead, as it is known in English, is based on pre-Columbian religious rituals, with the earliest celebrations traced back as far as 2,500-3000 years ago. The tradition is thought to have originated from an Aztec ceremony dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl.

The Aztecs, for whom human sacrifice was common practise, considered death just another stage of life. With the spilling of blood deemed essential for maintaining the balance of life and ensuring that the sun continued to rise each day, it was only natural for them to celebrate death.

Following the conquest of Mexico, the Spanish conquistadores sought to merge the festival with All Souls Day as part of their attempts to evangelize the indigenous population. They were never entirely successful and every year on November 2 many Mexicans still give offerings to honor and remember deceased friends and family  (Children are remembered on November 1 – All Saints Day).

Guadalajara’s graveyards will be packed on the day, while in other parts of the country the cemetery gates are opened the night before, such as in Jalisco’s neighboring state of Michoacan, where the country’s biggest and most colorful Day of the Dead ritual takes place on the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro.

As they pile into the graveyards, relatives traditionally leave offerings, including photos of the deceased, their favorite dishes, and even packets of cigarettes and bottles of tequila or mezcal.

It is also common practise to lay orange marigold flowers known as “cempazuchitl” by their graves. The sweet, enticing scent is supposed to draw out the spirits of the dead.

The place to go in Guadalajara to prepare for the festivities is the traditional Dia de los Muertos market (known as the Feria de Carton) in Parque Morelos, a few blocks north of the massive San Juan de Dios market in the historic city center.

“We are here every year from October 15 to November 2,” says one of the vendors. “It’s the only place in all of Guadalajara where you can buy everything, there’s nowhere else.”

After the Day of the Dead many of the stalls will remain as part of the Parque Morelos  Christmas market. The items currently on sale include “Pan de los Muertos” (Bread of the Dead), all manner of candies, altars, brightly coloured “picado” decorative tissue paper, scented candles and, of course, “skulls of all sizes, for all prices.”

The vendors say the most popular items are the iconic candy skulls and figures of Catrina, “The Lady of the Dead,” who commonly features atop of the altars. With skulls placed in the centerpiece, these altars also often feature the Christian cross and the image of the Virgin Mary, demonstrating the bizarre synthesis of Catholicism and ancient indigenous ritualism that this festival has become.

Today the market also features an increasing number of Halloween masks and costumes on display alongside the more traditional fare.

“We used to just celebrate the Day of the Dead here, but in recent years it has become combined with Halloween too,” says another vendor. “This is due to the influence of the United States, because they don’t celebrate the Day of the Dead there.”

Yet there is little danger of this most Mexican of festivals being overwhelmed or forgotten.

“We will always follow the traditions of the Day of the Dead,” says Maria de La Luz Orendain, who has been selling at the Parque Morelos market for over 30 years.

To illustrate her point, Orendain points to the dolls on her stall. “Grandmothers and mothers pass these dolls down to their daughters and granddaughters. This is a very old tradition from their youth that has yet to be extinguished,” she says proudly.

For those involved in making and selling the produce on offer, the Day of the Dead is not just a cultural legacy but also a vital source of income. Orendain explains that some of the produce is made locally in Tonala, while other items come from as far away as Mexico City.

Most of her customers are local school children who come to decorate altars for their schools, she says. Aside from gorging on the skulls made of sugar or chocolate, many also buy their friends and family little figures of skeletons dressed as doctors, teachers or priests, some collapsed comically beside empty tequila bottles.

That none of this is as morbid as it sounds is thanks largely to a healthy dose of Mexican humor. “It’s a very typical kind of Mexican joke,” remarks a passerby, on the tradition of buying toy corpses for loved ones.

Traditions such as this help Mexicans enjoy a healthier attitude towards the deceased than that prevalent in Anglo-American society, where it is considered awkward or taboo to even speak of the dead.

Now celebrated in other parts of Latin America and among elements of the Hispanic population in the United States, perhaps it is time the Day of the Dead caught on more widely across the world.

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