The Chicanada and the Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead is upon us. Millions of people in Mexico and many Mexican Americans/Chicanos in the United States will be observing the day, an intriguing mezcla of indigenous and Christian/Catholic beliefs and practices. I’ll be observing it in my own small, intimate and personal way.
It is a holiday that causes lots of gringos to shake their heads in befuddlement. I know. I’ve answered their questions over the years. “Why on earth would someone go out of his way to celebrate death?” they ask. “Isn’t that kinda, well, morbid?” The quick answer is: no, it’s not at all morbid. In fact, it is a joyful observance. And, another point is: it is a way to celebrate life, with the recognition that death is part of the endless cycle of all living things – including this very planet.
Traditionally, those who celebrate El Dia de los Muertos create a kind of altar or shrine at home or in a public place that is devoted to their ancestors. Photos of parents or grandparents or – most regrettably – children who have died are part of the tableaux. Furthermore, particularly in certain regions of Mexico, Day of the Dead is observed around the gravesite of a loved one. There are candles and there are always campo xochil flowers, marigolds. The enduring symbol of Day of the Dead.
You take time to reflect on your ancestors or on a loved one who left this earthly plane before you. I’ve spoken to many Mexicans (in Mexico) at such observances in the campos santos who say they are there to speak with their lost loved ones, to reassure them that they – on this side of the divide – are doing well.
As I explain this to non-Mexicans, I still get a quizzical look. “Yeah, but ‘Day of the Dead,’ that still sounds so ghastly.” Trust me, it isn’t ghastly at all. Day of the Dead observances are reverential, yes. But there is a joyous – sometimes even playful — spirituality at work. It is, yes, a celebration. It comes with a frank acknowledgement that we are all going to die. We have to accept death as part of life. I know many people – educated, otherwise rational people — who just won’t talk about their eventual, inevitable death. They feel, I suppose, that talking about it will bring it on. Like some sort of avoidable disease. Guess what? Nobody gets outta here alive.
El Dia de los Muertos encourages us to recognize that. To live our lives on this plane fully, with respect and compassion for all living things. That’s what it’s about.
Scholars and historians remind us that Day of the Dead probably began thousands of years ago with homages to Mictecacihuatl and Mictlantecuhtli. They were sort of the guardians of the underworld in Mexica or “Aztec” culture. A key element in that was the notion that the indigenous people viewed the world as a realm of complementary opposites: man and woman, light and dark, sun and moon and life and death. One can’t exist without the other.
Duality persists throughout Mexican culture and it endures in Chicanos today. Sure, lots of Mexican Americans might seem more interested in the latest NFL scores. But trust me, you scratch a Chicano (or Chicana) and you’ll find some dormant but still viable concepts of duality and indigenous spirituality and consciousness lurking there.
Day of the Dead is a mixture of the indigenous and the European. Chicanos, of course, are a blend of two worlds – we are a mezcla but we are whole human beings. I’m not what you would call a traditionally religious fellow. Not by a long shot. But I know that respect for culture and language give meaning and purpose to a person’s life. In Mexico indigenous culture has survived despite centuries of European-rooted oppression. Ritual is part of the reason why.
On the calendar, Day of the Dead coincides, more or less, with the death of my sister. She died 20 years ago. We were good friends and I miss her. Before she died we had a long talk about the cancer that was ending her terrestrial life. She emphasized, “I’m not afraid.” She was in hospice care at home.
She gave me a big hug. And she gave me a big, brand new bottle of brandy. “Something to remember me by,” she joked and gave a feeble but earnest little laugh. I still have it. Around the time of Day of the Dead I pour a little shot and raise my glass in a brindis in her honor. I light a candle and remember her. At those moments I get a sense that she is, somehow, still in touch. Again, I am not a religious guy. But I try to have an open heart. Those little moments are somehow comforting.
A few years ago I observed Day of the Dead in a huge cemetery in the Mexican city of Oaxaca. My wife and I spent a good chunk of time with a Zaptotec family. On the day that coincides with All Soul’s Day we went to the campo santo and were amazed at what we saw. A cemetery the size of a football field, with practically every grave surrounded by familias of the deceased. A misty expanse of of golden shimmering candles. Flowers around every grave. And things the deceased once enjoyed on this side of the divide – bottles of mescal, a bottle of Coke, tamales and fresh packs of cigarettes – Delicados Ovolados. Many of the people I spoke to said they were looking forward to communicating with their lost loved ones, especially when midnight arrived.
I asked one man if he actually thought he would speak to his deceased wife at the stroke of midnight. He told me: “Eso no se, pero yo se que esta noche vamos a soñar juntos.” Essentially he told me: I don’t know if we will speak to each other tonight, but I know that we will dream together tonight.
Luís Torres is a veteran journalist and the author of “Doña Julia’s Children.” His most recent book is a biography of Gloria Molina to be published in 2024. All photos copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. This article appeared previously on Latinopia on 11.01.15.