Monday, October 26, 2009

Day of the Dead in Mexico

In October, I went with a group of American expats to Patzquaro, a small town with a strong Day of the Dead tradition. We spent all afternoon building an altar to honor our dead, a long and painful endeavor that included cutting millions of squares of tissue paper like you would do a snowflake, folding bright shiny paper into fans for a wreath to take to the cemetery at midnight, and stringing flowers into necklaces. After about four hours, we finally finished, and had a beautiful altar as a result. We then went around looking at everyone else's altars, and trying without success to not eat the food they kept bringing to us. One woman continued to ask stupid questions and repeat everything over and over again, and talked to a 12-year-old and me as if we were both five years old. “OOOHHHHH!” she would shriek loudly, her voice high-pitched and whining. “Isn’t that FABulous?” As we were sitting down to dinner, she asked a question for the 50th time, and the lady next to me said, only slightly under her breath, ¨I wish we could sew her damn lips shut. ¨ I thought it was the best idea I’d heard all day.
Aside from that minor setback, it was great. The Day of the Dead is a tradition dating back to before the Spanish conquistadors and Catholicism in Latin America, and the church has accepted it and added its own nuances. There's as much praying as there is chanting, and it's a fascinating mix of the two cultures. The altars are built to honor and remember the dead, and all their favorite foods are put on it so they can eat after their long journey, but most have pictures of Jesus or Mary as well. The chant they sing to bring back the dead refers to God and Jesus, and they pray Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers before and after singing. At midnight, they carry candles to the graveyards and sing together before going to their family graves to leave food and wreaths. It doesn't compare at all with Halloween, which has much more to do with candy and being afraid of death and ghouls. Mexicans can stand in a graveyard at midnight, singing to bring back the dead, and not even flinch.
What an amazing place.