“Bueno,” my grandmother answers the phone. “Rueben? Rafael? Francisco? ” Not immediately recognizing my voice, she scrolls down the list of male siblings, children, and grandchildren that she’s taken care of throughout her life until she reaches my name.
It’s like she has a mini Dia de los Muertos altar in her head. I ask her about Dia de los Muertos and she tells me about the sweet pan de muertos, the decorative sugar skulls, and various other traditional activities of the day. At the end of her description she adds that she rarely took part in those auxiliary celebrations. For her family the day was more of a private celebration where they would, as is customary on Dia de los Muertos, visit the graves of deceased relatives and pay their respects, lighting candles and saying prayers.
While Dia de los Muertos is widely popular throughout Mexico and other parts of Latin America, it is not universally celebrated. It is an important holiday in Central Mexico, where the tradition began, but each region celebrates it differently and with varying degrees of enthusiasm. While it has been a holiday since before Columbus, it has had to compete for centuries with the Church’s answer to the pagan celebrations of Dia de los Muertos as well as Halloween and All Saints Day. Strategically falling on November 1, All Saints Day is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Roman Catholic Church and one that my grandmother has no doubt observed steadfastly. As with many things in Mexico, the European and the indigenous mix together quite nicely, if not counterintuitively, and in modern Mexico most celebrate both holidays as one.
In my own home we had pictures of deceased relatives usually flanked by religious statues and candles. My grandmother, having been around the longest, has the largest collection of these articles in the family and, despite her age, she regards each photo cheerfully as she tells me stories about the many relatives I never met. She often expresses her own readiness to see these relatives and go on her “voyage without luggage.” This is typical of her view of death and some might say an example of the stereotypical Mexican fatalist approach to death.
Perhaps that’s why Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of death and a celebratory time to remember those who have gone on- not for how they died but how they lived. It stands in stark contrast to Anglo-American traditions of wearing black, somber processions, and other customs of mourning. While both are respectful in their treatment of the dead, one culture seems to fear death while the other accepts it as a necessary counterbalance to life.
Stereotypes aside, there is a marked difference between Mexican and American views of death and no better example exists than a comparison between their respective celebrations. Dia de los Muertos is essentially a time to remember family, living and dead, where Halloween is a little more difficult to define. The traditional American Halloween seems well entrenched in popular culture, whether it be the PG-rated custom of trick-or-treating your own weight in candy of our youth, the PG-13-rated toilet paper, eggs, and horror films of our teen years, or the X-rated version of Halloween popularized in Isla Vista. However, Dia de los Muertos seems to become more and more popular in the U.S. Mexican Americans have helped to bring about this change by making Dia de los Muertos more than an ancestral celebration but a manifestation of cultural pride. Every year there are more art galleries in California showcasing the beautiful traditional Mexican folk art, and any tattoo artist in town will tell you those sugar skulls are quickly gaining on the old skull and cross bones as the tattoo of choice in the ink industry.
Despite the mounting fanfare, however, there is no Charlie Brown cartoon yet.
My grandmother has a suggestion for one. Innocently enough it centers the story of Dia de los Muertos around a flower, the vibrant orange Mexican marigold, or cempas°chitl (sem-pa-soo-cheel) for short. The flowers are commonly used to decorate altars, graves, and just about anything on Dia de los Muertos. In her version of the story, the cempas°chitl was a gift given to Aztecs by their gods. Once upon a time, my grandmother says, the gods told the Aztecs to leave their ancestral lands and head south until they found a large lake. In the middle of this lake they would find an eagle with a snake in its mouth sitting on cactus. You may have noticed this same symbol on the Mexican flag. The gods told the Aztecs that around this lake they would build an empire. The Aztecs were not only enticed by the proposal but they were also afraid of upsetting their deities. The only problem was they would have to leave their dead behind, so they asked the gods what would happen to their friends and family who had passed on.
Having never been mortals themselves, the gods were perplexed. “Superstitious fools,” they may have thought. But in their divine wisdom the gods came up with a plan that satisfied the Aztecs and told them their dead would be waiting for them at the end of their journey. So the Aztecs began their voyage, one that in reality was filled with many years of conquest, enslavement, and genocide as they made their way south through the preexisting kingdoms of other Mesoamerican civilizations. When they reached the valley, modern-day Mexico City, they found it filled with bright orange flowers that were the spirits of their dead. From here they spread their religion and their culture, including such feasts as Dia de los Muertos, throughout the region until the fateful arrival of the Spanish who tried their very best to smother the heathen celebration
But as we can plainly see now, their best wasn’t good enough.