Each year at a local neighbourhood park, Jane helped by people from the Casa, creates a memorial for Oaxacans who have died in the US. A candle was lit for each of the 157 Oaxacan people who died in the USA during 2013 “in search of the American Dream”.
One of the ideas we were interested in is whether Los Dias de Muerte is evidence a unique Mexican attitude to death: the Mexican who laughs and dances with death, who is not afraid of death but instead venerates it.
The history of Mexico is rife with bloodshed and death for the poor and indigenous. The anthropologist Carlos Navarrete has suggested that this idea about death developed in the 1930s and 1940s in a postrevolutionary time when the Mexican was searching for his roots. Intellectuals like the writer Octavia Paz (see his quote at the beginning of this blog) and artist Diego Rivera, dramatized and romanticized a typical but perhaps mythical Mexican “character”. We now know it’s important to question this romantic stereotype about an Mexican approach to death.
We are surrounded by many quirky examples of Mexican black humour. We wonder are the living being reminded of death or have the dead been given life?
The skull or dancing skeleton is at the heart of popular iconography that laughs at the rich and powerful or the fickle nature of fate and the fragility of life itself. So many Day of the Dead rituals invoke colour, sensory pleasure, vibrancy and chaotic energy, music and dancing- the exact opposite of what we usually associate with death: silence, darkness, fear, grimness, fear and a subdued gloomy, serious mood.
On our first morning we followed Jane’s group to a special Day of the Dead section of the local market to buy things for the Casa altar. In New York Halloween costume party outfits and decorations had been everywhere. They were also here amidst the stalls selling incense, chocolate, marigolds, festive breads, figurines and candles. This is something we will talk about later on.
Back at the Casa we witnessed the building of the arch of marigolds and the decoration of the altar. Over the next days the altar acquired a tumbler of hot chocolate, tortillas, mescal, cigarettes. Members of the tour group had brought photographs and objects to add to the altar to personalize the altar for themselves. We wanted to do the same but had no photos but we lit candles. A path of merigold petals lead the way from the front door to the altar.