Saturday, October 29, 2016

Mexico's Day of the Dead & its ancient pre-hispanic roots

Participant in Ajijic's Dia de los Muertos parade. For many foreigners, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is one of the most puzzling and misunderstood of all Mexico's innumerable fiestas. The event seems vaguely like Halloween, but the traditions, meanings, and history are entirely different. The fiesta is called "Day" of the Dead but it actually encompasses two days. An outsider, unfamiliar with the fiesta, might expect great solemnity among the families gathered around cemetery plots. Instead, copious amounts of tequila and cerveza (beer) are consumed and laughter rings out. Boisterous brass bands simultaneously playing different tunes compete for attention. Good humor and friendliness abound. In this posting, I will try to provide some understanding  for people who may read about, or attend, one of these events. The 2016 fiesta is scheduled for Tuesday, November 1 and Wednesday November 2. The first day, Dia de los Angelitos, is dedicated to dead children (angelitos=little angels). Because of their youth, they are believed to have died without sin and can intercede in Heaven on behalf of their families. My photos and commentary are focused on the second day, Dia de los Muertos, because that is really the main event. I should note here that traditions in Mexico tend to vary according to locality. I can only report on what I have observed and photographed at Ajijic and Chapala, in Jalisco.

El Panteon (the Cemetery)

A family surrounds the candle-lit plot of ground where their loved ones are buried. Candles and cempasúchil (marigolds) are two important elements of the fiesta. They help the souls of the dead find their way "home" for a visit. Many cemetery plots are raised and often contain elaborate above-ground structures, depending upon the resources of the family. Here and there, though, you will find a simple stone marker or rustic wooden cross at the head of a heap of fresh earth. I was touched to see that even the simplest burials were decorated with at least a few candles and a handful of marigolds in a tin can.

This tomb was decorated with a photo of the deceased, apparently an avid horseman. From the spectators in the background, he appears to have been a participant in the parades held during various fiestas throughout the year. Photos of the dead are often placed on grave sites as well as on the special altars families create outside their homes. Notice the elegant glasses holding the votive candles on this rather plush mausoleum.

A young girl decorates her family plot. She has spaced candles to form a cross and sprinkled marigold petals around them. Living marigolds in pots stand on either side of a bouquet of other flowers filling an empty paint can. When photographing individuals, I always seek permission. Virtually everyone I asked at the fiesta agreed with a smile. This girl was no exception.

No part of Dia de los Muertos is quiet. Music from this brass band blared through the panteon. The musicians adorned themselves with face paint and wore matching skull t-shirts. Street vendors outside the panteon's entrance hawked the shirts to celebrants passing by. I bought one to wear at this and future Dias de los Muertos. Several other bands circulated among the grave sites, ready to play requests for a fee. The competing bands, each playing a different tune, created a cacophony that should be familiar to anyone who has attended a Mexican fiesta.

Several elegant couples danced to the music. Skull face paint is wildly popular among fiesta participants. Some of the designs are extraordinary. The man wears a Charro outfit with a tight-fitting, embroidered jacket and a wide sombrero. His partner's black sombrero and lacy black dress are set off nicely by her white face.

Pre-hispanic roots of Dia de los Muertos

The painted skull on this woman's face is remarkably realistic. The people of Mexico have been fascinated by all aspects of death since the earliest pre-hispanic times. Human skulls decorated with inlaid turquoise were found in the ruins of the great city of Teotihuacan (100 BC - 650 AD). From then, all the way through the Aztec era (1250 AD - 1521 AD), human bones were used ritually. Skulls were sometimes substituted as balls in the pre-hispanic ball games. Human leg bones were carved with various mystic designs. Other bones were made into musical instruments such as flutes. The Spanish arrival resulted in a holocaust. Imported diseases, massacres, and general abuse reduced the indigenous population by 90% in less than 100 years. Beginning with the 1810 War of Independence and lasting through drug wars of the 2000s, a long series of fierce conflicts wracked the country. During the Revolution alone (1910 - 1921) Mexico lost 1 out of 7 people. More recently, the drug war (2006-2016) has cost at least 60,000 lives. All of this has given Mexicans a deep familiarity with death and, oddly, enabled them to laugh at it.

Three young women cheerfully pose for a photo. Notice the woman in the center, with only half of her face painted. This is a reference to the concept of duality, an idea that can be traced to the earliest pre-hispanic civilizations. It was central to their view of the cosmos. Everything had its opposite and, together, these created a whole. This included life and death, light and darkness, men and women, hot and cold. etc. Nothing could be fully understood on its own, but only in relation to its opposite. The most important god was the unknowable Ometeotl, the god of duality. This deity had both male and female attributes and was the creator of the cosmos and all other gods. In fact, Aztec priests at the highest level believed there was only one god, and all the others were simply facets or expressions of Ometeotl. The god of duality was so unknowable that no sculptures, paintings, or other representations of Ometeotl have ever been found. Only one temple was ever built for this deity, but it contained no images or statues.

This photograph represents another ancient concept: the cyclical nature of the universe. The photographer modeled his work on an Aztec terracotta sculpture contained in the unique Museum of Death, located in Aguascalientes. The ancient people of Mesoamerica believed that everything in the universe operated on a recurring cyclical basis. Youth turns to old age, which moves into death and re-birth as the cycle continues. Everything in the pre-hispanic world seemed to confirm this: the seasons; the movement of sun, moon, and stars; the life cycle of animals and plants. Some of the ancient civilizations created sophisticated calendars based on cyclical movements of the stars and planets. They were particularly fascinated by Venus which was seen as a symbol of death and rebirth since it appears in the evening and reappears in the morning.

This Dia de los Muertos altar in Chapala recreated an ancient Shaft Tomb. This method of burial was used between 300 BC and 400 AD in the western Mexico states of Jalisco, Colima, and Nayarit. The ancient people would dig a shaft straight down into the relatively soft volcanic soil. Some of the shafts were as much as 20 m (65 ft) deep and had as many as 4 chambers extending out from the bottom. Objects of religious significance, as well as from daily life, were placed on and around the bodies. Much of what we know about the people who participated in the Shaft Tomb tradition comes from artifacts found in these burials. They include beautiful, realistic sculptures of people playing with children, making meals, chatting with friends, playing music, and circle dancing. There were also models of the homes they lived in, some containing a dog house with a pet peeking out. Archaeologists call these objects "grave goods".

A family altar recreates the architecture of an ancient stepped pyramid. This is the typical format for these altars. Once again the pre-hispanic roots of the fiesta emerge, not only in the shape of the altars but with the objects placed on each step. They are the modern equivalent of the grave goods found in shaft tombs as well as other burial sites around Mexico. Some of the objects have religious significance, but most relate to the likes, hobbies, and daily life of the person being remembered.

Los altares familiares (the family altars)

A typical altar tableau begins with the pathway leading up to it. The sides are lined with votive candles, while the surface is carpeted with marigold flower petals. More marigolds line the perimeter of the altar area. The altars are central to the fiesta. Think of the dead not as gone forever, but merely having passed over into a different plane of existence. Annually (i.e. cyclically), on the Dia de los Muetos, they return for a visit. The candles and marigold carpet help guide them home to the altar and their waiting family. It's a bit like leaving the porch light on so a relative who has been on a long journey can find your home.

Home at last! The photo the the deceased occupies the central position on the altar. Various objects used by the person are arranged on either side of the photo, such as the gloves to the left of the photo. On other altars, I have seen saddles and riding gear, musical instruments such as a guitar or clarinet, small tools, artists brushes and pallets, etc. Notice the food arranged on the lower level of the altar. After such a long journey, surely the traveler will be hungry!

Hygene first! Often you will find a pitcher of water, soap, and a towel arranged on one of the steps. A thoughtful family will not forget the need for a traveler to clean up before turning to the sumptuous meal that awaits.

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you'll be dead again. The dearly departed's favorite foods are presented here. Apparently the deceased liked Coca Cola, Corona beer, and a brand of tequila that I can't make out. Fruit, pastries, frijoles and various Mexican dishes are all interspersed with candles and the step is dusted with marigold petals. After hospitality like this, the traveler will definitely want to return in a year. And the ancient cycle goes on.


A catrina strikes a dramatic pose in the Ajijic Plaza. This figure was one of a large number created by various groups and individuals for display at the Ajijic Plaza and along the malecones (waterfront walks) of both Ajijic and Chapala. All of the catrinas were creatively designed and most were clothed with recycled materials.

An elegant catrina wears the large floppy hat of a wealthy 19th century matron. The genesis of Catrinas is much more recent than other aspects of the fiesta. Actually, they weren't originally related to Dia de los Muertos at all, but grew out of 19th century political cartoons. José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) was a young man who was born and raised in Aguascalientes. His older brother was a school teacher who taught him to draw. Posada eventually got a job as a cartoonist with an Aguascalientes newspaper called El Jicote (the Bumblebee).

This blonde is quite a flashy dresser. El Jicote lasted only 11 issues. Apparently, one of Posada's cartoons stung someone important, because he and the publisher had to flee the city. Posada landed in Leon, far enough away from his angry critic to be safe. Rather than give up his profession, he was inspired to continue. However, because of a massive flood in Leon, Posada had to move again and ended up in Mexico City. There, he resumed his career as a political cartoonist. Posada began drawing his catrinas during the rule of Porfirio Diaz, a period called the Porfiriato (1876-1911).

This catrina is clothed with Mexico's famous Monarch butterflies. After Porfirio Diaz secured political stability, foreign investment poured in, railroads began to criss-cross the country, and trade and industry grew rapidly. The economy as a whole took off, but the vast majority of the gains were funneled to a tiny elite. Although there was a small middle class, most Mexicans were increasingly impoverished. The elite were enamoured of French culture and styles and it was their pretensions that Posada lampooned when he drew the elaborately dressed skeletons he called catrinas. Posada died in 1913, but in the 1930s the great muralist Diego Rivera resurrected his work. Catrinas have been wildly popular in Mexico ever since.

The Parade

After the festivities in the Panteon, celebrants formed a  parade back to the main plaza. Above, a young man balances a cardboard coffin on his head. Everything was very friendly and informal, so I decided to join the parade and photograph its participants. Again, there was a notable lack of solemnity.

What's a parade without music? Of course, with several bands playing simultaneously, and never the same tune, it was difficult to keep in step. Still, the disjointed cacophony lent an extra element of hilarity to the scene.

Paraders were not all somberly dressed. The woman with the bright orange dress caught my eye. I liked her handle-bar mustache. The fellow with the coffin follows behind. Even though his burden was light, I suspected that his arms would get tired long before he reached the plaza.

A giant skull with fireworks attached marched along on two blue jean-clad legs. The rockets are attached to flimsy reed wheels on either side, kind of like ears. When the parade reaches the plaza, he will light the fuse. As the rockets ignite, the wheels will begin to spin and throw off showers of sparks. The two-legged skull will then rush back and forth through the crowd, causing people to jump and flee, sometimes tripping over one another. Great peals of laughter will ensue. Any vacationing US or Canadian fire inspectors will no doubt collapse with heart palpitations.

More marchers, this time in brilliant red. The woman is accompanied by two muscular (although dead) jocks in sleeveless shirts. Whoever sells all this white greasepaint must be making a fortune. Maybe this year I'll see if someone will do me up like this to go with my skull t-shirt.

A handsome pair of spooks. I pondered long on the best photo to conclude this posting. This couple seemed a perfect fit. Their expressions fully captured the good humor of the whole affair. If you possibly can, participate in a Dia de los Muertos. It will be a truly unforgettable experience!

This completes my posting on the 2016 Dia de los Muertos. I hope you'e enjoyed it and, if so, that you will leave any questions or thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly.  If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Jim...I always enjoy your photos and dialogue that Jackie Pierce posts for all her friends to see. Thank you! Sharon Perry


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim