Saturday, November 6, 2010
With its roots in pre-Hispanic celebrations and its distinctly non-Western attitude toward death, Dia de los Muertos has become Mexico's most marketable cultural holiday and a staple of middle school Spanish classes in the United States. This mingling of authentic tradition with exportable exhibition, of meaningful commemoration with commercialized caricature, are the marks of a holiday that has increasingly become a transnational event.
Across the country, students of all ages participated in altar building contests, painting elaborate designs with flower petals and arranging candles around photos of revolutionary heroes or famous musicians. The practice of incorporating an offering to the dead of special food and drink occasionally took an ironic turn: it was not uncommon to see a bottle of tequila sharing an altar with a picture of Pancho Villa--a notorious teetotaller.
While public plazas filled with overly-ornate ofrendas, a different scene unfolded in the municipal cemetery in Puebla. A stream of families swirled through the gates and crowded down the central walkway, carrying bunches of marigolds in tin cans. Workers stood amid the chaos, calling out "¿necesita pala, agua?" as they offered their shoveling services to families hoping to tidy up the tangles of weeds creeping over the graves.
In the fourth class section of the cemetery, among the tessellated sprawl of wrought-iron crosses and stone slabs, mariachis plucked out tunes and families hugged. By the grave of a salsa singer, a man replaced batteries in a tired boom box.
These intimate, personal ceremonies overlapped with boisterous public celebrations. The female icons of Santa Muerte--Saint Death--were paraded through the streets of Puebla in open veneration of a cult that has traditionally remained on the fringes of official Mexican Catholicism and connected to poverty and crime. Elsewhere, oversized skeleton puppets danced in plazas and festive crowds gathered around colorful altars and bought black and white balloons with images of cartoon skulls.
Not all the public altars were whimsical tributes to national heroes, however. Some were reminders of true grief, such as the horrific fire at a nursery school in Sonora. In the end, the perfusion of death in Mexican popular culture is more than a touristic curiosity or academic fascination, it is a reflection of a society that has lived far too many tragedies and where embracing death is easier than trying to push it away.