November 2nd is Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, which is mostly celebrated in Mexico. There are similar celebrations in Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala, even the Philippines (due to the Spanish governance & Catholic traditions). Ancient Mesoamericans dedicated celebrations to deceased loved ones because they believed that death was just a part of life, not that it ended life. It falls on All Saints’ Day, which is commemorated in the Catholic church.
Celebrations vary from region to region in Mexico. Some choose to build an alter or shrine with an ofrenda, or offering including foods, flowers, and candles, in their homes or take it to the cemetery. Sugar skulls are meant to remind us that life is a cycle, instead of scaring us. Orange marigolds can be seen in the ofrendas too, which are believed to guide the spirits to their families’ homes. Calaveras (skeletons) are dressed up whimsically; artist José Guadalupe Posada made the skeletons cartoons to represent that we’re all equal in fate.
I find death fascinating and love to talk about it openly. Many people in Western cultures don’t, probably because death is seen as scary and morbid. However, I think that the way Mexicans see it (and maybe even Latinos in general) is something more positive. We know it’s going to happen, so why be scared of it? In my family, we’ve always talked about the dead in reminiscing about their history or quirks, and usually it’s my parents making fun of someone’s interesting encounters.
(image by Didi via Etsy)
The first death that I experienced in my immediate family was the passing of my godfather, César, last year. He was my father’s best friend and was always at my house. I’d listen in on their long, philosophical conversations after dinner and think to myself that I’d want to be that smart when I grew up. He struggled with bone marrow cancer, and decided to donate his body for cancer research at the University of Michigan. How thoughtful is that?? He was just that amazing. It’s hard to write about it now, because I wasn’t there when he passed and since there’s no physical grave, I kind of feel like he isn’t really dead but just went away for a while. My parents have always emphasized that one shouldn’t suffer in life, that it’s better to pass peacefully or of old age. Suffering from a terminal illness is just a whole other ball game.
César left us his library of books and CDs, which now explains why he was so damn smart. And I’ve learned a lot about his life in conversations with my mom, things I never would’ve known otherwise. There is still so much to learn about a person even though they’re gone. I know now that he had a thing for Shakespeare, because he has his complete collection. He was interested in Kafka, European history, and metaphysics. Maybe it’s my own way of dealing with this thing we call grief, but I think us Mexicans have got this whole ‘death shouldn’t be a taboo’ thing right.
Día de los Muertos would be wonderful to celebrate one day in Mexico, but for the meantime, I’ll honor my loved ones and my ancestors by living life to the fullest, because it’s beautiful and colorful, maybe even so in the afterlife…