Sitting among the spirits on the evening of November 1st, I watched people take photographs of and with beautifully decorated graves on the island of Janitzio. Though I didn’t know the words, I listened to a mixture of Spanish and one of the four Aztec languages surrounding the lake (as unrelated to each other as the many languages of Guatemala, as unrelated as any of the hundreds of languages of North America), as two women spoke next to me. The words danced together, sometimes bubbling and warm, sometimes deeper, like an ancient chant. All words hold power. At the moment, I felt like I was listening to existence being created and recreated with every syllable.
I sipped a hot apple/cinnamon/hibiscus drink, called ponche, from a ceramic mug, and poured some on the ground for the spirits to drink the essence. We had talked with a man who lived on the island and owned a restaurant. His wife cooked delicious food, and ponche. He said he loves when people come to appreciate the culture of the area. People dress in traditional colorful garments all year, hand stitched with images of flores and mariposa. I’m wearing one as I write this. It has a red flower in the center that looks like a heart. I watched women in long dresses walk through the graveyard. My mind might have been primed, but it felt as if they were protecting the space.
The man from the restaurant had said that, as the night wears on, visitors tend to loosen their concept of respect in the name of alcohol. Decorations on the graves get knocked over. Objects wander off that should stay put. He attributes it to money, for money makes people think they are immune to things. It makes me sad. Money is useful for many things, but I tend to lean toward his way of thinking. Maybe it’s just the election in the states right now that is swaying my thinking. Maybe it’s a social experiment I heard about. At the same time, I know plenty of people with money who will drop anything and share everything. I know people who drink and laugh, and people who drink and break things, and people who do both. The point is, everything everywhere gets complicated and there are so many perspectives that I don’t think only one thing about anything.
Overall, I like to focus on the beauty, because that’s what I want to see, and that’s what I want to increase. Not ignoring the difficult stuff, but putting energy toward what I want to see more of makes more of that stuff.
And there were women who were protecting the space. Maybe they were visiting. Maybe both. In my mind, initially, entering the graveyard would bring everyone to a solemn state. People talked and laughed and took pictures. People sold churros. I thought of how I would feel if I put beautiful flowers – cempaxóchitl/flor de muerto/marigolds – and candles on the graves of my loved ones who have passed on, and people came to take pictures. I think I would be honored, especially if the people left some thoughts of gratitude, life, death, the in-betweens. I thought back to every time I visited Nonnie and Poppie. I’ve only visited their graves with other family. We always laughed. We always cried. We always told stories. We always hugged. I love hugs.
One thing that everyone on the island had in common – whether they were partying, feasting, buying, sitting, walking, trick or treating – was that each and every one knew death existed. And we all celebrated life in our various ways.
I sit here in Dos Veintidos cafe in Pátzcuaro, Mexico, waiting for the rain to let up, enjoying desayunos, smiling at the fact that sometimes I tell people I’m learning Spanish breakfast, rather than learning Spanish slowly (desayunos vs despacio) – while being grateful for everyone’s patience. Dia de los muertos has held my heart since I was young and watched The Halloween Tree for the first time, a cartoon that explores how various cultures honor death.. and the one part about witchcraft, which meant knowledge before it meant magic (and what really is the difference?). Finally, I have the opportunity to experience this sacred time of year with people and in an area rich in tradition. Below is some valuable information that was shared by Grace Alveraz Sesma. I encourage you explore further as well by clicking on her name.
DIA DE MUERTOS, HONORING OUR ANCESTORS, CELEBRATING THEIR LIVES
(2003, UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity)
“The reverent observance of Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead, which is about 3,000 years old, is seen throughout Mexico, and increasingly also by people of other ethnicities and backgrounds who lacking a ritual of their own to honor their loved ones who have walked on before them, have found a heart-home where they can honor their ancestors and other loved ones during Dia de Muertos, one of the most important of holy days for Mexican people.
Loving our ancestors the way we do, we are happy to share our beautiful rituals with persons who approach these special days with reverence, lightness of spirit, and an understanding that Dia de Muertos is not Halloween, but rather a sacred remembering… a sacred witnessing of the joys and sorrows of our ancestors, and a celebration of the strength of spirit of their descendants to preserve the soul of this sacred pre-contact tradition that has it roots in the indigenous nations of Mexico. This is how we celebrate our bone-deep understanding and acceptance that death and life are cyclical…. That life is ephemeral and continues in another form after death. And that it possible for those who have died to return to spend some time with us and celebrate life through our loving ofrendas (offerings).
Before Spaniards invaded Mexico in 1519, these high holy days took place in what today are the months of July and August. The festivities were dedicated to Mictecacihuatl known as the Lady of the Land of the Dead. That is one significant difference, among many, between Dia de Muertos in Mexico, and Halloween. Today, many Mexihca groups in Mexico and the United States celebrate Dia de Muertos during the months of July and August with traditional Native Mexican ceremonies, altar making, and dance over a period of several days.
As a result of colonization, for most people, Dia de Muertos now takes place on November 1 and 2, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Typically, November 1 honors the memory of children and infants and is known as Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) and as Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). In some areas, white candles are placed on the altar in their honor on October 31st. November 2nd honors adults and is known as Día de Muertos and Día de los Santos Difuntos (Day of the Holy Dead). Forced conversion of Native Mexican people by the Catholic Church, and appropriation and changes to our religious customs to conform to European beliefs is why today we see some similarities in the observance of All Souls Days and Dia de Muertos, and between the cultures of countries colonized by Spain — which is why we now also share a common language, Spanish.
Dia de Muertos is when we gather to pray for and invite the spirit of friends and family members who have died to come and enjoy some time with us, within whose hearts they yet live. We build altars to their memory at home and in public places. Some altares are simple and some are elaborate. Some people hold all night vigils at the cemetery where their loved ones are buried, taking time to lovingly clean headstones, place candles and bouquets of cempaxochitl (marigolds) on graves, toys (for infants and children), pan de muerto, tamales, drinks, and incense burners filled with copal. It is not uncommon to see entire families take lawn chairs to the cemetery and sit for hours recounting favorite anecdotes and memories of special days, and hire a small norteño or mariachi group to play the favorite songs that our beloveds enjoyed when alive. It is both a sad and joyful time.
As I invite you to honor your own ancestors in your own way or tradition, I also ask that if you decide to celebrate Dia de Muertos that you please keep in mind that this is a religious, spiritual, and culture-specific observance and should be approached with respect. I realize that there are other countries who observe what appears on the surface to be similar customs, but those do not have their origins in pre-invasion Mexico, nor the same rituals, elements, and meaning of items that are used in ceremonies. One example is the symbolism of using hummingbirds and butterflies in DDM decorations, which often refer to our belief that they are the souls of our ancestors and family members making themselves known to us. I am referring in this post only to Dia de Muertos of Mexico. Ritual elements taken outside of that and used in a winter solstice celebration for example, or other non- Dia De Muerto observance, could be considered disrespectful or offensive to members of Mexican/Chicano/Native communities, and in some cases, cultural appropriation when done by someone without a foundation who is not a member of the original community. Cultural appropriation is commonly defined as taking one or more elements of a religious or cultural ritual and using it in a different context from which it was intended. I offer this advice in the spirit of mutual respect and to help you celebrate with us with a good heart and a good mind.
In the coming days I will be posting photographs, videos, and articles on Dia de los Muertos and hope that what I share helps you celebrate the life of your loved ones while at the same time honoring this important tradition, which is the religious and cultural legacy of the ancestors of Mayan, Zapotec, Nahua, and other Native peoples of Mexico.”
— Maestra Grace Alvarez Sesma, Curanderismo, the Healing Art of Mexico
More on Dia de Muertos….
Facts and Misconceptions About Mexican Día de Muertos. (it is not Halloween)
“Día de los Muertos, or Día de Muertos, as it’s more commonly known in Mexico, is an Indigenous Mexican holiday that traces its origins to two 20-day festivals that were once a part of the Mexica (Aztec) ceremonial calendar. The first, Miccailhuitontli, which means Feast to the Revered Deceased, is believed to have been celebrated between present day July 12 and July 31. It honored deceased children. The second 20-day festival, Huey Miccailhuitontli, or Feast to the Greatly Revered Deceased, was likely celebrated from present day August 1 to August 20. This festival honored deceased adults. In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed Mexico’s “Indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead” as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” — http://thinkmexican.tumblr.com/…/facts-and-misconceptions-a…
Pan de Muerto recipe from, Mexico The Cookbook by Margarita Carrillo Arronte: http://www.sweetpaulmag.com/…/pan-de-muerto-from-mexico-the…
Dia de Muertos events and supplies: http://mexicansugarskull.com/support/about.html
“I think that it’s important to support local Mexican bakers, artisans and craftspeople who make the Dia de Muerto sugar skulls, alebrijes, and the many other popular Dia de Muertos decorations. When purchasing supplies online I prefer to do so from companies that support Mexican/Mexican-Native artists. This was one of the motivating factors behind my 2013 petition protesting the Dia de Muertos trademark efforts by the Disney Corporation: it filed 10 applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for “Dia de los Muertos,” that included applications pertaining to toys, cereals and jewelry. Had their trademark application been successful, it could have negatively impacted the livelihood of thousands of Mexican artisans, chefs, and other “mom and pop” cottage industries.” —Grace Sesma, http://articles.latimes.com/…/la-et-ct-disney-dia-de-los-mu…)
¡Viva Nuestros Fieles Difuntos!
Art: Lady of Duality by Rick Ortega, Painted Word Productions