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Celebrating the Dead


Day of the Dead: Your New American Holiday
Daniel Hernandez

Day of the Dead is increasingly becoming a United States holiday, with people of all backgrounds in Mexicanizing U.S. cities adopting the parties and customs of Mesoamerica’s cousin to Halloween. Just check out the scene at Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles. In Mexico, the regalia associated with November 1 and 2 — candied skulls, brilliant orange marigolds, pan de muerto — are seen practically on every block right now. Although, in true binational post-NAFTA fashion, Day of the Dead in Mexico is also lately having to compete with jack-o-laterns and witches on broomsticks.

Cemeteries across Mexico light up at night for Day of the Dead, the traditional image travelers through Mexico associate with the holiday. But there is also a rising trend of universities, businesses, and government and private institutions organizing altar competitions among their members and employees, in the spirit of “preserving traditions.” Today I got a chance to check one out, at the Mexico City metro workers union. More than 20 different sections of the union were represented by altars, in turn representing the altar customs of a specific town or city somewhere in Mexico. The panel of judges was composed of specialists from the national anthropology and history institute. A top cash prize of $15,000 pesos — or about $1,200 dollars — was at stake.

The ofrendas were set up at a union building above Juanacatlan station. Each section made their altar a meal-plate in addition to an homage to their dead: tamales, mole, and other dishes were offered, served, and eaten off their spreads of cempasúchitl petals, candles, and photographs. Sipping mezcal was also served.

Listening to the workers describe to the judges the symbolic gestures at work on their altars, I was reminded that the ofrendas of Día de los Muertos are incredibly complex mediations between the world of the living and the greater unknown. They fuse pre-Hispanic traditions with Spanish Catholic practices, and use the power of the dearly departed to convey the Mexican belief that only by keeping death close can we live life to the fullest.

One altar today made good use of the context. It depicted the surface sign for Pino Suarez station, complete with the small wind-god pyramid below that was discovered during the station’s construction. The offering was dedicated to “compañeros who have died while on their duties and to commuters struck by trains.” Strong imagery — metro tracks are good quick means of suicide.

Have a happy Día de los Muertos, U.S.A. Make it yours. After all, the Mesoamericans among you are not just absorbing ‘American’ culture, they’re slowly redefining it, and always welcoming new participants.
 

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