These are news stories breaking after the publishing of this Word
Celebrating the Dead
Day of the Dead: Your New American
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.