Ever since I came to live in the United States, 20 years ago, our family celebrates Día de Muertos on November 2nd. We also celebrate Halloween on October 31. By now it is somewhat obvious for our children to think of both our Ofrenda and our Halloween decorations as the spirit of the season. There is no ranking in importance or cultural value: putting out the papel picado and the sugar skulls or carving pumpkins while decorating the garden with tombstones and spider webs is what we do this time of the year. We have roamed the streets of our town knocking at doors asking for candy AND we also write Calaveritas, the verses Mexicans composed for each other which always end with the Flaca, the Catrina, the Huesuda (death is female), taking all of us away to our deaths.
The Day of the Dead in Mexico has been transformed over the past decades into a celebration that is anything but perplexing. When the NAFTA agreement was signed, more than a quarter of a century ago, one of the greatest fears voiced by many scholars and pundits was that American culture would be so overwhelming that Halloween would come to replace the Día de Muertos. What has happened is rather unexpected. From kids walking disguised or face painted in Mexico City; to the multitudinous parade inspired by James Bond´s Spectre (I am told it is now the larger parade in the City), to the altars decorated with Zempazúchitl in every public place, museum and store in almost any town in Mexico. And the adoption of ofrendas in LA and beyond. I believe even the White House now has its Altar de Muertos this year.
When I was a teenager, among my leftist friends in Mexico City, we bemoaned the cultural imperialism of Halloween making inroads into our culture and traditions. Today kids in Mexico City ask for their “little pumpkin”, ¿No me da mi calaverita?, in a fusion of cultural traditions where sweets are expected in any form, as sugar skulls or candy corn — or just a few coins. Octavio Paz noted decades ago a distinctive Mexican combination of disdain for death, mockery and feasting that is made in this day of remembrance. But I doubt he would ever have imagined the kind of celebration that Día de Muertos has become.
It is still distinctive and authentic with its motivation to remember and invite our dead dear ones back into our homes and our hearts. U.S. Americans can probably learn that part. But the parades, children roaming on the streets and the open homes, that is distinctly Mexican, and will probably remain so.
Before the pandemic, I was fortunate to participate in a truly authentic Día de Muertos in Xochimilco and San Gregorio, together with my sister and local guides who proudly explained what remained traditional and what was the new. In Xochimilco children ask for their calaverita singing in front of their neighbors´ doors. They start with a prayer, to be very precise, “Our Father”, which is immediately followed by a rhyme that begs the owner to open his or her door to the visitors. The rhyme is a combination of children verses with references to the hugely popular characters created by comedian Chespirito, in the 1970s (with references to the Chavo del Ocho and the Chilindrina any Latin American will recognize).
Ahí viene la Chilindrina,
a pedir su mandarina
Ya llego el Chavo del Ocho,
a pedir su bizcocho
Ya llego Pancho Pantera,
a pedir la calavera.
Ya llego Jorge Negrete,
a pedir su mollete.
Ya llegaron los abuelitos,
a pedir sus tamalitos
Con los huesos de mi abuela
voy hacer una escalera
Y subir a la azotea
y gritar: la CALAVERA
Families in Mexico never fail to do what they have always done: visiting the family graves and their relatives in the cementery, preparing their favorite foods, bringing music and children to greet them. The wake usually lasts all night. In a short trip I took two years I drove around some remote towns, around Tetela del Volcán and Hueyapán, that although just 50 kilometers from Mexico City, seemed to be centuries away. These towns are regarded as cultural treasures, an UNESCO World Heritage site of the earliest 16th. century monasteries on the slopes of Popocatépetl.
I was amazed to see that every single house had paths made of Zempazúchitl petals, to lead the loved dead ones from the street into the inner sanctum of the home. Every family was bringing flowers to their family tomb in the graveyard. And although there was a festive mood like in Mexico City, it was somewhat more solemn and subdued. There are fireworks, to be sure, dancing and music. It is a feast. But such a unique one, blending religious devotion, popular culture, the traditional and the new.
Hopefully we are approaching the beginning of the aftermath of the most dramatic pandemic we will witness in our lifetimes. There has been so much irremediable loss. Preventable deaths of grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, aunts, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and sometimes even children. I imagine the pain of the survivors going to the graveyards today. But I also imagine that with attitude that Mexicans bring to the cycle of life, this can bring some much needed solace and comfort.
Post Script. Our beloved aunt, Remedios, died this morning. She was born on May 1st, worked joyfully all her life, and it is quite fitting that she passed away today. My children love her dearly. Our Altar de Muertos this year was disrupted by trips, Beatriz, my wife had to take to Mexico these weeks, seeking to comfort and aid her in the hospital. So this year we actually have a diminished ofrenda, just a few flowers of cempazúchitl, papel picado, one amaranth and one sugar skull. And as a fallout of the pandemic, our Halloween decorations were ruined, gnawed by rats in our storage, so we had to throw away items collected over twenty years, all of them. So we had little Halloween paraphernalia this year, no pumpkin carving, no tombstones in the front yard, and most of all, I miss a huge Grumpy that Reme got for my daughter in a trip to Disneyland, that we used to dress up as a witch in our Halloween decorations. Broom, pointed hat and all. It comforts me, somehow, to now look among our old photographs for a picture of her, adding Reme to our modest altar.