The Day of the Dead is nearly upon us. Millions in Mexico and many Mexican Americans in the United States will be observing this intriguing blend of indigenous and Catholic beliefs. I’ll be observing it in my own intimate way. It will be an opportunity for me to connect with my late sister, Consuelo.
Lots of Americans shake their heads in befuddlement. “Isn’t that kinda, well, morbid?” No, it’s not at all morbid. In fact, it is a joyful observance, marked by ritual. It is a way to celebrate life, with the recognition that death is immutably part of the cycle of life.
Strictly speaking, the observance is called Days of the Dead. Various observances take place between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2.
Traditionally, those who celebrate El Dia de los Muertos create a shrine at home that is devoted to their ancestors. Photos of parents or grandparents or – most regrettably – children who have died are part of the tableaux. In certain regions of Mexico, it is observed around the gravesite of a loved one. There are candles and there are always campo xochil flowers, marigolds. But there are many ways to observe the occasion.
You take time to reflect on your ancestors or on a loved one who left this earthly plane. I’ve spoken to many Mexicans at observances in the campo santos (cemeteries) who say they are there to “speak” with their lost loved ones.
As I explain this to non-Mexicans, I still get a quizzical look. “Yeah, but ‘Day of the Dead,’ that still sounds so ghastly.” Trust me, it isn’t.
But it comes with a frank acknowledgment that we are all going to die. I know people just won’t talk about their inevitable death. They feel, I suppose, that talking about it will bring it about – as if it can be avoided. Guess what? Nobody gets outta here alive.
Scholars remind us that Day of the Dead began thousands of years ago with homages to Mictecacihuatl and Mictlantecuhtli. They were sort of the guardians of the underworld in Mexica or “Aztec” culture. Early indigenous people viewed the world as a realm of complementary opposites: man and woman, light and dark, sun and moon, and life and death. One can’t exist without the other.
Day of the Dead is now a mixture of the indigenous and the European. I’m not religious. But I understand that respect for culture, language and ritual gives us meaning and purpose.
On the calendar, Day of the Dead coincides with the day my sister died 20 years ago. She was in hospice care at home. Days before she died we had a long talk about her life and the cancer that was ending her terrestrial life. She emphasized, “I’m not afraid.”
Consuelo gave me a big hug. And she gave me a new bottle of brandy. “Something to remember me by,” she joked and gave a feeble but earnest little laugh. I still have it. Around the time of Day of the Dead I pour a tiny shot. I light a candle and remember her. In a way, on that day she is still with me.
A few years ago I observed Day of the Dead in a huge cemetery in the Mexican city of Oaxaca. I asked one man if he actually thought he would speak to his deceased wife at the stroke of midnight. He told me: “Eso no se, pero yo se que esta noche vamos a soñar juntos.” Essentially he told me: I don’t know if we will speak to each other tonight, but I know that we will dream together tonight.
Luís Torres is an author and journalist. He teaches at Los Angeles Mission College.