Day of the Dead, Mexico

I ended up in Mexico during the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, more or less as the by-product of some literary tourism, sparked by a longstanding appreciation for the novel Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, which is set in the city of Cuernavaca, on the Day of the Dead in 1938.  Cuernavaca is about an hour south of Mexico City by bus.  Fairly quickly upon arriving, I abandoned the idea of following a strict itinerary or chronology, retracing the events depicted in the book, in favour of maintaining a steady intake of mescal and immersing myself in this peculiarly Mexican festivity, about which I knew practically nothing.  The mescal was meant to keep me close to the spirit of the book, whereas ignoring the actual events and timeline of its narrative seemed to me a reasonable surrender to both the spirit of the place and this most unusual “day” which was about to swallow me up.  I felt this method could possibly guide me more meaningfully towards the centre of the book than if I just walked where the Consul walked and saw what he saw.  Drinking what he drank and then wandering more or less blindly would have to suffice.  With luck, I wouldn’t end up like he did at the end of his Day of the Dead, in 1938.

To begin with, the Day of the Dead is not just a single day, which threw my plans a little.  The contrast with the average North American holiday, in which everyone acts cute for a day and then goes back to work, couldn’t be greater.  The Day of the Dead is far more beautiful and primal and complex than any comparable group experience I’ve ever seen.  To begin with, its significance has not been tarted up for the purpose of selling greeting cards or goosing the economy (cf. Christmas).  Its continued existence remains an expression of the feeling of a people, rather than a duty imposed from above.  It can last for a week depending on where you are in Mexico, culminating over the first two days of November.  Its penultimate day coincides with All Souls’ Day, a Catholic celebration, but its origins lie in an Aztec festival which once took place during summer.  What we have now in Mexico is decidedly a mix of pagan and orthodox, with some unusual additions, such as the appearance of a woman named Catrina, a sunhat and gown-wearing skeleton lady who looks like she’s either throwing or attending a garden party.  Also unique is the laying out of ofrendas, or offerings, in which a sort of altar-like arrangement of mementos is placed in a spot significant to the departed, sometimes including a replica of the person represented by an empty suit of their clothes, or perhaps a significant object, along with a photo, some bread, candles, marigolds and incense.  If the person played music, for example, there might be a guitar.  I saw an ofrenda at the Jardín Borda in Cuernavaca for Malcolm Lowry, which featured a couple of bottles of mescal on either side of his photograph, one of which was called Mezcal del Consul.

During the week leading up to the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, there were many ofrendas on display, often in public institutions, such as the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where a large mirror-ball skull sat in the middle of the lobby.  I had forgotten that Damien Hirst took the idea for his jewel-encrusted skull from a trip he made to Mexico.  At the magnificent post office on Tacuba, glass-topped coffins displayed the preserved corpses of children who had been dead for decades.  The fact that this wasn’t immediately creepy or shocking in this context is testament to the festival’s power and authenticity.  All over Mexico City, however, I was seeing it mixed with a decidedly Halloween-ish vibe, an indication that the cosmopolitan dwellers of upscale neighbourhoods like Condesa had less time for the serious nature of the Day of the Dead.  I would not discover how much more serious it could be until I spent the day at the La Leona cemetery in Cuernavaca many days later.  Until then, the Day of the Dead had an air of kitsch about it, with its sugar skulls and funny little displays of skeletons wearing suits or smoking cigarettes.

As interesting as the buildup to the Day of the Dead was, I got the impression that in order to get a fuller experience of it, I would have to head to a small town to really take its measure.  I was lucky to discover, after a full day of observing events and displays at the Zócalo and Jardín Borda in Cuernavaca, that I was near enough to a town called Ocotepec, about 40 minutes to the northeast of Cuernavaca, which was renowned for taking the Day of the Dead very seriously indeed.  So I made my way there just before sundown, at which time the entire town appeared to pour into the main street and all the quiet little residential streets leading to the doors of people’s homes.  Households that have lost a loved one during the previous year have constructed a homemade archway in front of their door, declaring over the top, “Welcome home, X,” the X standing for the name of the loved one.  For example, “Bienvenida a tu casa, Mamá,” or “Jonathan” or whoever.  On the ground leading up to these archways is a pathway of orange marigolds, which provide the vivid and ubiquitous colour for this festivity.  This bright orange pathway, lit by candles, is there to guide the loved one’s soul to the front entrance of their former home for one more evening among friends.  And the friends are already there taking their turn offering either bread or candles in exchange for a tamale or perhaps a drink, with many more people lined up out front of the house and into the street.

Ocotepec’s Day of the Dead was a lively mix of children running around, dogs barking at fireworks exploding in the air, and the agreeable throng milling around the main street or sitting in the church courtyard watching projections of home movies featuring recently deceased family members on a screen in the open air.  I ended up leaving at around midnight.  Many of the residents of the town would stay out all night, until the next morning when the next and final phase of the Day of the Dead would kick into gear: the visiting of cemeteries, for the purpose of a little housecleaning around the grave and in some cases a bit of light maintenance, like repainting, as well as socializing among family members, eating and entertaining.

As early as I could the morning after the night spent in Ocotepec, I headed to the Panteón La Leona, across a bridge from Cuernavaca’s Centro district.  In crossing the bridge, I looked down into a very wide and deep barranca, a verdant ravine full of ramshackle homes.  On the other side of the bridge, doorways in what otherwise looked like a normal building facade opened on to an array of staircases leading down to the ravine and what amounted to a second, almost underground city.  Kids played soccer in the courtyards at the top of those staircases, glimpsed by me through carelessly open doorways facing onto the street which, if they had been shut, in the same way that the swimming pools of the wealthy in Cuernavaca are hidden behind high walls, would have kept this world invisible to me.  Annual festivities at their best can produce a Brigadoon-like effect, revealing a place within a place or the wellspring of a town which surfaces temporarily and then disappears, returning the residents to their normal lives, only catching a glimpse of their real selves.  The graveyard would, the next day, be silent again.

In the morning of the homestretch, everyone arrives at the cemetery for a riotous celebration, mostly joy shot through with the occasional expression of sadness and adorned with the omnipresent blazing orange marigolds and smell of incense, the smoke of which was everywhere.  What struck me most about spending the day at La Leona was how joyful it all was.  Everyone together in a cemetery, playing music, eating, children running around.  People did not even seem to resent the gringo observer snapping photos during what were probably private moments, but in fact appeared to be quite welcoming and mutually curious.  The power of the Day of the Dead lies in the fact that it’s taken seriously, but not solemnly.  Albert Camus noted (literally, in a footnote to his essay “Love of Life” about travelling in Spain), “There is a certain freedom of enjoyment that defines true civilization.  The Spanish are among the few peoples in Europe who are civilized.”  I would not suggest that the Mexican attitude towards death is more grown-up or enlightened than ours.  But I would say that the freedom of enjoyment extends in all directions, encompassing all of life and death.

The default attitude to death in North America is to simply not refer to it at all, for fear of appearing morbid.  Funerals are occasions for intense grief and nothing else.  And yet death is never a terminal condition, and never unburdened by transitional metaphors.  Our dead pass on, they check out, they’re in a better place, etc.  Thornton Wilder was once asked by Montgomery Clift, “Is there a God?”  Wilder responded thoughtfully to the young man, via a letter which Clift treasured:  “There is a bridge between life and death which you can call ‘God’ and the only thing we know is that that bridge is traversed by our love of those who die and go on to another world.  As long as we remember them, and as long as we love them, they’re alive.”*  These are two major artists, and Wilder’s attempt to make a harsh reality palatable to the young Clift and satisfy his yearning for something greater than the mere here and now has the appearance of a parent soothing a frightened child.

The Day of the Dead in Mexico has a phantasmagorical quality about it, almost a cartoonish aspect at times.  But one thing you cannot say about it is that the average person, not even the average child, is trying to look away from or soften the categorical nature of death.  There is no confusion that the people who are being celebrated, specifically loved ones that have died during the past year but more generally all of the dead, are living somewhere else or making some kind of journey.  They are dead, almost as gone now as during the eternity before their birth.  The ability to accept the definitive nature of death, to look it in the face, acknowledge its inevitability for each of us, and moreover to use the occasion to declare a solidarity between the living and the dead, is part of the remarkably expansive character of a culture that is secure in its own temporality.

Trudging home after the hours spent at La Leona, I eagerly wanted to eat and then sleep, possibly forever.  I walked past several taquerias and cantinas, trusting that the right place would present itself to me.  A pozoleria whose fluorescent bulbs cast a green light across its front finally beckoned to me.  A pozole is essentially a corn soup, using the same part of the corn that Southerners refer to as hominy.  The proprietor of the place was a man called Rafaelo, who asked me in English if the soup was to my liking.  It was delicious.  After a long conversation on a wide range of subjects, during which the sun slowly set, I asked Rafaelo how he came to speak English so well.  “Celine Dion,” he replied.  He had spent years listening to and transcribing her lyrics, learning an entire language mainly through her songs.  I will not hear or see this woman again without thinking of Rafaelo, diligently learning the English language by this arduous method.

An explosive noise boomed from the road, and startled me.  Rafaelo knew what was going on and we wandered on to the balcony to watch a convoy of loud motorcycles accompanying a convertible car in which were seated a man and woman who waved to children and bystanders on the side of the road.  She was wearing devil horns and they had clearly been nominated the “king and queen” of this tail end of the Day of the Dead.  “They’re going to a party,” Rafaelo said.  He shook his head as if to regret that he couldn’t go with them.  As eager as I was to sleep after these intense days, I paid my respects to Rafaelo, wandered off, and wanted nothing more than to go to that party, too.

*Quoted from a DVD extra for the film I Confess.

Photo gallery of Cuernavaca:

Photo gallery of Ocotepec:


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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965