Come November 1st, people in Mexico prepare to entertain their dead ancestors. El Día de los Muertos, or, the Day of the Dead, has arrived. Home altars are set up; special foods are left out for the dearly departed; and people get ready to party with grandpa, even though he is no longer around. Why not? If you’d been moldering away in a grave for twenty years— or even a day as far as that goes, wouldn’t you be ready for a little fun, a bottle of tequila, and a six-pack of cerveza?
From a more serious perspective, the Day of the Dead allows people to get together and remember friends and family who have passed on. The tradition dates back to the ancient times of the Aztecs. More recently, the Catholic Church adopted it, as it often has with indigenous beliefs, to expand the flock and keep them faithful. The government, in hopes of promoting national unity, declared the day a national holiday.
Not far behind the church and the state, Mexican businesses quickly figured out that El Día de los Muertos was a cash cow waiting to be milked. Almost any market you enter in Puerto Vallarta offers Day of the Dead items for purchase. Among the most popular are skulls.
Dealing with the spirits of the dead is worldwide. When I was a little boy growing up next to a graveyard and sleeping outside in the summer, I encouraged our three cats and two dogs to sleep on the small cot with me. They were my protection from the denizens of the dark. It didn’t matter that there was barely room for me. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, I quickly learned that the spirits of the newly dead were particularly dangerous. An all night wake, with lots of rum and much wailing, was required to send the restless spirit on his or her way. My first night in Gbarnga, I heard people screaming and beating drums without a clue about what was happening. It was a long night.
We arrived in Mexico a few days too late to rub elbows with the dead, but we ran into Catrina in a number of locations. This lovely skeleton-woman with her stylish look and clothes has come to symbolize the Day of the Dead and Mexico’s willingness to laugh at death. She started off in the early 1900s as something of a satirical comment on Mexico’s one-percenters of the time, and their desire to wear the latest and most expensive of European fashions. She served as a reminder that regardless of our social status in life, we all end up in the same condition: dead. I salute the people of Mexico for their sense of humor about the subject.
NEXT BLOG: “Want to buy some junk? Almost free.” words of a vendor as we passed his booth. The markets of Puerto Vallarta carry everything from tourist trinkets to valuable folk art.