Day of the Dead helps us shed our fears

The festival dates from pre-Hispanic times and fuses Aztec, los Indios, and Christian traditions into something new

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VANCOUVER, B.C. Nov. 8, 2015 /Troy Media/ – When my pal Scott asked whether we would like to join him in celebrating the Day of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende, my wife and I had only the remotest idea of what it entailed.

We soon learned that it meant flying non-stop from Vancouver to Mexico City, and then travelling 274 kilometres north by car to the old colonial city of San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato located in central Mexico.

Somewhere in my distant memory, I had visions of skulls and masked dancing by los Indios, probably from an old National Geographic film documentary. I scrambled to find some online references. Over the weeks preceding our flight, our friend sent us numerous articles.  A Beginning History of the Day of the Dead, by Helen Tafoya- Barraza, focused on the long history of the Los Muertos tradition in Mexico.

The festival dates from pre-Hispanic times, and as the anthropologists say, is syncretic in that it fuses and convolutes Aztec, los Indios, and Christian traditions into something new.

Today, some authors refer to “the Days of the Dead”: Oct. 31, Nov. 1, and Nov. 2 combined. Halloween (or All Hallows Eve) is followed by “el Dia de los Innocentes,” the day of the children (also All Saints Day in the Christian tradition), and finally “Dia de los Muertos,” (also All Souls Day) on Nov. 2.

With a population of 139,000, San Miguel de Allende houses about 3,000 Canadians, 14,000 Americans, and a mixture of all the nationalities that make up contemporary Mexico. There is something for everyone during Los Muertos.

Our group, comprised of three Vancouver couples, rented a classic brick and sandstone house in the old town precinct. After settling in on Oct. 29, we began exploring the markets and choosing the items to create our ofrenda, or family altar, to honour our three families’ dead. Traditionally, the altar is built on the days leading up to Nov. 1. While some are modest, many people spend small fortunes creating their family’s ofrenda.

We moved a large chest of drawers into the dining room and set a cardboard box squarely on top, creating two levels. We covered the altar with embroidered tablecloths, and added candles, sugar skulls (large and small), and food and drink for our spirit guests.

Guided by candlelight, we hoped to welcome deceased grandparents and parents, and a few departed friends. Some of our loved ones were represented by photographs placed on the altar, others by ceramic Catrina dolls, and a few by cell phone pictures. Salt, the spice of life, and favourite fruits and drinks (including bottles of beer) were also added to the mix of gifts.

By noon on Nov. 1, we headed out to view the more public aspects of Los Muertos. Families of the deceased gather in public cemeteries. They scrub grave plots clean, add pots of orange marigolds, the sacred flower of the dead, and arrange mountains of chocolate candy, sugar skulls, bottled sodas, and even plates of tomales, tortillas, tacos and salsa for the returning, and hungry, departed.

The population turns out en masse on the evening of Dia de los Muertos — Nov. 2. We walked back through thousands of gathering family members to the cemetery closest to our house. Marigold sellers, barbecoa stands, and community bars were doing a booming business. Eventually, we got to the cemetery’s main gate, guarded by two policemen. When asked if we could enter, they replied, “Manana.”

The voices of extended families, preparing to spend the night with those soon returning from the realm of the dead, filled the evening air. Many had elaborately painted faces, ranging from masks of blackened skin and whitened eyes to boldly painted skull designs.

At first, to our Vancouver eyes, it all seemed macabre. But soon we felt the enveloping spirit of family, expectation, and community all about us. It freed everyone from the fear of death.

Los Muertos, we learned, is really a celebration of love.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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