Published On: Sat, Nov 1st, 2014

Mexico on the Day of the Dead: “A Mexican stand-off for Romeo and Juliet”

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Bee Rowlatt is a British writer and journalist. Her best-selling work “Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad ” has been dramatised and translated into numerous languages. She came to Mexico on a mission during “The Day of the Dead”, this is what has to say about it:

How’s this for a challenge: go to the Mexican town of Xalapa and get to work with local university students excited about Shakespeare.

This was the deal when the British Council invited me to talk at the Hay and Cervantino festivals in Mexico. Luckily, I’m very confident about Shakespeare’s ability to travel through time and space. But will my students feel the same way?

In they come, a stream of Xalapeño youngsters in Converse, playing with their phones and eyeing me with not much interest. Suddenly, Shakespeare feels dusty in front of this New World crowd. But it’s OK. Stand back everyone: I’m packing Romeo and Juliet.

Bee Rowlatt

Bee Rowlatt

I chose the play because teenagers love it, crammed as it is with gorgeous young lives being ruined by old people’s stupidity. It’s crammed with death, too. And Mexicans are renowned for celebrating that, so I reckoned I’d backed a winner. What I didn’t anticipate was that this text would have a shocking contemporary resonance for my students; that we’d bring the Bard right into the middle of a burgeoning local death cult.

Almost every time Juliet speaks, she fetishises the “power to die”. She even dies twice: once fake, once penetrated by the “happy dagger”. She seems to want to marry, even have sex with, death: “Death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!” There is, of course, the Elizabethan double meaning of death as orgasm, but even so she always takes it a bit too far; “my grave is like to be my wedding bed”. And so we ended up in the realm of worshipping and eroticising one’s own demise, and things took a turn for the weird.

A vendor displays colorful painted skulls for the Day of the Dead festival at the Sunday market in Tlacolula de Matamoros, Mexico. (Photo: Richard Ellis / Alamy)

A vendor displays colorful painted skulls for the Day of the Dead festival at the Sunday market in Tlacolula de Matamoros, Mexico. (Photo: Richard Ellis / Alamy)

“Worshipping death,” said one student, “it’s like la Santa Muerte!” Anyone who watched the US television series Breaking Bad will recall her being venerated by drug-dealing psychopaths, crawling on their knees as they supplicate a skeleton dressed up in a lacy wedding dress for revenge.

La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, is a cult figurehead; a badass spin-off of a Catholic icon. This country has experience when it comes to taking established religious icons and giving them a Mex-over. But Saint Death has been rejected by the Vatican as “blasphemous”, not least because of her association with Mexico’s narco-culture.

Original story written for the Telegraph by Bee Rowlatt



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