When we think of Day of the Dead, it’s typically parades of catrinas, candy skulls, and altars adorned with flowers and photographs, that come to mind. It’s people gathering at cemeteries, streets lined with papel picado, and the aroma of freshly baked pan de muerto. Little doubt that these exist in this most unique of Mexican celebrations, being beautiful, often sacred aspects of this annual festival, but they also happen to be just some of a vast array of imagery which can vary from north to south, city to village, even often neighbor to neighbor.
The sheer variety in functionality, symbolism, and meaning is a key point often left out of the narrative of the Day of the Dead. And that’s no surprise; it’s not something that can be neatly packaged into an advertisement or a Hollywood movie.
Evolving over centuries, across a country as vast as Mexico, which has everything from arid deserts to tropical jungles, from mangrove swamps to the third highest mountain in North America, the Day of the Dead was bound to be anything but a uniform experience.
Wherever you look, in fact, you’ll notice regional idiosyncrasies: In Guerrero, the Nahua people dance with their deceased in the ‘dance of the devils’, which has its own fascinating afro-Mexican heritage; in Michoacán, you’ll find a spectacular candle-lit vigil of boats making their way across the Pátzcuaro lake; and here on the Yucatan peninsula, you may already be familiar with the town of Pomuch, where it’s custom for families to clean the bones of their dead every year.
Just as rites and rituals vary, so does the meaning they hold. For some, the Day of the Dead is a time of deep reflection and religious devotion. For others, it’s about spending time with family, sharing memories and food, and having a big party. “Some families, after they’ve set up their altars, invite other families round to have a ceremony, to sing religious songs and pray. But we don’t do any of that, just come and eat and that’s it!” observes Crystal Gutierrez, whose family has their own unique set of Day of the Dead traditions.
Even the same object can take on very different appearances and symbolisms. The emblematic altar for instance: “Supposedly, altars have three levels to represent the underworld, the earth and the heavens,” explains Gutierrez, “but we don’t see it that way. For us, the three levels are just a nice decoration. In my family we put a cross, we don’t put images of the saints, or of the Virgin Mary. It’s cross without a Jesus Christ, and it is a green cross. The color is important to us because it doesn’t represent anything religious. It represents nature and life, and reminds us that since ancient times, since the Mayans, these ceremonies existed.”
For some Mexicans, the Day of the Dead embodies a syncretism of pre-columbine cultures and Catholicism and is thus an ode to the so-called ‘mestizaje’ often said to have forged Mexico’s unique contemporary identity. Meanwhile, for the Mayans who celebrate Hanal Pixán during this time, a tradition that predates the arrival of the Spanish and continues to honor a distinctly Mayan cosmological view, it is a proud rejection of that colonialism.
Pedro Uc Be, prominent Mayan poet and activist, explains the much greater significance of the festival: “For us, death is not an end but a finality, because we return to the earth; and when we return to the earth our body becomes plants, flowers, corn, it becomes colors, and our breath becomes the wind and the wind becomes energy, the wind becomes hope, the wind becomes life.” In other words, there is no death, only cycles of life. “For those of us who are still here in the flesh, we have a time of the year, a few days, in which we live with our ancestors, with our creators, our fathers, and mothers. This is Hanal Pixán,” Uc Be continues, “and perhaps for tourism it is just a day, but really our so-called ‘dead’ come to eat with us every day, since they are not subject to the time and space that we are subject to. That’s precisely why we say it’s not just a day, nor is it only for the dead.”
Unsurprisingly, a tradition as multi-faceted and fascinating as the Day of the Dead is also a tradition that finds itself in the throes of the same forces of globalization, consumerism and gentrification that are causing mass extinctions of cultural diversity across the globe. Of course, it’s the colorful commercialized version that many enjoy and has helped acquaint people all over the world with this beautiful aspect of Mexican culture. And whilst that’s certainly something to be celebrated, it’s also important to remember that Day of the Dead is so much more than that: it’s the bustling markets and festivities on the streets, and it’s the quiet, intimate moments too; it’s family and community coming together; it’s food and song and prayer; it’s a day or it’s a lifetime; and it’s history and identity and resistance.
So, this Day of the Dead, this Hanal Pixán, let’s make sure to embrace the rich diversity that exists here on the peninsula, and indeed the country, during this cherished season.
After all, the Day of the Dead is not one day, it is many.
For Times Media Mexico, Hannah McMichael in Campeche