Finding Día de los Muertos

I have always struggled with Halloween. As a kid of course I loved it, and I remember wearing a ‘Wonder Woman’ outfit often, however I am not sure if it was for Halloween or just a regular day. We didn’t celebrate in our house. Often I heard it was the Devil’s holiday, or “estás celebrando el diablo” (translation: you are celebrating the Devil). You would think with eternal damnation on the line I would have steered clear of dressing up, NOPE. I remember stuffing my costume little by little into my backpack and having my best friend hold on to it for me, then on Halloween morning she took it to school for me and I changed in the bathroom (sorry mom). Yup, even the fear of eternal flames could not stop my creative side from wanting to burst out and have fun like everyone else. The rest of my school years would be filled with lots of special ops plans as to how to sneak a costume in and out of my mom’s house.

Fast forward to my college years. The fear of  “celebrando el diablo” ALWAYS stayed with me, and I began to search for my own answers. Was I REALLY celebrating the Devil? Was I going to burn for all eternity? Surely, there has to be a forgiveness clause, and if so, then I need to find it.

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Samhain

My search began in one of my humanities classes, there we were able to have discussions and open up the conversation to explore other viewpoints, besides just telling me I was going to burn in hell. I then took my search out of the classroom and into the internet, in those days dial-up was SLOW, so I hope you appreciate the hours I spent researching. Today you just Google “Samhain” and tons of info will pop up, but back in the day I had to really dig to find stories and online articles. To try and put this in a short version, I traced the origins as far back as I could, and that is how I arrived at a festival of Samhain. The ancient Celtic Druids believed that the day with the shortest amount daylight, (winter solstice, autumn equinox) signaled the opening between the world of the living and the hereafter, so on this day their loved ones souls would finally be able to cross over to their eternal resting place. In this time where darkness was longer and daylight seemed to disappear, the ancient people believed that just as their loved ones were able to cross, so could evil spirits. In order to ensure safe passage of their family members, the people would dress up as ghost and goblins, in order to distract evil spirits and help the departed cross over safely. Candles were lit to help guide them, and favorite foods were left to take on their journey. Well that sounds way less scary than I what I had previously believed, but how exactly did the Devil get thrown into the mix?

All Hallow’s Eve

Over the centuries other festivals began to evolve, but as Christianity starting sweeping across the world, the priest had to find a way to convert the people so they actually celebrated “Samhain” which was renamed “All Saints Day” and in this same method, the Catholic Church took other ancient customs and revised them.

Two examples that spring to mind are all the maidens  and men dressing in the same clothes as the bride and groom in order to trick the evil spirits from possessing the happy couple. Another revision was incorporating the wooden symbols into their teachings of God, since many of the people already worshipped a “Tree God.”

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So for anyone that has watched Game of Thrones, now you see how they totally have done their research, those scenes will the tree children, and the 3-eyed raven, placing coins on the deceased eyes…yup, those are based on actual ancient traditions!

 

The short version of how this got flipped to the dark side, basically when the witch hunts start in Europe (eventually coming to Salem) the Devil gets thrown into the narrative in order to renounce anything that is not sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Anyone found practicing their ancient customs, or reading, or women not obeying, etc…could be (and usually were) accused of practicing witchcraft and would be punished by death (However, I just watched The Borgias on Netflix about Pope Alexander VI, it is very eye opening and interesting about the history of the Vatican.)  Other festivals and folklore like Guy Fawkes and Mischief Night, also made their way across the ocean with the wave of European immigration, throw in some commercialism, marketing executives for candy companies and BOOM you have the modern conception of the hijacked holiday that is now “Halloween.”

Ok so at this point in life, I now realize that it really wasn’t the Devil’s holiday (although in recent past some groups have now taken on this meaning) it actually kind of got stolen from the ancient people, and one could argue — to use 2017 politically correct terminology — that the Devil is culturally appropriating a Celtic tradition. As for me, I no longer feared that day, well except for the fact that I FOREVER will be terrified that Michael Myers will pop out of nowhere and kill me, but aside from that, I no longer fear that I am celebrating the Devil.

Not Mexican Halloween

For a time I was ok with All Hallow’s Eve; as a young adult (no longer living under my mother’s roof ) I even dressed up for a few years and joined in the festivities. But something still didn’t quite fit, I didn’t understand where my culture, as a Mexican American, fit into this Celtic, now American, custom. This also came during the time where I started wondering about life and death a lot. I began to fear my own mortality and wondered what really happens to us once we pass on. So there I went, back to the internet (this time with high speed) and here again, was another life moment where I found the beauty of Mexico, Día de los Muertos. I learned that we had a similar foundation as our fellow folks across the pond, the ancient Indigenous people of Mexico also believed the shortest day of the year had spiritual significance.

The Aztecs didn’t believe in heaven or hell in the religious sense of it, instead they believed levels of ascension of the soul. The closest I can think to compare it to, would be Egyptian beliefs on the afterlife.  The Aztec Goddess, Mictecacíhuatl, was the queen of Mictlán, the land of dead (Xibalba in Mayan legend). Mictecacíhuatl was the ultimate ruler of the realm, but Mictlán was not the final destination, there were other lands and she was there to guide all through the journey. For centuries this was the way of life, or should I say death, then the Spanish came to Mexico the Aztecs were no longer allowed to worship their Gods, and just like we saw with the Celtics, this tradition of honoring the departed received a colonization mashup.

 

Aztec customs fused with new Catholic Spanish ones, the practice became more elaborate, families would place breads and candles,  for their loved ones as well, but that’s about as far as the similarities go. Día de los Muertos is NOT Mexican Halloween.

From its Indigenous origins, death is not about finality, Día de los Muertos is about honoring life. At first I didn’t understand this concept, but the more I read, the more I felt peace. This makes sense, this feels right to me. This wasn’t staring at box and weeping, this was putting up photos, personal belongings, leaving “ofrendas” (offerings/altars) for your loved ones (FYI, all those that do leave an “ofrenda” will be invited to the huge festival that follows in the next world). The altar itself is huge deal, a lot of work goes into the execution of it. Each level contains its own significance and can have 2-7 layers, each section representing the souls transition, starting from the earth and back to the origin. Family photos, ‘pan de muerto’ (bread of the dead), bright flowers “flores de cempasúchil” (Marigolds) are the official flower of the celebration, tracing back to the Aztecs who revered the flower for its healing capabilities. Salt is left to ensure they spirits can safely return the following year. The paper mache decorations in vibrant, bold colors symbolize the balance between life and death. The giant skeletons are all about resurrection and continuing in the afterlife, not about the end.

This personally helped me a great deal. I no longer was afraid of death, and I could finally see my heritage among the mainstream conversation, where it all fit together. I embraced this ancient custom of my Mexican culture, and have never let it go. Over the years I’ve attended many Día de los Muertos events and I can’t tell you how beautiful it is to see the “ofrendas” dedicated to people. Each day of the celebration has meaning behind it, beginning as early as October 29th in some regions, but October 31st  is usually the day most celebrations commence. November 1st is the day to celebrate children, lost souls and/or the saints, depending on what region you live in. November 2nd is for all souls that have departed. This is why so many of us are extremely annoyed when people refer to it as “Mexican Halloween,” no fool, this isn’t about you getting a bunch of mini 3 musketeers, or having a “sexy” Freddy Kruger outfit (which should be an entire blog in itself, smh) my cultural is about an ancient way of life, a ceremony to honor the legacy of someone’s abuela, or remembering someone’s child who has passed…see the difference?

Cemetery Vigils

La Catrina

The origins of La Catrina are actually still really relevant today, especially since she began as a political movement. Artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) was a political cartoon illustrator, and his purpose in creating La Catrina, was to hold a mirror up to those Mexicans that were dismissive of the Indigenous community of Mexico, rejecting their own Indigenous blood, Posada viewed them as the ultimate hypocrites. His creation of the “calavera garbancera”  was to show that death is unbiased, it comes for the wealthy and the poor, the light skinned and the dark skinned. This really resonates with me today in 2017, it is the same eye-roll feeling I have for Mexican Americans that speak unkindly of Mexican nationals, forgetting that we share culture and blood lines…

“la muerte es democrática ya que, a fin de cuentas, güera, morena, rica o pobre, toda la gente acaba siendo calavera”

His adornment of the skeleton in the hat and feathered boa was to mock those same hypocrites, showing that even in death they would still be trying to imitate the aristocracy, donning French feathers on their bones.

“En los huesos pero con sombrero francés con sus plumas de avestruz”

It would be Diego Rivera’s famous mural “Sueño de una tarde Dominical en la Alameda”  that would keep the image alive from the Mexican Revolution, through the decades, to present day. Rivera gets a lot of the credit but it was José Guadalupe Posada’s creative vision that perfectly captured the sentiment of the times. Today La Catrina has been reborn and is synonymous with Mexican identity and Día de los Muertos.

There is so much more to say, but I will leave that to each person to Google on their own and have the fun of discovering the magic as I did. Truly to know thyself, is to find peace.  Will I ever celebrate the American custom of Halloween again? Sure, if I ever really wanted to dress up I would do it and go out and have fun without the guilt, it would be like any other party, like Superbowl.  But for me, the last week of October now has a much deeper meaning, staying connected to my culture, participating in Día de los Muertos, celebrating life and remembering those that have begun the next journey…how beautiful is that.

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