In the US we distance ourselves from death as much as possible. In Mexico, people seem to be much more matter of fact about death. For them, accepting the inevitability of death is simply an extension of their earthy appreciation of life.
For the past few years, the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) is gaining popularity in the US, so much so that Disney took notice, ran the imagery and storyline through their finely tuned filter, and produced the extremely sappy movie called Coco, released last year. It is the most recent example of attempts on both sides of the border to smooth the sharper edges of the holiday.
The actual roots of the holiday are far more interesting and deeply entwined with our shadow side. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs had a very active relationship with mortality and life after death. The traditional Aztec Dia de Muertos festival honored Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of Mictlan, the underworld.
They also had a very superstitious, fierce warrior culture. It is the reason that a relatively small tribe was able to grow from a small, mosquito ridden island community (Mexico City originated in the middle of a large lake) to eventually dominate and rule a huge area of pre-Hispanic Mexico at their peak.
To accomplish this required some powerful gods and teachings, especially in the myths about the afterlife experience, which offered rewards to those who took risks in the service of their country.
In fact, if you died in a particularly difficult or scary way, such as getting struck by lightning, killed in battle, or even giving birth, you went straight to paradise, no questions asked.
If you died peacefully in your sleep, or from a random, unimpressive illness, you went to Mictlan, the Underworld for losers, where you had to undertake an arduous journey to get to paradise.
Not only that, but you had to run the gauntlet with Queen Mictecacihuatl, who ruled with her husband, the King of Mictlan, with an equally unpronounceable name Mictlāntēcutli
M & M were a fearsome pair. At at time when 5’ 5” was considered tall for Aztec men, the King is depicted with a height of 6 feet, with a skull face, blood spattered body, with arms raised, ready to devour newcomers to Mictlan.
Not to be outdone, his Queen gives new meaning to the word spooky.
According to legend, she was sacrificed as an infant. Aztec artists depicted her with a flayed body and open jaw to swallow the stars during the day. Why she would want to do that, I don’t know. Sergio has some contacts in the Danza world who have spent years studying this stuff, he is asking around for me. I will update you if I find out. Someone just sent us 6 pages of references in Spanish from a source at UNAM, I haven’t had a chance to run it through Google translate yet.
Between the two of them, they provided plenty of incentive to Aztec men to pick up a spear and join the nearest battle, and for women to continue to bear children in spite of the risks. Choosing a valiant death over a peaceful passing meant you received a Get Out of Mictlan Free card and enter paradise immediately, instead of being devoured by the Lord and Lady of Death. On top of that, your soul had to take another scary journey to reach a better level of heaven. Yikes.
Together the King and Queen were responsible for watching over the bones of the dead. This is what led to the popularity of the skull - or calavera - and the skeleton figures - called Catrinas - in the Dia de Muertos holiday symbolism.
In spite of the fierce aspect of the Lord and Lady of the Underworld, Wiki tells us that In the Aztec world, skeletal imagery was also a symbol of fertility, health and abundance, alluding to the close symbolic links between life and death.
The celebratory aspect of life and death, as part of the same creative cycle, is the perspective that Dia de Muertos helps to keep alive and kicking in Mexico.
M & M are just two of the equally quirky, often fierce, Aztec deities that confronted the Catholic missionary Padres after the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. I find it fascinating that the Spanish are the people that invaded and conquered Mexico, because they had a lot in common with the mindset of the Aztec culture, given the two cultures never interacted prior to the conquest. For example, the Mictlan experience I outlined above is not too far fetched from Catholic concept of limbo and the afterlife journey through different levels of hell and heaven.
One reason the Catholic church was able to make significant progress in new lands was a combination of brute force domination and self-interested tolerance. (Centuries before, the Romans practiced the same good cop / bad cop tactics to solidify control over conquered lands and people.)
The Spanish tore down major temples to erect churches and cathedrals in their place. Well, I should say that the Spanish used the Aztecs as slave labor to tear down their own temples and reconstruct a new church from the very stones of the destroyed temples. One can imagine the psychological effect this had on the natives. (The Spanish also used the stones to fill in many canals, a move that quickly destroyed the urban ecosystem of the city at that time and resulted in significant decline in the standard of living for most inhabitants, but that is another story.)
The Templo Mayor, the most important temple in the Aztec world, located in the center of Mexico City, was so huge that the Spanish finally gave up trying to tear it all down. It's massive base was buried over the years and not rediscovered until 1978.
You can see stones from the Templo Mayor in the lower part of the exterior walls of the oldest part of the Metropolitan Cathedral, Latin America's largest and oldest cathedral. It is fascinating to visit the Zocalo and stand facing the Cathedral with the Templo Mayor behind you, literally in the space between the biggest clash of civilizations in the western hemisphere.
I often think of the time and money Americans spend on European tours, and wonder if that is partially because they don’t realize the depth of Euro-centric tourism that is available in Mexico. Yes, the beaches and margaritas are world class, but there is so much more here than that, at a fraction of the price of a European vacation.
At any rate, while the conquistadores were busy demoralizing the locals by razing their temples, the Spanish Padres took a more subtle approach and did their best to merge pagan celebrations into the church calendar.
The festival for Mictēcacihuātl was no exception - originally celebrated in the summer, the Spanish moved it to October to coincide with the trio of Catholic holidays honoring those who have died - All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day.
So there you have a brief overview of the Day of the Dead in all its gritty context.
Earlier I mentioned Coco, the Disney movie with the Day of the Dead theme. All things Disney are very popular in Mexico, and, as Disney knows, Extremely Sappy plays well in Mexico, so the movie is very popular here.
It’s like the sweet decorated sugar skulls that are for sale everywhere this time of year - they are meant to take all the bite out of the calavera imagery. Death is not final in the movie, we get to dance and sing with our loved ones who have died, receive direct counsel from them, all without having to come to terms with their absence.
But I have to say that the spirit of Coco is not so far from the modern observance of Dia de Muertos here. In many places, the party starts in the house at the beginning of October, when the family creates an altar honoring those who have passed. On Nov 1 and 2, families go to the cemetery, tidy up the graves, and set up camp. They bring candles, lights, food, music. Or, much like the Thanksgiving ideal, some families achieve that, but not all.
Sergio's family is not particularly close. His aunts and uncle are all in their 80's. His parents divorced when he was 3, and he lived with his father after that. He was never close to his mother, she now has Alzheimers and is cared for by her older sister. His father passed when Sergio was 19, and now both of his brothers have died as well. Last year we visited his family's grave; it was Sergio's first time to be back in many years.
We arrived close to dusk, a few minutes after closing, Sergio slipped the guard at the gate a few pesos to allow us in. The panteones (cemeteries) in Mexico City are huge - they don't allow visitors after dark anymore, especially this weekend, due the challenges of security and crowd control. We cleaned up the gravesite and then went to toast his father and brothers during the celebration in the Zocalo that night.
No matter what the venue, Mexicans celebrate death in a way that I never see happen in the US, where people visit cemeteries, often alone, for their hushed tranquility. We take pictures of old mute gravestones, think sad thoughts, and have no positive rituals, rooted in community, to process the emotions stirred up by the proof of mortality right in front or our eyes.
In truth, death is meant to be processed with others, not as something to run from our whole lives, but to use as incentive to take risk and live while we can, in community with others. At least that is the message I get from the King and Queen of Mictlan.
In the US, we don’t give our dead any chance to come out and play. I encourage you to create an altar next year to invite those you love and admire who have passed on. But you don’t have to wait. You can create a small space on a shelf or corner of your home, put a picture of those you miss, a memento or two, and be blessed by their energy every time you pass by.
Below I share some photos of last year in Mexico City, when Sergio visited his father's grave for the first time in years, and we celebrated that night with the crowds in the Zocalo.
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