As we approach the end of October and the beginning of November, some Mexican families are starting to get ready to celebrate Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). You can already smell the copal (the incense of ancient Mexico https://bit.ly/3FqzmdD ) burning in some houses as it will be part of the special “altar” (ofrenda) Mexicans build every year for the loved ones who are no longer with us on this Earth.
Candles are lit to guide the path of the departed who come back once a year to visit their friends and relatives. Their favourite dishes are cooked to feed them; ancient beverages such as tequila, mezcal and pulque are poured into glasses (https://bit.ly/3MflJlx ) along with beer, coffee, chocolate, and water to calm their thirst. Traditional sweets made of sugar or amaranth are also offered as well as seasonal fruits such as tangerine.
Around this time of the year some big markets are already selling flor de cepmasúchil (marigold), so the scent of this flower fills the streets with some sort of sacredness and nostalgy. You can also get a big variety of cempasúchil in important places such as Xochimilco (https://bit.ly/40boWrV ), which is best known for its canals and where producers grow a variety of beautiful flowers all year.
But what I love the most about this time of the year is the fact that this tradition brings families together. Despite death being such a scary and sad topic, Mexicans know it is part of life itself. In addition, we have the benefit of being visited by the souls of our loved ones once a year this time.
Figure 2 Cempasuchil in Xochimilco by @kin_enriquez. MOJA Association
Mexico is such a diverse country that we celebrate the Day of the Dead sometimes in different ways. For example, in Pomuch which is in the southeastern state of Campeche, people clean their ancestor’s bones to get them ready for the special occasion. In Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, families go to the cemetery and decorate the graves to get them ready for the special night they will spend there, since the living dine with the spirits of their loved ones. If you watch the Disney movie Coco (https://bit.ly/3s6ReaC ), you can get a general idea of how families get ready for this important date.
In some places the preparations for the festivities start around October 25th as we get ready to receive different visitors depending on their cause of death:
- October 27th: deceased pets.
- October 28th: people who died in an accident.
- October 30th: children who died without getting baptised.
- November 1st: children.
- November 2nd: adults.
Yet, no matter how your altar looks like, how big, or small it may be or where on this Earth is located, because Mexicans who live abroad build their altar wherever they are, the essence of this celebration has remained untouched throughout the centuries.
For me this festivity is important because it helps us remember where we come from. It allows us to bring back the memories we shared with the loved ones that are no longer physically with us, so in a way we are celebrating their lives. This time of the year is also a reminder of how life is just an instant, so we should live if fully.
This is what I thought the first time I watched the amazing series of commercials that a beer company started filming. What makes them special is the fact that some are spoken in native languages such as Nahuatl and Mayan.
The adverts take important elements that are present in our altars to visually represent the true meaning of a festivity that was inscribed in 2008 on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (https://bit.ly/45Lb5cY ). Two of my favourite videos are Mictlán and Icnocuícatl.
Mictlán was part of a campaign released in 2018. The main character, a soul, is played by the Mexican ballet dancer Isaac Hernández who is currently part of the San Francisco Ballet Company (https://bit.ly/40dVm59 ). With this video the creators tried to represent the struggle of a soul to achieve eternal rest by crossing the most emblematic regions of the Aztec underworld.
Icnocuicatl campaign was launched in 2020, one of the most difficult years the humanity has experienced due the COVID pandemic. Icnocuicatl is “a millenary tradition of ancient Mexican cultures with which, through a poem, it was possible to say a final goodbye to their deceased” (https://bit.ly/3FuXeNn ). The video shows some Mexican families gathering on the Day of the Dead, remembering their loved ones who left unexpectedly yet knowing they will reunite again someday.
Figure 3 My family’s altar for Day of the Dead
Why is Día de Muertos so important for Mexicans? Sure, we do love to party, and we know how to do it but beyond all the colours and the celebrations this important festivity is part of our indigenous and Hispanic heritage. It represents the adaptation of the Catholic practices to the cosmovision of the natives as a tool to achieve the evangelisation of the indigenous people or, maybe, a way indigenous people found to preserve their heritage? This is a festivity that has defeated the passing of time.
To understand the origin of this intangible heritage, let’s go to basics. We will do it with the video Mictlan, where the soul of a Mexican must fight different obstacles to achieve their goal.
This is because in the Aztec mythology it was believed when someone died, they had to go on a journey across nine levels full of obstacles to arrive at Micltán (the underworld), where the god and goddess of death live: Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl. By doing so the soul of the departed would achieve eternal rest.
Aztecs had festivities to honour Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, which coincided with the end of the agricultural cycles. For some historians this is the origin to the cult of life and death. There isn’t one without the other.
- Link to video with English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PDnggbNoD4
- Link to video in Nahuatl with Spanish subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPsVjJyBDHA
Figure 4 Mictlantecuhtli Statue. Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Icnocuícatl (word in Nahuatl) is a poetic genre that was recited by the Aztecs as a farewell to those who left this world to enter the lands of the god and goddess of Death. Nahuatl is the mother tongue of the Aztecs, the language my mother’s father used to speak when he was a little child and one of the most widely spoken indigenous languages of the Americas.
The video Icnocuícatl is particularly emotional for me due to the beauty of the images and the words, especially the following ones:
In the light that follows you,
In the calm you feel as you gaze towards the sky,
I will be there.
Even if you don’t know I am there,
I will always be there.
When the wind blows,
When the flame ignites,
When life grants us our first reunion,
I will be there.
As we place the photographs of our loved ones in the altar, their favourite food, or belongings, we remember and honour them. If we remember them, they will always live in us. We also become aware of how important is to cherish every moment and every memory of them until we reunite again. Death isn’t the end but rather the beginning of a new journey and our Día de Muertos is a constant reminder of this philosophy.
If you want to watch the video Icnocuícatl with English subtitles, this is the link https://www.behance.net/gallery/107201357/The-Farewell-Icnocuicatl-Cerveza-Victoria .