Day of the Dead a living tradition
By Oswaldo Mejía
The Day of the Dead is one of the most ingrained traditions in Mexican culture. Since the times of the ancient empires there has existed here a vision about death, and it has been a cornerstone for understanding the rites celebrated in Mexico every year during the first two days of November, which are dedicated to awaiting and evoking the beloved departed.
Today this tradition is a subject of academic analysis because of the variations that sociologists, historians and anthropologists have found throughout the country during the celebrations for the Day of the Dead. Could it be that this tradition has been affected by influences that distort its ancestral meaning? Are the new generations moving away from such beliefs, and are they falling under the influences of Halloween and other foreign traditions? Might the Day of the Dead’s mysticism disappear because of the influences that migrants from other countries bring to Mexico? Has the mystic and ancestral relationship between life and death disappeared in Mexico?
“The festivities that take place year after year are a cultural heritage transmitted from generation to generation, and as times constantly change, this and other traditions are exposed to influences from external cultures. For the Day of the Dead, these influences are mainly from the US, since thousands of migrants who have returned to their places of origin have added elements of that culture to their own,” said the historian Benjamin Martínez.
“It is unlikely that one can speak of a cultural colonialism. Although traditions, not only in Mexico but all over the world, are influenced by external ideas, they never determined the ancient meaning. It is now possible to observe certain variations in the celebrations of the Day of the Dead, but not about substantial changes in the symbolism, rather in simple accessories that are more a syncretism than a cultural degradation,” said the scholar.
“For example, now on the ofrendas (altars) we see items produced by transnational corporations like Coca-Cola alongside a plate of tamales, chocolates and sweet tejocote Kinder, M&Ms and sugar skulls. This does not mean that we are facing a process of displacement of some traditional products with others, it is simply a natural complement to the cultural exchange. Many dead were seduced in life by soda, and I do not think they would exchange atole champurrado, a glass of pulque, jamaica water or tequila in the other world for a can of Coca-Cola,” said Martínez.
During the weeks prior to the festivities, the media publicized the various attractions offered by the peak tourist sites. This image of Day of the Dead as a spectacle for tourists does not affect the deep spiritual significance of these days.
“The media are very interested in how much they can charge for selling advertising space for a costume shop, promoting objects alluding to Halloween, horror parties and all kinds of services whose main purpose is to profit from tradition. While television currently promotes from a merchandising perspective, this in no way determines the perception of these rites that Mexicans have; this is an apocalyptic vision,” said Yasmin Sanz, a communications researcher from UNAM.
“The death troubadours from Morelia do not sing in English because a tourism promoter asked them not to do it; children will ask for a calaverita, but not according to the Halloween custom, but in following the old tradition in which the family of the deceased went out to ask for flowers and fruits as an offering for the dead in ancient Mexico,” said Sanz.
The Day of the Dead tradition is a cultural syncretism between Spain and Mexico but has been exposed to other influences without succumbing to cultural colonization. Beyond the role of the media, the flow of Mexicans nourished with other traditions and the falling away of ancient practices, this culture will be enriched and well respected by faithful Mexican believers.
The day when the souls of the dead return to taste the food prepared in their honor, and enjoy the company of family and friends, will remain a spiritual encounter, a deep connection between those who lie in the cemeteries and those who await the arrival of death. The tradition continues; it is alive.