As with much of Mexico’s customs, holidays, and identity, El Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a mix of pre-colonial indigenous rituals and post-colonial Catholic rites. The latter bit however, was brutally imposed on the indigenous people of Mexico by the Spanish Crown and Catholic Church. Originally an indigenous pagan holiday, El Dia de Los Muertos was a celebration of the life and death of family and friends who had embarked on their journey from this life to the next. Unlike the colonizers who viewed death as the end of life and feared it, Mezo-Americans embraced and respected death and the duality of one’s existence. This celebration the Catholic Church found distasteful and savage and moved to eradicate it, no matter the cost. So relentless were the Crown and the Church that in the first 100 years of the Spanish invasion 96 percent of Mexico’s First Peoples were murdered, leaving the indigenous population at only 1 million by 1600 from 25 million in 1491. But even genocide wasn’t enough kill a tradition that went back 3,000 years. Realizing this, the Church decided to employ a different, less genocidal strategy and make the indigenous people’s celebration more Christian by moving it from August to November and condensing what was a month long celebration down to two days so that it would coincide with the Church’s established All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.
Today, El Dia de Los Muertos is still wildly celebrated in the central and southern parts of Mexico and recognized as a national holiday in all 31 states of the Union. While details and rituals vary from state to state, it is customary to build altars in memory and celebration of the deceased, set up Hanal Pixan -Nahuatl for offerings of food for the souls- and visit their loved one’s grave sites to spend the day cleaning and decorating it and sharing anecdotes to remember shared times. However, because so much of our cultural and spiritual beliefs and behaviors are a complex marriage of two different approaches to life and death, the dualities and contradictions abound. While Dia de Los Muertos is largely regarded as a celebration, it is likewise a sad and mournful time for those left behind on earth. And even though Mexico’s First People’s put up tremendous fights for centuries following Cortez’s debut in the Americas, Catholicism was largely successful in it’s take-over of Mexico, and with that came fear, guilt, and regret.
It seems nearly every aspect of our lives as Mexicans- or Mexican-American in my case- is a great balancing act fraught with contradictions and dualities. It’s simultaneously celebrating and fearing death; longing for eternal-life in heaven but never being quite ready to leave this place. For me it is abstaining from organized religion but never failing to drop-off red roses to La Virgencita de Güadalupe on her birthday the 12th of December; being relatively successful at living bi-culturally and yet waking up somedays with an unexplainable anxiety until I realize it’s that familiar feeling of not knowing where the f*ck I belong. It’s proudly announcing my departure from the Catholic church at seventeen and then running all over town trying to find cempasúchitl (Mexican marigolds) for my uncle’s altar. It’s being that nerdy Mexican girl who never quite fit in with the other Mexican kids on her block or with the white kids in her dorm. In a word, it’s limbo.
But it’s also having a wealth of culture and experiencing life in a unique (albeit sometimes rather confusing) way. Whatever it is, there’s a reason why it’s still such an important and relevant holiday and why despite growing up in Chicago and not Mexico, the ties that bind are still strong and ever presenta.
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Crystal Stella Becerril is a Mexican-American community organizer, activist, and photographer currently living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Red Wedge Magazine and she has contributed written work to SocialistWorker.org. Stella studied photography at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and in 2007 her photography was part of a group exhibition at Caza Aztlan Community Center in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. She is currently a student at Harold Washington College where she is majoring in History and Philosophy, as well as a community organizer with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education and the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign. She is also a member of the International Socialist Organization.