I’ve already blogged a couple of times about el Día de Muertos – Day of the Dead but reading Felipe’s posting from Patzcuaro (http://tzuru4.blogspot.com/ ) made me realize there’s one aspect to this festivity that neither I nor others have really addressed.
Why are the tourists’ so fascinated with Mexico’s annual commemoration of their loved ones’ passing? How do the Mexicans view their presence?
To start with, I believe many tourists are ga-ga about the Day of the Dead for the same reasons they are ga-ga about everything else in Mexico… it is so different to the customs of the north. .. Here there’s wonderful color, music, high emotion, great food and unique art. Many tourists are kind of fuzzy about “why” there is a Día de Muertos, but they sure love “how” it is celebrated. They are very anxious to BE HERE.
In the north, death is a solemn, dour week-long event. In most families, the widow and bereaved friends and relatives wear sorrowful looks and the mourning is “appropriately quiet.” Grief is not really displayed in any emotional way. It is internal. When the anniversary of the death date rolls around, there is usually not much mention made.
Have you attended a Mexican velorio – wake? To start with, as soon as the person passes away, he is taken to the funeral home (no embalming) Within a couple of hours, the social network (and I don’t mean facebook and twitter) have spread the word and people start arriving to pay their respects. (leaving work or school to do so is absolutely acceptable) Many, many flower arrangements are arrayed around the coffin. Everyone stays for several hours or even overnight. Rosaries are recited and a Mass is offered. Then the burial or cremation takes place. The “funeral” is completely over 24 hours after the death. The mood at the wake is anything but somber. Once the condolences have been offered, stories start and usually there is as much laughter as tears.
After the burial or cremation there will be nine nights of Masses and really for the full first year after death, there will be monthly remembrances. When Los Finados (another name for Day of the Dead) is upon us, traditional rituals are carried out. There are special foods, cemetery vigils, colorful decorations. The tourists are enthralled with all the celebrating but they don’t understand it.
The majority of Mexicans are religious. Outwardly they appear to be Catholic but in reality their practices have many pre-Hispanic elements. Nowhere is this more evident than during Los Finados. I have asked many of my native-born friends if they really believe that the Dead return to earth on these days. The usual answer I get is, “I have faith that they do.” Having faith is different than truly believing. Faith involves unconditional, unquestioning acceptance. The celebrations are a part of this. To many of the northern finite world’s residents, this syncretistic spirituality is absolutely spellbinding. Yes! They want to witness it – they want to feel the magic.
My Mexican friends do not mind this (and as is true with all festivities, if there are a few pesos to be made off the tourists, so much the better) But they are very offended when proper decorum is not observed. Tourists who drink at the cemetery or altars are definitely insulting. (Yes, the Mexicans drink but they view their kind of drinking to be sacred) It’s OK for the tourists to be respectful observers but NOT participants.
I have been in cemeteries and at altars and have been invited to partake of posh (the home-made fire water they usually drink at these ceremonies) I take ONE sip and that is what is expected. No more.
In states like Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Chiapas – where traditions are still very strong and striking, the tourists arrive in droves. This is not respectful and is irresponsible of the tour operators. I have taken groups of students to San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan in Chiapas at this time of year but they study about the customs and they are definitely very aware of how to behave. It is an enriching experience they will never forget.
To sum up, if you are looking for a “good time” Day of the Dead in Mexico is NOT the type of celebration you should be a part of. But if you want to observe something that is “good for you” by all means come and witness this unique custom.