Cover

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL

Death and its Mexican amigos

Raul Dias | Updated on October 30, 2020 Published on October 30, 2020

Ring in the dead: Dia de Muertos fuses the Catholic feast of All Souls’ Day with the day of the dead of the pre-Hispanic Tarasco people of Michoacán   -  REUTERS/ GUSTAVO GRAF

Mexico’s idea of a good time includes a hearty celebration of mortality and intimacy with life

* Two days before the Day of the Dead, Mexicans visit the graves of deceased family members, adorning them with paper decorations and marigold flowers, known locally as cempasúchil

* On the first day of every month, thousands of people flock to an altar in a ramshackle part of Mexico City to honour a ‘saint’ that the country’s all-controlling Catholic Church vehemently denounces

There is a heartbreakingly beautiful saying in Mexico that goes like this: “You never really die until your name is spoken for the last time”.

This is perhaps why the concept of death in Mexican culture is unique. As I travelled around this country a few years ago, I discovered that as much as they mourn death, Mexicans also celebrate it with joy and unbridled mirth. Bordering on a defiant nonchalance, one might even say. But not quite.

And there is no day more poignant than today’s North American holiday of Halloween to put the Mexican attitude towards death in perspective. Now, while the average American approaches death with fear, turning the dead into monsters — worthy only of being paraded around as fancy-dressed, macabre creatures as they go ‘trick-or-treating’ — the Mexican prefers a riotous co-existence. All this, along a colourful path of least resistance and total abandonment!

Life goes on

It is no great surprise then that one of Mexico’s most important festivals celebrates death with joy. Día de Muertos, which takes place on November 2 each year, is a fusion of the Catholic feast of All Souls’ Day with the day of the dead of the pre-Hispanic Tarasco people of Michoacán. It is believed that the dead return to their earthly homes for one day. Quite like in the animated movie Coco (2017), the underlying philosophy here is that death is a continuation of life in a parallel dimension.

I was lucky enough to witness one such Día de Muertos in Mexico City. It changed the way I looked at death for ever. Two days before the festival, Mexicans visit the graves of deceased family members, adorning them with paper decorations and marigold flowers, known locally as cempasúchil. Small gifts, called ofrendas, in the form of glittery, sugared skulls and dancing skeletons called calaveras are left behind at the graves. This, after they spend at least 24 hours in the cemetery, communing with the dead in a sort of hybrid tailgate party-meets-picnic, highlighted by plenty of eating, drinking and playing of music.

Double, double, toil and trouble

“¿Que buscabas?” was a question hurled at me by shopkeepers I encountered. “What are you looking for?” they asked. I found myself at the Mercado de Sonora on a rather chilly autumn afternoon. Dedicated solely to witchcraft, potions, and other death rituals, this market located just southeast of Mexico City’s main centre — in a neighbourhood known as Merced Balbuena — truly is the place to go to, to get your freak on.

To the average José, it might appear to be a normal place. Food stalls selling everything from tripe tacos to luridly-coloured fruit drinks called aguas frescas decanted into glass containers are all lined up in neat aisles. Letting my olfactory senses take the lead, I sauntered down to the back, into an area of the mercado that is not for the faint of heart.

Rows of shops peddling a virtual menagerie of dried-up dead animals and reptiles, from snakes to armadillos, come into sight. Tiny vials containing everything from love potions to the more sinister ‘ruin-your-enemy’ kind were thrust under my reluctant nose for perusal. Soon I was accosted by a rather scary-looking woman who offered a limpia con hueve. A harmless kind of spiritual cleanse, I was told it involved rubbing a fertilised chicken’s egg all over the ‘cleansee’s’ body, before it was smashed onto the floor to eliminate bad vibes. I quickly skulked away into the incoming human traffic, profusely apologising in my terrible Spanish.

I had been warned that this might happen and to steer clear of it. The mercado is full of quacks and imposters, I was told by my friend Paz. A Mexico City local, Paz claims to have been tricked into a similar limpia by a self-proclaimed witch, who turned out to be the market’s cleaning lady.

Saints and sinners

I soon learned that on the first day of every month, thousands of people flock to an altar in a ramshackle part of Mexico City to honour a ‘saint’ that the country’s all-controlling Catholic Church vehemently denounces. But this denouncement did not surprise me as I joined the thronging devotees on a morning that happened to be the first of November. The number one attraction of the city’s rather rough Barrio Tepito neighbourhood is the shrine dedicated to the scythe-brandishing skeletal figure of Santa Muerte (Saint Death), garbed in a white sequinned wedding gown.

Once again, blending pre-Hispanic rituals with those of Catholicism, Santa Muerte is said to be an avatar of Mictlantecuhtli, the ancient Mexican god of death. Over the years, this dreaded figure has come to be associated with drug runners and gang members, who look upon her as their de facto patron saint. Leaving her candles and bottles of tequila as part of their obeisance is the norm.

Getting into the ‘spirit’ of things truly seems to be a Mexican way of life.

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Travel log
  • Getting there and around
  • You can get into Mexico City via connecting flights from most major US airports. Travel within Mexico City is easy with plenty of transport options including taxis, public buses and the super-efficient and cheap metro train system.
  • Stay
  • Located in the heart of the city in the Centro neighbourhood, Downtown Mexico (www.downtownmexico.com) has a boutique hotel vibe with reasonable room rates, starting at ₹2,100 for two, without breakfast.
  • BLink Tip
  • If you are still craving some more chills and thrills, then head to the Isla del las Muñecas doll island in the canal-infested Mexico City suburb of Xochimilco. Here you will encounter garlands of dolls festooned from almost every gnarly tree branch as well as the island’s spooky doll museum.

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on October 30, 2020
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor