"The Mexican . . . is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favourite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away…"
Octavio Paz, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990, in The Labyrinth of Solitude.
In the context of the new exhibition No Such Thing As Gravity, where some of the artists explore the boundaries between life and death and society’s beliefs around them, I will cross the Atlantic and explore one of the members of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity: the Indigenous Festivity dedicated to the Dead, commonly known as the Day of the Dead - Día de Muertos.
Most likely, we have all heard about Day of the Dead. The general knowledge around it is probably based on its proximity to Halloween, its Mexican precedence, and makes us think of skulls and skeletons wearing colourful attires, as shown in the last James Bond film. We might be tempted to think that those are the main facts, but the truth is that the cultural and historic background of the festivity goes way beyond that. Finding its origins in pre-hispanic Mexico, Day of the Dead takes us back in time to around 3000 years ago, when pre-Columbian civilizations such as Mayas, Aztecas, Purépechas and Totonacas started to observe the first festivities.
According to the 18-month Azteca calendar, the celebrations in honour of the Dead were carried out throughout the 9th month, which would be close to August. It was believed that the celebration was presided by the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, lady of death and queen of the Mictlán, known as the place of the dead. Surprisingly, her image is quite common now, as she was satirically and brilliantly represented by Mexican lithographer José Guadalupe Posada as La Catrina, transforming her into a widely known reference to Mexican culture. Along with the Spanish colonization in the 16th century came Catholic evangelisation, leading indigenous rituals to be forbidden and the celebration to be moved forward to November to coincide with the Spanish tradition of the Day of All Saints and Souls. The ancient heritage was fortunately preserved, however, and the origins and main elements of the Day of the Dead have been preserved up to present times.
The essential activities carried out by families include a visit to the cemetery and setting up an altar in honour of the deceased. The design of the altar consists of various objects, including photographs of those honoured, candles to guide the souls to the altar, their favourite food and drink, and most importantly, it should include references to the four elements of nature: Earth, represented by corn and the bright orange cempasúchil flowers; wind, in the form of beautifully cut colourful paper picado (a type of thin tissue paper); water, to alleviate the souls’ thirst, and fire, which is related to with the lightened candles. Other key elements include little monticules of salt for the purification of the souls, and copal incense, responsible for the rich, aromatic smell characteristic of the altars.
More than 40 ethnic groups, mainly located in the central and southern states of Mexico, celebrate Día de Muertos, bringing both locals and foreign tourists to witness such magnificence. I have been lucky enough to experience myself stunning festivities in one of the most mysterious, magical and rich areas in Mexico: Michoacán, which is the place of origin of the only type of Mexican gastronomy protected by UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The celebration is an invitation to the senses, a time tunnel to the ancient civilizations and a true emotional voyage: the smell of flowers, indulgent food and incense, are mixed together as they get deep into your nostrils. The November cold goes through your skin and bones, although eventually you forget about it since consciousness is lost in a kind of hypnosis, due to the strong lights that blind your sight. You may also find yourself surrounded by people who sing joyfully and talk to each other while sitting next to the graves of their beloved ones’, who are coming back from eternity for one night only, creating a nostalgic yet surreal atmosphere.
I highly recommend you to visit the area and immerse yourself in a universe where the limits of life and death, reality and fantasy are indistinguishable; where light, colour, music, and joy synchronize perfectly, leaving you with a life lasting experience that will change your after death perspective forever.