Friday, October 10, 2014

Why Dia de los Muertos matters to me

The original artist and creator of La Catrina

If you had asked me - before I knew my husband or anything, really, about Mexican culture - what I thought of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), my answer would have been something like this:

- I don't know... Mexico's version of Halloween?
- Skeletons and skulls are not my thing. 
- It seems morbid. What's their fixation with death anyhow?
- Something I don't want any part in.

All I saw was death. And it was bizarre, colorful, primal, an odd blend of Catholicism and indigenous traditions. Without saying it straight out, I guess I assumed it was evil. I mean, just the name of it, right? Day of the Dead? Sounded like a holiday for zombies.

But then, I had an experience one day when I stumbled upon a celebration of El Dia. And my world peeled back, my eyes came into focus, and I saw something else. 

I saw life. Vibrancy. Reverence. Permission to remember loved ones lost. 

Our own Dia de los Muerto fiesta
I love those moments that catch us unaware, turn us inside out. This was one of them - one of many in my four years of knowing Ricardo, for he himself caught me unaware. Moments where things and people are not as they once seemed, where life leaps out in living color, multidimensional, raw and holy and irreverent, too. 

That's what I've been learning from Mexicans. They often take subject matter that is heavy and find ways of holding it lightly. With Mexicans, grieving and partying really are woven together, and this ability to laugh until you cry real tears presents what feels like a paradox to those of us who aren't Mexican. There are many sides of the same coin - reverence and irreverence, Catholic and Spanish colonial and indigenous Mexican, and you couldn't separate them no matter how diligently you tried.

Sometimes, I mourn a little, the things and people I have passed by without being willing to really see them, because I wonder how much I've missed. It took me years to read the Harry Potter books because all I saw was they were about witches and wizards. And I wasn't into witches and wizards. So when I finally picked the books up, I couldn't put them down, because I soon discovered they were really about so much more. Friendship. Courage. Purpose. Sacrifice. Imagination. Character. I'm not exaggerating when I say these are some of the best books I've dared to read, and maybe they're not for everyone, but for me, they opened me up to not always dismissing things based on appearance. 

I think those of us who come from the Christian tradition can so easily forget how bizarre our faith is in appearance. We dismiss skeletons, forgetting our main symbol is a Roman cross - a symbol of death, torture, suffering. We write things off as morbid, like sugar skulls (symbolically, "eating" your own death) and regularly participate in the Eucharist during our worship gatherings - symbolically "eating" the body of Christ and "drinking" his blood. 

Calaveras de azucar
Maybe we can relate more to Day of the Dead than we care to admit.

So when I look at drawings, paintings or any matter of Mexican art featuring skeletons (calaveras), faces painted in death's mask with colorful embellishments, I no longer see death. I see a culture remembering their dead, celebrating the lives they lived and passing stories onto their children. A culture comfortable with a much thinner veil between life and death than the culture I come from. A culture that lives with the awareness that we all will meet the same end one day, and in this we are all equals. Rich and poor, weak and strong, educated and uneducated, male and female, elderly and babies, sinner and saint, we all will know death's mask. I see a culture willing to face hard things with a sense of community, tradition, boldness, unflagging remembrance, even festivity.

And let me tell you, this means so much more when you've lost someone dear. Unless you've lost someone in the military in the U.S., there aren't holidays for remembering loved ones who have died. There aren't built in traditions for passing on their legacies around our tables, on altars of remembrance or throwing parties in cemetaries. We may be too afraid of death, too uncomfortable with the subject matter or emotion of it all, too private, too reserved. Who knows.

But me, I'm becoming more Mexican each year. And I'm learning to celebrate like one. 

My altar one year for Papa

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Linking up with Kate and the Five-minute Friday community, to the prompt of "Care." And as per usual, I rarely stick to the five minute limit - this post was no exception.


  1. First of all, I love the title of your blog. I, too, have started to look for "beautiful rubbish." I'm learning to slow down and see the beauty in everyday things. I enjoyed reading your post (even if it took more than 5 min.) Thank you for giving a different perspective, one that I had not thought of. It gave me more of an appreciation for what that celebration means. I also put off reading the Harry Potter books, but when I finally did I couldn't put them down either. I'm stopping by from FMF. :)

    1. Gayl, I love that you've started looking for your own beautiful rubbish. It's been a life-altering journey for me to slow down and see the beauty in everyday things, too. Thank you for hearing my perspective on El Dia. And yes, Harry Potter, so glad we picked those up finally, eh?

  2. Stopping by from FMF - had to click over because I vividly remember the Dia de Los Muertes celebration I experienced in Guatemala as an 8 year old.

    I do think there is something to having a day to remember your loved ones who have passed. I know for me this year, October 15 (pregnancy and infant loss awareness day) will be my day to remember my two babies who left my womb for heaven this year.

    1. I'm so sorry you said goodbye to two babies this year... for the pain of that I cannot imagine. And I'm grateful to know about Oct. 15th, as I have loved ones in my life who have also lost babies. Thank you for sharing with me. Grace and peace to you on this journey of life, of grieving, of healing.

  3. I have referred to this post so many times with Mike over the last few days that today I finally said, "I know I keep talking about Amber's post on El Dia, but..." :) This is so good. This perspective on death, not being afraid of it, of embracing mourning and lament, of all the ways you allow your awakening to inform and challenge your perspectives. So so good. I love reading what you write...always! I love you, my friend.

    1. This just makes me smile - because you get me, Ash. And you get excited about the crazy thoughts that go through my head and end up here in writing - you love to hear my perspective. What a gift, dear friend. Really. I love you so much.

  4. I've been missing Five Minute Friday because of my series!! Looooooove what you wrote here. I've always been drawn to sugar skulls and tend to lean towards all things "morbid" so I love learning more about the culture.

    Such a great perspective on celebrating during our grieving too, and remembering.