Celebrating Life and Death
To honour my cousins’ grandmother (‘granny’ – my adopted grandma) who passed away this past weekend I’d like to share how my family has experienced the celebration of life and death known as Día de los Muertos both in Oaxaca and in Vancouver.
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
My birthday is two days before Halloween and although I enjoyed Halloween growing up in Canada, it was never my favourite holiday.
As an adult I began to enjoy my birthday season very much when I moved to Oaxaca in the south of Mexico. Fall in Oaxaca is beautiful, the late summer rains have finished and the cold winds begin, making hot and dry days and cold crisp nights. In Mexico Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated from the 31st of October through the 2nd of November, and it became my favourite holiday during the two years that I spent in Oaxaca.
This time of year in Oaxaca is magical – families invite loved ones who have passed away to return home by putting up an altar in their homes. The altar has at least three levels (said to represent heaven, purgatory and the underworld) and the family places marigolds, fruit, photos of the dead, chocolate, mole, mezcal and any other food that their relatives enjoyed in life on and around the altar. They burn incense and candles, inviting the honoured dead to return home and enjoy the offering.
The zocalo is decorated with tapetes (“rugs” made from coloured sand like the one featured above which was created by artists from the APPO). During the comparsas the streets are filled with music and celebration, people dress up and parade through the streets. The party continues in the city’s cemeteries where families gather to visit the dead, drink chocolate and enjoy each other’s company.
Here is a video in Spanish that shows some of the traditions that make this time of year so special and see below for some Día de los Muertos vocabulary.
Día de los Muertos is a day that is celebrated with family and but that is also played out publicly, where it has a larger socio-political and cultural influence. Using calaveras and through street performance during the comparsas artists are able to convey political messages to a wide audience using satire, humour and irony. A famous example of this performance is Jose Guadalupe Posada’s La Catrina, a calavera that satirizes Mexico’s adoption of European culture during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz in the early 20th century.
Day of the Dead in Vancouver
Before living in Oaxaca I had already experienced some aspects of Día de los Muertos in Vancouver, participating in events at the recently closed Rhizome Cafe and at Mountainview Cemetery, which will continue the festivities this coming Friday November 1st with the event (Un)dying dream.
Last year we made a small altar at our home in Vancouver, and we plan to do the same this year as it is an important part of Oaxacan culture that we hope to maintain while living in Canada. Day of the Dead is a wonderful time to spend with family and can help young ones to understand and not fear death, to celebrate it instead.
Vocabulary for Día de los Muertos
Although my sister, mom and step-dad are all learning Spanish (you guys rock!) when my daughter spends time with my family she is immersed in English. She asked my sister if granny had gone to the sky, which is obviously a literal translation of the word cielo meaning both sky and heaven in Spanish.