Mexico is one of the most unusual Catholic countries, well-known for its striking exotic traditions partly inherited from the Indians, partly borrowed from the Spaniards, or copied from the United States. The distinctive feature of Mexico is that here traditions of Maya, Aztecs, Toltecs, Spaniards, and Americans are intertwined. The authentic culture of the Indians incorporated the customs of the arriving foreigners, thus creating a unique philosophy, profoundly eclectic in its nature. Perhaps, there is no other place in the world where death is seen in such a positive light as here. Even before the arrival of the Spaniards, indigenous people believed that after death a man's soul is invited to join the gods. With the adoption of Catholicism, which is today Mexico's major religion, the attitude to death changed, however, in the XVIII century, the cultures intertwined, and a secular celebration of the Day of the Dead appeared (Cordova, 2017). In his essay on the Mexican national character, Octavio Paz wrote that "willingness to contemplate horror" is an integral part of the national mentality: "The bloody Christs in our village churches, the macabre humor in some of our newspaper headlines, our wakes, the custom of eating skull-shaped cakes and candies on the Day of the Dead, are habits inherited from the Indians and the Spaniards and are now an inseparable part of our being" (Paz, 1985 p. 23). These unusual, sinister and yet mesmerizing traditions are not only an irresistible tourist attraction but also an opportunity to get an insight into the very soul of this complex, eclectic and enigmatic culture.
Reverence for death infiltrates all spheres of human activity in Mexico. Typical Mexican souvenirs are colored skulls, multicolored skeletons with cigars squeezed between their teeth, and even figurines of a skeleton-mother holding a small skeleton-child or earrings shaped like a skeleton with a dummy in its mouth. They all symbolize the cyclicity of the existence, the eternal return to the beginning - the basic concepts in ancient Mexican beliefs. This understanding of inseparability of life and death has also determined the Mexican's attitude to funerals and wakes. Quite often one can see burial processions accompanied by jolly, festive music and sometimes, surprisingly, dancing. Before the burial of the body in Mexico, it is customary to carry out a farewell tour around the city, during which close relatives carry a coffin, while the remaining invitees follow behind to the accompaniment of traditional national music (usually performed live). It is important to note that the tradition of such farewell walks is preserved not in all regions, but all around the country death is a reason to rejoice and wish the departed godspeed. Participants of the wake ceremony (velorios) share their best memories of the deceased, tell jokes, eat delicious food and drink alcohol, listen to music, play cards or dominos (De Mente, 2011, p. 320). In this way, they show their respect and love for the deceased.
Another important occasion to honor death and the dead is the most renowned Mexican holiday - the Day of the Dead (El dia de los muertos). On October 31 Mexicans celebrate the Day of Dead Children, and November 1 is the Adult Day. In his article on the history of this festival, Randy Cordova traces the ritual 3,000 years back and states that it is still evolving (Cordova, 2017). At home, people construct altars with pictures of their dead relatives and friends and organize a feast for the deceased. People arrange funny funeral processions: they go out in the costumes of mummies and skeletons and carry an empty coffin. According to the Indian beliefs, the souls of the dead can appear in the shape of butterflies and hummingbirds, which are specially bred near cemeteries. The holiday symbol is a skeleton dressed in women's clothing in a wide-brimmed hat named Katrina (La Calavera Catrina). It is believed to be the incarnation of the goddess of death, the Mictecacihuatl, in honor of which the Aztecs offered human sacrifices (Cordova, 2017). With the growing influence of the American way of life and increasing popularity of Halloween, the traditional Day of the Dead began to be perceived as a genuinely Mexican festival and today is a peculiar "day of independence" from other cultures.
In addition to the unparalleled atmosphere of Mexican funerals, unexpected cheerfulness of colorful skulls and the exuberance of Day of the Dead, in the poorest regions of Mexico, the cult of the Holy Death (El culto de Santa Muerte) is very popular. The Black Lady equates not only the rich and the poor but also law-abiding citizens with those who went against the law. Drug traffickers, thieves, swindlers, prostitutes worship the deity, believing that her mercy will bring them money, love, luck, and, most importantly, distant and painless death. These people often arrange generously decorated altars. Flowers, bread, water, alcohol, cigarettes are among the usual offerings. Santa Muerte is not an abstract idea, but quite a real female figure. According to the legend, she used to be a beautiful woman before God chose her to help him end unbearable human suffering. Most often she is depicted as a skeleton dressed in a white outfit, which looks like a wedding dress. According to the common belief, she can help where other saints are powerless (Ramirez, 2008). Thus, she seems to be an embodiment of the "contra spem spero" attitude of those whose life is dismal and hopeless.
In the minds of Mexicans death and life, dying and birth are inextricably linked, which is reflected in the myths of the ancient Indians, in modern Latin American literature, and in everyday customs. Paz managed to grasp and convey the profound philosophical meaning hidden behind the festive motley: "Our cult of death is also a cult of life", he wrote, "in the same way that love is a hunger for life and a longing for death" (Paz, 1985 p. 23). After all, everyone will have to face the finality of life sooner or later, and Mexicans offer the world to prepare for it in advance and to accept it as something natural, rather than live in fear and regrets about what one cannot change.
Cordova, R. (2017, October 24). Day of the Dead history: Ritual dates back 3,000 years and is still evolving. Retrieved February 27, 2018, from https://www.azcentral.com/story/ entertainment/holidays/day-of-the-dead/2014/09/24/day-of-the-dead-history/16174911/
De Mente, B. L. (2011). The Mexican mind!: understanding and appreciating Mexican culture! London: Phoenix Books.
Ramirez, M. (2008, August 06). 'Saint Death' comes to Chicago. Retrieved February 27, 2018, from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/death-chicago-08-story.html
Paz, O. (1985). The labyrinth of solitude and the other Mexico (An Evergreen book) (L. Kemp, Y. Milos, & R. P. Belash, Trans.). New York: Grove Weidenfeld.
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