The city and countryside was infused with distinct odors and colors for a couple of weeks before Nov. 2 in those almost unnoticeable autumns in central Mexico. The bakeries filled their windows with large and small hojaldras, with or without sugar, and “bread of the dead”—sweet or salty—featuring designs of bones or skulls. The cempasúchil flowers carpeted the fields with their brilliant yellow-orange hue. In the old houses and poor neighborhoods, one could see from the street the ofrendas, those altars with their shelves filled with food, photos and other objects recalling the tastes and preferences of the departed dead to whom they were dedicated.
The poor and old in the city and the dusty suburbs and small Indian towns were almost the only ones to make these ofrendas. The pretended modernity of the times imposed on the middle class a “refined taste” that denied the old customs, while allowing for the enjoyment of the myriad street delicacies or those prepared by housewives like my mother associated with the holiday. There were toys, skulls made of sugar, and games and tricks for the kids. Nov. 1 was Todos Santos and its obligatory Mass that gave the appearance of Christianity to the pagan Día de Muertos, on Nov. 2. With that day came the obligatory visit to the cemetery and the family dead, to clean the graves and cover them with flowers. Crowds of families gathered amid the chaos created by flower and food vendors.
While my mother eschewed the crowds and rejected bad taste and the traditions of ignorant people, my father considered them essential. We used to visit the ofrendas of the Barrio del Artista, where the painters put them in their studios, dedicating them to other artists or movie actors. In my family, only my paternal grandfather erected an ofrenda. At the end of the hall leading to the bedrooms was a permanent little chapel where an ofrenda with candles was dedicated to my dead grandmother and their dead parents, uncles, aunts, servants and others who lived in the now-remodeled house. All of them created the magic world of my father’s boyhood, which he described to us in fairytales.
The 1970s and ’80s saw the rebirth of cultural traditions in the city and countryside. There was a return to the city center and old colonial architecture; streets were closed off to cars and set with cobblestones, making big business for politicians and businessmen. The darkened, poor and sad streets of my childhood, with their old mansions full of poor families and miserable little stores, now house beautiful hotels, businesses, museums, public buildings and university headquarters. The rebirth also included the “rescue” of traditions like Dia de Muertos and its ofrendas, which the government promoted in its buildings and events, despite the growing importance of Halloween.
The strange quasi-religious and spiritual originality of Día de Muertos, which goes back to pre-Hispanic times and was previously only of interest to anthropologists and scholars, soon became important to the very middle class that had earlier rejected it. With the growth of Mexican emigration to the United States and the globalization of production and ideas of the 1990s, the holiday also began to fascinate people from other places.
In California and other states that were originally Mexican, the tradition never disappeared completely, so when this renewed interest in the exotic and spiritual arose, supported by the hippie era of the ’60s, Día de Muertos fell on fertile soil. It is now common to see celebrations not only in places like Point Reyes and Petaluma, but San Francisco and New York. Here in the United States, it is hard not to be interested in something perceived as “original” or exotic, so we see people adding to, subtracting from, or reinventing traditions believed to be part of Día de Muertos.
Ironically, something similar happens in Mexico. Every town, place or neighborhood has some variation on Día de Muertos, and there are now tours to these places, with guides and explanatory brochures, as well as parades and other ways to celebrate the day. Something even more interesting occurred in Mexico City three years ago, when they made the last film of the James Bond series. While filming, they closed the city center and displayed large papier-mâché figures with the faces of men and women, especially the so-called Catrina, drawn in the style of the caricaturist of the Mexican Revolution, José Guadalupe Posada.
Since then, the city puts on a Día de Muertos parade and there are many other related events throughout the country, making the holiday considerably more significant. As with other traditions everywhere, this one is changing according to the whims of the organizers and participants, perhaps forgetting what it was that led the Teotihuacanos, Mayas and Aztecas to hold a day of remembrance for their dead that left the religious Spaniards frustrated by what they saw as something demonic.
Victor Reyes is a teacher, translator and native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to the Light. A Spanish-language version of this column was published last week.