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PERSPECTIVE ON MEXICO : 'Day of the Dead'--a Culture Dying : As Mexican children embrace the fun of our Halloween, the mystical, holy day traditions are slipping away.

October 29, 1993|JANELLE CONAWAY | Janelle Conaway is a reporter for the Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal

If you drive down Mexico City's Paseo de la Reforma at this time of year, you'll see street vendors in devil's horns selling Batman costumes and plastic jack-o'-lanterns. Halloween mania has hit Mexico full-force.

This is just one small example of how the United States has invaded Mexico in the past few years. You can now shop at a Wal-Mart Super Center in Mexico City and eat at McDonald's in the capital's upscale Zona Rosa. And this is only going to get worse--or better, I suppose, if you love homogenization--as free trade becomes more of a reality.

The export of Halloween seems trivial on the surface; after all, it's a trivial holiday. But that's what bothers me. At this time of year, Mexico traditionally observes the Day of the Dead-- El Dia de los Muertos-- a mysterious, even mystical, holy day that is far from trivial. Some people wonder whether this rich tradition can survive the competition of mindless trick-or-treating.

Last year, as I traveled in the central Mexican state of Michoacan, people kept asking me to explain Halloween to them. "What does it mean?" they asked, as if Americans give much thought to our goblins, ghosts and ghouls.

It was no wonder they were curious, though; Halloween symbols seemed to be in the most remote places. Outside the tiny mountain town of Angangueo, along a rutted dirt road, a one-room schoolhouse had black paper witches taped to the windows.

Children in Mexico love Halloween; it's a chance to dress up in costumes and have a party, said Cleotilde Valle, who works at the State Museum in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan. The problem is that as they embrace the fun--which they learn about through television--the kids drift away from their own traditions.

"It's as if we don't notice what's happening," said Valle.

In the fall, she visits Morelia schools and tries to teach children about El Dia de los Muertos, about the meaning of the corn and marigolds and candles laid out on altars and headstones. For hundreds of years, she tells them, people have set out food and drink for the deceased on this holiday, so that the spirit of the person will return and taste the essence of the meal and find relief from hunger or thirst in the afterlife.

The Day of the Dead does have a playful side; part of looking death in the face involves learning to laugh at it. Street vendors hawk necklaces with glow-in-the-dark skeleton pendants and bakers make bread shaped like bones.

But still, it all gets a little more complicated than putting on a costume and begging for candy.

Mexican journalist Tzentzangari Ibarra wrote about the insidious appeal of the imported holiday. It's easier to explain the superficial ghosts and goblins of Halloween to a child than to delve into the murky waters of the Day of the Dead, she said. After all, a ghost is just a sheet with holes in it that floats through the air and scares people.

"By contrast, a tradition like that of the offerings (placed on graves) implies a whole concept of the world, an amalgam of pagan beliefs and Christian faith, an intimate relationship between the living and the dead within the same world, divided only by the lines of eternal sleep."

In this world, she wrote, ghosts are not pranksters in sheets but ethereal beings with faces and bodies who wander about searching for answers so they can finally begin their eternal rest. Death, Ibarra said, is only a bridge between places. There are moments when the bridge can be crossed and the dead and the living meet. "Life and death are two faces of the same coin."

This tradition is still very much part of the national consciousness. Even in Mexico City, with its Burger Kings and Kentucky Fried Chickens, stores stock the trademark Day of the Dead candy skulls and bone-shaped bread. And throughout Mexico, cemeteries are packed on Nov. 2, as people take flowers to the graves of loved ones.

But it's not hard to imagine that someday the more mystical side of the holiday will be hard to find, or that it will become little more than a quaint tourist attraction.

That saddens me. Last year, on the night of Nov. 1, I held vigil in a candlelit cemetery in Janitzio, an island in Lake Patzcuaro. The air was filled with the weedy scent of marigolds and a chilly breeze blew off the lake. In the pre-dawn quiet, after most of the tourists had gone, the place took on a sense of serenity and otherworldliness.

A lone, wrinkled woman sat by a grave staring into a candle flame, two plates of bread covered with cloths set before her as an offering. At other graves, parents and their children curled up in shawls to nap as they waited throughout the night. Perhaps the souls of their loved ones, wandering in darkness, would find their way by the light of the candles, along the paths of flowers.

"Although they may not be with us physically or materially," one woman said, "you still sense them."

I hope this sense of mystery survives the invasion of Halloween. But once you open the doors wide to the vast marketing machine behind American commerce, it's pretty hard to stop change.

Certainly not all change is bad. I know that Mexico needs to form closer ties to this country, because it needs to create more productive jobs for its citizens. But I still feel a touch of sadness when I see another taqueria replaced by a McDonald's, or when witches on broomsticks reach a schoolhouse near Angangueo.

Ross Perot yammers on about the sucking sound of jobs heading south, but we need to remember that there are losses on both sides, and some cannot be replaced.

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