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Mexico violence casts shadow over Day of the Dead

FOREIGN EXCHANGE

Residents can't forget victims of the drug war during a holiday that celebrates death.

November 02, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Mexico City — So many dead.

It is often said that Mexicans famously celebrate death; that it is viewed not just as the end of life but a single stage in an infinite cycle.

The Mexican, as poet Octavio Paz once put it, does not fear death but "mocks it, courts it, embraces it, sleeps with it."

But this year, as Mexicans picnic at cemeteries and erect elaborate altars to mark the nation's annual Day of the Dead observances, death is haunting in its abundance.

Mexicans face the stark reality of a drug war that has plunged the country into its deadliest violence since the revolution 100 years ago.

So many dead. Tens of thousands, in just a few years.

And thus the colorful ceremonies and memorials this year have taken on a darker tone, an acknowledgment of the staggering toll of the recent past, confronting it rather than ignoring it.

In Mexico City's central Zocalo plaza, the so-called Mega Ofrenda, an elaborate and enormous shrine with offerings of flowers, food, drink and artworks to the dead, also features political messages: Let's hope Felipe (Calderon, the president) saves us from the narcos so there may be no more dead.

Though written, in its Spanish version, in playful rhyme, the message is clear: Help.

Outside the federal attorney general's office on Mexico City's wide, tree-lined Paseo de la Reforma, a group of people use their Day of the Dead offerings to protest the bloodletting that has spread across much of the nation. Decorating a sidewalk with the orange marigolds typical of the holiday, they criticize the "absurd war" that they said is increasingly claiming the lives of young people. "In Mexico, to be young is now synonymous with death," read one of their placards.

At the iconic gilded Angel of Independence monument are altars to many of the freshly dead. The 49 toddlers killed in a preschool fire in the city of Hermosillo — not victims of the drug war but emblematic nonetheless of Mexico's current tragedies — are saluted along with dozens of journalists killed, presumably by drug traffickers.

Elsewhere, police agencies remember the multitudes of their fallen members; others honor the memory of the leading candidate for governor in the troubled state of Tamaulipas, assassinated in broad daylight days before the election.

At a city human rights office here, an altar highlights the tragedy of 72 immigrants, mostly from Central America, slain en masse by traffickers, also in Tamaulipas.

In just the last 11 days, 48 mostly young people were killed in four separate massacres in different cities, including the capital, prompting some columnists and activists to speak of juvenicidio, or the systematic slaughter of youths.

At some memorials, banners read "LutoXmexico," a slogan meaning "Mourning for Mexico." It is part of an ad hoc movement of civic anti-violence groups that has sprung up in recent days, staging numerous offerings and, on Monday, filling the social-media networks.

"In Mexico it is now normal that every day is a Day of the Dead," one participant said.

Tuesday is the official Day of the Dead holiday, originally an indigenous custom timed by Mexico's Spanish conquerors to follow the Roman Catholic All Saints' Day on Nov. 1. As much as the promoters of Halloween try to supplant Dia de los Muertos, the two here end up combining into a long period of festejo.

Children who engage in Day of the Dead solicitations of sweets and money, similar to trick-or-treating, chant the phrase, "Give me my calaverita." The word literally means "little skull."

In a cartoon in Monday's Reforma newspaper, a child asks President Calderon for a calaverita. Calderon, standing in front of a large pile of human skulls reminiscent of a killing field, says, "What? More?"

"Never has it been more significant than it is today to commemorate" this holiday, columnist Antonio Navalon said in Monday's El Universal newspaper. "Today we remember the babies and the dead youth, the harvest most tragic and most abundant of the year."

wilkinson@latimes.com

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