Nov 20, 2016

The Ghost of the Day of the Dead

I love places that make you realize
how tiny you and your problems are.


Instead of celebrating a tourist version of Day of the Dead, we spent time with locals. 
Here is Maria, she makes shell hangings of various sorts to sell to tourists. 
She sits on a small cot in a dark corner of her little store. 
She also crochets hats for extra income. 
She insisted on giving us two beautiful sea shells. 
We managed to talk her down to just one along with her picture. 
Another example of people with very little giving to us who have so much. 
Beautiful and kind Maria.

Very early morning fast walk/run on a deserted beach.  The sky is barely turning blue; the high tide has erased traces of yesterday’s activities.  All that meander across the sand are wind, water, dog, bird, and crab tracks.  Only the sound of lapping wavelets reach my ears.  Human activity’s presence ceased to exist for a few hours, no trash, footprints, clothing, towels, etc.  The sea is calm; the water is clear.  Dolphins are paralleling the beach seemingly pacing my progress, at times surprising the sleepy pelicans bobbing around.  The beach seems mine alone.  By the time I return, the populace is taking over: vendors, joggers, sunbathers, walkers, picnickers, musicians, and swimmers.  Jet skis are crisscrossing the bay, dolphins and pelicans quickly disappearing from the rapidly increasing insanity.  Wedding preparations are taking place near one of the hotels.  How quickly things come to life.

This grandpa was SO PROUD of his 11-year-old grand-daughter
who decorated this boat for the contest called Altars at Sea, a first in Puerto Peñasco. 
She even got to pilot the boat.  His grand-daughter was too shy to be in the photo. 
She is a very gifted student and will have to go to the US for
Advanced placement classes which are not offered here in Mexico. 
The Day of the Dead is taking on a new dimension since we’ve seen it further south in Mexico.  It is not usually celebrated this far north in Mexico (promoters would like you to think otherwise but only half of Mexico celebrates it and some banks close for the occasion) so the few festivities around town are mostly displays for the tourism industry.

Face painting for the little ones who, at times, keep it on for days.
Walking around town, I asked locals about the upcoming Day of the Dead celebration and they are quick to correct me stating: “Here we have Halloween”.  Puerto Peñasco (aka Arizona Beach) due to its remoteness from any other major Mexican cities, has been shaped and influenced much more by the US than by Mexico over the past 80 or so years. 

Marigolds for sale at entrance of cemetery. 
Cleaning of cemetery where even water truck, ambulance, and port-a-johns are made available. 
It is a joyous event.  People are singing, music is playing, stories are told. 
Food is a big part of it BBQs, beer, and sweets everywhere.
We visited the cemeteries three times before the Day of the Dead
but the clean-up seemed to happen only ON THE DAY OF…
We have already written two posts about the Day of the Dead and items relating to it (see side bar of most popular posts).  In these posts, however, we have spent little time talking about the altars and face painting – so here goes…  First thing to note is that the altars are not shrines but centerpieces for the holiday.

The evening/night brings out even more music, blankets, and candles.

Flowers cover nearly every inch of space in some instances.

Of special meaning this year: 43 for all of those
Who mysteriously disappeared from Ayotzinapa –
More golden marigolds decorating cemeteries
To recap a little, it is believed that during the Day of the Dead, the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (up to 12 years of age, called angelitos) can reunite with their families for 24 hours.  The following day, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them. 

Very simple altar

More elaborate altar.
Sugar cane stalks are used to make the arch over
the ofrenda which represents the archway to heaven. 
Then covered with palm fronds and marigolds in this case.

In most southern Mexico villages, beautiful altars (ofrendas) are made in each home.  They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds and bright red cock’s combs) mounds of fruits, peanuts, plates of the departed loved one’s favorite foods, stacks of tortillas, sugar cane pieces, and large Day of the Dead breads called pan de muerto.  That bread is usually round representing the circle of life.  Many candles line the pathway to the house where the altar is located. 

Round Day of the Dead bread. 
Two of the three catrinas we first saw in the daytime then at night. 
Quite a different sight at dark – they truly got into their role…

The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa, beer, and water for the weary spirits.  Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, cigarettes and shots of mescal are offered to the adult spirits.  Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches. 

“A Los Migrantes Caidos en su intento por cruzar la frontera.”
Altar to the fallen migrants in their attempt to cross the border.
Other important altar items are toiletry and mirror (so the visiting departed can clean up), candles, an arch, or a dog (to guide them to the altar), clothes, a cross or a picture of Jesus, framed picture of the departed, favorite items they used during their lives (saddle, shoes, book, earrings, etc.).  The altars may have various numbers of steps, 3, 4 and 7 are popular.  They represent various elements like earth, heaven, purgatory, the four directions, past, present, future, etc.  Interpretations vary greatly. 

Colorful, but mostly orange and purple for the Day of Dead celebration papel picado or cortado (cut or perforated paper) are hung above or on the altar.  Common Day of the Dead cut or perforated paper designs include smiling skulls, dancing skeletons, drinking or feasting skeletons, skeletons getting married, skeletons on horseback, in a car, riding a bicycle, singing or playing instruments.  These images are always humorous and fun, never scary, sad or macabre.  The imagery is festive and meant to only last a few days just like the sugar or chocolate skulls, the flowers, the food offerings and such.

Polynesian inspired dancers for Day of the Dead. 
Yes, Puerto Peñasco has a dance school teaching this type of dancing!
Day of the Dead is a very expensive holiday for the self-sufficient, rural based, indigenous families. Many spend from two weeks to two month’s income to honor their dead relatives. They believe that happy spirits will provide protection, good luck and wisdom to their families. Ofrenda building keeps the family close.

Very tall catrina (nearly two stories). 
We saw a few people who slept at the altars protecting them. 
Others were left completely unattended.
Festivities are also taken to the cemetery. People clean tombs, play cards, listen to bands (or, as we have seen, drive their car to the cemetery and turn the radio on very loud) and reminisce about their loved ones. The further south you go in Mexico, the more traditional the Day of the Dead becomes.  In a certain village, they still open the tombs and clean up each bone of the deceased then put them away again.  It is called bone washing (described in the following article):

These molded sugar coffins are toys to delight the returning spirits of children. Pull the string and a smiling calavera skeleton pops out of his coffin!
Altar to Two Grandmothers made by two men (their grandsons) we chatted with. 
One was from southern Mexico so he normally celebrates Day of the Dead,
the other is from here and doesn’t, but wanted to support his friend. 
Dog presence as well.  They tried to explain something about the dog also
 being a cat but I couldn’t understand the full legend.

Chocolate sugar skulls are hand molded & decorated and sold by the thousands. Candy makers work for 4-6 months to have enough merchandise for the Day of the Dead. Sugar skulls (calaveras) are sometimes eaten, but their main function is to adorn the altars and tombs with a sugary delight for the visiting spirits! Miniature candy skulls are made for the baby angelitos and are displayed on the home ofrendas then replaced with full size skulls for the returning adult spirits!  Usually the name of the departed is written on the forehead and placed on the home ofrenda or gravestone to honor the return of their spirit.

Way too much going on for this puppy, crashed out on a cross
of marigolds and two votive candles under an altar

It is a wonderful way to celebrate the memories of our loved ones who are now gone... through art, cooking, music, building ofrendas, doing activities with children, recounting family stories, fun times and lessons learned... not how the person died, but how they lived.

Everything is made to only last a few days making it troubling to see skulls made of ceramics or leather popping up in the tourist areas.  They don’t get the message of ephemerality this celebration represents.

My sister's bike but I'm incognito! – Grandpa said it was OK. 
We met the grandpa who was very proud of his grandson
trying this two-wheel bicycle much too large for him. 
Sister was busy applying her own calavera makeup
but was keeping an eye on things.
Face Painting, Halloween vs. Dia de los Muertos (from CSUN):

Sugar skull face paint is almost expected every time Halloween comes around. People enjoy painting their faces with colorful flowers and decorative designs to create this distinctive look. Although it is a fun look, it is informative to know the background of Day of the Dead being portrayed. 

“People need to understand that when they are wearing the calavera, they are painting their face with that calavera; it’s not just a mask or something to decorate their face with, what they are wearing is the symbolism of that eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth,” expressed Yreina Cervantez, a Chicano/a Studies professor at CSUN.  

“People should know the history of the symbols they choose. People who do not understand the tradition of the Day of the Dead are still attracted to its colors, its festive aspects, and its central icon, the skull or the calavera.  I do not think it is a good thing to appropriate or simply use a cultural symbol without understanding it.  The calavera Halloween makeup is seen on a lot of young people around that time but Day of the Dead isn’t Halloween.” 

Dia de los Muertos is not the Mexican version of Halloween. Mexicans have been celebrating this holiday since the years 2500-3000 B.C., tracing it back to indigenous tribes. During that holiday, people believe that the dead are awakened from their eternal sleep to be a part of the community, to share the celebrations with their loved ones. It is not a day of sadness, but of happiness to remember the ones they loved and cherished.

“You want people to understand the meaning of Day of the Dead and what they’re celebrating, that it’s not just a big party, that it does have spiritual and historical significance,” said Cervantez.

Sometimes people don’t paint their whole faces like a sugar skull, but just half of their face. There is a reason for this that pertains to the holiday, but sometimes females want the other side of their face to also show their nice makeup. 

As stated in National Geographic, “Dia de los Muertos celebrates death as a part of the human experience: Every living thing will eventually die. Every human being, no matter how beautiful or well-dressed, will eventually be exposed as nothing more than a skeleton and skull. The half-decorated calaveras recognize this duality.” 

Amparo de Jésus Rindòn Pérez, anthropologist and expert at the National Museum of Popular Culture of Mexico City, said the calavera face paintings came about as a way for individuals to ward off death.  “To wear the face paint was a way to say ‘Don’t look at me.  I’m already dead.” 

Face paint colors represent different things: 

ü  Yellow – Represents the sun and unity, because under the sun, we are all the same.
ü  White – Using this color in decorations represents spirit, hope and purity.
ü  Red – Represents blood and life.
ü  Purple – For this holiday, purple represents mourning, grief and suffering.
ü  Pink – The bubbly color signifies happiness.

As sailors, we sometimes find ourselves in marinas which usually are in touristic areas and it behooves us to question what we see and take the time to understand the culture from a locals’ perspective rather than from the promoters’ standpoint.  However, that takes time and commitment.  Language can be a barrier but not as much as you think.  With so many translating services readily available on phones today, we can sit down and chat with many more people than ever before.  The internet is another great ally for researching things more in depth.  We find our best experiences of a new culture are when we are away from these touristic areas, at anchor near small remote villages for example. 

A week or so after Day of the Dead with results from the US elections pouring in, celebration is far from our minds and the minds of Mexicans around us.  Right away, the Mexican currency went way down, a sad start… now families must fear for their safety, livelihood, etc. 

Wishing you all well.  Thank you for being such a generous, welcoming, and interesting country.

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