Growing up Catholic in a large, extended German immigrant family in Canada with more relatives than I can possibly count, death was as natural as life itself. But no one “does death” quite like the Mexicans do as witnessed in Puerto Vallarta on Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).
Attending Catholic school until age 11, the church was attached to our school and it was required that all students attend masses and every funeral, whether you knew the deceased or not. So, for example, I had to gaze upon a schoolmate’s 80 year old great grandmother who had been ravaged by arthritis in her open casket. (Still trying to get that one out of my head!) In our family, there were as many funerals as there were weddings, christenings and graduations. And they were celebrated the same way. Lots of family and friends, lots of food and tons of booze: it was a party and celebration, no matter what the occasion was. With funerals though, there was a bit more sadness and crying as the loved one was discussed and remembered.
In Mexico, Nov. 2 is a national holiday that celebrates both life and death. But Día de los Muertos has been celebrated in Mexico since as early as the 1500s; its roots began with the Aztecs roughly 3,000 years ago. This celebration is rich in rituals and expresses the unique and exceptional relationship that Mexicans have with death and with their ancestors. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, it is believed that spirits return from the afterlife to reconvene with their loved ones. Nov. 1 honours the souls of children, called angelitos (little angels), who have passed away, while Nov. 2 culminates with a celebration for the souls of adults and the La Caravana de la Muerte parade. This year, it was great to see entertainment again in the Los Arcos Amphitheater.
The city is filled with altars that typically include a photo of the departed as well as steps that are filled with ofrendas (the offerings) that include gifts and food left for the loved one as a way to welcome he or she home. Altars for children offer candy and toys. The streets start to overflow with decorations, windows are filled with marigolds, and strings of vibrant papel picado (traditional Mexican cut paper) are strung above the streets, squares and buildings.
Honoring the tragic loss of women killed at the hands of men.
(Picture from 2019). Mexicans will never forget their beloved Selena (from 2019). If you haven’t seen the film based on this exceptional young singer’s life that was cut way too short, called Selena, see it. Jennifer Lopez depicts Selena who was tragically murdered by her long-time family friend and accountant.
One of the most recognizable symbols of The Day of the Dead celebrations is the tall female skeleton wearing a fancy hat with feathers. It came to life in the early 1900’s by artist José Guadalupe Posada who was a popular, controversial and political cartoonist. He drew and etched skeletons (calaveras) in a satirical way to remind people that they would all end up dead in the end. It is said that he drew the dandy-looking female skeleton with a fancy feathered hat because some Mexicans had aspirations to look wealthy and aristocratic like the Europeans at that time.
Famous artist and husband of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, immortalized La Catrina in one of his murals that depicted 400 years of Mexican history, “Dreams of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” The giant mural is displayed in the Diego Rivera Mural Museum in Mexico City.
Catrinas on the Malecon
Honoring their dead is taken very seriously by the Mexican people, but it is also an occasion that affords many marketing opportunities as we saw strolling the Malecon.
This year, Catrina’s were created for the loss of marine wildlife.
We can only hope that our loved ones will honor us in this way when we leave this life to go to the next one!