Mexico’s Day of the Dead

Calaveras by Jose Guadalupe Posada.

Today, November 2nd, is All Soul’s Day on the Catholic calendar and Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. The indigenous people of Mexico have always had a unique relationship with death. For the pre-Hispanic Mexican, the concept of good and bad at the time of death did not exist – there was no heaven or hell, nothing to fear. There was no thought of final judgment and no thought of reincarnation. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived during the sixteenth century the concept of death evolved into an ordeal of dreaded proportions. European Catholicism introduced Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.

Reclaiming Identity

By the 1800s a tide of nationalism swept through Mexico and the underpinning of European domination began to wane. After centuries of exploitation the indigenous Mexican began to reclaim their identity. Their early belief system included a belief in spirits, not the fear of death. Paintings of Death as a jovial skeleton began to appear. Skeleton puppets, toys and skulls made from sugar became popular at street markets. All of Mexico began to celebrate on November 2nd the return of the souls of loved ones. The spirits of family members came back to their burial place and to the homes where they once lived. There were no tears or prayers for the dead. Dia de los Muertos became a joyous event for the families and the eternal spirit of their loved ones.

A Mexican calavera by Jose Posada.

Ironically, New Mexico was a part of Mexico from 1821–1846 but the tradition of Dia de los Muertos did not become popular until the latter part of the twentieth century. For over two hundred years New Mexico was a part of Spain and most Hispanics identified as being Spanish Americans, in spite of the fact that the state shared more cultural characteristics with Mexico. Following the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920 the corridos (folk ballads) of Mexico like Un Puño de Tierra, (A Fistful of Dirt) became very popular in New Mexico.

Dia de los Muertos in New Mexico

Slowly the Mexican concept of death crept into New Mexico’s collective psyche and several of those ballads continue to fill the airways and are sung at funerals. By the 1980s the Mexican community in New Mexico had also grown significantly with its cultural characteristics becoming main stream. Today, big celebrations of Dia de los Muertos are held on November 2nd in the state and in major Hispanic communities throughout the Southwest.

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