By JUAN DE JESÚS BREENE
PUERTO VALLARTA, Jalisco — Mexico’s two-day Day of the Dead celebration (Nov. 1 and Nov. 2) has always been an intricate element of the national culture, taking its roots in pre-Hispanic observations and incorporating Christian tweets under the watchful eyes of the Catholic Church during colonial times.
But how did celebrating the Day of the Dead become popular outside of Mexico?
Like most questions, there is both a short and and a long answer: The short answer is Hollywood ,and not that interesting (the 2015 James Bond movie “Spectre” had a lot to do with that). But a look at the long answer is much more interesting and telling.
The Catholic missionaries who settled Mexico in the early colonial days were shocked to find the common practice of indigenous groups burying their dead in near approximation of their family kitchens.
As in most cultures, all sort of rituals surrounded the veneration of the dead as a process for their spirits’ passage into a better life, and the indigenous cultures were fond of having their deceased close at hand for convenient reference.
There is archeological evidence that these practices existed as far back as Mexico’s pre-Classic era, long before the Aztec (Mexica) period when the first Franciscan monks arrived in 1524.
Yes, the nobles’ remains were often buried close to temples, but ordinary people buried their dead in their homes and prayers for the dead were part of daily domestic life in Aztec Mexico. Indigenous families would obviously never leave their homes to relocate in more structured communities because it would have been unconscionable to leave behind their dead.
As Mexico became more European, with the implementation of cemeteries and widespread Catholic influence, the customs that most people today associate with the Day of the Dead — the cleaning the dearly departed’s gravesite the day before and decorating their tombstones with orange marigold flowers and plates of their favorite foods — began to be common practices on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, the Catholic demarcation for All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, respectively.
But there is another part of Mexico’s Day of the Dead observance that is even more unique and which continues to this day: the practice of setting up private altars inside homes that not so visible to outsiders.
The dead are obviously not buried under floorboards, but according to a recent survey by the National Network of Religious Phenomena in Mexico (Rifrem), 55 percent of Mexican homes continue to have an altar in a prominent part of the house during the November holidays.
In homes that self-identify as Catholic, that percentage goes up to 64 percent, with a surprising number of altars in homes of other religions and even non-religious homes.
These altars typically display photos of the recent dead, who are generally honored in a special way during the first year of mourning.
As many Mexicans have migrated to other countries — particularly, the United States — in recent decades, they have maintained their Day of the Dead traditions, which have subsequently been assimilated into their new homelands.
¿Sure, the Hollywood James Bond flick got the ball rolling with thousands of extras painted with death masks and carrying skills in a parade in historic downtown Mexico City.
And, of course, Disney produced the animated film “Coco” in 2017, which turned the Day of the Dead into a bona fide long-weekend, come-visit-Mexico tourism attraction.
So the short answer is that Hollywood simplistically associated for the English-speaking world the Day as the Dead as a Mexican variation of the U.S. Halloween celebration on steroids. The long answer shows a tie with the very nature of indigenous Mexico.
“People are really only dead when you forget about them, and if you think about them, they are alive in your mind, they are alive in your heart,” says author Mary J. Andrade, who has penned several books on Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
“When people are creating an altar, they are thinking about that person who is gone and thinking about their own mortality, to be strong, to accept it with dignity.”