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Día de los Muertos - Day of the Dead in Mexico

MEXICO | Thursday, 5 November 2009 | Views [610]

It is a fairly broadly accepted truth that Mexicans have a different, more complex relationship with death than those north of the border. The long-standing traditions of the Mexican culture have spawned further celebrations around the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, the most obvious of which being Halloween. This year I had the opportunity to witness this most famous Mexican tradition in action, but I also saw the cracks that are appearing in the multi-faceted and complex modern-day Mexican culture.

Día de los Muertos, in its purest traditions, is a time for the living to reestablish contact with their lost loved ones. Cemeteries burst with colour as they are adorned with elaborate floral decorations, and they fill with the families of those who are buried within its confines. The traditions vary from town to town and region to region, but generally those loved ones left behind will light candles and stay in the cemetery for the entire night, when the spirits will join them for this one time of the year. The next morning, food is cooked and eaten and the dead are honoured and remembered by the presence of their family.

Today, traditions are changing. There is another Día de los Muertos tradition that is trampling the original, and unfortunately it comes from tourism. The towns that most famously established themselves as places retaining their traditional ways are converting into drinking grounds overrun by tourists, many of whom appear to have little concern for the heritage of the religious holiday. It is difficult to see how the tradition can survive in these conditions.

I started my Día de los Muertos holiday in Morelia, the capital city of Michoacán. Morelia is a great example of a city that has adapted its traditions to encourage tourism; throughout the week leading up to the 2nd of November there were plenty of exhibitions, performances and displays around the city, most of which could be enjoyed free of cost. We saw groups of mariachi performing in the zócalo, watched a parade wind through the streets, witnessed a light and fireworks show at the main cathedral and wandered through candlelit recreations of flowering cemeteries in the various squares of the city, whilst sampling the food and soaking up the atmosphere. We spent our night at a costume party and reveled with the locals in the festive spirit of the city.

The next day we headed to Patzcuaro, a small town that is renowned for its Day of the Dead celebrations and as a result receives thousands of tourists from all over Mexico every November. The unfortunate side effect of this is that the town becomes completely overrun, and unlike the much larger Morelia, it doesn't have the organised infrastructure to cope with the influx of visitors.

We took a boat to the Isle of Janitzio, where we were promised to witness the traditions of this religious holiday in one of their best manifestations. The atmosphere was so lively that at 2am it still did not feel late, because everyone was still out on the streets. First we climbed to the top of the island, where hundreds of young people had gathered to get drunk. That is all - the monument of the island becomes an outdoor drinking zone and for the teenagers who gathered there, that's what Día de los Muertos is all about. More than a bit disappointed, we went back down to the cemetery and there we found the traditions being observed, but they were well buried beneath layers of tourists and extremely intoxicated locals. Indigenous women kneeled at the graves of their loved ones, wrapped in blankets against the cold, as tourists trod a path around them taking photos of their mourning. The mood was not eery, or supernatural, as it supposedly should be. It was simultaneously rowdy and subdued, echoing a tradition being lost piece by piece.

The Day of the Dead celebrations form a cornerstone in the Mexican tradition, and are a source of cultural pride for the country. The roots of this tradition are seriously under threat. Despite the negative tone of this article I truly enjoyed my time in Morelia and Patzcuaro for the holiday, but I came away with a real sense of loss for the traditions that make the Mexican culture so unique and fascinating. I can only hope that the Mexican people, particularly town councils and event organisers, will also recognise the danger and move towards creating a religious holiday that both celebrates the traditions and helps to preserve them.

Tags: day of the dead, dia de los muertos, mexico, morelia, patzcuaro

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