Mexico, as many know, is a Mestizo culture resulting from the encounter of the Spanish and Prehispanic peoples and no celebration reflects this better than Day of the Dead. It is a great example that shows how these two cultures gave birth to a new one, by understanding the Mexican concept of death.
The Ancient Mesoamerican people considered that life and death were absolutely intertwined. Therefore, death was not the end of life, but a continuation of it and the arrival onto a different stage.
Octavio Paz, Mexican poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature wrote in his masterpiece, “Labyrinth of Solitude”: “Life was prolonged in death. Death was not the natural end of life, but the phase of an infinite cycle. Life, death and resurrection were stages of a cosmic process, which was insatiable. Life had no higher function than leading to death”.
To the Ancient Mesoamericans, death was sometimes the most important honor someone could ever receive, as when they were chosen as a sacrifice to benefit the community. For instance, in many cultures, those who were to be offered as a sacrifice to the Gods, were first themselves treated as Gods during an entire year.
According to Paz: “The sacrifice had a double object: on the one hand, man acceded to the creative process of paying the gods the debt contracted by the species; on the other, it fed the cosmos. Our indigenous ancestors did not believe that their death belonged to them, as they never thought that their life was really theirs “.
The concepts of death and life suffered a major change in Mexican ideosincrasy after the Spanish conquest, as the rite of sacrifice became a personal and not a collective one. “The death of Christ saves every man in particular. Each one of us is the Man and in each one of us are deposited the hopes of the human species. Redemption is a personal work”, says Paz.
The commemoration of All Saint’s Day, or Día de todos los santos, celebrated on November 1st according to Christian tradition, was a perfect example of “connecting” Mesoamerican beliefs with Christian ones as the Catholic religion celebrated departed souls, who, having gone through Purgatory, were sanctified and thus deserved to enjoy eternal life in the presence of God. In a certain way, both beliefs arrived at the concept that life continues after death. The result was Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos.
Precisely, the idea that life goes on after death, and that our beloved ones return to visit us every November 2nd, is a celebration of life for modern Mexicans. We celebrate the meals, the moments, and the love shared with our family members and friends who have passed away; we toast them with tequila and mezcal, with all the laughter and love that still lives within us. Paradoxically, by remembering death we celebrate life.
Or viewed from another perspective, a culture that celebrates death is in reality, one that celebrates life itself.
Mario González @melkmanmx