Where flowers and food speak to the dead
Tamales, tequila shots and marigold petals marked the Mexicans' celebration of the dead.india Updated: Nov 02, 2005 14:20 IST
Mexican families left tamales, tequila shots and a blazing trail of marigold petals in cemeteries across the country on Tuesday in the annual celebration of their dead.
Laying gifts on elaborate marble tombs and humble mounds of soil, they sought to lure home the spirits of departed loved ones in an ancient rite that dates back to pre-Hispanic times.
"We bring fruit, sweet breads and tamales because we want the dead to come back and eat," retiree Julia Perez said as she tended a dusty plot where her parents, grandparents and two younger brothers were buried.
Drawing on beliefs of the Tarascan people in central Mexico that the dead can return from the underworld, the carnival begins on November 1 with the Day of the Innocents to honour departed children, and ends with the Day of the Dead on November 2 for adults.
Fused with Catholic festivals of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, it is one of the most deep-rooted traditions in Mexico, celebrated by millions of people from Mayan Indians in the tropical south to urban professionals in Mexico City.
It is particularly strong in San Andres Mixquic, a town of ancient market gardens or chinampas, where a skeletal statue of Mixquixtli, the goddess of life and death, still stands vigil in the cloistered church patio.
Local residents and tourists stock up on pungent incense, apples, flowers and sweet breads in packed street stalls in the centre of the town, before filing into the cemetery to roam among the graves.
"It's a happy occasion because, according to the old beliefs, the spirits of our departed are coming home," school teacher Maria Eugenia Martinez said with a smile.
The jaunty carnival is celebrated across Mexico. In some Mayan villages in the Yucatan peninsula, residents remove the bones of loved ones from family tombs, cleaning and caressing them ahead of the two-day rite.
In Michoacan state, Purepecha Indians hold all-night vigils at village cemeteries near Lake Patzcuaro in celebrations that culminate late on November 1 as a flotilla of canoes push out to an island to welcome the dead home.
Across the country, families set up altars in homes, restaurants and offices, beckoning home the souls of the dead with photographs and cherished keepsakes amid an array of candy skulls, chocolates and their favorite food or alcohol.
Offerings include "pan de muerto," a cake sprinkled with sugar and decorated to look like bones, as well as tequila shots and a glass of water to quench the returning soul's thirst following a long journey from the underworld.
Newspapers take a comic swipe at the fleeting vanities of the living on Day of the Dead, publishing mock verse obituaries of political leaders and public figures, dubbed "calaveras" or "skulls."
Each year commentators complain the tradition is being eroded by Halloween customs from over the U.S. border and a growing preference in the capital for cremations. But Mixquic residents say celebrations are as strong as ever.
"Here we bury our dead just like in the old times," flower seller Carmen Galindo, 69, said as she tended a stall piled high with bunches of gladioli and lilies outside the colonial church.
"Neither Halloween nor a fashion for cremations will change anything."