Nostalgia, Day of The Dead, and Anti-Colonialism through Literature
By Yael Tobón Uribe
Where I come from, the interlude of the fall is defined by the sweet smell of freshly baked bread, spiced hot chocolate, and death. While growing up, I was taught in school that the dead never leave us, and that it was our responsibility to keep them alive.
However, my family never really celebrated the Day of the Dead. We did not put-up altars for our absent loved ones––I do not even know who had left us and who had not. As a teen, I admired my friends' families who did put up altars and wondered why we did not. Maybe we were part of the growing percentage of families who were losing their traditions.
Being in a different country, I realize that I miss the atmosphere of nostalgia and remembrance that this season brings with it, and I cannot stop thinking that I can be the person in my lineage that breaks the lack of tradition to feel a little more connected with my roots, even if I am not physically in Mexico.
The Day of the Dead is one of the most beautiful festivities that exists in Mexican culture. it is one of the traditions that has survived the tragic events after the Spanish conquest. It all started in pre-Hispanic times, when it was believed by the Mexicans that the gods Mictecacíhuatl and Mictlantecuhtli decided on the destiny of the souls. These souls followed an arduous path consisting of many levels to get to their destination. On the first level, there was a river that people crossed with the help of a Xoloitzcuintle, an emblematic hairless dog from Mexico which only helped those who had treated animals well in life. Later, the souls had to overcome several obstacles such as caves, mountains, and cold winds. They were also severely injured by arrows and, ultimately, a jaguar ate their hearts. They reached a black water lagoon before getting to the ninth stage. The last level represents the passage of nine rivers. In this river, they met face to face with their emotions, and it was the last filter meant to purify the souls before getting to the place where they could finally rest.
It was after the European conquest that the history of the Day of the Dead was forgotten. The main elements of this festivity remain, like the altars, eating pan de muerto, writing literary calaveritas, and more. For the private altars, families usually include their relative’s favorite food and drinks, incense, candles, skulls (now made of sugar, chocolate, or amaranth), and cempasúchil flower petals. These flowers are placed many times from the pantheon to the altar in the family home so that the souls do not get lost on their way.
I am a creative writing student so, naturally, I need to mention a Day of the Dead literary tradition. During October and November, children and adults write what are known as literary calaveritas. These are poems with a rich history: For a long time, it was believed that composing poetic verse was exclusive to the privileged elites, but literary "skulls" present the opportunity for everyone to create a bit of poetry during these times of remembrance. Mexicans mock death in this type of literature by using sarcasm and satire to eulogize the living in poetic verse.
This last point brings me to the essay by the great writer Octavio Paz, "All Saints, Day of the Dead", which I find funny, provocative, and extremely sentimental. The perfect complement to this fall season. In pre-Hispanic tradition, the objective of human sacrifices (a thing that scandalized the Spanish) was the collective good, or as Paz explains, to ensure the continuity of creation and "cosmic health":
"For the ancient Mexicans, the opposition between death and life was not as absolute as it is for us. Life was prolonged in death. And vice versa. Death was not the natural end of life, but a phase of an infinite cycle. Life, death, and resurrection were stages of a cosmic process, which was repeated insatiably.”
I would like to say that even I learned something new after writing this article. As I mentioned before, I am part of a family that is far removed from tradition. In taking advantage of the intrinsic introspective quality that these cold and nostalgic months carry, maybe that can change. Now more than ever, I long to be home, where the walls are warm, my mom is preparing hot chocolate, and there is a big loaf of pan de muerto on the table. As we eat it, we meditate on the fragility of our everyday, the impermanence of everything, and the afterlife. We conclude that we will never truly be alone.
The tradition of the Day of the Dead is in me and, like everything, if it is nourished, then it will grow.
Paz, Octavio. “Todos los Santos, Día de Muertos.,” UNAM.