El Día de Los Muertos: A Question of Life or Death?

I’m playing catch-up with this blog at the moment. We have been so busy that it’s been difficult to motivate myself to do this in my spare time. Something I have noticed though is that since I began writing, despite not being a particularly active writer, I am always thinking about the next post, about how to approach it and describe it to help people understand how I felt at the time. I am someone who often lives with their head in the clouds. I rarely know where I’m going, I often forget about cups of tea that I have just made and on a bad day, you might find me pumping liquid soap onto my toothbrush. In fact, my granny once wrote a bit of prose about me in our holiday home guestbook which says something along the lines of “ and her long dark hair, falls to the ground, of which she is not mentally aware”.

I’m glad to say this blog has helped to ground me a little (but not too much). I find I remember events in richer detail and equally, the characters I encountered within them. This blog post is one of such nature. It marked the beginning of our true traveling lives.

After a slightly indulgent week in Puerto Vallarta, our first experience of Mexico, we took a bus northwards about two hours to a well-known hippy surf spot called Sayulita. With the weight of our rucksacks heavy on our backs, the sun high in the sky, and our bowels in disarray, the realities of traveling began to hit home. Upon dismounting the bus, we were pointed in the general direction of our airbnb and walked for five minutes before reaching the address. An elderly man weathered by the hot sun sat at the entrance in a wheelchair, apparently clueless as to who us gringos were. After a small bit of chat in my rusty Spanish which led us absolutely nowhere, we began to hear my name being called by multiple female voices from inside the house.

“Ellie! Ellie! Ellie!”

And so we met our host. And her mother, her aunt, her nephew and her son. Por supuesto, we had already met her grandfather. This was our family for the next week and a half.

Sayulita may have truly been a hippy spot once upon a time but in my opinion, as it has become a more popular destination amongst young people, the good-natured concept of “eco-friendly” has become the less affordable “eco-chic”. Beautiful boutique shops were easy to find but the prices of the artisan goods were hiked up so much that I soon gave up even window shopping. It was simply too much of a tease.

Having studied Spanish for six years in secondary school, I was familiar with the Latin-American celebration of the Day of the Dead or El Día de Los Muertos as it was a common topic for reading and listening comprehensions. My impression at the time of this slightly unusual festival was that it was a time, just after our Halloween, in which people celebrated the lives of lost loved ones. Generally speaking they do this by getting together in a large procession, visiting the local cemeteries and showering the graves with gifts of flowers, photos, food and so on, celebrating life like Mexicans do- until the darkness of the night has passed and the day is starting yet again.

The main square of the town was buzzing with locals, setting up for the festival events. Elaborately decorated shrines with offerings of sweets, cigarettes, alcohol and more were on show for everyone to see and members of the family were often found standing beside them, happy to share stories about the person in the photograph of the centerpiece. And it wasn’t only people that were being commemorated. There were dogs and cats and I think I even remember a tortoise in one of them… While walking around and taking all of this in, we had to be cautious of where we placed our feet as it wasn’t just around us or above us that decorations could be found. Laid before us on the ground were products of hours of work by not just one person but teams of maybe six or seven. Intricate designs such as skulls, flowers or flamenco dancers made out of dyed beans and rice in vibrant colours decorated the pavement, not a grain of rice out of place.

It was too easy to forget what this was all about as the colours and festivities overwhelmed us. The whole community seemed ecstatic with the anticipation of the night to come and it was strange to relate this back to death because it felt entirely the opposite.

While my understanding grew of this unique celebration, there was one path in the main square that thwarted my understanding. This particular path was decorated with arches spanning from one side to the other, and arrangements of real flowers sprouting up from the pavement. At the foot of these arches was a single line of small white boxes on either side of the path. Beside these boxes were notices with names of baby daughters and sons, dates depicting their short lives, and photographs of their tiny feet and hands, miniature doll-like clothes and favourite toys. Despite their lives being barely lived, they were celebrated in the exact same manner as everyone else’s. Though I found it difficult to forget the cruel reality, you had to have respect for how their families wish to remember them- for the happiness they brought them and the infinite love they will always represent.

After asking some locals about what us, as tourists, could do to join in the celebrations, we were told that though indeed the festival extends over a few nights, it is the night of the children that is the main celebration. We would be welcomed to watch the shows put on by local music and dance groups in the square and afterwards join everybody in the candlelit procession to the local graveyard. So this was our plan, to become a local for a night and celebrate their history with them.

Around the town we would catch glimpses of girls with full faces of face paint and make-up, dressed as the ghoulish character, Catrina, with blackened eyes, white skin and skull-like features. They really committed to their cause as well, we even saw them riding on horseback through town in full traditional wear from head to toe despite the stifling heat. Wanting to fit in, I asked a few girls where I might be able to get my make-up done, having packed little with me that would have the right impact, but they all had theirs done in the city or did it themselves so I gave up and went home to just get changed into some relatively halloween-ee attire. After a quick turnaround, I came out of my room and in one final attempt to look the part, I asked my host if she knew anyone who would do my face paint. The next few minutes are a blur as my host, her mother and aunt whipped out their make-up bags packed with red lipsticks, thick black eyeliner, bright pink blusher and the likes. After requesting something “traditional”, my eyes were soon being prodded and poked, my cheeks being rubbed and my face feeling more waxy by the second. These ladies preferred using their fingers to brushes and with a touch that was far from delicate, I was beginning to worry that I was going to look a little less Catrina and a little more cabaret. After about forty minutes and much scrutinization, the ladies took a step back and whipped out a small hand mirror. Dave had been patiently waiting in the corner playing guitar but I knew when I got the nod of approval from him, it was all good. My friend Eddie had also been transformed for the night, and we were delighted with our new faces and to have made a connection with this warm and welcoming family. After a quick photo we set off into the night, bottles of wine in hand.

Día de Los Muertos Make-Up

Back in the main square, the show was well underway. I was brought back to my days of ballet shows as I watched tiny little dancers all doing the same steps at different times, some with intense concentration and others with the vagueness that comes with being so innocent. A young boy coupled with an adult mariachi band blew me away with his assured performance of traditional Mexican songs, belting the lyrics with palpable emotion behind each word. The show was a culmination of so much work from every member of the community and we got the sense that something important was happening, something healing and unique and this sense only became stronger as the night went on.

When the show was over, the crowd dispersed a little, to grab some street food or for some, to go home. After a short wait, the same crowd reconvened and led by their candles, we joined them as they made their way to the cemetery. This was not a solemn procession or even a quiet one for that matter. People were laughing and drunk, the sound of brass instruments pierced through the din of the conversation and yet we were walking to a cemetery, a place commonly represented in media as a place we should fear, a place of cold and darkness. This wasn’t like that at all. The cemetery sloped downwards, almost as a natural amphitheater and the mariachi band positioned themselves at the very bottom in the center, people on all sides of them, as well as a fridge full of beer. Graves were decorated as the main square had been, looking even more spectacular in the flickering candlelight. And then the music began. Song after song after song resounded through the night air, led by the mariachi band with the audience echoing each syllable with undeniable enthusiasm. At no point did I feel as though the people around me were mourning a loss. At no point did I feel that I, as a tourist, was out of place or intruding upon a private family matter. It was an environment of light despite the darkness, of life despite death and it was nothing short of magical.

Walking home that night, we were both filled with optimism and a sense that we had experienced something we may not ever have the good fortune of experiencing again. But we have carried our memories of that night with us and reflected on them with each other with the conclusion that Mexicans do it right. It’s not a question of life or death as you cannot have one without the other. It is a question of both, and both deserve a celebration.

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