- By Pedro Noé Morales
It is October and the shrubs in my backyard begin to show signs of the inevitable New England foliage. As usual, this yearly ritual of nature is underpinned by an organic cadence which is as true in my adopted Boston as it is in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the beautiful vistas of the Southwest. Just as deep, widespread, and breathtaking is the Mexican holiday cycle of rejoining with our beloved departed, otherwise known as the Day of the Dead, to be observed from October 31st - November 2nd.
Underneath all the gradual changes and distractions of the change of season, a torrent of memories and dormant spirits stirs within me, with sounds of old melodies bouncing in my head, and the unexpected aroma of hot fruit punch with allspice fills my nostrils, an ambush of warmth and nostalgia. I know the time has come to pass these joyful sorrows of cultural heritage to my sons. As I reflect back, I am unsure where to start.
How do I explain to them that the finality of death does not apply to the Mexican ethos? Furthermore, how do I show them that we as Mexicans actually feed off that pain, to carry us on until we reunite again with our beloved departed in the land of the spirits.
I find it helpful that nature finds a way to guide my feelings, emotions, and memories. I see the fields around me accumulating colorful falling leaves in these weeks before the festivities just as I feel the spirits of loved ones detaching from their permanent place under my skin and finding their way to the surface, forcing a sudden smile or releasing imprisoned tears fermented for what seems ages in quiet pain.
Thinking back to my childhood, I see a young boy running around the Tepeyac cemetery, in Juárez, Mexico, fetching a straw broom and water to sweep my grandfather’s grave and feed the marigolds stationed at each side of the headstone with his name: Jesus Morales. He died when I was five. Grandpa was a carpenter and craftsman, his wife and children spoke to him with respect and even fear, but not me. I would run to him upon his arrival from work screaming with joy and putting my arms around his neck hoping to feel his warm embrace. His thoughtful demeanor seemed larger than life to me as I watched him drink his black coffee, extra hot, sitting on his chair, his black eyes peeking through his glasses. I would bask in his radiant smile and giggle when he called me nones: his nickname for me meaning odd one, and a play on my middle name Noé. I was his favorite grandson.
Of those early years celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico, I carry vivid memories of a sea of candle lights, the scent of the white smoke of copal mixing with the fresh marigold flowers dressing the cemetery in vivid orange, yellow, and deep reds. These flowers framed the background of a scene lived yearly for thousands of years before the Spanish conquistadores ever walked on earth.
What resonates with me throughout the years is the incessant cacophony of Mexican music being performed in serenades for the dead. For some, a quiet and humble performance, a cappella or accompanied by a simple guitar or accordion. For others, a loud extravaganza featuring performances by professional romantic trios, full mariachi groups, or marching bands.
Thousands of altars and countless offerings feature basic things like water, soft drinks, fresh fruit, and candy, and other more elaborate ones serve mole, tamales, carnitas, greasy chicharron with salsa Valentina, cheese nachos, topped with heavy cream, sweet corn, and jalapeños, a great assortment of tacos and other street foods, freshly made tortillas, beans cooked in clay pots, tequila, mezcal, rum, 40 oz beer bottles of all brands, cigarettes, and even marijuana joints, prepared for the journeying spirits who came to spend the night with us and share the essence of the things they most loved in life.
As a kid, I could not help but wonder if it had not been precisely the consumption of some of these offerings that did the poor souls in to begin with, yet, I found myself proud of the humble souls, so committed to the small pleasures of life, even if it killed them.
The church bells rang at midnight, their deep sound dressed the celebration with an air of solemnity, a validation from up high. Nobody said the words but we all knew the sound signaled the realms of the living and the dead were now in full connection, and that all arches built on the altars were now magically activated with souls traveling from the land of the spirits to us, following the scent of the flowers. With urgency, I interrupted my grandmother’s prayers asking “How would he find us grandma?” I was curious. “La sangre llama a la sangre, hijo, he will always find his way to us no matter where we are.”
At the time I could not put it into words, but I was not sure what role the various crosses, pictures of saints and of the Virgin of Guadalupe played in an altar for our ancestors and loved ones. With time and deep study I came to see these gestures for what they are: a Christian intrusion into a very intimate family celebration they could not fully eliminate or tame to their will.
Academics called this power play religious syncretism. For over a century scholars have gone back and forth discussing the difference between the “guided” versus “spontaneous” expressions of this syncretic phenomenon within Christianity, particularly Catholicism. Not surprising, it was the Church that had to find a way to bring the wide range and diversity of local Native practices around ancestor worshiping in line with itself.
The Church chose the Feast of All Souls, where the faithful departed are remembered within Catholic tradition. In this case, the Church underscores the word “faithful,” so as to remind us that only those who died in good terms with the Christian God will enjoy everlasting life in His kingdom. As arrogant as I find this position, it is at least an attempt to find common ground with a celebration the Christian corporation desperately tried to obliterate. Right-wing evangelicals, on the other hand, don’t even pretend to care. They simply condemn these ritual practices as misguided at best and death-worshiping and, therefore, satanic, at worst.
What is clear to me now is that all Christians in their zealotry fail to see the fallacy of their desire to introduce the ever-lasting love and mercy of God to the Native people of the Americas, who never asked for it. Instead, they introduced entire Native populations to the short-lived mercy of men, to their inhumane violence, their rapacious greed and gargantuan thirst for power.
I am convinced these Mexican traditions would have continued with or without Church approval, just as I am sure they will endure long after Christianity as we know it is no more.
As a curious note, I see a similar thing happening with secular mega corporations, like Disney, Target, and Walmart, to name a few. They are now producing movies and pushing merchandise as “must have” items for celebrating the memories of loved ones on Day of the Dead. Mexican Day of the Dead has gone transnational. However, these profit-driven giants painfully miss the central idea of the holiday which is not to remember--we do that year round--but to re-join in our very flesh with the spirits of our dead family and friends. But this distinction is tomato tomatoe when all that matters is corporate earnings.
Having lived in Mexico during part of my formative years, and living now as a member of a cultural minority in the United States, I find myself partial to those who will resist religious and secular pressures and actively seek to transculturate rather than simply settle for the tranquilizing effects of syncretism. I see this choice as both my birthright and one of the most far reaching responsibilities to myself and my children. My job is to teach them the true history of their bloodlines behind their identity, and I mean to show them all of it--the good, the bad, the ugly, as well as the most beautiful practices our Indigenous ancestors left for us to follow, so we can always know who we are and where we are from. They succeeded under conditions of prolonged slavery and intense violence in passing along their sacred ways by depositing their know-how in receptive minds and in faithful hearts. My three sons will learn all I can teach them of our ancient ways and they will have to pick and choose what they will incorporate into their own practices as they age.
Soon it will be time to set the altar, the arch of marigold flowers has become larger this year to accommodate the large number of loved ones taken by COVID-19. The copal will burn, merging its white aromatic smoke with the scent of flowers and fruit punch made fresh with clove, hot cider, and allspice. There will be water and hot chocolate, lots of Mexican candy will be peppered over the altar for the little ones. There will be mole and tamales, fresh fruits, tequila, and even cigarettes for uncle Jose Luis; extra-hot black coffee for Grandpa Jesus and mariachi music played from my phone for my dear friend Gamaliel. Fresh petals will connect the altar in the living room to my house’s main door. In this space next to the kitchen, my family and I will reunite once again for a few hours the night of November 1st to the morning hours of November 2nd. There won’t be a church bell validating our reunion but my uncle Jorge will love the red hot tamales and my cousin Hector will enjoy the traditional pan de muerto with extra sugary bones on top made especially for him to take back to the spirit world.
And when my son Eli who, like me as a child, cannot stop asking awkward questions, in tender moments asks me how these relatives will find us in Boston, thousands of miles away from their resting place, I will tell him with rock solid convictions the words from grandma Tomasa that late night in Tepeyac--“blood finds blood, our departed will always find their way to us no matter where we find ourselves.” I will add: You, my son, just have to know yourself, hold on to your family traditions, and always be true to who you are.
Pedro Noé Morales is a researcher at the Moses Mesoamerican Archive at Harvard University and a Teaching Fellow at the Department of Anthropology and the Harvard Divinity School, where he focuses on Ancient Mesoamerican Cultures and Societies, the Comparative Study of Religion, and the evolution of religious practices in the Latino-Diaspora in Latin American and within the United States.
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