Saturday, November 1, 2008

El dia de los Muertos 11.1.08

Last night was the 'Day of the Dead' parade in downtown Mazatlan and a group of cruisers all went down for the festivities. We jumped on the ‘green’ Sabalo Centro air conditioned bus and exited at the Mercado, walking a few blocks to the center of the festivities, Plazuela Machado. The place was swarming with people, vendors selling jewelry, books, & goodies, and music. There were 11 of us – Mike & Julie from Slacker, Mike & Marilyn on Lady Hawke, Merry & BJ on Willow, Justin from Tao Min, two non-boaters Bianca & Sherri, and Michael & I. Roy & Darlene from Scrimshaw & Scott & Cindy on Beach House were also seen in the crowd. We started off at a restaurant, the majority of us ordering fish or shrimp tacos (yum…) and we timed it perfectly as once we finished with dinner, it was time for the parade!

What is the Day of the Dead all about you may ask? Well, to me it seems like a combination of Memorial Day, Halloween, & the 4th of July all wrapped up in one. The Day of the Dead is a big deal here in Mexico, often more celebrated than Christmas.

Every year, on November 1st (All Saints Day) and 2nd (All Souls Day), the Day of the Dead festivities take place. While it's strange for most of us to accept the fact that "death" and "festivities" can go hand-in-hand, for most Mexicans, the two are intricately entwined. It isn't difficult for foreigners to interpret dancing skeletons, candy skulls and general drunken revelry as disrespect for the dead and grief at human loss. Nothing could be further from the truth. For those accustomed to hushed voices, formal clothing, a solemn priest and an absence of children as fitting for the graveside, this festival flies in the face of propriety. Bright flowers, loud music, colorful decorations and seasonal sweets are characteristic of the first two days of November.

This all stems from the ancient indigenous peoples of Mexico who believed that the souls of the dead return each year to visit with their living relatives - to eat, drink and be merry. The living invite the spirits of the family to return home for a few hours of laughter, tears and memories. It is a time for remembering friends, family and ancestors. The cemeteries come alive and altars are created which are filled with flowers, candles, a selection of the deceased favorite food & drink and fresh water, photographs of the deceased and offerings. Even families with very limited budgets spare no expense when preparing the altar to honor their family.

They want their spirits to enjoy the offerings and to return each year to continue this special spiritual companionship. The spirits of the dead are expected to pay a holiday visit home and should be provided with an enticing repast and adequate sustenance for the journey. Frequently a wash basin and clean hand towel are provided so that visiting souls can freshen up before the feast. The offering may also include a pack of cigarettes for the after-dinner enjoyment of former smokers, or a selection of toys and extra sweets for deceased children. The smell of burning copal (incense) and the light of numerous candles are intended to help the departed find their way. While most altars are laden with the favorite foods, sweets, drinks, and harvest fruits of each family spirit, even the most basic altar includes these basic needs:

WATER to quench the thirst and for purification
SALT to season the food and for purification
BREAD to represent the food needed for survival

It is a time of lively reunions at family burial plots. Some bring along picnic baskets, bottles of tequila for toasting the departed or even a mariachi band to lead a heartfelt sing-along. To preserve the tradition, government and private institutions have recently increased promotion of commemorative altars displayed in museums, educational centers and other public venues.

Other symbols include the elaborately-decorated pan de muerto or ‘dead bread’,

skull-shaped candies and sweets


death figures

and paper maché skeletons and skulls.
This may all seem morbid and somewhat ghoulish to those who are not part of that culture. But, for Mexicans who believe in the life/death/rebirth continuum, it's all very natural.

The festivities are the epitome of what I love about being in a different culture. By the time the parade began, there were thousands of people in the plaza. There was so much going on, every sensory was tingling. The parade was not what I would consider a parade, but more of a procession. There was a lead vehicle with spotlights shining onto the crowd and fireworks were shot out every few minutes.

The fireworks are a signal to help guide the spirits home. Behind the lead vehicle were thousands of people, who walked the entire parade route (about 20 blocks). Everyone sang & danced to music provided by brass bands evenly spaced out throughout the procession. This is a quick video showing the dark streets, the band, and if you listen, everyone singing.

There were also 3 burrow-drawn carriages decorated with flowers.

These carriages carried kegs of beer and a couple men whose job it was to keep the beer flowing. During the procession, you simply sidled up to the carriage and were poured a cup of beer (which sounds so much easier than it was!) and then continued to walk along the parade route.

You drank the beer in remembrance to those who have passed. Of course, the beer carriages were always surrounded and I think they had one guy specifically for pumping the keg alone! All ages were represented and it was not unusual to see an entire family walking along. Some participants were dressed in elaborate costumes,

but mostly everyone wore black & white of some sort.

At the end of the parade route, which took us right back to Plazuela Machado, students of the local ballet school performed “La Catrina dances, too” depicting death & rebirth.

We were even treated with a sample of the 'dead bread' by gals walking through the crowd. The entire evening was amazing. Incredibly, the entire group managed to meet back precisely when we were supposed to and all hopped into a pick-up taxi back to the Marina.

The festival reminded me of a favorite song of mine…

And the band played
Songs that we have never heard
But we danced anyway
We never understood the words
We just sang Oh, la la la la la la la la la
And we danced anyway…

Nobel laureate Octavio Paz said, "The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love."

An amazing evening…


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