Mexico Halloween melds Indian, Catholic beliefs


November 05, 1992|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau

MIXQUIC -- If there is really a life after death and souls can return to the land of the living, then surely many of them spent last Sunday and Monday in this tiny village about an hour south of Mexico City.

Rich foods were prepared in their honor. Gifts were set out in most of the houses. The cemetery was turned into a field of candles and flowers, while the heavy beat of Aztec drums and the pungent odor of incense filled the air.

"This is the time of year when we can have the dead back with us," said Josephina Pineda, lighting candles at the grave of her husband. "So we want to make it special and happy."

While people in the United States celebrated Halloween with costume parties or trick-or-treating, people in pueblos like this one all across Mexico celebrated "El Dia de los Muertos" -- The Day of the Dead -- in much the same way their grandfathers' grandfathers did -- a peculiar mixture of old Indian lore and the typical Catholic celebration of All Saints and All Souls Days.

Other ancient rituals have died in the sweeping "Americanization" of Mexico -- where McDonald's and Denny's are now favorite restaurants of middle class families and private schools do not permit students to speak in Spanish. But the Day of the Dead celebrations endure in the country's poor, rural communities.

There, they still believe that each year on Nov. 1 and 2, the souls of the dead return to their homes to visit their families. And so the living relatives gather together, with gifts, to greet them.

To prepare for the celebration in Santiago Tianguistango, to the north of Mexico City, 12-year-old Lised and 11-year-old Yunue Reyes Lara pressed their late grandmother's favorite blue lace dress and shined their late uncle's saxophone.

"My grandmother wore the dress whenever she went to church or special parties," said Lised, whose wispy bangs nearly covered her deep brown eyes. "We put it out so that she can wear it during her visit. Or just so she can see we are still taking care of it."

Their mother began early in the week making "mole," a meat dish prepared in a chocolate-based sauce, and "pozole," a red spicy soup usually prepared with hominy and pork.

Plates of the food -- along with pastries, fruits and candies -- are laid out on a table in the main living room as an offering to the dead souls

who pass through town.

And then they go to the cemetery.

In Mixquic, Mrs. Pineda said all 10 of her sons had come home to visit the grave of their father who died two years ago.

"My sons have all come to tell their father how well they are doing and that he should be proud of them," she said.

"But I have been here all day," she added, her head and shoulders wrapped in a purple cotton shawl.

At one time, before the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico, this two-day celebration -- with Nov. 1 devoted to the souls of children and Nov. 2 for honoring dead adults -- lasted two months.

The Aztecs believed that it was necessary to die to be born again with renewed vigor. And to ensure this rebirth, they set aside two months to honor those who had died.

Later, as plagues decimated most Indian tribes, the celebrations were a way of helping the living cope with the death of their relatives, particularly children. But it doesn't soothe everyone's pain. Delfina and Ramon Galicia said only time will help them deal with their loss.

In the middle of Mixquic's cemetery, they sat near a plot not more than 2-feet long -- only enough room for two candles and a small bouquet of gladioluses. There was no headstone at the top of the grave. And while people at the graves around them talked to their dead relatives or lifted glasses of alcohol to toast their memory, Mr. and Mrs. Galicia sat stone-faced, staring at the small heap of dirt.

"It would have been our first son," said Mrs. Galicia, a wide-faced woman with shoulder-length black hair. "He was born two months early and was not strong enough to stay alive."

"For me," she added, shivering in the brisk night air, "this is more a painful memory than a celebration."

The Galicias said that they set out candied pumpkin and toys for their unnamed son. "We didn't know him in life. And we didn't get the chance to provide things to make him happy," said Mr. Galicia. "So maybe we can do so in death."

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