“My chocolate skulls are also popular. They are made with tamarind and almonds!” the market vendor points out to us. We are spending the Mexican Day of the Dead in San Cristobal and just admiring his tiny sugar skeletons. At the next stall, a woman pressures us to try her Pan de Muerte (“Death Bread”). This is a large yeasty loaf with a painted human head stuck in the middle. A few days ago we had sampled the sweet variety, which felt like biting into a sugary lump of butter and eggs – much too sweet for our taste.
In our travels, we always like to include traditional festivities – be it Carnival in Cologne, the Bavarian Beer Festival Octoberfest, or more solemn and scary events. For instance, we have visited one of the spooky Krampus rallyes in East Tyrol. So, obviously, we made sure to be in one of the best spots in Mexico to experience the legendary Day of the Dead.
The Dia de los Muertos / Day of the Dead in Mexico
The bread, the skulls and the skeletons as well as the shinbone pastry and the colourful flowers that we have seen in the markets and shops for weeks now are used to decorate the house altars on the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead). The Dia de Muertos has its origins in pre-Hispanic belief. Namely, that the dead could return to their homes one day each year. On this occasion, families would prepare the favourite dishes of the deceased to make the spirits feel welcome. With the Spanish conquest, these old traditions weren’t opportune anymore. Quickly, the catholic clergy superimposed the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day that fall around the same time of the year and share much of the symbolism.
Spending the day of the dead at the graveyard
At the culmination of festivities on 2 November, the graveyard becomes the centre of activity. “Pizza! Piiizza!” A resourceful Italian promotes freshly baked pizza slices from a baking sheet. Two clowns pose good-naturedly for a photo. They are selling those balloon sausages that turn into animals with a few twists here and there. Small music combos offering their services ply the alleys. At the same time, old women pray and sing hymns and children sit about bored.
Nuclear families or whole clans shove through the access road lined with food stalls onto the cemetery. But they are here not only to mourn but also to clean and decorate the family graves. Most of the graves at the cemetery of San Cristobal des las Casas are elaborate affairs with tiles and figurines. In some cases they include a whole little chapel with a bench to share a snack or a drink with the dead.
The Day of the Dead in San Juan Chamula, a village of living Maya
In San Juan Chamula, a Maya village half an hour away in the mountains, the local cemetery is brimming with people. Practicall all visitors are indigenous people wearing the traditional skirt or tunica made of thick white or black wool. In their thick woolliness these garments are reminding us of cut-up old 1970s shag carpets. The flashy mausoleums are nonexistent here. Instead, the graves are only mounds accentuated by white crosses for the babies, black ones for old people and blue ones for everyone else. Families hold rituals that involve drinking and spitting liquor or Coca Cola. Afterwards, they sit gloomily in the mud and stare into the rain.
The Zapatista movement
Back in San Cristobal we stroll through the city centre. The steps leading up to the huge cross in front of the cathedral are converted into an altar for the martyrs of the Zapatista movement. Red stars and pictures of Che Guevara alternate with baklava-clad guerrillas. In addition, posters show the CVs of furious Maya women killed during the struggle. “Give generously for their cause,” a donation box demands.
On 1 January 1994, the inauguration day of NAFTA, a previously unknown leftist guerrilla group entered the world stage. The Zapatista National Liberation Army occupied San Cristobal de las Casas and several other towns in Chiapas. They were overthrown by the Mexican army within days and fled into the jungle. When we visit the area, they are reportedly still holding authority over some villages.
A gruelling film about the Zapatista movement
After dinner we watch a documentary about the movement, much beloved by Western anti-globalisation activists. The Zapatistas and their charismatic leader Subcomandante Marcos, we hear, abhor violence and are demanding a better life and more justice for the campesinos in Chiapas. Statements by activists and scholars link the poverty in Chiapas with globalisation and international corporations. Scenes of peaceful, unarmed peasants pleading with soldiers in full fighting gear alternate with violent music videos. Although the arguments are familiar to us, we find it difficult to see the direct connection. On the one hand, there’s the Mayan villagers who get killed in the struggle, dreaming of a new tractor. But on the other hand and somewhat unrelatedly, the film stresses anti-globalisation theory.
We have reached the Caribbean coast at Cancun yesterday and are now hoping for a few sunny beach days!!
For more scary details from Mexican history, read our post about grisly gods in Mexico. From Maya and Aztec gods until Christianity, the Mexican calendar was full of days of the dead.
***We had no sponsoring for this post or the trip to Mexico. We paid all expenses ourselves. ***
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