The group of solemn and reserved teenagers standing in front of me couldn’t possibly be the same young people that I often saw yelling and chasing each other around the grounds of the orphanage where I volunteered, and yet they were. Dressed in the traditional attire of their ancestors, some of the girls were almost unrecognizable in stunning huipiles (sleeveless tunics in which the fabric is woven and embellished with motifs that tell the story of the old folklore), quechquémitls (close shoulder capes) and rebozos (a clothing accessory that is worn as either a scarf or shawl). I use the term unrecognizable as many of the girls often opted for a slightly less conservative look in regards to their wardrobe, as in, the tighter, the better. So to see many of them donned in tops that did not show their mid-section or pants that did not appear to be cutting off circulation was quite a (welcome) shock.
Today was Día de los Muertos, one of Mexico’s most significant holidays, beloved by all its citizens, more commonly known to the rest of the world as Day of the Dead. It is a holiday when the Mexican people honor the dead, a day where the deceased are not mourned but rather, fondly remembered. Its purpose is to encourage visits by the souls of the dead so that they will hear the prayers and comments of the living and be directed to them. It occurs on November 2 in connection with the Catholic holy days All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (also on November 2).
As I gazed around at the framed pictures of departed loved ones, the loaves of pan de muerto (bread of the dead), the carpets of fiery orange Mexican marigolds (or cempasúchitl which is their Spanish name), it was as if I had been transported to the world inside the images that had been featured in my high school Spanish textbook. I had gazed so longingly at them while in class, wishing I were there instead of working on conjugating yet another –ar verb. It felt like a dream because there was no way that I could be in Mexico for the holiday of all holidays, and yet here I was. I had been so looking forward to this day, especially when Wal-Mart started selling elaborately decorated sugar skulls a month or so before. Having never seen anything like it back home, I was most excited.
All of the teens had been divided into groups with each one being responsible for the creation of an altar. Although they varied in size and look, they each held a special poignancy. A fact not forgotten was that the individuals who had constructed and decorated the altars were still orphans, children who had been forced to endure the pain and suffering of loss much too soon in their young lives. When the first group started to explain the particular design of their altar, I couldn’t believe when shy Jeni started to speak. Although Jeni always talked to me whenever I saw her, she seemed to keep to herself for the most part, never socializing in droves like some of the girls did. So when someone who I had thought one of the shyest people in the world spoke so clearly and confidently, I realized just how wrong I had been about her. Jeni explained how each member had placed on the altar an object that held a special significance for a deceased love one-a bottle of tequila, a cherished book, a soccer ball, a packet of seeds, a locket necklace, even a jar of molé sauce for someone’s mother who had loved to cook; all inanimate objects but all rich in meaning.
An altar on the ground that had been designed using rocks and sand reminded me of the Aztec and other ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica. With the omnipresent skull in the center of the circular altar, I could even imagine this being the stage for a group of traditionally dressed Aztec warriors performing a ceremonial dance. At another altar strands of quechquémitls hung from the ceiling, making it resemble a richly colored illustration from a children’s picture book. As the next presenter started to speak about her group’s decision to incorporate quechquémitls into their design, I realized that it was Magda, a girl who had never found to be too friendly to me even though I always greeted everyone I saw with a smile and a buen día. Whatever the country or culture may be, the infamous “teenage attitude” is prevalent throughout the world. Magda was a prime example of this. But on this particular day, she exuded a behavior and body language that deserved nothing less than a mogotón (slang for a lot) of respect for how well she delivered her presentation.
Although I still have a most ardent desire to travel to the Mexican city of Oaxaca one day, where Day of the Dead celebrations are said to be the best in the world, the morning that I spent at the bachillerato (high school), partaking in a most unique cultural event, is one I shall always remember and cherish. Coming from a culture where there exists no medium between the dead and the living, it was incredibly fascinating to learn about and discover a holiday whose sole purpose is to bridge the gap between these two worlds, to neither shun nor forget about the departed, but rather to remember them. Simply, to keep their spirits alive forever.