The celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico is one of the most rooted traditions inherited from our ancient Mexican ancestors, and in 2008 was declared by UNESCO an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The cult to Death was common among the Pre-Hispanic cultures that flourished before 1521. Instead of considering the world divided in two, they believed everything had a dual perspective. Thus, they acknowledge the sun and the moon, the light and night as dual expressions of every day, as life and death were expressions of the human existence on earth and in other «universes».
Dead people arrived to these parallel universes depending on the way they died; for example, the Tlalocan received those who died through drowning or lightning, or from diseases associated with the deity of rain -Tlaloc, while those who died from natural death arrived to Mictlan, “the place of the dead”.
The occupation of the Americas by Europeans took place in two forms: by settlements -just as South Africa experienced during the XVII and the XVIII centuries- and by conquest.
The great cultures of Mesoamérica (Middle America), with well-trained warriors, were conquered by the Spaniards to continue their search for routes towards Catay, China, but also to expand Catholicism out of Europe.
Since Christopher Columbus, Spanish expeditions were sponsored by the kings of Spain who liked to be seen as the defenders of Faith (Catholic faith in the context of the Protestant Reformation led by Luther among others).
Therefore, Spanish soldiers were usually followed by priests who were smart enough not to challenge former beliefs of the Aztecs or Mayas, Zapotecas or Otomies, but to familiarize them little by little about Catholic beliefs and learnings. That is why many Mexican traditions are a synchronism- the mixture of local and Catholic beliefs.
Mexico did not exist until the beginning of the XIX century. Since then, we have reaffirmed our identity through culture and traditions. Remembering our ancestors on 02 November is part of our body and our soul, because we are convinced that «we are dead not when we die, but when nobody remembers us».
That is why we build altars on the tombs at the cemetery or at home, and display on the altar the dishes that our departed liked to eat, some water (or better, tequila or mezcal), cigarettes if they smoked, toys for children, garments, and pathways with candles and cempasúchiles (Zempohualxóchitl, flower representing the Sun, and a symbol of life and death to the ancient Aztecs) to guide the souls from the outside of the house directly to the altar.
It is important to note that death does not represent an absence, but a living presence. Altars are generally installed on 3 levels. The first level is related to the spiritual world or heaven (with images of virgins, saints and crosses) ; the second level relates to the earthly plane, where bread, food, drinks are placed ; and the third level relates to the photographs or portraits of the people we pay homage to. These photographs as well as the things they liked most during life are placed on the altar.
This year the Embassy of Mexico included 3 female images on the Altar de Muertos: a reproduction of Our Lady of Guadalupe, declared patroness of Mexico and the Americas by Pope John Paul II, an image that plays an important role as national symbol of Mexico; the photograph of a portrait of Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera’s Catrina, as taken from the mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at the Alameda Central Park”.
The reason for this is that in recent days, cultural activities regarding Frida Kahlo have been presented at the Javett Art Museum at the University of Pretoria and at the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF).
By dedicating the altar to this renowned Mexican painter, we want to contribute to the dissemination of her work and of the exhibition “Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South” at JCAF, which presents for the very first time a portrait of Frida Kahlo in the African continent.
A poem of Netzahualcóyotl – a beautiful interpretation on the purpose of life has been added at the top of the altar.
Ceramic and sugar skulls are also displayed on altars with the names of our departed. But it is also a season tradition to buy sugar or chocolate skulls with the names of family members and dear friends to give as a present and show that our love for them is as strong as our love for our departed. So, if you go to Mexico at this time of the year and a Mexican friend gives you a sugar skull with your name on it, do not panic! It means that the person who gives it to you really likes you.
This year the Embassy dedicated its Altar de Muertos to three Mexican Ambassadors and mentors of many current Mexican diplomats: Amb. Aída González and Amb. Gustavo Albin, who died between 02 November last year and today. Both were respected multilateralists who promoted the Rights of Women since the World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975, and social development in regional mechanisms and the UN, respectively. Also, Amb. Mauricio de María y Campos Castelló who passed away earlier last year was an extraordinary diplomat, professor, researcher, columnist, friend of South Africa and Africa, and an outstanding support to this diplomatic mission on many special occasions. In addition to representing the Government of Mexico in South Africa from 2002 to 2007, he shared his experiences on the culture and society of South Africa, Africa and the interaction of Mexico with the African nations and cultures.
Food and beverages offered to the dead are also shared with all family members and friends who are present at the celebration. Among these offerings, chocolate and Pan de Muerto (sweetened soft bread shaped like a bun, decorated with bone shaped pieces) are also offered.
Regarding chocolate (Xocolatl in nahuatl), it was so precious to ancient Mexican cultures that it was used as a trading unit. Before the arrival of Spaniards, it was the preserve of the powerful, and was served to warriors to give them energy. They mixed it with water, spiced with chili and served cold.
Dia de Muertos is a diverse popular expression with “different meanings and evocations according to the indigenous peoples, communities or groups that carry them out, in the countryside or in the city” (UNESCO).
by The Mexican Embassy in South Africa