A Mexican Celebration of the Dead

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As a contrast to Halloween, with scary pumpkins, threatening ‘trick or treats’, and monstrous costumes, the Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead celebrates death. To Western cultures it may seem unfamiliar and vulgar, but Routes into Language organised an event at Avenue Campus to familarise students with the joyful Mexican holiday. The Wessex Scene interviewed Irina Nelson, a Senior Teaching Fellow at the faculty of Modern Languages.

A group of year 12 students surrounds Irina, gripping papers with a quiz on the Day of the Dead. Irina’s Spanish is like a singing creek. I don’t understand a thing. But it sounds refreshing and hopeful.

The Mexican Community at Humanities has organised the celebration of the Day of the Dead for the last ten years to encourage a wider understanding of Mexican culture. Between 3 and 4 school classes from year 7 to year 12 visit the event every year. The students are shown video clips explaining the event, and are encouraged to ask questions. The main theme is to bridge an understanding of the similarities and differences between English and Mexican cultures.

While waiting for Irina and the visiting class to finish I study the altar standing in the North Corridor of Avenue Campus. Skeletons, skulls, yellow flowers, oil, chillies and pictures of deceased people crowd on an orange cloth. A circle of candles and rice puddles formed into crosses surround the altar. Intrigued, if somewhat puzzled, I take a couple of photos.

The class vanishes into the Avenue café, leaving quiz papers and a vaccum next to the Mexican altar. Settling into the blue armchairs, Irina and Ruth, a four-year Spanish language student, describe the Day of the Dead. Irina explains:

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico between the 1st and 3rd of November. Families gather and set up an altar to commemorate those who have died. Festive parties and dinners are held, and children are given sugar skulls with their names on – the Mexican version of the English Easter egg.

Many families also celebrate in the cemeteries, building altars and creating figures with flowers to attract and communicate with the dead. ‘The whole point about the Day of the Dead is to not be afraid of the dead’, Irina says.

Ruth, who visited Mexico last year, agrees. Living in the town where the biggest celebration takes place, she encountered two days of festive events. Candles were lit in cemeteries at 2 am, and food stalls were set up nearby for the tourists. ‘It was probably the most impressive thing I experienced in Mexico’, Ruth ensures me.

Amongst skeletons and sugar skulls, I find a picture of Amy Winehouse.

Southampton Spanish language students, like Ruth, used their experience of the Day of the Dead to help with the setup of the altar at Avenue Campus. Cutting paper in specific cross patterns and making the altar personal are just some examples. Amongst skeletons and sugar skulls, I find a picture of Amy Winehouse. Irina also tells a story about a black and white picture of a handsome woman. She used to be a part of the Southampton Mexican community a couple of years back but tragically died from cancer. As a memory, the Mexican community put her photo on the altar every year. Making the altar personal is an important part of the celebration of the Day of the Dead. Ruth tells me of a flower figure she saw at a cemetery in Mexico. The deceased had died in a cycling accident, and the flowers were thus arranged to look like a bike to commemorate the accident.

Despite the sad connotations, the Day of the Dead is a time of happiness and celebration. It is a thousand-year-old practice, derived from the Aztecs. In the Aztec culture, death was just a continuation of life. War heroes were sacrificed on altars after victories, and it was considered an honour to be allowed passage to the next stage. When Spain invaded the Aztec Empire, the celebration was merged with Catholocism which explains the patterns of crosses and the oils scattered on the table.

War heroes were sacrificed on altars after victories.

It’s impressive how fifteen minutes of interviews can change one’s perception. Misinformed – or even ignorant – of the Day of the Dead, I had initally expected it to be a time of mourning and distress – a cross mix of Halloween and Easter. Instead, it is an eye-opening celebration, shattering the Western idea of the fear of death. It’s not vulgar or disrespectful of the dead, it rather incorporates the dead into current life, giving people an open space for outlets of any feelings they might carry.

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