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Las Ánimas Festival at the General Cemetery of Mérida (México). Via Getty Images.
Las Ánimas Festival at the General Cemetery of Mérida (México). Via Getty Images.

Sarah Chavez: “Dia de Muertos provides light to mitigate the pain and grief of the Mexican people”

Chicano woman and The Order of Good Death’s director, the historian Sarah Chavez claims that Dia de Muertos is a Mexican symbol of identity and resistance.

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Today, every small town and city in Mexico is celebrating Dia de Muertos. And even on the other side of the border, the Mexican-Americans build altars, decorate their homes, temples, and schools with Catrinas and skulls; they visit cemeteries and bring “ofrendas” to their loved ones. But, which are the real roots of this old celebration? Is the Death honored in the same way on one side of the border and the other?

For Sarah Chavez, Chicana historian and The Order of Good Death’s director - an organization on promoting the acceptance of death culture and dying as a natural process - “La Flaquita” is more than a master: is a companion.

Sarah Chavez, directora de la Orden de la Buena Muerte.

Mexican people are closer to death than many other cultures. What does the Death mean for Mexicans?

Mexican people have not had the privilege of ignoring or denying death, which is a prevailing attitude in western countries. War, deaths due to drug violence, and migration and femicides are the grim reality underlying what many perceive as beautiful and colorful ‘celebrations.’

This harsh reality is in conflict with the beautiful narratives often applied to the relationship Mexicans have with death as in this except Octavio Paz’s “Labyrinth of Solitude” – he says: “To the inhabitant of New York, Paris or London death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips. The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it... It is true that in his attitude, there is perhaps the same fear that others also have, but at least he does not hide this fear, nor does he hide death; he contemplates it face to face.”

I think the rituals and observances surrounding death, grief, and ancestor worship exist in part to mitigate the often immense pain and grief of the Mexican people. Death is a very hard thing to grapple with, but having a roadmap like Dia de Muertos provides a light in the darkness and mystery of death.

Would you say that Chicano people experience death as their ancestors or being born in the U.S. have affected the way they perceive their traditions, mainly, the funerary ones?

With death and funerary beliefs and traditions being both colonized and ‘professionalized’, many things our ancestors did are no longer practiced, with the exception of communities in more rural areas. For example, the island of Janitzio is revered for its observances of Dia de Muertos largely because they have been able to maintain their practices.

Funerary practices in the US are largely dictated by-laws and the policies and practices of the funeral industry itself. Although velorios are common in both places, things like embalming and perpetual care (in which a body interred in a cemetery is assumed it will never be removed, and the cemetery grounds will be maintained) are unique to the U.S.

Un rito muy popular es visitar los cementerios y encender velas. Getty Images.

Dia de Muertos has very ancient roots. How did Precolombian cultures honor death, and in what ways we follow honoring the God of Death nowadays? By the way, who was/is the God of Death?

Pre-Hispanic people possessed extremely complex ideas and practices surrounding death and the dead. These are especially evident as you begin to explore their mythology, creation stories, and afterlife destinations which were dictated not by how a person lived, but by how they died.

Most people would travel to an afterlife realm called Mictlan, reigned over by Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead and his feminine counterpart, Mictecacihuatl.

The Mexica people observed a month-long “Little Feast of the Dead,” that involved ritual offerings to the dead, the gods of death, and feasting. It is believed that the “Little Feast” is the foundation of Dia de Muertos.

Calaveras and catrinas were symbols of charity and identity. Would they be a political symbol as well? 

Catrinas certainly have always been political. Popularized by Jose Guadalupe Posada, an artist is known for his political art, La Catrina dressed in her upper-class finery was a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who were abandoning their own culture in favor of European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolutionary era.

Dia de Muertos carries with it a political history. Much has been written regarding the horrors of the Spanish colonization of Mexico. In law, they wrote it was stated that colonists considered Dia de Muertos “an abomination.” What we can extract from this period is the incredible tenacity the indigenous people exhibited when it came to maintaining their death rituals and relationship with the dead. 

"The church spent hundreds of years trying to abolish Dia de Muertos and criminalizing indigenous death practices".

Although the church gave the directive to eradicate their “pagan” practices of honoring their ancestors – under severe punishment and torture – they continued. It is evident that this was something of immense importance to them; that defined them and moved their hearts and spirits. For centuries Mexico has fought to maintain and cultivate this unique and intimate relationship with death.

Here in the US, the first public, community observances of Dia de Muertos, came to fruition during a time of cultural and political unrest in the Chicano community. It was a direct response to civil rights issues surrounding education, farmworkers’ rights, police brutality, and war gave birth to the Chicano Movement. Where I live in Los Angeles, the altars carry on this legacy. Many of the issues our community struggles with today are the same ones our grandparents and parents fought to end, and are addressed here in the altars.

Día de los Muertos en Oaxaca (Mexico). Vía Getty Images.

Have you built your own altar? 

In recent years I have not made an altar because I am usually traveling throughout Mexico during Dia de Muertos. When I am home, I do create one, and I use a very large box, about 4 feet tall, that came from one of the Missions in California. It was once used to house and carry the effigy of a Catholic saint. For me, using this box to house an altar is an act of resistance.

The church spent hundreds of years trying to abolish Dia de Muertos and criminalizing indigenous death practices, yet they endured. I honor their resilience and sacrifices to pass these sacred rituals on to us, their descendants.

Celebrations such as The Reunion, where Mexicans open doors and windows for dead children's souls to visit them, are a kind of bridge between dead and alive people. How should we understand it as a superstition, tradition, or as a “real contact”?

No matter what you believe, yes, this acts not only as a bridge between the living and the dead, but connects practicing Latinos to each other, and reinforces their bonds and cultural identity.

People will understand it according to their own beliefs and needs. For some, there is the understanding this time is a literal reunion with the dead. Food, gifts, and offerings are set out with the belief that they will be enjoyed by the dead and carried back with them to the afterlife.

For others, it is a meaningful but not literal observance. For those who veer toward ‘superstition,’ there is still so much value in creating space to reflect on our loved ones who are no longer with us, our relationship to them as well as our own mortality.

How have these rituals changed over the years? I mean, some of them could have been lost, maybe.

Yes, they have changed so much! Many sacred practices were outlawed by colonists, and are lost or no longer practiced. Catholic beliefs were blended with pre-Hispanic ones, special foods used in death rituals like amaranth were banned, and other foods introduced by colonists were adopted like sugar and flour, so now we have sugar skulls and pan de Muerto.

In more recent years, we’ve seen the influence of the US and its Halloween in Mexico, meanwhile, in the US, Day of the Dead has been widely commercialized and Day events can be found in almost every city. A major example of this exchange between the two countries can be seen in the big Dia de Muertos parade recently established in Mexico City the past few years, which was created in response to a Dia de Muertos parade being depicted in a James Bond movie, "Spectre."

Personajes de "007 Spectre" en el desfile de Día de Muertos, en Mexico.
What is the better way to remember and honor our loved ones?

I would say that whatever way feels most meaningful to you (as an individual, family, or community). That can take many forms and does not need to be confined to particular dates — give yourself permission to create your own rituals and imbue them with things that are meaningful to you.

You could cook a meal to share with the dead, create an altar, play music, read a poem, light a candle, write a letter, draw something, meditate, whatever serves you.

And the better way to face death and dying process?

I think as Octavio Paz said, face to face.

However, for socially marginalized communities dying, a bad death is all too common – death by violence, or not being able to afford or access to care for a treatable or manageable health condition are a couple of examples. So, for me, the best way would be to address the reasons underlying bad deaths so that all people have equal access to the things that would make their ideal end of life the best it can be.

Is The Death a master? What does it teach us?

I would say that Death is a companion; its presence is a constant. Not only are we aware of our mortality, but we experience countless ‘deaths’ in our lifetimes, the end of life cycles like childhood or seasons, the ending of relationships, or ways of life. These deaths are also deeply felt and mourned.

Death teaches many things, but one of the most valuable is that when we become aware that our time on this earth is limited, this realization encourages us to live more authenticity and prioritize the people and things that matter most to us.

We also tend to enjoy life more and appreciate it, knowing that it will end. 

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