The Day of the Dead is an indigenous Mexican occasion that celebrates death by celebrating life. Instilled into native populations of Mexico by Spanish missionaries, the holiday shares the date and religious overtones of All Souls' Day, but its roots are firmly planted in native folklore and tradition. Scholars call the annual event one of Mexico's most wondrous celebrations, merging Spanish and European traditions with ancient superstitions of cultures that date back as far as 300 B.C. The day is intended to perpetuate the belief of a circle of life in which death plays a part and is not to be feared.
Although it might sound like a morbid mixed metaphor, Mexicans react to death with mourning commingled with happiness and joy. "They look at death with the same fear as any other culture, but there is a difference," says author/historian Aracely Hernandez. "They mitigate their fear by living alongside death and learning to accept it as a part of their lives."
"My kids are sixth-generation Tucsonans," says Roberto Rosaldo, "but my father [the late Renato Rosaldo, head of Romance languages at the UA], who was born in Vera Cruz, made sure each generation of the family knew what Día de los Muertos was all about. My family will visit graves in Amado and San Xavier this month, and other relatives will conduct similar observances at graves south of the border."
Lupe Valenzuela, who also has family on both sides of the international border, says, "I was 5 years old the first time I was taken along to the family plot in Sonora, Mexico. I was soooo scared because I kept thinking I would see ghosts."
The concept of ghosts, not the actual seeing of them but the ability to communicate with loved ones on "the other side," is an integral part of the festivities. Events associated with the Day of the Dead mark a special occasion when the living have an opportunity to show respect for their deceased relatives, whose spirits are expected to return to their homes. In fact, the bright yellow flowers symbolic of the pageantry come from an Aztec tradition hundreds of years old where flower petals are sprinkled on graves and the road back home so departed souls can retrace their path to the family residence.
Unique altars are created to hold personal mementos as offerings to the returning souls and contain such things as the traditional yellow marigolds, candles and religious pictures. Alcohol, cigarettes, toys or food such as tamales are also offered as familiar things that the returning soul enjoyed during his or her life. It is believed that the spirits of children and adults alike go away weeping if nothing is left as an offering. Candles are placed with the offerings (ofrendas) to both light and guide the way of the souls to the altars.
Now a grown man, Alejandro Martinez wasn't worried about the spirit world in his first cemetery visit at age 5--he was having too much fun with the music and parade that led to the graveyard. "By the time we finished cleaning the tombs, I got the feeling my grandparents were present among the rest of the family and joining with us in the festivities."
Rosaldo's memories go back half a century and the impressions are so vivid he has almost total recall. "Before she died at age 93, my grandmother would put up an altar display each year that eventually took on a life of its own," he says. "I remember every detail right down to the pattern of the white lace tablecloth. Right after Mexico's Independence Day (September 16), she'd start setting the display up like a nativity scene, putting out pictures of all the relatives who were gone and keeping the shrine continuously lit with candles. She'd put out favorite foods of the deceased and their favorite beverages. Sometimes when she would pass by the altar, she'd announce that, 'Uncle Carlos would appreciate it if we drank to his memory,' and she'd toss one down with respectful reverence for the deceased."
Notes folklorist "Big Jim" Griffith of the UA's Southwest Center, "It seems logical that a culture that places such a strong emphasis on family would evolve ways of expressing the importance of family members who are no longer living." On both sides of the border at Nogales, "observances are focused much more on family continuity, with little attention being paid to death itself. Relatives gather to clean, refurbish and decorate their family graves, and perhaps spend some social time together with their dead," he writes in his book, A Shared Space.
Griffith calls border communities places of "cultural negotiation" and cites the dynamics at Ambos Nogales as one example of a mixture of "accommodation and polarization ... stability and change." Over centuries these cultures have clashed on the timing and significance of the observance. Although "Anglos have been in social, political and economic control of Southern Arizona" since the late 1800s, says Griffith, he stresses the importance of realizing that some traditions in the Mexican and Indian cultures are maintained on both sides of the border. "New folks arrive from Mexico every day as permanent residents, and they bring their own traditions, including a deep respect for extended family."
Alfonso Valenzuela, a native of Pirtleville near the Douglas/Agua Prieta border, remembers the resourcefulness of large families with little money. "I scoured the stockyards outside town to bring home bailing wire left by cowboys. We used it for hoops for the hand-made coronas [paper wreaths] we used to decorate the graves."
The annual clean-up of family plots at the panteon (cemetery) was an event involving everyone in Valenzuela's family of nine. "This was a festive outing and a way of expressing appreciation to our beloved departed ones," he says. "It's a carnivalesque, but not macabre, way of celebrating life. Death is a part of life, and death is commonly viewed as just the beginning of another phase."
Tucson, one of Hispanic Magazine's Top Ten Cities for Hispanics, will offer numerous Día de los Muertos commemorations. Examples of folk art can traditionally be found at the Arizona Historical Society, 949 E. Second St., or the Kaibab Courtyard Shops and the Obsidian Gallery, both on North Campbell Avenue. In the downtown Old Town Artisans complex, check out an elaborate altar display at Tolteca Tlacuilo, 186 N. Meyer Ave.