By Victor Landa, NewsTaco
My favorite place on Día de los Muertos is San Fernando Cemetery, in San Antonio, Texas. I find time to steal away, and I visit my grandparents’ grave.
My ritual is simple: I light a cigar (the one time of the year that I smoke) and catch them up on the year that just passed. My grandfather loved cigars, so I smoke one for him, the more expensive the better. He wouldn’t be impressed, in fact he’d probably gasp at the cost, but it makes me feel better for trying.
There are too many people from my family who’ve gone to join him, so I go to him as well, thinking he’s probably holding court on the other side, that on this day they’ve gathered around him to listen to my news: who’s graduated, who has what job, what everyone is up to, the little ones coming up, the older ones getting cranky …
All around the cemetery there are people gathered around the graves of their loved ones, some sitting on lawn chairs, some blasting music, others offering a feast, but none of them somber. This is a festive day.
I like this place because there are no painted faces; here death and life are matter-of-fact acknowledged as one. You can hear laughter, real, heartfelt laughter- this isn’t a place for “day of the dead chic,” with it’s superficial vestments and attention getting makeup, more akin to a commercial Halloween than to a celebration of the ultimate mystery.
We’re slowly turning Día de los Muertos into a mockery.
There’s no one better to explain the day and ritual, as it has been honored through the ages, than Octavio Paz. Here are his words, italicized, along with photos of Día de los Muertos celebrations in Oaxaca, Mexico. A reminder of what the day is supposed to be:
Death is a mirror that reflects the vain gesticulations of life.
Our death illuminates our lives. If our death is meaningless, then so was our life.
To the ancient Mexicans the opposition between life and death was not as absolute as it is for us. Life was prolonged in death. Conversely, death was not the natural end of life but a phase of an infinite cycle. Life, death and resurrection were stages of a cosmic process which was repeated insatiably . Life had no higher function than to lead to death, its opposite and complement; and death, in turn, was not an end in itself; man fed with his death the voracity of life, always unsatisfied.
In the modern world everything functions as if death does not exist. No one takes it into account. Everything suppresses it: the preaching politicians, the commercial advertisements, public morals, customs, cheap joy and health provided to all and offered by hospitals, and pharmacies and sports complexes. But death, not as a transit but as a large, empty and unquenchable mouth, inhabits everything we undertake.
To the inhabitant of New York, Paris or London, death is the word that is never pronounced because it burns the lips. The Mexican, however, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it , sleeps with it, celebrates it, it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.
Death scores our vengeance against life, it bares it of all its vanities and pretensions and makes it what it is: bare bones and a frightful grin.