In Mexico, the Day of the Dead Engages All Five Senses

by Joshua Brown
Day of the Dead Mexico

The Day of the Dead in Mexico is redolent with the scent of cempasuchil blossoms and the burning copal, which fills the air. Its sweetness lingers on the palate. Vibrant sounds and hues are omnipresent, with photographs, candles, and melodies adorning spaces everywhere. Artisanal hands meticulously craft altars to pay tribute to lineage and heritage.

Despite its ethereal nature, tracing back to pre-Columbian times, the Day of the Dead remains a multisensory festivity — offering an immersive experience even to those whose senses may be diminished. Gerardo Ramírez, whose vision has faded over time, encapsulates the essence succinctly: “It’s about honoring those before us, it’s a bridge to history.”

A Scent to Guide Souls from the Netherworld

The combined aroma of cempasuchil — the ‘twenty-petalled flower’ in the Nahuatl language — and the smoke of copal resin burned at altars, serve as olfactory beacons for souls journeying from the afterlife.

Historical Context

Day of the Dead: A Celebration of Existence in Mexico

The potent fragrance of the native cempasuchil is almost tangible, shares Verenice Arenazas, who left a corporate role to cultivate her family’s ancestral flower fields. “The slightest touch and it seems to speak, demanding your gaze,” she observes.

This year, Arenazas’s family cultivated 17,000 cempasuchil plants in Xochimilco, the famed floating gardens of Mexico City. Her crop includes both the traditionally bred and the genetically enhanced varieties, both in high demand, she reports with a hint of pride.

During pre-Day of the Dead festivities, a sculpture of Catrina, fashioned after the Mexican revolutionary icon Pancho Villa, graces the Zocalo, Mexico City’s grand plaza, on October 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

The scent, Arenazas suggests, is redolent of the genuine, earnest labor of growers like herself, and is intertwined with the essence of Mexican valor.

Nourishment for the Ancestors

Food on traditional altars symbolizes Earth’s bounty. The sweetest breads, with their hint of orange blossom, have a macabre history. Research from the Mexican School of Gastronomy suggests the original recipes included honey and human blood as divine offerings.

Other scholars speculate that Spanish settlers, appalled by ritual sacrifices, created a sugary bread tinted red to evoke a human heart.

Ahead of the Day of the Dead, individuals with catrina-style face paintings are photographed at Mexico City’s Zocalo, on October 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Nowadays, altars feature the deceased’s preferred sustenances. “The essence is consumed by the visiting spirits,” Ramírez elucidates, adding an evocative memory from his youth of a familial vigil around a departed uncle’s body, reinforcing the bond between sustenance and remembrance.

Crafting the Altars with Artisanal Passion

Constructing an altar is an act of joy for many in Mexico. Ramírez describes it as a “symphony of textures” from the silkiness of petals to the variety of foods.

Essential to these altars are the artisanal creations, ranging from papier-mâché skeletons to fantastical alebrijes. Yet, “papel picado,” delicate paper cutouts, is fundamental. Yuriria Torres, a craftsman south of Mexico City, continues to create “papel picado” using time-honored tools rather than modern methods.

“It’s akin to sculpting,” Torres asserts, reflecting on the handcrafted nature of his art, which forgoes lasers and stencils.

Individuals pose alongside a Day of the Dead-themed display at Mexico City’s Zocalo, on October 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

The art’s origins are debated — some relate it to the amate paper of ancient indigenous peoples, while others attribute it to Chinese influences adapted by the Spanish. Nonetheless, scholars agree it symbolizes the interplay between life and death, as evidenced by Torres’s depictions of joyous skeletal figures.

Melodies Echoing Amongst the Graves

The Day of the Dead, previously marked by hushed prayers, now resounds with mariachi bands serenading decorated tombs in numerous cemeteries.

José García, a septuagenarian shoe shiner from a town near Mexico City, recounts how the affluent would hire musicians to celebrate in the graveyards. However, he notes, music is accessible to all, with many bringing personal recordings to the cemetery.

Visual Tributes to the Departed

The Day of the Dead stands as a vivid tapestry of cultural fusion and remembrance. At its core, it is about ensuring that the memories of the departed are preserved so that their spirits remain eternal.

Photographs occupy a place of honor on the altars, set amidst a kaleidoscope of color: the bold orange of cempasuchil, the depths of the netherworld’s black, the Catholic purple, the warrior’s red, and the innocence of white.

The act of remembrance transcends the personal, embracing collective history. The National Autonomous University of Mexico’s altars recall political figures, students, and international conflicts. The Zocalo in the capital also commemorates historical figures such as Pancho Villa.

For Ramírez, the essence of this tradition is to immerse oneself in the ancestral offering, to feel the connection beyond the physical senses. “It’s inherent,” he says, “embedded in you from birth, a part of your being.”

For more comprehensive coverage on Latin America and the Caribbean, visit https://bigbignews.net/latin-america.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Day of the Dead Mexico

What is the significance of cempasuchil flowers in the Day of the Dead celebrations?

Cempasuchil, or marigolds, play a pivotal role in Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico. These vibrant flowers, recognized for their potent fragrance, are believed to guide the souls of the departed back to the world of the living with their strong scent and bright color. They are a traditional element used to adorn altars and graves during the celebration.

How do food offerings function in the Day of the Dead tradition?

Food offerings on Day of the Dead altars are deeply symbolic. They represent nourishment from Mother Earth and are thought to provide sustenance for the souls of the deceased. It is believed that the dead consume the essence of the food, with traditional offerings including the deceased’s favorite meals and Pan de Muerto, a sweet bread that has its own historical and cultural significance.

What is the role of altars in the Day of the Dead?

Altars are central to the Day of the Dead celebration, serving as a physical space to honor and welcome back the spirits of ancestors. They are intricately decorated with items significant to the deceased, such as photographs, candles, food, and flowers. Each element of the altar, from the textures to the colors, is chosen to evoke the senses and celebrate the life of those who have passed away.

How has the tradition of music changed during Day of the Dead celebrations?

Traditionally characterized by the quiet murmurs of prayers, the Day of the Dead has evolved to include music as a form of celebration and remembrance. Nowadays, it is common to hear mariachi bands playing over decorated tombs, with families bringing musicians or recordings to the cemeteries to enjoy the favorite songs of their departed loved ones.

How does the Day of the Dead reflect cultural syncretism?

Day of the Dead is a visual spectacle that reflects the blending of indigenous Mexican traditions with elements introduced by Spanish colonizers. This cultural syncretism is evident in the food, decorations, and rituals that combine pre-Hispanic customs with Catholic influences, creating a unique celebration that honors the dead and celebrates life.

What is the deeper meaning of the Day of the Dead for participants?

Beyond the colorful altars and festive atmosphere, Day of the Dead holds a profound significance. It’s a time for individuals to connect with their ancestors and embrace a shared cultural heritage. Participants believe that from birth, the knowledge and celebration of this tradition are an intrinsic part of their identity, a sentiment often described as being in their DNA.

More about Day of the Dead Mexico

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Luis Alberto November 4, 2023 - 10:16 am

its incredible to see our traditions getting recognized worldwide, just noticed a small thing – the link at the end isn’t clickable, is it supposed to be like that?

Juanita Herrera November 4, 2023 - 12:18 pm

the part about the food for the dead is so fascinating didnt know about the bread being painted red, you missed out the ‘it’ before ‘being painted red’ also, the wording’s a bit clunky in places could use a bit more polishing

Maria Gonzalez November 4, 2023 - 7:27 pm

I love how this captures the spirit of Dia de Muertos but there’s a typo in the section about cempasuchil flowers, you’ve mentioned ‘show’ instead of ‘shone’ I think

Ana Maria Vargas November 5, 2023 - 3:10 am

good job on this but theres some areas where the flow just doesn’t feel right might wanna check the transition between paragraphs, and i think ‘smell like the sweet, fresh, honest work’ could be ‘smells of sweet, fresh, honest work’

Carlos Ramirez November 5, 2023 - 4:46 am

really interesting read! but when you’re talking about the altars, it sounds a bit off, maybe because there’s some repetition in there…also ‘altar’s welcome’ should be ‘altars welcome’, no apostrophe needed


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