By: Miguel González Fuentes
Offering to the dead, a fusion of traditions
Latin America celebrates the Day of the Dead, All Saints' Day, or All Souls' Day in different ways. In the end, it is not the name that matters, but the cultural integration rooted in each country. The purpose of this commemoration on November 1 and 2 is to evoke the deceased from a spiritual and festive perspective, full of joyful signs and lots of colors.
You have to stop in Guatemala and Mexico to understand this fusion of Mayan, Aztec and Christian world traditions. According to Mayan archaeological evidence, since time immemorial, Mesoamerican civilizations had an astronomical date to celebrate their dead. The mixture of pre-Hispanic and Christian religious ceremonies allowed the rapprochement of two cosmogonic universes: indigenous and European beliefs.
In Guatemala, the Day of the Saints is celebrated in cemeteries, fields, and homes. On November 1, people decorate the tombs with flowers, candles, and altars; but the "cabecera" or ofrenda, which consists of bringing and placing food and drinks in the cemeteries, stands out. These are meals that generally contain the favorite foods of the deceased. This ritual of visiting the cemeteries ends with a family reunion around the grave and the tasting of local dishes such as ayote, atol de elote, typical candies and fiambre.
Messages that go to heaven
The best experiences of this festivity are lived in rural Guatemala, where the union of the sacred, the myth, and the rite show their maximum expression. After visiting the tombs, many families fly kites, which they use as an element of communication between the living and the dead, to unite the divine with the human. According to popular belief, when the kites rise to the sky, they communicate families with their deceased, because the Mayan people believe in a heavenly abode for the deceased. In this context, the giant kites of Santiago and Sumpango, Sacatepéquez, which have multicolored designs and are full of messages for the dead, are famous. The preparation of these giant kites begins six months before All Saints' Day. But the kites of San Marcos are also distinguished, where the locals add to the kite a bow and a ribbon (called zumba) that when in the air produce a peculiar noise, the product of the friction with the wind.
Race of the souls
In Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Huehuetenango, people evoke their dead with horse races, adding emotion to this celebration that attracts thousands of tourists. Riders participate in physical and spiritual preparation rites and ceremonies before the November 1 race. Riders wear ceremonial attire and ingest a cup of spirituous drink. It is not an equine competition, but a ritual in honor of the deceased, say the brethren, who are in charge of organizing and directing these races. Some chroniclers say that after Christmas, the Day of the Saints is one of the most important dates in Guatemalan culture because this celebration is linked to spirituality.
The Catrina and the Mexican cempasuchil
In the proximity of Guatemala, Mexicans have similar celebrations and call this holiday the Day of the Dead. The cempasúchil (dead flower), colorful altars, offerings, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and music for the deceased are a must in the tombs. Many people dress up as multicolored skulls and other characters; they organize parades and turn this date into a great national celebration. Among these mythical characters stands out Catrina, an iconic figure that locals relate to as the goddess of death. This legendary Mexican skull is always dressed elegantly. The Day of the Dead in Mexico was declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco to protect this community expression. In the Mexican indigenous peoples "death was conceived as the beginning of the journey to the Mictlán (place of the dead)". In the past and today, with rites and offerings, families seek the eternal rest of their dead.