Mittwoch, 28. September 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXXIII - Mexico: La Muerte, Tu Amigo Mexicano

This post contains imagery relating to death. If you are offended or scared of such imagery you, especially, should keep on reading.

In our Western culture, death is something that is traditionally locked out and denied. Not so in Mexico. Here death is ubiquitous, and people deal with its existence in very different ways than anywhere else. In Mexico, death is not an end, or something to dread. It's a part of life that is taken with the same amount of humour and celebration as every other aspect of Mexican life.

The Mexican attitude towards death has its roots in the pre-Christian religions. Unlike other indigenous rites, however, the Catholics never managed to erase the special relationship the locals had with death. Quite the opposite, it started spreading and establishing itself firmly in Mexican culture. Death symbols, especially skeletons, are found everywhere. You'll find them in churches, in bars, on t-shirts and murals. Death follows you in your daily newspaper and when you shop for groceries. But unlikely the European depictions of death, such as the medieval "Danses Macrabres" or the later "Vanitas" art, Mexico's Death is not a reprimander, but a jovial buddy who drinks, smokes and jokes with you to the grave. The sentiment of death being a joyous occurrence, or at least one to take with humour, has allowed artists such as Jose Guadalupe Posada to become one of the most influential caricaturists (and indeed artists) in Mexico. His skeletal characters have become so famous that they are almost national icons, such as the posh dead dame Catrina below.

One of Mexicos biggest, and arguably most well-known, fiestas centers entirely around the veneration of the dead. The "Dia de los Muertos" is a nationwide celebration of death and the deceased: People decorate the graveyards, set up altars with offerings for those passed on, and dress up in scary costumes for big parties and processions across the country. Candy in forms of skulls and skeletons are handed out to children (and grown ups) and while families also remember the dead and take care of the graves, the atmosphere is not very solemn. It is a time where deceased relatives and friends are close to the world of the living, and can take part in the celebrations.

The same goes for actual funerals. While walking around on the graveyard I had the chance to witness two, and it is very different from any other I have seen so far. There are marching bands playing pretty upbeat music, and the deceased is sent on his way with applause and cheering similar to a birthday party. That doesn't mean there are no tears, but the farewell is undoubtedly less glum than its European equivalent.

Funerals for children are especially cheerful, involving toys, balloons, and sometimes even Clowns! Named "Angelitos (Little Angels)", infants who have died before reaching full consciousness (and thus the capability to sin) are thought to require much extra consolation for their premature passing.

No one seems to be particularly bothered by the presence of imagery of death, and remnants are often openly displayed, whether it is the bones of a saint or the corpse of a beloved. It's almost a bit like Mexicans enjoy a certain amount of the macabre around them. Where else would you walk into a full scale art exhibition centering only on the topic of skulls?

A certain closeness with death is found even within the Mexican language. For example, graveyards are called "panteon", rather then "cemetario", hinting at a certain influence that the dead still have on the living.

Yet this refreshing, somewhat more healthy attitude towards death also spawns some pretty creepy outgrowths. One of them is the cult of Santa Muerte, a relatively recent religion centering around a skeletal woman clad in the robes of the holy virgin. Santa Muerte is a mixture of death goddess and universal protector and is mostly revered by people of dubious profession. The catholic church does not recognize Santa Muerte as an actual saint, yet the cult has an estimated two million followers and is growing.

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