Day of the Dead

A few years ago, not many British people would be able to tell you what the Day of the Dead was but in recent years, this Mexican celebration is making its way into the UK. We all know what Halloween is about but do we know what this Mexican fiesta represents?

Halloween is most commonly known for its stereotypical American themes, of witches, ghosts and pumpkins. But move further south and the festival of All Hallows’ Eve is somewhat less commercial and brings colour and depth to the otherwise morbid holiday.

Dia De Los Muertos otherwise known as the Day of the Dead, is a tradition which is a combination of two very distinct cultures. For thousands of years, the pre – Hispanic indigenous cultures of Mexico; the Mixtecas, Zapotecs, Aztecs, Mayas and Olmecs along with others would pay homage to their dear departed during an entire month of celebrations that fell upon the ninth month in the calendar, from around the end of July to early August. It was dedicated to the goodness of the dead, Mitecihuatl, who was also linked to the end of the agricultural cycles of wheat, beans, squash and pumpkins they were placed upon altars and happy processions took place lifting the villages spirits. Many of these ancient tribes believed that death was just a step towards a new life, in an endless cycle of re-birth, where contact with the dead was embraced.

When the Spanish crusaders landed upon the new world accompanied by dozens of Catholic priests, the endemic Mictecacihuatl celebration was moved forward to coincide with All Saints Day which falls on 1st of November. The result of this mix in the modern day is a truly unique Mexican celebration of life and death, of native spirit combined with Christian tradition. All across the country, heavy skulls carved out of sugar and decorated with the names of the deceased loved ones. As Mexico produces a huge amount of sugar and as they were too poor to afford European church decorations, the locals instead made sugar into art. With their wide smiles and multi coloured icing, these Calaveras have become one of the country most internationally recognised symbols.

On the 31st, at midnight the gates of the world beyond open and the angelicas (the spirits of deceased children) tumble down and join their families for the following 24 hours. The next day, the souls of adults join the living. After a long journey from the afterlife behind them, the deceased are welcomed by their living family and friends with a feast consisting of Bananas, Oranges and tropical fruits and cooked meals of Mole, Tortillas and Quintessential and Day of the Dead sugar breads. Whilst the deceased children and babies are treated to sweets and hot chocolate, toys are also woven into the decorated altars, adult sprits indulged in mezcal and tequila, and even the odd cigarette. Faces are painted whitened black in homage to Mitecacihuatl, the Skeleton Dame, and traditional Frida Kahlo- Esque robes flow through the cemeteries.

The Day of the Dead of has changed since its origin in the early sixteenth century, in the 2015 film James Bond’s ‘Spectre’, the opening of the film fills the screen with a fast paced chase scene in Mexico City with Daniel Craig running threw a huge Day of the Dead parade featuring giant puppets, floats and beautiful costumes. Even though the scene was outstanding it was not culturally accurate as Mexico does not have a parade to celebrate Dia De Los Muertos. But the 007 film prompted Mexican politicians to bring the scene to reality.

“When this movie hit the big screen and was seen by millions and millions of people in 67 countries, that started to create expectations that we would have something” Lourdes Berho, head of the Mexico Tourism Board, told the Big Story

The year 2016 was the first year that Mexico had a Day of the Dead Parade which encouraged thousands of people to flock to the streets of Mexico. The parade featured some of the actual props used in the James Bond film, along with other influences inspired by American TV shows such as the Walking Dead spin off ‘Fear the Walking Dead’.

In recent years the Day of the dead’s themes are adopted in many countries and cultures and is becoming an increasingly popular fancy dress and party theme in the UK and Europe. In our hometown of Brighton there were a number of different clubs and bars celebrating The Day of the Dead such as, Patterns, Mesmerist, Funfair and Wahaca. Here at Focus we decided to attend Patterns to celebrate Dia De Los Muertos on Monday the 31 of October to see what the fuzz was all about.

The overall feeling of the event was fun and vibrant. Patterns is known for its small underground venue with colourful lights and great sound system that this time was decorated to fit the theme. As the ceiling is very low, detailed bunting was hanging across so the light could shine through them. This way, you could see intricate cut outs of skulls and other “Mexican objects” like cactuses and sombreros. The room upstairs it is more illuminated and has numerous chairs for early arrivers to sit down and have a drink. As per usual, most of the people started coming around midnight and suddenly the venue was filled with “dead” characters with fake blood all over them, guys dressed as creepy nuns, girls in nurse uniforms and of course, Day of the Dead costumes. Many people dressed up and did face paint in a variety of colours imitating or taking inspiration from the traditional Mexican skulls. Men kept is simple most of the times with the usual black and white paint while some girls went all out and included glitter, flowers in their hair and black veils.

As we suspected, most of them did not have a clear idea of its origins or what it truly represented. “It’s like Mexican, skulls and colours” Abigail said, she is a second year studying 3D Design and craft at the University of Brighton who was attending the event with some of her friends. “People don’t know what it is but mostly girls are drawn to it because you can look pretty but sort of dressed up.” After all, a simple skull face paint may seem boring and conventional, specially on Halloween, as opposed to the more colourful and versatile Mexican calavera.

A few others just came to the event to get drunk, which is acceptable for being a Monday night, which is normally a student night. Young people is often oblivious to other’s traditions and meaning of objects from other parts of the world. Some might even think that the Day of the Dead is the Mexican version of Halloween when, in reality, it has always been a religious holiday and not just a commercial day to spend our disposable income on. This day massively contributes to Mexican national identity and it is one of the most recognisable symbols of Mexican culture along with more stereotypical sombreros, moustaches and tequila.

When someone adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own is called cultural appropriation. It is mostly defined as a dominant culture taking elements from another culture that they have been oppressing. Not to be mistaken with cultural exchange which is when people from different backgrounds share equally between them. This topic is more common during this time of the year as dressing up for Halloween is very popular amongst children and adults. In recent years with the increased popularity of social media, people is becoming more aware of how their supposedly un-harmful Chinese girl or native American costume can be classed as racist and inappropriate as they stereotype certain cultures and their customs to the point that they exaggerate what makes them different to us.

For example, celebrities like Kylie Jenner have generating a huge media backlash when she was seeing with her hair in cornrows which has always been a traditional black hairstyle. And while other black people can be criticized for not having smooth looking hair that fit into the ideal standards of beauty, people that have appropriated their hairstyles are praised for being cool and edgy. After all, we are attracted to what is different to our everyday life that will make us stand out from the crowd.

When the day of the dead made its way into the UK most people did not know the actual reason why Mexicans have this truly unique celebration of life and death. While many people think this day is about horror or just another version of Halloween, others celebrate its true meaning by honouring their deceased with their favourite foods and drinks.

Is easy to see why this different approach to death can be appropriated by other cultures as it moves from the usual sadness and mourning that involves seeing someone leave this earth into a colourful party where people are drinking instead of crying.