It is interesting to be at the forefront of a cultural change so you forever know you remember when things were done quite differently before and for a long time. Think of all the times we needed film to take a picture or knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System to do term paper. Culture, like everything in life, has one constant and that is change.
From pre-Hispanic times to just a few years ago Day of the Dead was a private affair. It was the time to build an altar to attract deceased loved ones to come back for a visit either in your home or at the cemetery on their tomb. Done over All Saints Day for children or All Souls Day for adults, Day of the Dead had no aspect to it that was up for public consumption beyond the obligatory mass.
Know who changed all that? Bond. James Bond.
About a decade or so ago a Bond movie started with Bond having an adventure in Mexico City while a Day of the Dead parade was seen in the background. The success of the movie led Mexico City officials to hook their wagons to a rising star and Day of the Dead parades became de rigueur in Mexico City.
Today Mexico City parades are spectacular displays of Mexico’s history and culture complete with Catrinas, monarchs, marigolds, step pyramids and so much more bringing Day of the Dead out onto the streets.
Five or so years ago the Rosewood hotel here in San Miguel de Allende started sponsoring a Catrina parade this time of year. For around fifty dollars one could down some drinks, apply Catrina make-up and hit the streets around 8PM. Some dead would rather drink at home to avoid the ticket price then join in on the sashaying around town part.
Regardless, the price kept the event strictly for visiting foreigners featuring Hollywood-level costumes, wigs and make-up. As I frequently told my foreign tour guests – “Go have fun. Then when you get back to the hotel that night build an altar as it is building an altar that is celebrating Day of the Dead.”
Appears I may have to, once again, change my thinking.
This year the town sponsored their first Day of the Dead parade and it was marvelous! Taking place at 5PM on All Souls Day the timing was right on the mark for Day of the Dead adults and at an hour where taking photos was a breeze. Plus with daylight the likelihood of drunk skeletons taking a tumble on the cobblestones to shatter exposed femurs was greatly reduced.
Best of all participation was free so plenty of Mexicans joined in the fun! While American and Canadian Catrinas were giving candy to children in a belated off-shoot of trick or treat, Mexicans used the opportunity to promote local
history. Dead Allendes, , beauty queens and folks of every trade were on display. Even the police, out in force this year for what had been, pre-virus, the biggest week for foreign tourism sported their skull faces.
Is this change in tradition a good thing? Yeah, I think so on many levels.
Economically, we are a tourism-based economy so anything that draws folks in aids not just the hotel and restaurant folks, but the countless make-up artists working their skull magic and other visual artists selling their skeletal paintings, tees and trinkets.
Culturally, I enjoy anything that pulls people together and there is no great unifier than death – nationality, politics and even gender can change on a dime now. Yet, the eventuality that every one ever born, even Jesus, experiences death both unites and defines us.
So why not poke some fun at death, have a healthy romp around town while enjoying some candy and spirits (pun intended)?
Then go home and build your altar to remember your loved one’s life in their entirety including what made them unique. You’ll realize death is a really tiny part of life and hardly worth even mentioning on an altar.