27 October 2021
Death is one of the most difficult topics to accept and understand as humans, maybe knowing how other communities and societies deal with this will give us a new understanding of the many ways we can see loss and even our own death.
It is important to be able to talk and think about this topic especially with the Covid-19 crisis and the sudden loss of family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. We should be able to have the chance to think a bit more about death and what it means to us.
This is why I wanted to share with you my experience with the present concept of death in my life. I am from Milpa Alta, a small Nahua village located in the southeast of Mexico City and like many Mexicans, every November 1st and 2nd we get ready for the Micailhuitl known as the Day of the Dead.
The celebration could sound creepy and the whole idea of having a celebration and being festive about death may not let you appreciate the healing effect that this event has on the people who grieve and how this helps the members of a community to deal with the loss of a loved one.
Imagine a safe space where you can talk about this difficult subject with others, a place where everyone relates with your feelings, a place that is even going to push your creativity to build an altar decorated with flowers, sugar skulls, papel picado (perforated tissue paper), candles, and food.
The Day of the Dead celebration is that kind of safe and creative space where memories, grief and the chance to connect and share with your community become real. This celebration provides a healthy, festive, and therapeutic space to cope with the pain and suffering.
The British Library holds collections from many parts of the world written in different languages providing the readers the chance to enjoy the diversity of the world we live in. So, in addition, it is not surprising that I found a couple of books in these collections from my hometown.
I choose three of these publications that are particularly important and this is because the books were written in the native Nahuatl language and because they had the memories of a Nahua woman from my village named Luz Jiménez, a remarkable storyteller who is also known as the most painted woman in Mexico.
She was depicted in countless works by some of the most renowned artists working in Mexico in the first half of the 20th century such as Diego Rivera, Jean Charlot, Tina Modotti, Fernando Leal and Edward Weston.
Her collaboration with anthropologists and linguists made possible the publication of her texts as literary and historical works that she authored and translated, but she was always billed as an informant who in her lifetime never got recognition as an author.
Jiménez’s memories of the times of the Mexican Revolution were published in a bilingual Nahuatl-Spanish edition as De Porfirio Díaz a Zapata: memoria náhuatl de Milpa Alta, 1968 (BL shelfmark: X.709/29934).
In 1972, a bilingual Nahuatl-English edition was published as Life and Death in Milpa Alta. A Nahuatl Chronicle of Díaz and Zapata edited by Fernando Horcasitas, from the Nahuatl recollections of Doña Luz Jiménez (BL shelfmark 74/26082). The following description of the Day of the Dead in Milpa Alta comes from this edition.
During the night between November 1 and 2, the head of the household of Milpa Alta is proud of his ofrenda a table set up with stews, candles, bread, liquor, glasses of water, candles, and cigarettes for the Faithful Departed. All night the members of the family accompany the "little dead ones," the beloved ancestors who have come to spend this one night of the year among the living. (Horcasitas, 1972:75)
Jimenez’s stories appear, again in a Nahuatl-Spanish edition, as Los cuentos en Náhuatl de Doña Luz Jiménez, 1979, collected by Fernando Horcasitas and Sarah O. Ford (BL shelfmark X.950/12883).
The book contains, among many others, the story of a young man who didn’t believe in the Day of the Dead and how he learned a lesson when he saw the dead coming to his town.
These books were published more than fifty years ago but the events described in them are not very different from the ones I experienced in my own time. Let me tell you how the Day of the Dead is nowadays in Milpa Alta.
Everybody in my home town knows that a big and special Momoxtle or Ofrenda (altar) will be set up for the people who no longer live with us, but especially at the house of a person that recently passed away. Tamales (a traditional corn dish) and homemade bread will be made at the family house and neighbours will come to help with the preparations.
During the days of October 30th and 31st a table will be set up in the main room of the house to be decorated with flowers, candles, fruit, candy, liquor, water, and photographs of the people to whose the offering is dedicated. Some space will be reserved to put the bread and tamales that are going to be made, while the table is being decorated.
The preparation of tamales are usually in the hands of the elder women of the house: this is because they are considered the best cooks and the ones who hold the family recipes. The younger women, men and children will help with la batida (mixing of the dough) and la envoltura (the wrapping and making of tamales).
Bread is made on October the 30th and is usually in the hand of the men: this is because they have to deal with the fire and heat of the oven but it is common to see men, women, and children working together in the preparation.
These activities provide a very special space where everybody feels free to talk about the people who have died. They even talk about how much the dead are going to enjoy their favourite tamales and all the drinks, food, and candy they will find in their altars. Here you can hear all kinds of stories and memories of the lost ones, and of course, tears will come out of the eyes of many.
This is a multidimensional event; too many things happen at the same time and miraculously everybody knows what to do. While some are in the kitchen making tamales, others are at the oven cooking the bread, others are decorating the altar and others are cleaning the house and bringing wood sticks to get ready for the velada a fire that every family in the town will set up outside of their houses to illuminate the path for their loved ones to their Ofrenda.
This festivity is related to the milpa cycle: it is the end of the harvest and the cornfields have lots of carrizo, a type of dried cane stick that children and adults collect to make star shape decorations covered with tissue paper and also to make paper balloons or Amatecolotl (the name these paper balloons used to have because they had the shape of an owl, while nowadays they are star-shaped). The balloons guide the loved ones to their homes.
Kids will also carve skeleton faces in chilacayotes, a kind of wild pumpkin squash that grows in the fields, and put a candle inside to decorate and illuminate the path to the Ofrendas.
Another way to guide the dead ones to their altars is to make a line path out of marigold flower petals that goes from the street to the inside of the house where the altar is located, so the dead ones won’t get confused or lost.
The entire town will also go to the cemetery on November the 2nd, where the families will clean the tombs and some will make reparations if they are essential. The shrine will also be decorated with Cempasuchitl (marigold flower), here it is essential to burn candles.
The visit to the cemetery is a moment where the entire community will share with the dead food, drinks, live music, and even street food merchants will join. In some places, this visit to the cemetery will continue all night long and people will wait for their loved ones there instead of waiting for them in the private house altar.
The night of October 31st is when the dead children come to visit their altars, special presents and gifts for them will be put in the Ofrenda. On November 1st, the church bells of the town will start to ring at 3pm announcing that the children are leaving and that the grownups are arriving to town, later at 6pm a fire will be set up outside the house and everybody will spend the night surrounding the fire. The next day, November 2nd, at 3 pm, the church bells will ring again to announce that the dead ones are leaving town.
In this celebration, we welcome our loved ones to their altars, some will have incense burning at the bottom of the table, others will pray to the souls and all of us will have the chance to greet them and tell them that we missed them and maybe talk about how life has been without them around. Then, of course, we will watch with pride our display of love: the food and decorations we made to remember them.
The British Library will host a Day of the Dead celebration with an altar that will be built at the main entrance. We hope this will be a good opportunity to bring the memory of your loved ones, maybe by putting a small photograph in the Ofrenda. Many of us will have the chance to experience this tradition and have the opportunity to grieve and celebrate in a safe and communal environment the lives of the ones that no longer are with us.
Blog post by Isela Xospa.
Isela Xospa is an illustrator, indigenous language activist and publisher from Milpa Alta, in the Nahua region in southeast Mexico City. She manages Ediciones XospaTronik, an independent publishing project promoting the revitalisation of the Nahuatl language. She works with publishing illustrated children’s books in indigenous languages, and finding ways to make these publications accessible. She is currently a British Library Chevening Fellow working on Latin American Indigenous Languages in early printed books.