“They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” – Banksy
Every culture in every corner of the globe observes rituals surrounding death. For many, the paradox of impermanence taps into a shared primordial dread, creating existential crisis. Not so for the Ancient Aztecs, from whence the origins of Día de los Muertos, “Day of the Dead”, celebrated October 31 – November 2, can be traced. For over 3,000 years, the indigenous people of South (and later) Central America have observed annual celebrations honoring dead loved ones with a simple concept:
As long as someone alive remembers you, in a way, you remain among the living.
This celebration was so meaningful that it survived Spanish colonization, albeit with significant evolution. “Día de los Muertos has changed throughout the centuries,” says Manny Hinojosa, a native of Mexico, and North American Brand Ambassador for Tequila Cazadores. Because of the proximity of their dates, many Americans confuse this fete with Halloween. And as happens in a capitalist society, this time-honored tradition has suffered loss both from cultural appropriation and commercialization. “We have gotten away from our roots,” says Hinojosa. “Now there are parades and people paint their faces, but they may not understand why.”
“For me it is an appreciation of death” says Gilbert Marquez of Ilegal Mezcal. “Everybody knows we are going to die, but that doesn’t mean it has to be sad. It should be a transition. Anytime you are celebrating the life of your loved ones it can be very respectful. [Mexicans] celebrate by bringing our loved ones pastries and alcohol. Mezcal is a spirit that is intended to be consumed during both celebration and mourning. We did this with them while they lived, and we continue after they’ve died.”
“Every [Mexican] household has ofrendas [home-made altars, typically strewn with wreathes of marigolds, as the scent is said to attract the souls of loved ones],” says Hinojosa. “We place photos of loved ones we’ve lost, alongside their favorite foods, bread, fruits, meals, and of course, bottles of their favorite alcohol. We go to the cemetery. We cook, we eat, we dance, and we drink tequila. It’s not sad. We tell stories and we remember the good times.”
When I think of how little I actually know of my own grandparents, and how little will be known of me after I leave this mortal coil, I wonder why we don’t all recall our loved ones in this manner.
Fortunately, Día de los Muertos is not reserved only for people of Mexican descent. There are many ways a person can observe Day of the Dead with reverence. “We love having people learn about our culture,” says Hinojosa. “[Mexicans are] expressive and we love people learning our traditions.”
Mexico and Mexican Americans have experienced a tumultuous 2017. Between the recent earthquake and rising anti-immigrant sentiment in America, the time has never been more appropriate to show support for the Latin community in general, and for Mexican culture in particular. If you are not of Mexican descent and you would like to observe Día de los Muertos in an authentic way, set up your own altar. Put out photos of lost loved ones. Fix their favorite meals, tell your favorite stories about them.
And by all means, toast to their lives by drinking their favorite spirits.