Thursday, June 17, 2010


Spending time in Central Mexico one is struck by figures of death, some suggesting these are central to Mexican culture. One can debate the second argument but the first is very clear. Entering a restaurant to discover large clay images of death figures located as though to entertain the eaters. As the day of the dead approaches discovering bread for sale with simple images of bones on the crusts, others sell elaborate pieces for consumption or display. A whole street is given over to the sale of sweet images of death as items of decoration or consumption - men sitting up in coffins, a skull with your name on it, skulls on sticks creating a sucker or a skeleton at the beach. A local town that fashions small simple images of Catrinas* (death like figures) as well as large, elaborate and expensive images. One imagines these are used as decorative pieces in the home and indeed one becomes drawn to them, soon you have purchased several for your own home. Going to graves and watching people decorate ofrendas for their ancestors and on occasion using papier mache skeletons on which they places the cloths of the dead one. This strange person sits with the family all night observing the beautiful flowers, candles, many items of food and perhaps his favorite alcohol. Attending ceremonial dances to see children dressed in skeletal images as entertainment. Often seeing masks used in dances that show a face half alive and half dead or just a death mask. These are only a few examples.

To clarify, when a person dies the mood in Mexico is similar to that in most societies. There is crying, wailing, dressing in black and processions to the grave with the family in grief. That is to say, actual death is no laughing matter.

So what are all these figures, which some would see as morbid, about? I have struggled with this for some time and the other night felt something came together. I was watching a brief program about flamenco music and, while I didn’t see the entire thing, a teacher of the dance said a few words that jolted me. First she said that much Spanish music has death as an undertone and this enters the dance. She was standing with her arms hanging at each side and with her hands gave a gesture of flicking something away. She said in a musical way - “Death is here, death is there. it is everywhere. You have to play with it.” She went on to say very briefly that this is also what the bullfight is about. I was planning on attending a bullfight last year and so was able to spend a great deal of time with a friend who was very knowledgeable of the fight. The job of the torero was to put him (or her) self in danger, and, in the most artistic fashion possible face the danger, making it as much like a beautiful dance as possible - flick it away.

Most western cultures recognize death of course but there is a struggle to not talk about, to not see it, to protect your children from it and so on. But we don’t, as a culture, make fun of it or tease it. It is only when it comes very close to us that we have to name it. Such as when we escape a situation when we could easily have been killed. Images of death at halloween are seen as scary rather than as funny - death is at my door and yet I am alright! An acquaintance who lives in Mexico (he is from Russia) reported that he hates all the death stuff and he thinks it holds Mexico back. Playing with death brings your attention to the possibility of death he thought and consequently one does not have long-term visions. One needs to pretend death was not “here and there” and act as though you would live forever. I’m not sure I agree entirely, but it is another view.
PS. There is another tradition in Mexico, and perhaps other areas, and this is the painting of pictures of dead babies. Arte de Mexico has published an issue on this.
* A catrin is a name for a city dweller and around 1900 a Mexican illustrator began to publish images of the wealthy urban folk in their fine dresses and suits, but appearing as dressed skeletons. These images became very popular and you now find images of every class and occupation.

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