By Sonia Singh • MA Ethnographic and Documentary Film
“Day of the Dead” (Dia de los Muertos), celebrated primarily on November 2nd, is a day to honor and celebrate the dead. Colorful sugar skulls, bright face paint, flower decorations, candle-lit altars with food offerings and loud mariachi music are just a few staples of this famous Mexican holiday. Dia de los Muertos offers a different perspective on how to respectfully honor our ancestors. Instead of inundating ourselves with grief and misery, it offers the chance to connect with the departed by celebrating their journey between earth and the afterlife. By talking to others about lost loved ones rather than avoiding the discussion, this holiday brings solace and happiness to an otherwise historically depressing topic.
Celebratory rituals honoring dead ancestors have been practiced in Mexico for thousands of years. One major tradition is to visit the graves of loved ones, and fill altars with the deceased’s favourite candies and beverages. It is believed that their souls are on a continuous journey, and can revisit earth when summoned. Blankets and pillows may also be placed near their graves, to offer rest for their ancestors after their tiring journey. Streets are filled with color, dancing, music, and happiness. It is a time to celebrate, not to dwell in mourning.
This year the owners of Milagros, a Mexican shop selling textiles and other decorations, decided to throw an early Dia de los Muertos celebration on Columbia Road in Bethnal Green, London. Tom, the shop owner, has traveled extensively through Mexico, and has fond memories of celebrating Dia de los Muertos abroad. He describes the holiday as a way of, ‘dealing with death.’ Londoners would typically avoid the topic altogether, he says, bottling up their emotions rather than expressing their grief in a healthy way.
This Mexican tradition encourages those who have lost their loved ones to embrace the thought of death, celebrating the belief that the soul is eternal and can travel back and forth without bounds. The English school of thought, which treats death as a final, formal, and crushing farewell to loved ones, stands in stark contrast to the ethos of Dia de los Muertos.
The countless Londoners visiting this year’s Dia de los Muertos festival on Columbia Road, could be seen as a positive step towards the embracing and acceptance of these beautifully diverse traditions and worldviews that coexist in our sprawling city. The positive experiences these festivals have to offer not only promote inclusion, but also individual growth. At the end of the day, witnessing a new perspective on an otherwise ‘touchy’ subject can be a beneficial and valuable experience. For most Mexicans, this year’s celebration will be an especially moving event. With the recent earthquakes wreaking havoc and pain throughout their country, Mexicans are standing united to help rebuild the land and honor the many lives that have been taken.
People around the world facing adversity and loss could find comfort in the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos. As the Mexican saying goes, ‘Al mal tiempo, buena cara.’ Translation: when the going gets tough, keep on smiling. Positivity will bring light into our lives.