Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Flower of the Dead

Today is the day of the dead and Mexicans visit the grave site of their deceased loved ones and family. Extra police and traffic-control are assigned to patrol camposantos and grave-yards of all Mexican cities and towns. The streets and roads leading to the cemeteries are congested and it's often necessary to put up barricades to control the traffic.

"El dia de muertos" is celebrated according to timeless rituals and traditions rooted in Aztec cultural practice. One central tradition is a dominant display of the golden-yellow marigold-like flower named the cempasúchil or cempoalxóchitl. It's used to decorate specially constructed "ofrendas al difuntos (altars memorializing the deceased)" erected in homes for the occasion, and cempoalxóchitl petals are spread around tombs and along the paths winding through the cemeteries. Xóchitl means "flower" in the Nahuatl language and "cempoalli" means 20.

The number 20 is important and sacred in Aztec mythology. Aztec society relied on two calendars to mark the passage of days. A "secular" calendar (xiuhpohualli) used 18 months of 20 "lucky days" and an extra "5 unlucky days". A sacred calendar (tonalpohualli) – the book of days — has a more important divinatory role. There are 20 days and each is associated with a day sign and with a specific god: the twentieth day has the flower for a day sign (Xóchitl) and is associated with the god Xochiquetzal.

A short description of the cempoalxóchitl and its importance to Day of the Dead can read at the following link.

An excellent web-site that explains the Aztec Calendar is found at


James Creechan said...

Day of the Dead still going strong
By Jonathan Roeder/The Herald Mexico
El Universal

Jueves 02 de noviembre de 2006

By reading national headlines and listening to Catholic clergy, a casual observer might think Day of the Dead is at risk of dying out

By reading national headlines and listening to Catholic clergy, a casual observer might think Day of the Dead is at risk of dying out.

"Halloween, No! Day of the Dead Altars, Yes!" read a recent headline in Cambio newspaper from Michoacán, the state most famous for its celebrations in honor of the dearly departed.

Another story in the same paper reported local artists´ concerns that Halloween - an import from the United States that has grown in popularity in recent years - could displace the Mexican holiday. They lamented the prevalence of jack-o-lanterns and costumes, arguing the Halloween décor could replace the traditional altars with marigolds, candles and festive skulls.

Meanwhile, Catholic groups organized Church-approved pageants, encouraging children and adults to dress as their favorite saint for All Saints´ Day, which falls on Nov. 1.

According to the Brotherhood of Missionary Apostles of the Word, the idea is to "promote the lives of the saints and holiness, while offsettingHalloween, which was introduced to our country." Pageants will take place in Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca and Veracruz.

One pastor supporting the "Anti-Halloween movement" argues that "It´s not just a fun, inoffensive little holiday."

"It´s actually a celebration of darkness," said Pastor Jaime Rodríguez, quoted in the daily El Sol de México. "Started by the ancient Celts, witchcraft, evil and all things satanic are celebrated."

But for Daniel Hernández Rosete, a sociologist at Mexico City´s Center for Research and Advanced Studies, the concern over Day of the Dead´s demise is unnecessary. "Walk around the Merced," Hernández said, referring to one of the capital´s oldest and largest markets. "You can see the cultural exuberance of (Day of the Dead) and the importance we give it. It´s truly beautiful."

In most markets, Day of the Dead symbols are ubiquitous this week, with marigolds, colorful paper cutouts of skeletons and candy skulls being top sellers.

Residents of the capital seem to have readily adopted both holidays, and while Halloween is seen as an opportunity to allow children to indulge in sweets and for young adults to throw costume parties, Day of the Dead is clearly the main course.

Ofrendas, or altars with offerings, are practically universal in homes, offices and public spaces across the city. The simplest include a loved one´s photo and a portion of their favorite foods, illuminated by candles. The most elaborate, such as those in the Zócalo and on the National Autonomous University campus, include larger-than-life corpses rising from their coffins and collections of candles that keep fire fighters on edge.

Hernández said Halloween´s growing popularity didn´t mean that the Day of the Dead, celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2, was being displaced.

"I don´t see (the holidays) as in conflict with each other," he said, adding that just as Mexico has imported Halloween, Day of the Dead´s popularity is growing in the United States.

He cited the back-and-forth flow of migrants as one of the principle culprits for the cross- cultural germination.

"We are neighboring cultures," he said. "It´s evident the respective influence - culturally, linguistically, even gastronomically - is irreversible," he said.

© 2006 Copyright El Universal-El Universal Online.

James Creechan said...

Oaxaca residents build altars to honor victims
By John Gibler/Special to The Herald Mexico–El Universal

Jueves 02 de noviembre de 2006

Domitila Mendoza moved aside limes, oranges and bananas to clear a place for her bowl of chicken in mole sauce. The afternoon light had begun to soften, bringing out the colors of the flowers, fruit, and candles all placed on the sidewalk

Domitila Mendoza moved aside limes, oranges and bananas to clear a place for her bowl of chicken in mole sauce. The afternoon light had begun to soften, bringing out the colors of the flowers, fruit, and candles all placed on the sidewalk.

In a traditional ceremony that predates the arrival of Columbus, Domitila Mendoza had come to pay honor to the dead. But the altar here in Santa Lucía, a suburb of Oaxaca City, was not dedicated to her ancestors, but rather to a young New York Indymedia journalist who was shot dead last Friday.

"We are hurt; we saw the shootings, and we ran and hid. But he is not dead," said Mendoza, a 63-year-old homemaker as she pointed to a picture of Bradley Will framed by bright orange cempasuchil flowers. "Here he is, for us he is still alive."

This year Day of the Dead carries a heavy weight for many in Oaxaca. In the past five months of conflict between a widespread protest movement and the state government, 16 protesters have been killed in attacks by armed gunmen, some of whom have been identified in photographs as local police and city council members.

After the most recent shooting spree last Friday, where three people including Indymedia reporter Will were shot dead in the street, President Fox sent in the Federal Preventative Police "to restore order" to Oaxaca City.

Nearly a week later, the police have taken control of the Zócalo and key state government buildings, but the protesters continue to organize barricades throughout the city, occupy the university radio station, convoke marches of thousands of people in the city center, and build a new protest camp five blocks from the Zócalo in front of the Santo Domingo Convent.

The Oaxaca People´s Assembly (APPO), the organization that coordinates the protesters´ actions, has called for people to avoid direct confrontations with the police, but to continue taking to the streets in daily demonstrations.

"We are going to begin an offensive of surrounding the PFP, truly beginning the battle for Oaxaca," said Adolfo López, a member of the APPO´s provisional leadership.

"We are going to use ´lethal´ arms against the PFP: traditional Day of the Dead sand sculptures and flowers, in homage to those who have fallen during our movement."

Throughout the day, hundreds of people across the city center have spent hours hunched over in the sun, forming piles of sand in the shapes of skeletons and skulls. They painted the sand various colors and then added flowers, fruit, traditional food offerings such as fried plantains, black beans, and mole sauce, and then placed signs with the names of those who have been killed during the conflict.

"This is the urban guerrilla of which they have accused us," López said.

One of the most prominent names at the altars is that of Bradley Will.

"He was just here to document what was happening, and they killed him," said Viviana, a 22-year-old student who had come to pay homage to Will at one of the altars. "And what is worse, those that killed him were government employees."

Will´s killers were identified in photographs that appeared in EL UNIVERSAL as police officers and city officials from Santa Lucía.

Carla van der Bos, a reporter with Indymedia Netherlands, met Brad in Oaxaca a month ago. She was arriving in Palenque, Chiapas, with two other Indymedia reporters when she heard the news. She turned around and came back to stand over the altar "built around the corner from where Will was killed."

"It was hard to come back," she said as she looked over the altar, standing amidst about 100 people from around the neighborhood who had come to contribute to the altar or just stand in silence.


In a slightly more provocative move, protesters built sand sculptures at the feet of the federal riot police who stood in a line blocking all streets leading into the Zócalo. On Alcalá Street, two young women prepared a sculpture with the phrase "Neither forgetting nor forgiveness" formed in sand and painted orange and black over a white background.

Around Santo Domingo, members of the APPO and other residents built scores of altars.

Guillermo Pacheco, a 31year-old visual artist, said he had made sand sculptures for years.

"We have always built sand sculptures in the Zócalo, but now we can´t," he said referring to the police occupation of the Zócalo. "It is outrageous. I am a member of civil society, not of the APPO, but the whole society is shocked, not just the APPO."

Asked if his sculpture was part of the APPO offensive he said: "Yes and no. We have always celebrated Day of the Dead this way, and the celebration has always included criticism of the government."

© 2006 Copyright El Universal-El Universal Online