Culture Shock

Caleb just finished his first semester of law school.  And by finish, I mean he spent 37 hours studying for his his Torts final alone!  If anyone was deserving, er, desperately needing a Christmas getaway, it was our boy.

thumbnailI began planning our trip in June of last year.  I chose Cabo San Lucas as our destination, knowing nothing more than the fact that this was a huge Spring Break destination for classmates in Caleb’s high school class.  He had never gone on the trip with his friends, and it seemed like having survived Contracts and Torts was the perfect reason for discovering what the draw was over his Christmas break.  And while I felt a tad guilty for being such a “typical American”, I felt Caleb needed time to just lay on the beach and soak up some sun.  We could hit more “educational” destinations after his second year- -you know, when law school gets easier.

We were warned about the “time share” guys in the airport.  We were not, however, expecting them to act like they were from our car rental agency.  Yes, we fell for it!  Twice!  It was my fault.  It seemed rude to just ignore someone telling us he was calling the shuttle, then go over a map and highlight our route and main beaches while we waited.  Ugh!  If they would just make their pitch in the first 30 seconds!  We were much quicker the second time.   And yes, I truly felt like a horrible person walking away as soon as Alamo Representative #2 pulled out the map.  Caleb was not fooled.  We found him standing next to our real shuttle driver in an even more overwhelming crowd outside the airport.  This was probably the first time of many he was wishing he had been with his friends, not his parents.

The process for picking up the car was quick and painless, and finally, we were on our way! Thanks to the map provided by Time Share Guy #1 we had no trouble.  Of course, there is only one way out of the airport, a beautiful federal highway, and lots of signs pointing us in the right direction too.  It was exciting to see the opposite side of the Sea of Cortez.  Well, when I could see it through all the hotels, condos, and I assume, time shares!

Our hotel was not on the water.  It was just two stories high.  It was purple and turquoise.  The wifi was horrible.  And I loved it!  We unpacked, regrouped, and headed into the central district to check things out.  It was hard to believe I was still in Mexico.  Nothing about Cabo San Lucas looked like the places I knew:  Nogales, Santa Ana, Hermosillo, Guaymas, Obregon.  There were no potholes in the roads.  There was no trash along the streets.  The desert seemed softer.  Waiters and shop owners spoke English.  Everyone seemed to be paying in dollars.  Music was blaring from all directions.  Almost everyone we passed on the malecón was carrying a beer or margarita.  And wearing a balloon animal hat.  What was that and where could I get one?!  Hostesses were standing in front of clubs with trays of tequila samples.  There were so many choices- -it was a tad overwhelming.

And then the “draw” became much clearer.  A restaurant sign advertising 2×1 margaritas thumbnail-1caught Caleb’s eye.  Yep.  That was where we would eat our first night.  Being an only child can be lonely at times.  But 2×1 margaritas when you don’t have to share is not one of them!

Offerings of Love

Who does not love a good festival?  Great food, music, displays, and handicrafts…  They offer a little something for everyone and a lot of opportunity to learn more about local customs and traditions.  And while many towns and cities throughout Mexico are finalizing months worth of plans for community Día de Muertos celebrations, the most important and meaningful of these preparations take place at home.

It is believed that at midnight on October 31, and again, on November 1, the gates of heaven open for a 24 hour period.  At this time, the souls of the departed may return to visit with their loved ones here earth.  There is a belief that the dead provide their families protection, good luck, and wisdom from beyond the grave.  Therefore, souls are welcomed home in grand fashion.  Families erect altars in honor of the deceased.  These altars are not shrines, rather, they are ofrendas, or offerings, designed to lead the spirits home.

There is rich symbolism in each of the items included in the ofrenda.  These vary regionally, depending on the local customs, traditions, and/or the availability of special foods, drinks, and flowers.  Cost even factors in; some families may spend two month’s worth of earnings!

Ofrendas  have two, three, or seven levels, representing earth, heaven, purgatory, and/or the steps necessary to reach

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Ofrenda welcoming the soul of Buz, by his wife, Patty
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The ofrenda displayed in my home

heaven.  Photographs of the deceased are prominently featured.  Flowers, whose strong scents and bright colors are believed to guide the way, are arranged on the ofrendas.  Some people, use petals from the flowers to create pathways from the door to the altar, extra insurance that loved ones do not lose their way.    Baby’s Breath is often used on altars of children; symbolizing innocence and purity.  Cempasuchil, orange marigolds, are another popular choice.   These flowers are native to Mexico and were used by the Aztecs during funeral ceremonies.  Other popular flowers include cockscombs, hoary stock, chrysanthemums, and gladiolas.  Copal incense is burned, providing another sweet fragrance, and candles illuminate the way.

Papel picado, or chiseled paper, is a folk art that originated in the town of Puebla.  Artists used papel de China (tissue paper) to create paper ornaments, lamp shades, and other artworks.  By the 1920’s, artisans were displaying and distributing paper flags they made by “chiseling” designs on the tissue paper.  Papel picado is used for numerous special occasions today, including Día de Muertos.  Ofrendas include papel picado flags decorated with Catrinas, skeletons, and other religious icons.

 

Families often include water (to quench the thirst of the soul after its long journey), salt (it acts as a purifier), personal items of the deceased (tools, books, cigarettes), crosses, statues of La Virgin de Guadalupe and other patron saints, and decorations like incense burners, figurines of skeletons or skulls, and candy skulls made of sugar or chocolate.  These items personalize the altar for the person being remembered and help each soul feel welcomed and calm.

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Ofrenda in honor of Frida Kahlo, designed by students at Secundaria de La Manga

In the early evening hours, preceding the midnight return, foods (served only on very special occasions due to cost) and drinks are added to the offrendas.  Turkey with mole sauce, tamales, tortillas, hot chocolate, tequila, fruits, and pan de muerto, a sweet bread baked as an offering to the dead, are arranged on the altars.  The soul’s journey from heaven is long, and the food and drink provide nourishment upon its arrival.  After the soul has enjoyed the “essence” of the meal, family members share the treats.  Sometimes entire communities come together to share and celebrate together.

November 2 is spent at the cemetery.  The majority in Mexico are public, meaning there are no caretakers to maintain the grounds and keep the areas tidy.  Families gather to clean the gravesite by pulling weeds, planting flowers, and cutting back grasses.  After the hard work is over, they enjoy a picnic style meal together, often to the music of mariachi bands.

Cemeteries and death are not seen as scary, dark, or creepy.  The bright colors, loud music, pleasing smells, and delicious food evoke feelings of happiness, love and togetherness.  Día de Muertos is my very favorite of all Mexican celebrations for this reason.  I can not help but be filled with excitement over the idea of a bonus visit from my grandparents and father-in-law.

And in true “teacher fashion” I have gone on much too long.  Surely, it is time for “recess”.  Or a shot of that tequila sitting on the altar!

The “After” Party

thumbnailIt seems odd to see jack-o-lanterns, spider webs, black cats, and witches’ hats on display in the stores and restaurants throughout Guaymas and San Carlos.  Día de Muertos, is Mexico’s most popular holiday, and I fully expected that it would have more influence in my little town than it seems to.  I have learned, however, that due to Sonora’s proximity to the U.S. border, and greater access to images via television and social media, Halloween has become increasingly popular.  Residents in our state, as well as those in many border states, adopt more American traditions  There are more Halloween costumes and treat bags on sale at the local Walmart than calaveras, Catrinas, and candles.  Día de Muertos is still widely celebrated in the central and southern states of Mexico where there is a greater indigenous presence, and less American influence.

In 2003, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) proclaimed Día de Muertos as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  Intangible Cultural Heritage refers to traditions that are passed down through the generations via arts, storytelling, performance, and rituals associated with nature and the universe.  I was determined to ignore the Halloween trappings (especially the chocolate) and focus on learning more about and celebrating Día de Muertos.

Hundreds of years ago, the Aztecs celebrated a festival during August in honor of
Mictecacihuatl, a goddess who served as guardian of the dead.  After Spanish colonization and due to the influence of the Catholic Church, ancient religious traditions were combined with Catholic ones.  Today, the festival coincides with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.  It is believed that at midnight on October 31 (Día de los Angelitos), the gates of heaven open so that the souls of deceased children come down from above and reunite with their families for a 24 hour period.  At midnight on November 1, the souls of deceased adults  rejoin their loved ones.

Día de Muertos is not a sad, scary time.  The tradition is described beautifully by Christina Preiss when she says, “The first death you die is when you stop breathing, the second when you are buried in the earth, the third is when the last person here forgets you. So this traditions ensures you never die the third death and your family member comes back and is always with you.”  Families remember the best of times and the very best of the people they have lost with bright colors, beautiful flowers, candles, incense, music, and favorite foods, drinks, and toys.  Many families spend the equivalent of more than two month of their salaries on preparations for this holiday, decorating altars and planning celebrations at grave sites.

One of the most recognizable figures in Día de Muertos festivities is La Catrina.thumbnail-17.jpeg  Designed by José Guadalupe Posada in 1910, La Calavera Catrina, became the symbol of the Mexican Revolution and “death” of the privileged class.  Today she represents the idea that everyone is equal in death.   Catrina Parades and/or Festivales de las Calacas are held in many cities and towns throughout Mexico.  By dressing up, participants hope to ward off death, tricking her into believing they are already dead.

And fortunately, in spite of all the Halloween excitement, Guaymas is hosting a Festival de la Calaca this coming weekend!  I will continue with this same theme in my next article, sharing information about the elaborate atlars and gravesite visits.  But for now, I need to add the finishing touches to my Catrina costume!