Calavera skulls, flower crowns, marigolds, copal incense and satirical poems remind us all of our shared fate: death.
These are all symbolic items in Mexico.
In that country, the first of November is generally referred to as Día de los Inocentes, which translates as “Day of the Innocents.” It’s also called Día de los Angelitos, or “Day of the Little Angels,” to remember the children who have died.
The second of November is referred to as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos, or Day of the Dead.
Locally, the Day of the Dead celebration was held at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works on Oct. 28.
This year, says event organizer Marina Queirolo, “we had the best turnout, both in the number of visitors and diversity.”
Tania Borja, a Mexican-Canadian a founder and chief executive director at Aliddesa Women’s Centre, attended the celebration with her family and describe it as “a nice vibe with abundant food.”
Peyton Dracco, a Philosophy of Science and Epistemology graduate from the University of Edinburgh, believes that the Day of the Dead is meant to instil two things. “One, to help guide the dead on their spiritual journey, and two, to familiarize the people who are still here to ensure that the idea of dead is not a taboo,” says the 41-year-old facilitator and coach.
Citlalli Rios, member of the Consulate General of Mexico in Toronto, explained the Dead altars, also known as altares de muertos or ofrendas.
“We have different elements. The first one that you see immediately is the ground, which represents the burial ground of the actual people that died. We (the living) would create a path with seeds (coco shells, lentils, beans) to try to guide the deceased towards the living scenario,” Rios says.
Everywhere, everything is flooded with Mexican marigolds, she said. Flowers in general represent the fragility of life. This bright orange flower is used widely in Mexico. It’s called cempasuchitl or flower of the dead. Apparently the smell of this flower attracts them.
Part of the tradition is to light candles every night for about a week before Nov. 2.
As Rios explains, they call it a celebration because, “This is not a sad day for us, it’s very vivid; you see it’s so colourful. We in Mexico use a lot of colours for everything, even death.”
The second element would be a pyramid structure. Originally it would be seven levels, but at the Evergreen Brick Works event they made only three.
At the top and middle levels, you would see some pictures of the people who have died. This is very important in the altar to give this ritual a purpose as to actually represent the person that you are honouring.
So they use pictures and, also very important, food, especially dishes that the person loved when they were living. “We also put out some drinks, like if they liked tequila or rum,” Rios says. “If they liked to smoke, you would also see cigarettes. If they enjoyed a particular hobby or something related to that person, you would put it there.”
There is this belief that after the dead visit this dimension, the food would be tasteless the next day. Rios revels that she has never tried the food to verify that.
Skulls (calavera in Spanish) made out of chocolate or sugar are placed on the altar to represent the people that are living with pictures for people who have already died. This represents the synchronicity between death and life.
“We are not afraid of death,” Rios says. “As you can see, we celebrate it, kind of joke around it, too. It’s a very nice tradition I’m very proud of.”