Friday, October 25, 2013

Day of the Dead vs Halloween

Octavio Paz described Mexican culture as being “seduced by death.” Sugared skulls, and the skeletal figurines (colacas) of humans in every conceivable clothing style and occupation seem to confirm this sentiment. Day of the Dead is primarily a celebration of the ancestors. Unlike Halloween, the goal of the flowers, altars, candy and skeletal array is to pay respects in the more creative, fanciful style of the people who brought us magical realism.

America’s Halloween differs from Day of the Dead in many ways. Number one is that Halloween is scary. In American culture death is not a natural occurence common to all life, but a fearful, traumatic end. When the dead come back, they are not pleased. They haunt and frighten us by making spooky sounds and rattling bones. Like the ever-so-popular vampire and zombie legends, the moral is always that it is preferable for all if the dead remain buried. Our culture gives a high priority to everyone staying in their designated place.

In Dia de Los Muertos, the dead are revered, not as superhuman, but with all the frailties and imperfection of the lives they lived. Altars, the tributes to the departed, often include whiskey bottles and cartons of cigarettes. These are not the trappings of saints. It is a time of memory and celebration. If these deceased returned for a visit, it seems that their friends and families would rejoice not cower.

When my mother was dying of ovarian cancer, the primary emotions she expressed were fear and, more puzzling, shame Fear seems a natural response to the unknown but her shame was trickier to comprehend. In retrospect, I believe it was about relinquishing control in front of her children. Being invulnerable was a necessary part of that definition.

Of course control is also a primary part of our philosophy of rugged individualism. “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” was a quote often repeated by my father. To be so ill that you can no longer steer your own ship is not only considered tragic, it is a disgrace.

If my mother had openly acknowledged how sick she was it would have been a relief to all of us. We could have begun initiating closure much sooner; expressing emotion and saying all the things that need to be said.

I don’t know how her death would translate in Mexico. But, on her altar, I would place a copy of Simone De Beauvoir’s, “Second Sex,” a bottle of scotch, and one of Sanka, a can of tomato juice and one of asparagus spears, a slice of rye toast, a pack of Kent cigarettes, a copy of the New Yorker, a steno pad, a credit card and an old typewriter.