Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Day of the Dead festivities take on darker tone as Mexico's drug war rages on

Monday, November 1, 2010 |

BY TRACY WILKINSON, LOS ANGELES TIMES


A woman lights a candle on a grave at a cemetery in Oaxaca November 1, 2010.
Photograph by: Jorge Luis Plata, Reuters


MEXICO CITY - So many dead.

It is often said that Mexicans famously celebrate death, that it is viewed not just as the end of life but a single stage in an infinite cycle.

The Mexican, as poet Octavio Paz once put it, does not fear death but "mocks it, courts it, embraces it, sleeps with it."

But this year, as Mexicans picnic at cemeteries and erect elaborate altars to mark the nation's annual Day of the Dead observances, death is haunting in its abundance.

Mexicans face the stark reality of a drug war that has plunged the country into its deadliest violence since the revolution 100 years ago.

So many dead. Tens of thousands, in just a few years.

And thus the colorful ceremonies and memorials this year have taken on a darker tone, an acknowledgment of the staggering toll of the recent past, confronting it rather than ignoring it.

In Mexico City's central Zocalo plaza, the so-called "Mega Ofrenda," an elaborate and enormous shrine with offerings of flowers, food, drink and artworks to the dead, also features political messages: "Let's hope Felipe (Calderon, the president) saves us from the narcos so there may be no more dead."

Though written, in its Spanish version, in playful rhyme, the message is clear: Help.

Outside the federal attorney general's office on Mexico City's wide, tree-lined Paseo de la Reforma, a group of people use their Day of the Dead offerings to protest the bloodletting that has spread across much of the nation. Decorating a sidewalk with the orange chrysanthemums typical of the holiday, they criticize the "absurd war" that they said is increasingly claiming the lives of young people. "In Mexico, to be young is now synonymous with death," read one of their placards.

At the iconic gilded Angel de la Independencia monument are altars to many of the freshly dead. The 49 toddlers killed in a gruesome fire at a nursery in Hermosillo (not victims of the drug war but emblematic nonetheless of Mexico's current tragedies) are saluted along with dozens of journalists killed presumably by drug traffickers.

Elsewhere, police agencies remember the multitudes of their fallen members; others honor the memory of the governor-to-be of the troubled state of Tamaulipas, assassinated in broad daylight days before the election.

At a city human rights office here, an altar highlights the tragedy of 72 immigrants, mostly from Central America, slain en masse by traffickers, also in Tamaulipas.

In just the last 11 days, 47 mostly young people were killed in four separate massacres in different cities including this capital _ prompting some columnists and activists to speak of "juvenicidio," or the systematic slaughter of youths.

At some memorials, banners read, "LutoXmexico," a slogan meaning "Mourning for Mexico." It is part of an ad-hoc movement of civic anti-violence groups that has sprung up in recent days, staging numerous offerings and on Monday, filling the social media networks.

"In Mexico it is now normal that every day is a Day of the Dead," said one participant.

Tuesday is the official Day of the Dead holiday, originally an indigenous custom timed by Mexico's Spanish conquerors to follow the Roman Catholic All Saints Day Nov. 1. As much as the promoters of Halloween try to supplant Dia de los Muertos, the two here end up combining into a long period of "festejo."

Children who engage in Day of the Dead solicitations of sweets and money, similar to trick-or-treating, chant the phrase, "Give me my calaverita." The word literally means "little skull." In a cartoon in Monday's Reforma newspaper, a child asks Calderon for a "calaverita."

Calderon, standing in front of a large pile of human skulls reminiscent of a killing field, says, "What? More?"

"Never has it been more significant than it is today to commemorate" this holiday, columnist Antonio Navalon noted in Monday's El Universal newspaper. "Today we remember the babies and the dead youth, the harvest most tragic and most abundant of the year."

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6 Borderland Beat Comments:

J said...

My mom and I celebrated dia de los muertos my whole time growing up, I haven't in a long time, I like the ideology behind it a a lot.

MJ said...

Day of the Dead sounds very interesting to me, it was something I never have had heard about in those many years until this year (how embarrassing). I think there is a similar celebration like that in NZ, because Mexcians live here. I will be sure to visit Mexico one day between Sept and Nov so that I can see and learn something new in my life: Indepedence Day and Day of the Dead. Wishing you all a lovely celebration Day of the Dead in Mexico and anywhere else in the world.

Buela said...

@MJ

Don't feel badly, when I took my work to Mx 7 yrs ago I thought it was essentially the same as Halloween. Imagine my surprise to find such a beautiful tradition. I now go thruout Mx and speak at schools about our tradition and judge the altars the children make, they are amazing and can be quite large room sized. Surrounded by the favorites of the deseased usually a photo graces the altar. I am taken back back the many altars of the dead children.

The other part of the tradition is feast of the all saints and dead children. I just lost a child that I have helped for 4 years, my staff walked to her gravesite and took flowers, this is the tradition for dead children.

I agree that this tradition has taken on an entirely different meaning in this year of 2010. One immediately thinks of the horrific and senseless killings. No happy celebratory day for me honoring the dead, just another reminder what exists.

Ovemex said...

@MJ:

You can learn more about the history of Dia de los Muertos here:
http://jacqui.instablogs.com/entry/mexicos-days-of-the-dead-celebrating-life-by-embracing-death/

It is a beautiful tradition, but this year, the response has not been the same. Most of the time, the cemeteries will be full and "alive" all night long. This year people are afraid to travel and even more afraid to be out after dark.

Usually the streets are full of traffic, everything comes to a stand still in front of every cemetery as family after family takes flowers, music, food, and drinks to spend the day, the only said day of the year for the spirits to return to earth, with their loved ones...

Anonymous said...

I think the remembrance of someone who has passed on is a precious thing...but I DON'T understand the celebration, spending money and time, celebration of the "dead"....the scripture where we are called to follow Christ who is alive and was resurrected(impossible for anyone else!!) to save living souls...also says to leave the old traditions behind...and let the "dead in Christ"(those who don't follow Him...) bury the dead. So are we really practicing our belief in Jesus..?...even as Catholics?...when did all these other things take the place of Him, the only one who was ressurected? Why is time wasted on the dead, that stays dead, including the Saints and Virgens? Jesus is the only one who is alive ...in us, our hearts or out of us...dead in our own souls....even Americans (us) are stupid in this and we will pay for it....you are SOOO desparate for an answer....read the New Testament....read who Christ is! You can only serve one master...one or the other..

MJ said...

@ Buela and Ovemex

Thank you very much for the details on Day of the Dead.

It's true lots of murder incidents happened this year, and people scared of going out in the night time to be with their beloved ones at the cemeteries. A shoot would happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

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