Todos Somos Calaveras

Statue of Skeletal Woman at Mérida’s Hotel La Piazzetta

At some time in the 1980s—I disremember the year—I was on a long bus ride between Mazatlán and Durango over the mountains. It was November 2, the Day of the Dead, and the bus was crowded with men, women, and children headed toward distant cemeteries with baskets of food. A young mother with a baby and numerous packages sat down next to me taking the aisle seat. I helped her by holding the child or various packages for a while, until she disappeared at some small town to hold a picnic by the grave of one of her loved ones. Was it her husband? her mother? I never knew.

The following quote is from Elizabeth Sayers and Chloe Sayer’s book The Skeleton at the Feast. It throws some light on the feast day:

In Mexico—to quote Ms Sayer—the first and second of November belong to the dead. According to popular belief, the deceased have divine permission to visit friends and relatives on earth and to share the pleasures of the living. To an outsider the celebrations might seem macabre, but in Mexico death is considered a part of life. A familiar presence, it is portrayed with affection and humor by artists and crafts workers. For the Aztec, as for other ancient peoples, death signified not an end but a stage in a constant cycle. Worship of death involved worship of life, while the skull—the symbol of death—was a promise of resurrection…. The death of the individual was seen as a journey, for which numerous offerings were needed. Life is a fleeting moment—a dream—from which death awakens us.

It is all summarized in the Mexican saying “Todos somos calaveras”—“We are all skeletons.” The candy stores are full of confections shaped like skulls and skeletons. All the energy that we Gringos put into Halloween is directed toward La Dia de los Muertos. I suspect that, perhaps, the Mexican holiday is, all told, more healthy than our Halloween.