Why Mexico Is So Comfortable With Death

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - NOVEMBER 1: Tracy Stevens poses for photos during the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, N
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - NOVEMBER 1: Tracy Stevens poses for photos during the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, November 1, 2015 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. A 'Catrina parade' was featured, which officials said would break a world record for people dressed as 'La Calavera Catrinas' and 'Catrins'. The world record for the most in one place is 509 by Mexico City. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY -- As I read a recent article about the efforts of numerous families in Guerrero to locate the remains of their missing relatives, I tried to imagine what it would be like to stumble upon a patch of turned soil in the mountains of Iguala, fearing that very spot could hold a bit of a loved one. That image brought me heartache but not surprise. As a Latin American, I am saddened by the fact that this is an all too familiar story in this part of the world -- one only needs to remember the struggles of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to find the "desaparecidos" during Argentina's military dictatorship. As a Mexican, it pains me to realize that people going missing has become so much a part of our social everyday reality that it no longer arouses our public indignation; only indifference and apathy. As a philosopher, I am pressed to place these tragedies and, more importantly, our reactions to them within the larger Mexican perspective on life and death, as I strive to understand the sense of responsibility that compels human beings to bury the dead, and in this particular case, to find them, so they can be buried.

As I struggle to answer the last question, I am drawn to the work of Robert Pogue Harrison, a professor of literature at Stanford University. Harrison explores our varied relations to the dead in his book titled "The Dominion of the Dead." Reflecting on the meaning of burying the deceased, Harrison observes that burial is much more than a ritual to attain closure and separate the living from the dead. Burying the deceased is about "humanizing the ground in which [we] build [our] worlds and found [our] histories." It is a way of preserving the past, of spatializing memory and claiming a place on Earth where memory can dwell and from which we can retrieve that memory in order to make sense of our present and project our future.

I strive to understand the sense of responsibility that compels human beings to bury the dead, and in this particular case, to find them, so they can be buried.

This explains why Harrison asserts that human societies are essentially necrocratic: "We inherit [the dead's] obsessions; assume their burdens; carry on their causes; promote their mentalities, ideologies, and very often their superstitions; and often we die trying to vindicate their humiliations." As Harrison suggests, an ethical relationship arises in the sense that the dead impose upon us the responsibility to carry on and finish what they couldn't in their lifetime. And if we take that responsibility seriously, a sense of solemnity should then accompany our taking on that enormous charge entrusted from the grave, for solemnity is the only way to respond to the seriousness inherent in burying the departed.

Yet solemn is the last word I'd use to characterize Mexicans' relationship to the dead and death in general. Death seems to elicit a rich range of emotional responses in us Mexicans, yet one that does not contain that sense of gravitas required by the act of burying. Philosopher Emilio Uranga once said that to be Mexican is to suffer from a peculiar kind of madness, a state of being characterized by a violent oscillation between optimism and pessimism. To be Mexican is, more specifically, to sway back and forth between "episodes of intense elation and joy and bouts of melancholy and desperation." Our kind of madness is nowhere more evident than in our attitudes towards death, and our relationship to death finds no greater example than in our holiday dedicated to the dead.

To the untrained eye, the Day of the Dead, with its vibrant display of light and color, is one of countless manifestations of the Mexican spirit of "fiesta." The most recent iteration of this perception is found in the latest Bond film, Spectre, the opening scene of which shows the capital overtaken by a parade of dancing skeletons, wearing top hats, fancy dresses and jewelry, as well as traditional clothing, the sight of which is more reminiscent of February in Rio than of October in the Distrito Federal. On the Day of the Dead, nonetheless, spaces are indeed enveloped in bright pinks, blues, purples, oranges and yellows, suggesting a festive air. Cempasúchil flowers, known as marigolds in the U.S., whose brightness evoke the sun, are placed everywhere to guide the souls of the living and the dead. Graves are sumptuously decorated and special dishes are prepared for the occasion. We drink to honor the deceased and we tell humorous and endearing stories about them. For an outsider, the Day of the Dead might seem like another traditional Mexican festival, one in a multitude of joyful celebrations, but to the more discerning eye, this particular festivity is deeply revealing of who we are as a people.

miguel tovar mexico independence

Relatives of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa march during Mexico's Independence Day celebrations. Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images.

Anyone who has ever encountered the work of Octavio Paz is likely amazed by his uncanny ability for discernment, especially when it comes to our ever elusive "Mexicanness." Underneath the spectacle of light and color, Paz, an authority in matters of our national character, sees the utter indifference Mexicans hold towards death. In his best known work, "The Labyrinth of Solitude," Paz situates the Day of the Dead within a cultural condition of the West, namely, the overarching loss of meaning regarding death. For the Pre-Hispanic and Catholic societies that preceded us, he observes, death had a place within the grand scheme of things -- it was either a transitory stage from earthly to heavenly life, or a necessary step in a cosmic cycle of renewal. In modernity, nevertheless, death is "infertile," self-contained, inconsequential; our modern conception of death does not point to anything beyond it. There is a certain silence and inconspicuousness about death -- we attempt to suppress its importance by refusing to talk about it, deeming death a taboo topic; we hide it from public view, relegating its occurrence to clinical spaces like hospitals and hospices, almost as if death were nothing but a medical phenomenon, a biological fact, "a fact among other facts," to paraphrase Paz.

Mexicans are no different in this respect -- our only distinction lies in our strategies by which we attempt to reduce its significance. We dress and disguise her; we joke about her as we would joke about a dear friend; we write poems and songs in her name, as lovers do for their loved ones; we call her endearing names like "la pelona," "la flaca," "la parca," "la huesuda"; we represent her in ways that render her non-threatening and even laughable. In an imaginary act of revenge, we consume her in skulls made of sugar, chocolate and amaranth, for if death will ultimately consume us all, why shouldn't we also consume her, if only for a brief moment? In short, we humanize her, we project our deepest frailties onto her, even when we know that death is hostile to all things human. It's our way of turning the gaping mouth looming over our heads into a figure that induces laughter instead of horror, yet we do so always with the tragic awareness that sooner or later, she will come for us all.

Maybe the reason why we Mexicans find ourselves so comfortable among the dead is precisely because as a nation we hold nothing dear, not even life.

As much as the Day of the Dead is a celebration of death as such, it is also a time to bring the deceased back from their graves. Commemorating the dead is much more than a mental exercise of recalling the non-living to memory; it is also a summoning, a call back to life so that the dead can, for a brief moment, "convivir" with us, to partake in the present with the living. On the first and second day of November, many people march in processions to the cemeteries (unlike cemeteries in the U.S. where order, austerity and uniformity prevails, Mexican cemeteries are cluttered, messy and gaudy). We Mexicans often refer to the cemetery as "panteón," which is quite revealing. Originally the word meant "where the gods dwell," and "panteón" retains part of its original meaning in the sense that a panteón is a sacred place, a place where the laws that operate in the world outside are suspended. On the night of the Day of the Dead, the law that is suspended is the one that separates the living from the dead. We set up "ofrendas" (roughly translated as "offerings) and share the table with them, letting the deceased have the first bite. Some even stay the night, sleeping right next to the graves of their loved ones. And for one night, the living and the dead share a sleeping bed.

All of our heavy maneuvering is ultimately only a way to distance ourselves from death because, like Paz rightly notes, we never surrender ourselves to her. On the contrary, the farther away we keep her from us, the easier it is to keep living with indifference to life and death, for they are two sides to the same coin, two faces of one reality. Death and the dead are unimportant because so are life and the living. And as much as we want to share a moment with the dead, we also want to be indifferent to their pleas and demands for the rest of the year.

This explains why we have failed not only in reclaiming the remains of the dead but also in burying them. So far it is a responsibility felt only by their families, not by the authorities and not by their fellow citizens. The fact that we have failed to perceive this as a shared responsibility is the product of the strong social division that afflicts Mexican society, like many Mexican intellectuals have already pointed out. It is a fragmentation so deeply entrenched along class, gender and racial lines that it is as if we lived in distinct worlds, even when we share the same physical space. To borrow Ernesto Sabato's metaphor, it is as if we lived in tunnels that never seem to intersect, isolated from each other's reality. Most of us fall into the trap of believing that nothing has happened in Mexico because nothing has happened to "us." Yet nothing could be further from the truth, for our blindness to the realities experienced by other Mexicans is only the product of a failure to see how our stories are intertwined.

Most of us fall into the trap of believing that nothing has happened in Mexico because nothing has happened to 'us.' Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

There is no greater proof of that blindness than the very simple fact of how little progress we have made with respect to the tragedies that have taken place in Mexico in recent times. Four months after the multi-homicides in Narvarte that took the lives of photojournalist Rubén Espinosa and activist Nadia Vera, and three other women (who are, sadly, often treated by media as an afterthought), more than one year after the disappearance and subsequent killing of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, and even longer after the femicides in Ciudad Juárez, which have been happening since the early '90s, and countless others affected by the violence, we have yet to find justice for those who, against their will, were brutally delivered to their deaths.

Maybe the reason why we Mexicans find ourselves so comfortable among the dead is precisely because as a nation we hold nothing dear, not even life.

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