The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

The Colours of Death: Celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexico

By Violeta Pelàez, Mexico (Published in Issue 11)


It’s said that in Mexico we have a special cult for death as we celebrate The Day of the Dead/ Día de Muertos, a holiday widely known for being something unusual in other parts of the planet. This celebration takes place on November 1st and 2nd, in line with All Saints Day and ancient Aztec traditions.

The Aztec, Mayas, Teotihuacans, and other cultures across the territory which is now Mexico celebrated a special rite in honour of the ones departed. Dying was considered a privilege, either in battle or sacrifice, which was in most of the cases an offer to gods. In this tradition there were different places to stay in after dying depending on the causes of death; the Tlalocan, -which evidently takes its name from the god Tlaloc-, was for the drowned, and the entire related to deceased who met their end in water. There also existed the Omeyocan dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, a paradise of the sun for warriors and women who died giving birth; women fought for both lives and deserved infinite joy. Finally the Mictlan was the common place for people who died of natural causes, where Mictlantecutli, the lord of death inhabited. In the Aztec belief system the dead returned from those places to be with the living for one night each year, so they needed food after the long journey and a place to rest. In modern Mexico we make the famous “Ofrendas” orofferings, which consist of an altar where we gather together the goods to be offered to dead. These include, water; principle of life that purifies and washes off bad vibes, candles; which enlighten the way back home, cempaxúchitl flower (from Náhuatl cempoaxóchitl that means “twenty flowers” and also known as “marigold”) that guides the souls as well as incense “Copal” typically used in this celebration. Special meals and “bread of the dead” are prepared for the occasion, besides the food deceased loved in life: fruit and sugar skulls adorned with bright colours with the name of the dead on the forehead. For sure, tequila, “pulque”, mezcal and other beverages are essential! The important part of the celebration is to remember those important people we lost, in a colourful and loving way.

This tradition celebrates the departed, but also for the living we dedicate short poems or “Calaveras”: epitaphs referring to friends, politicians or public figures, describing amusing events or how the “Pelona” -the death itself- would take them to the tomb. These are very often sarcastic way and often the best calaveras are those that show the person beating death with a mocking attitude. Calaveras are an expression of discontent and protest since its origins in middle 18th and 19th century when the great José Guadalupe Posada created cartoons of skeletons to illustrate the texts of Vanegas Arroyo, a writer and publisher who criticized the upper class of his time. Today these poems are often used to mock politicians and public figures. Generally these verses are composed in rhyme with a simple structure, usually four to five- lines, -probably similar to limerick in content and meter. They are a humorous way to tell the truth or talk about other’s defects or virtues.  

So in the month of November, take a moment to remind yourself that one day we are all going to die. This day is an opportunity to be close to those that are not with us anymore.