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Death in Mexican Folk Culture

Author(s): Patricia Fernandez Kelly


Reviewed work(s):
Source: American Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 5, Special Issue: Death in America (Dec., 1974), pp.
516-535
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2711888 .
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DEATH IN MEXICAN
FOLK CULTURE
PATRICIA FERNANDEZ KELLY
DepartamentoInternacional
UniversidadIbero-Americana

We come onlyto sleep,


We come onlyto dream.
It is nottrue,itis nottrue
That to theearthwe come to live.
We are to becomeas theweedsineveryspring.
Our hearthas greenedand sprouted
Some flowerswillour bodygive,
And thenit shallforeverwilt.
(Cant. Mex., f. 14v.,lin.3 ss. De Tenochtitlan)
MEXICO IS A COUNTRY

WITH A DISTINGUISHED

CULTURAL

TRADITION

DATING

back three thousand years. Its historicalroute has been one of great
achievementsas well as of great tragedy,yetin its entiretyit is possibleto
perceivethe continuedimportanceof theidea of deathlinkedwithreligion,
magic and, in later times,philosophy.The problemof death as a constant
preoccupationof man in thesethreeareas of humanbehavioris notlimited
to Mexico's past or present.On the contraryit probably constitutes,
togetherwiththe idea of love, one of the most widespreadconcernsin the
world. However,Mexico withits past richwiththe memoryof great and
lost civilizations civilizationsin timeblendedwiththe Europeantradition
in a historicalcycle of colonialismand dominationthatin a sense has not
yet ended offersthe researcheran abundanceof materialmarkedby its
uniquenessand creativity.
Beforesurveyingsome of the characteristicways the idea of death has
beentreatedin Mexico, it is necessaryto considersome moregeneralmatters. Where does the concern with death originate?It is reasonable to
believethat thisexclusivelyhuman questionarises fromanothertypically
human trait:the capacity for self-awareness.It is only man who can observethe surrounding
worldwhileknowingat thesame timethathe can be
observed.Many have ponderedoverthefundamental
characterof the reci-

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Death in MexicanFolk Culture

517

procity resultingfrom this perceptual act. Through complex mental


processesman has separatedhis individualconsciousnessfromthenatural
context.Unlike other animal species, man has attemptedin a sense to
withdrawfrom nature by means of an intricatenet of symbols which
transforms
himintoa uniqueobserverofhimselfand everything
abouthim.
Not only does he grasp the mainstreamof existencebut also its painful
termination
and, incapableof acceptingthisfactin its definitive
crudity,he
evolvesa complex structureof explanationwhichcan onlybe understood
againstthebackgroundofthehumanconceptionoftime.
It is of centralimportanceto realizethat far fromdefining
an objective
reality,categoriesof time shape the way in whichhuman beingsorganize
reality.The idea of death in the prehispaniccivilizationsof Mexico and in
thecontemporaryfolkculturecannotbe fullycomprehended
withoutsome
mentionof thepeculiaritiesthattime-notions
have in specificcontexts.For
successionof cycles septhe nativesof Mexico, time was a never-ending
arated fromone anotherby death and the destructionof the world,the
order of whichcould only be restoredthroughsacrifice.As with other
highlyreligiouscultures,they formulateda concept of life on earth as
ofwhatconstitutestheexistentialtotalityofthecosmos.
merelya fragment
In addition,lifeon earthis oftenreferredto as a dream, a fictionalways
posingtheproblematicquestionofwhattruelifeis:
WillI departinthismanner?
As theflowers
whichperished?
Willnothing
beleftinmyname?
Willnothing
remain
ofmyfamehereonearth?
Letthereatleastbeblossoms!atleastsongs!
(Cant.Mex.,f.lOr.,lin.17ss De Huexotzinco.
Anonimo)
In such an environment,
deathcannotrepresentmerelythecorruptionof
matterand the end of lifeforman; nor can it be seen onlyas a necessary
ofhappiness.It is rather
steptowardthegrantingof salvationor an eternity
conceivedof as requisiteto the prolongationof life.Nothingcan existin
time if it has not previouslypassed throughthe process of death. Thus
sacrifice,the generous donation of human blood, guarantees the permanenceof the universe;man becomes an active agent in sharingin the
of preservingcosmic order. Here lies thejustificationof the
responsibility
practice of human sacrifice,which in its purest expression does not
constitutethebrutalextermination
of humanlifebut rathertheintegration
ofitintoa morereal and permanentexistence.
It is notdifficult
to understandtheprocess thatoriginatessuch a system
of understandings
whenwe reflectupon culturesas a whole,and whenwe
noticethatregardlessof theircomplexityand sophistication
theybase their
prosperityon the practiceof agriculture.Tillingtheearthas theestablish-

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518

A mericanQuarterly

mentof a relationshipwiththe naturalenvironment


representsa special
experience.Indeed, thereis nothingin naturewhichconfirmsthe idea of
deathas a definitive
end;whenvegetationdies,itis onlyto come to lifeagain
the followingspring.Thus death precedeslife,whichin turnmustagain be
stream.
succeededbydeathin a never-ending
But wheredo thesefinalconceptionsoftheprehispanicreligionsfindtheir
roots?The firstobservableindicationsof an interestin death appeared in
Middle Americaaroundfifteen
hundredyears beforeChrist,in theformof
funeraryarrangementsin whichskeletonswereburiedin fetalpositionsor
withthe legs extendedtoward the west. Such remnantswere frequently
foundinthecompanyofvestigesofpotteryand utensilsthatservedas offeringsor gifts.
The discoveryof bone structuresin crouchedpositionsseems to indicate
the presenceof the beliefin death as a returnto thewomb fromwhichthe
childoriginallyemerged.As forthe orientationof the skeletonswiththeir
extremitiesturnedwest,it is not a surpriseforthe anthropologist.Other
culturesin theworldsharethesame custom,oftenassociatedwiththeidea
thatthedead mustwalk towardtheregionwherethesunitselfdies,whereit
setseveryevening.
that more profoundly
It is, however,the findingof offerings
excitesthe
imagination,as the custom seems to supportthe beliefin the continuation
of the daily needs of man even afterhis death. Acceptingthe continuing
of the permanenceof life,
need forhumanessentials,an acknowledgment
seems also to suggestthatwhateverfollowsdeath mustbe explainedin accordancewithfamiliarexperiences.This tradition,as old as theexistenceof
culturein Middle America, remainsone of the significant
patternsof behaviorinpresenttimes.
Later, funerary
ritualsbecame morecomplicatedin conceptas wellas in
the technicaland materialpreferencesassociated withthe offerings.
There
have been discoveriesof graves belongingto the Middle Preclassic period
(ca. 1300-800 B.C.) in whichhumanremainsappear surroundedby a dazzlingvarietyof finelypolishedjewelryworkedinjade, obsidian,serpentine
and othersemipreciousstones,side by side withothergravescharacterized
This contradictory
bytheirgreatsimplicity.
abundanceand scarcityofgifts
seems to indicatea gradualand significant
stratification
of thesocial structure. One thing,however,is shared by the two burial systems:the proliferationof amuletsin the formof delicate femininefigurinesmolded in
clay, strikingforthe emphasisplaced upon theirsexualityby means of an
exaggerationof the hips, breasts and navel. Some of these miniature
masterpiecesare shown holdinginfantsin their arms and are covered
witha reddishslip,or appear peculiarlybisected,thusexhibiting
twoheads
or two faces on the same body. This intriguing
divisionis furtherdem-

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Death inMexican Folk Culture

519

onstratedby the frequentrepresentation


of bodies in whichone half is
red
the
is
left
color.
while
other
without
painted
in thesefigurines
of thecapacityof
Everything
speaks oflife,particularly
womento procreate,and theycan be regarded as Mesoamericancounterpartsof theEuropean "venuses"of thePaleolithicera, possiblysymbolicof
theidea of theearthenvisionedas a feminine
entity.The factthatmanyof
these sculptureshave been found inside graves seems to specifytheir
of thevital
meaning.Theyare charmsintendedto facilitatethecontinuation
forces afterdeath. Aside from theirobvious referenceto life as shown
throughthe exaggerationof the sexual elements,thefrequencywithwhich
thenumber"two" appears in theircompositionposes an interesting
questionwhichcan be addressedwiththehelpof some othersculptures,particuin Mexico
larlya miniaturemask shownin the Museum of Anthropology
In
half
the
is
covered
of
face
with
the
flesh
while
it,
City.
appearance living

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theduality
oflifeanddeath.PreclassicPeriod(ca.
Figure1:Claymaskrepresenting
1500-200B.C.) CentralMexico.MuseoNacionaldeAnthropologia.

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520

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the otherhalf is a naked skull (Figure 1). Clearly a symbolof the unity
resultingfromthecomplementary
characteroflifeand death,it is onlyone
ofthemanyartisticworksinwhicha senseofthisdualityis expressed.
Indeed,froma visual perspective,naturemanifestsitselfin the formof
complementarydualities:lightand darkness,masculinityand femininity,
the heavensand the earth,the visibleand the invisible,warmthand cold,
permanentand temporary,
lifeand death.Whatis notableis thepresenceof
all theseopposingforcesas integralparts of theunitywithinthe universe,
an idea whichreachedits summitin later cultures,particularlyamong the
Aztecs.
Throughoutthehistoryof theprehispanicgroups,theobsessionwiththe
contradictionof lifeand death remainsas one of the most importantreligiouspreoccupations.Still, thereis a pointat whichthesegraduallyformulatedtraditionsbeginto take definiteshape in a remarkablyinteresting
way. This is theera knownto archaeologistsas theClassic period(ca. 200
B.C.-800 A.D.), specific evidence for which has been found in the
southeasternregionof Mexico wheretheMaya cultureflourished.
Palenque is one of the most impressivesightsin the world. It emerges
from a patch of jungle, a conglomerationof finelybuilt, monumental
edificesstillcoveredwithwhitestuccoand decoratedwithexquisitecarvings
inhighrelief.Amongthetemples,themostfamousis theso-called"Temple
of the Inscriptions,"uniquein Middle America because of theexistenceof
an underground
funerary
crypt,insidewhichwas foundthedead bodyof an
undoubtedly
distinguished
personburiedapproximately
one thousandyears
ago. It seems,in fact,thattheentirearchitecturalstructurewas builtwith
the deliberatepurpose of preservingthe noble tomb, whichcan only be
reachedbydescendinga steepstaircasethatconnectstheshrineabove with
thefunerary
enclosurebelow.
Insidethecryptis a monolithicburialcasketcarvedand decoratedon the
sides as well as on thelid. It is thelid whichparticularlyinterestsus when
consideringin detail the idea of death. On it we see the delicatelycarved
in a fetalposition.Behindhima treeoflife(a ceiba
figureof a man reclining
or cottonsilktree) stands erect with its branches supportingthe sky.
Underneath,the geometricmask of the monsterof the earth servesas a
pedestalwhileon top a Kuan birdsymbolizesthe heavens.To the sides of
theplaque thereare streamsof water,and close to thenose of thereclining
figurea small tube provideshim withair. Both insideand outsidethe sarcophaguspreciousofferings
werefoundthatindicatethehighsocial status
of the man: necklaces made of patientlycarved jade beads, enormous
pearls,fragmentsof rock crystal,some impressivemasks and particularly
the dignifiedstucco heads of two youngwarriors,consideredin our times
amongthemasterpiecesofMiddleAmericanart.
At firstglance whatsurprisesus about the reliefis the magnificent
tech-

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Death in MexicanFolk Culture

521

nical abilitywhichallowed the craftsmanto producesuch a fineand vital


representation
of the humanbody.Consideredwithinthe contextof other
Mesoamericanworks,thisone is exceptionalforits approximation
to visual
reality.Even thoughit remainsa highlystylizedreligiousimage surrounded
bygeometricdesigns,thefigureof theman and thebirdindicatea profound
observationof natureas such,particularly
of thestructuralsubtletiesof the
humananatomy.
The Maya and otherprehispanicgroupsdid notcultivateportraiture
to a
significant
extent.Probablythis was so because theirart was mainlyintended to represent not so much the earthly visual reality as the
supernatural,
highlyintellectualworldwhichtheeye cannotgrasp. But it is
possibleto considerthe reliefon thelid of thecasket as a re-creationof the
man buriedinside.Because of thepositionin whichhe is depicted,it seems
thathe has returnedto thecore of theearthin theformof a child.Nothing
in thecarvingsuggeststhe resignedacceptanceof the man's death.On the
contrary,efforts
weremade to provide,as a magicalaid, all thatwas needed
forthe continuationof his life:water,air,the foodof theearthand thesky
above. If thiswere not a sufficient
indicationof the reluctanceto perceive
death as a definitive
curtailmentof existence,a fineumbilicalcord creeping
up the staircase connectsthe burialcontainerwiththe carved representationsof womenon thefacade of thebuildingwho holdbabies in theirarms.
In synthesisthisappears to be a monumentalexpressionoftheconceptsaccordingto whichthe man in his prenatalpositionmay remainforeversurroundedby a warm and livingatmospherewhichassures his futureexistence.
Another momentin the historyof the prehispanicgroups should be
consideredforits concernwithdeath as a structuralcomponentof theuniverse.This is the periodrepresentedby the Aztec cultureorganizedabout
theidea ofwar as thesupremeactivityofgods and men.It is knownthatthe
Aztec civilizationflourishedfroman intricatefusionof previouslyexisting
whichwere assimilatedby latergenerations,witha traditionof
influences,
aggressivenomads who arrivedin the central highlandsduringthe 13th
century.These newcomersor "chichimecas,"as theywere labeled by the
previousinhabitantsoftheregion,alreadypossessed,beforemigrating,
a religioncenteredon Huitzilopochtli,the solar death deitywho had emerged
from the body of the earth. From this startingpoint, and afterincorporatingthe influenceof the existingsedentarygroupsof CentralMexico,
theAztecs evolveda complexand awe-inspiring
religioussystem.
As a warfaring,sun-worshiping
empire,theyconceivedthe idea of the
cosmos as thepermanentand eternalmanifestation
ofwar amongthegods,
each representing
a basic universalforce.The sun itselfbecame theperfect
prototypeof the victoriousfighterwho cyclicallyhas to struggleagainst
darknessin order to rise again each morningas the source of light.Only

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522

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throughwar could the rhythmic


structureof theuniversebe consolidated;
onlydeathassuredthepermanenceoflife.
The ancientconceptof dualityalreadyexpressedin the figurinesof the
preclassic era continuedto be an importantfactorin the religionof the
Aztecs. Accordingly,theyaccepted the existenceof two great generative
principles:Omecihuatl("Two-Lady") and Ometecuhtli("Two-Lord"), one
feminine
and theothermasculine,throughwhoseunionbothgods and men
had been created.We shoulduse theterm"principles"ratherthan"gods"
because theirartisticrepresentation
was not permitted;theyhad no shape
or form and thus remainedas abstract notions. Still theircontact had
produced the life of four main deities who inhabitedthe four cardinal
regionsof theworld:Huitzilopochtli,
thesolar god ofdeath,Xipe Totec, the
flayed god of spring, Tezcatlipoca, the deceiving god of war, and
Quetzalcoatl,theculturalherowhohad taughtmenthevalueoffireand the
practice of agriculture.In this religiouspattern,the gods opposed each
otherin theirdiversecharacteristics.
Amongall the representations
relatedto death,the monstrousimage of
Coatlicue("She withtheskirtmade ofsnakes"), theGoddess ofEarth,is of
particular interest(Figure 2). In the magnificentsculpture which is
exhibitedin theMuseum of Anthropology
in Mexico City,Coatlicue representsmorethana singledeity;sheis a synthesisofthereligiousbeliefsofthe
Aztecs. Completed in the year "onetochtli,"correspondingin our own
calendarto theyear 1454,the representation
takes the formof a monolith
carvedin basaltic stone,and could be regardedas a prehispaniccounterpart
oftheidea of"motherearth"in theWesterntradition.However,thereare a
numberof elementsthat transformit into somethingexceptional.From a
structuralpointof view,the sculptureshowsa geometricpattern,frontally
dividingthemass intofourhorizontalplanes: thelegs,theskirt,thebreasts,
and thehead in the shape of twolarge snakeswhichstareat thesame time
forwardand to thesides.Consideredverticallyit is a perfectly
symmetrical
cruciform
designin whicheach ofits extremesseems to pointto each ofthe
fourcardinal regionspreviouslymentioned.From the numericalpointof
viewit is importantto rememberthat "four,"the mysticaldigit,is a multipleof"two," thesignthatsymbolizestheintrinsic
dualityofthecosmos.
The legs of the goddess are seen in the formof giganticeagle claws
clenchedto the underworldor Mictlan engravedon the soles of her feet.
There lived Mictlantecuhtli,
one of the deifiedrepresentations
of death in
thecompanyof an owl, a symbolof darkness.The legs of thesculptureare
also decoratedwithspiral motifsthat appear to representsnails,whichin
themythology
oftheAztecs werereferences
to Huitzilopochtli.
Betweentheextremities
hangs a monumentalsnakewhosehead touches
theground.This elementhas been interpreted
as a phallicsymboland if,in
fact,the sculptureas a whole is to be consideredas a feminineentity,its

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DeathinMexicanFolkCulture

523

Figure2: The goddessCoatlicue("she withtheskirtmadeof snakes"). Aztec Period


(1325-1521 A.D.). Museo Nacional de Anthropologia.

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524

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syntheticcharacter would not be complete withoutan allusion to the


masculineforcesthatshapenature.
The secondpart of the body,formedby a skirtof snakeswhichgivesits
name to the image, representsa mundanelevel of existence,while the
breasts, decorated with a necklace formedof human hearts and opened
as a referenceto sacrificialdeath. In thisparhands,has been interpreted
ticulararea of the sculpturewe are once again made consciousof deathby
skullwhichdecoratesthebeltthat
thepresenceof theimpressivehalf-living
separates the skirt from the necklace. As mentionedbefore, human
sacrifice,particularlyin the formof the removalof theheart,is one of the
distinctivefeaturesof the Aztec religion.Hearts were symbolizedby the
eagle and thisin turnwas also one of the symbolsof the deifiedsun,Tonatiuh. Thus, hearts and blood, the two finestpossessions of mankind,
constitutedthe food that preservedthe sun and allowed it to move in the
sky.This idea is clearlyexpressedin some of thesacred manuscriptsleftto
us bytheAztecs:
Andfourdayspassedby,andthesunwasinthesky.
Allupontheearthfearedamideternalshadows.
Wentthehawktoask:thegodswishtoknowthereasonwhyyoudon'tmove.
Andthesunanswered,
Do youwanttoknowwhy?
I wantthebloodofhumans,
I wishtohavetheirsons,I desiretopossesstheiroffspring.
In thisfashion,deaththroughsacrificewas one of theprivilegesreserved
for those destined for higher fates. Warriors whose hearts had been
removedin orderto providelifeforthe sun were regardedas gods and obtainedexclusivehonorssharedonlybytwootherkindsofdead: thosekilled
in war and womenwho had died in childbirth.This last beliefis of a particularinterest,as it is based upon theidea thatwhengivingbirthto a child,
women were transformedinto warriorswho struggledso that a new life
could begin.Whendyingin childbirth,
theybecame theeerieCihuateteoor
deifiedwomenwho accompaniedthe sunin itsjourneythroughtheheavens
(Figure3).
In thesesuccessivelevelsof existence,thebreastof Coatlicue is followed
in theuppersectionbytheforkedsnakewhichrepresents
dualityincarnated
inunity.The head is thesymboloftheOmeyocan("Two-Place"), theregion
where men and gods alike had taken shape and the source to which
mustreturn.Thus in a finalconsideration,
everything
Coatlicue becomes a
synthesisof themanydualitiesthatformtheuniverse:themundaneand the
and masculinity,the Omeyocan and the Mictlan,life
celestial,femininity
and death. Even thoughthe grandiosityof the sculpturecan hardlybe
in thissuperficial
it remainsone of themostimcomprehended
description,

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Death inMexican Folk Culture

525

womanwhodiedinchildbirth).
AztecPeriod
(deified
Figure3: Stone"cihuateteo"
(1325-1521A.D.). MuseoNacionalde Anthropologia.
oflife
of man's attemptto explainthecontradiction
pressivemanifestations
and deathinhis surrounding
world.
Finally,it is necessaryto remembertheAztec poetryin whichtheidea of
glorified:
death,especiallydeathinwar,is continuously
Whereareyoutogo?Whereareyoutogo?
Itzpapalotl
givescolorto men.
To war,tothedivine
waterwhereourmother
In thebattlefield
dustriseswithin
thewaterofthebonfire:
ohMacuilMalinalli!
TheheartoftheGodCamaxtlesuffers,
is thebattleandyoushallholditinyourhands.
As a flower
ca. 1495)
(Cant.Mex.,f.70 r.,lin19ss. De Tenochtitlan,
fragment,
thegloryof sacrificeis remembered:
Again,in a different
Oh GiverofLife!
andturquoises.
islikeemeralds
Yoursacrifice
It is thehappiness
andwealthofprinces
To dieat theedgeoftheobsidian,
To dieinwar.
(Romancesdelos Seiioresde NuevaEspaiia,f.42)

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526

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If we have restrictedourselvesto theconsiderationin a rathersuperficial


mannerof some of thecharacteristicsof thedeathideologiesin thehistory
of ancientMexico, it is mainlywiththe purpose of pointingout the permanenceof some traitsand in generalthe sense of continuity
of theidea of
deathwithincontemporary
Mexican folkculture.
The exquisiteand awe-inspiring
artisticworkdescribedwas destinedto
disappear as an active agent in the officialhistoryof Mexico, a history
shaped afterthe bloody conquest that subjugatedthe nativepeoples to a
position of degradationand oppression.The victoriouswar songs were
followedby dramaticepiloguesin whichthe anguishand despairof the Indiansat thesightoftheirownhumiliation
became manifest.
The polytheisticreligionswere replacedby Christianity
and thevoice of
the indigenousMexican was dimmedforever.Its formerpowerwas lost,
buta murmurwas to remain.The culturalcollisioncame accompaniedbya
process of ethnicintermeshing
commonlyknownas "mestizaje" and the
threehundredyears whichfollowed,characterizedby political,economic
and social colonialism,representa slow and painfulfusionof different
cosmic visions and ways of behavior,some belongingto the European
traditionand some whichhad alreadyexistedin theprehispanicworld.
Without doubt, the Christian traditionhas left Mexico a priceless
collectionof artisticand literarytestimonieswhichdocumentits own interpretation
of death. But thefusionof theEuropeanculturalpatternswith
the pre-existing
Mexican beliefsoffersa thirdand perfectlyindividualized
complexof practicesand ideas. This process of religiousfusionis probably
themostdistinctive
featureofcontemporary
Mexicanfolktradition.
However,in a highlystratifiedcountrysuch as Mexico generalizations
are dangerous.Even theterm"folkculture"is difficult
to define.In a broad
sense,and forthepurposesof thisessay, folkculturecan be understoodas
of those traditionalformsof behaviorwhichare sharedby
the unification
the majorityof the membersof the underprivileged
socioeconomicstrata.
As is evident,such a definitionhas importantlimitations.First it is
necessaryto note that it includesthe Indiangroupsthatinhabitthe territory,a populationof about ten millionwho have scarcelybeen touchedby
the dubious privileges of "civilization." There are many important
differences
betweenthe traditionsof thesegroupsand those sharedby the
inhabitantsof the ruralprovinceswhichhave a constantcontactwiththe
urbancenters,and betweentheseand the marginalareas of thecities.In a
rigoroussenseneitheris it feasibleto restrictthedefinition
of folkcultureto
the socially and economicallyunderprivileged
groups,in view of the fact
thatmanyof thecustomsand beliefsconsideredas folkloricare also shared
to a lesser degreeby membersof the middleand upperclasses of Mexico.
Thereare,however,importantvariationsin meaning.

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Death in MexicanFolk Culture

527

are closelylinkedwitha processofdesacralizationofthe


Such differences
traditionsinvolved.We mightthereforesuggestthehypothesisthatan importantprocess of secularizationexists in the transitof customs related
with death from the way in which they are conceived in the more
autochthonousgroups(wheretheycannotbe understoodoutsidetheframein
workof religionand magic) to theway in whichtheyare comprehended
social groups(as colorfulcustomswhose
an urbanatmosphereof different
or has been
is no longermeaningful
originalreligiousor magicalsignificance
forgotten).
to choose fromamongthe manytraditionsrelatedwiththe
It is difficult
idea of death those whichrepresentmost clearlythe typicalconceptions
thatprevailin Mexico. It has oftenbeensaid thatinthiscountrypeopledeal
mockingit as ifit weresomethingwhichdeserved
withdeath sacrilegiously,
to be treatedwithhumor.Whetherthisviewis accurateor exaggerated,it
seems clear thatdeathis oftenthemainprotagonistin manyofthefolkloric
festivities.
Amongthesenoneare as wellknownor as impressiveas thecelebrationsthat take place in commemorationof All Souls' Day: the day of
thedead.
In Mexico thisdate is surroundedby a varietyof activitieswhichbegin
withthe preparationof specifickindsof food: one of these,"calabaza en
tacha," is a preservemade by combiningsmall pieces of pumpkinwith
sticks of sugarcane,haws, aromatic spices and a peculiar brown sugar
called "piloncillo."Thereis also the so-called"pan de muerto"or breadof
thedead consistingof loaves preparedwithwheatflourand decoratedwith
stylized bones and tears of the same dough. To these are added a
remarkablevarietyof meals spicedwithchiliand vegetablestypicalofeach
region,placed in bowls and dishes made of black ceramic as a sign of
mourning.Among the special sweetswhichare producedonlyforthisoccasion are the famous "calaveras de azdcar," an amazing ensemble of
humanskullsof all sizes and shapes,made in sugar,decoratedwithcolorful
paper and labeled withan assortmentof names. When lookingat themin
the showcases of the sweet shops one cannot help recallingthe ancient
Aztec tzompantlis,special stonestructureswheretheskullsof themenwho
had died in sacrificewere exhibited.In our times it is an All Souls' Day
customto purchaseone of thesesugar sculptureslabeled withthename of
the buyeror withthe name of a friend;theseare thengivenas giftsto be
eaten,an act thatoftenpuzzles thosewho are not acquaintedwithancient
Mexicantraditions.
activityforthe most
But the preparationof food is only a preliminary
typicalof Mexican customs:thefabricationand decorationoffamilyaltars
wherethedead are honored.These altarsor "ofrendas"forAll Souls' Day
consist of tables or shelves on which the picturesof dead relativesare

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528

A mericanQuarterly

placed, surroundedby garlands of zempazuchitl flowers,the yellow


blossomswhichsinceprehispanictimeshave accompaniedthe festivities
of
the dead. At the feetof theseimages the food is carefullyarranged,often
side by side withalcoholic beverages.The table itselfis spread withpaper
mats resemblinga colorfuland dramaticmosaic. The practiceof honoring
the dead at home is complementedwith the traditionof going to the
cemeteriesto spendthenightafterthegraveshave beendecoratedwiththe
yellow flowers,candles and dishes. The atmosphere is one of great
solemnitywhile the murmurof prayersofferedby those waitingfor the
coming of the beloved dead float up to the eveningsky. The following
morningthevigilantswalk away withthefood,whichis thento be eaten by
theirfamilies.
It is worthreflecting
upon the significance
of thispreparingof food for
thedead thatafterwardis eaten bytheliving,as itindicatesthatfortheparlevels: one
ticipantsin this tradition,existenceevolves on two different
thatexistssharesin bothasnaturaland theothersupernatural.Everything
As thedead belongto theformer,
pects:one essential,theothertransitory.
it is the essence of the food whichtheydigest,whilethelivingbenefitonly
fromthe material substance. Thus the widespreadnotionthat the food,
afterbeingofferedto thedead, is "flavorless,"thatis, withouttheessence,
whichhas been taken by the dead. These same customs suggestanother
conclusion:thatof theidea ofthedead as membersofa groupofwhichthey
neverentirelycease to be a part. It is not necessaryto pointout the similaritiesof these traditionsand the prehispanicculturalpatternsalready
evidentin the archaeologicalfindingsto whichwe have previouslymade
reference.In boththereseems to existtheassumptionthatthedead and the
living must satisfysimilar needs even if the formernow belong to a
supernaturalstageofexistence.
The above practices are foundthroughoutMexico, in small villagesas
however,whichare less well
well as in thecities.There are othertraditions,
known,such as those typicalof the Huichol tribes,livingscatteredand
isolated in the mountainsof the states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa.
These are indigenousgroupsthathavehad verylittlecontactwiththecities
and thereforepreserve,almost untouched,theirprehispanictraditions.
They are known to anthropologistsfor theirannual processionsto the
sacred land of Viricota,in the state of San Luis Potosi forthe purposeof
collectingpeyote or "jicuri," the holy weed whichin theirmythologyis
withKauyumarie,the deer,withthe sun Taoyopa, and withfire,
identified
all ofwhichtheyworship.
The Huicholes believe that everyhuman being has a soul or kupuri
residingin the upper part of the head. When the persondies, the kupuri
Five days after
leaves the bodyin the formof a small cloud or whirlwind.

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Death in MexicanFolk Culture

529

thepersonhas died,a ceremonytakesplace inwhichthemarakamd,thatis,


the shaman of the group,capturesthe soul in the shape of a small shining
insectby shootingarrowsat it. Accordingto thistradition,the soul does
notwishto be caught,but as the marakamdexertsenormouseffortto convinceit,it eventuallyagreesto returnin orderto bidfarewellto its relatives
fortheoccasion. As thekupiiriis capwho have broughtgiftsand offerings
tured,everyonegreetsit, and farewellsare exchangedamid tears untilthe
shamanonce againfreesit.
In thefivedays thatelapse betweenthedeathofthepersonand thereturn
of thekupuri,thesoul has to engagein a varietyofdangerousadventuresin
orderto purgeitselfof the sinscommittedduringits lifetime,and finallyit
depositsthemat thefootoftheancestraltree.Onlyafterwardcan it return
to earthto see its relativesforthelast time.In itsjourneythesoul manifests
itselfin the formof a skeleton,whilethe marakam6himselfmustaccomeveryone oftheepisodesofits mortal
panythespiritin orderto reconstruct
fiveyearsmustpass before,aclife.Afterthefinaldepartureof thekuputri,
rock crystal,
cordingto custom,it can reappearin theformof fragmented
ofwisdom(Figure4).
as a repository
regardedthereafter

ICE
a "marakame"
Figure4: Huichol"nearika"(yarnandbeeswaxon wood)showing
to rescuethesoulof a dead man.Stateof Jalisco,Mexico.Instituto
attempting
NacionalIndigenista.

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530

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Besides the celebrationsin commemorationof All Souls' Day, thereis


anotherdate in thereligiouscalendarwhentheidea ofdeathmanifestsitself
withgreatdramaticforce.This is duringtheritualsheldforHoly Week,the
most importantpart of the year for devout people, a period of remembranceof the sacrificeof Jesusforthe salvationof mankind.In mostparts
of Mexico theseceremoniesalso demonstratetheprototypalsyncretism
we
haveobservedin theprehispanicand Europeantraditions.
Easter Week is precededbythefortydays ofLent,reservedforausterity,
abstinenceand meditation,and culminatesin a varietyof processionsof
maskedpenitentswho,wearingcrownsof thorns,whiptheirbodiesin order
to obtainabsolutionfortheirsins.These practices,striking
fortheirpathos,
seem to manyobserversto be the remnantsof superstition
and ignorance.
Ratherthanignorance,however,suchtraditionsmerelyreflecta distinctive
way of perceivingtheworldas a cosmic experienceaccordingto whichthe
human creatureaccepts the validityof penitence,humiliationand degradationof thebodyas a meansof obtaininga morepermanentgiftof mercy
grantedby the majestyof God. It is not difficult
to understandthe importanceand thepurposeof a promiseof salvationto a peoplepermanently
oppressedbythesorrowand miseryoftheirdailyexistence.
ThroughoutMexico thecommemorationof the sacrificeof Christis acin whichbiblicalepisodes are recompaniedby theatricalrepresentations
enacted. In places such as Ixtapalapa in Mexico City, the crucifixionof
Jesus-played by a youngpenitent,on top of Cerro de la Estrella,an old
shrinein existenceeven beforethe Spanish culturearrivedin Mexico-is
one of the most impressivereligiousepisodes of the year. Such theatrical
ceremoniesinvolvethe participationof as many as fiftythousandpeople
whogatherto observetheprocessionof "The ThreeFalls" and thePassion
of Christ. Few observersfail to be moved by this scene, as among the
millingthousandsdark-skinned
centurionson horsebackattemptto control
the mobs whilegroupsof barefootpenitentsdressedin purpleand wearing
crownsofthornscarrytheirheavycrosses.
Similar,but withdistinctivefeaturesof theirown, are the celebrations
thattake place amongtheCora tribesof the mountainsin the stateof Nayarit.The small villageof JesusMaria has fortheCora Indiansmuchthe
same functionand meaningas did that of the ceremonialcenterin the
prehispanicworld.Here the tribespeoplegatherduringtheyear on several
occasions markedfortheirreligioussignificance.
Of all the festivities
that
are held here,none is as memorableas the celebrationof Holy Week-a
celebrationso complex and multifacetedthat only certain of its more
solemnand momentousaspectscan be treatedhere.Whatdistinguishes
this
fromothers is the presenceof a group of men
holiday most strikingly
knownas "demonios" or "judios" whose purposeis the killingof Christ.

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Death in MexicanFolk Culture

531

From the momenton Ash Wednesdaywhentheyare whippedby a long


rope symbolizing
theevil forcesof a snake,theirpurposeis thedestruction
of Christ.Consequentlytheyrepresentevil,whileJesusincarnatesall thatis
good and pure in the cosmos. The spiritof the festivalis capturedin the
ritualhuntingofJesuswhichtakesplace on Good Friday.This performance
reproducesstep by step thehuntingof thedeer,a commonpracticeamong
the membersof the group,and can be easily recognizedas a remnantof
ancientmagiccustomsin whichthehuntinghas to be simulatedin orderto
assure thekillingof the animalin reality.Many similarexamplesare found
in othercountriesand in different
eras. What is remarkableabout thisparticular ritualhuntingis the fact that it penetratesthe celebrationof the
sacrificeof Christin such a way thathis deathis notconsidereda factuntil
he is pursuedas a deer. Further,amongtheCora Jesusdoes notdie on one
singleoccasion but ratherat least threedifferent
times,forhe is identified
withotherpre-existing
deities:thefire,thesun and thedeer,all ofwhomdie
withhimon thissolemnoccasion.
Whileemphasisis generallyplaced upontheidea ofthedeathofChristin
the folk traditionsof Mexico, his Resurrectionis almost forgotten.This
seems peculiarin viewof the orthodoxCatholic beliefsaccordingto which
the death of Christgains full meaningonly withhis Resurrection.Once
again we must look for the explanationof the importanceplaced on the
death of Christ in popular custom by examiningthe culture's autochthonousroots.
The apparentpessimismof these celebrationsmustbe consideredalong
withtheimpressivereligiousimages thataccompanythem.The variedand
silentprocessionscarriedout as acts of penance would not be complete
withoutthe presenceof manywooden sculptureswhichrecreatethe momentsof agony,resignationand miserythat characterizethe passion of
Christ.Noted fortheirpathos and expressionistic
realism,theyremainone
of the most distinctiveelementsof Mexican traditionand give clear indicationonce againof thecontinuing
vitalityof prehispanicculturein which
bloodysacrificeand agonizingpenitencewerecommon.
It is evident,then,thatdeath is a permanentconcern,a daily presence,
especiallyin a countrylike Mexico in whichproblemsrangingfromthe
of providingmedical servicesto the persistenceof ignoranceand
difficulty
oppressionaccentuateits meaning.The death of an individual,no matter
howpoor,is alwaysaccompaniedbyelaboratefamilytraditions.As in other
areas of social behavior,vigilsrepresenta momentwhensocial solidarity
becomes manifest,and oftentheyare transformedinto partiesin which
food and alcoholicbeveragesflowfreely.In manypartsof Mexico it is the
custom to wash the dead body with water which is later used in the
preparationof the meal. This meal is eatenwiththepurposeof helpingthe

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532

AmericanQuarterly

dead removethe burdenof his sins:"ayudar al muertitocon sus pecados."


This burdenremainsa matterof concernforthe membersof the family,
whileat the same timethe deceased continuesto be regardedas an active
participantin thegroup.
In thecase of thedead beinga youngchild,thereare variationswhichdeservemention.The burialof a childis rarelyaccompaniedbyexpressionsof
pain or sadness.On thecontrary,theremustbejoy and happinessinviewof
the factthatthe child,not havingsinned,willimmediately
join God. What
betterfatecould await a human?Certainlynot a lifefullofpoverty,misery
and deprivation.A childwhendyingbecomes an importantprotectorofhis
family,a miniaturesaintwho carriestheirpetitionsdirectlyto God. When
buried,childrenare thereforeconsideredas littleangels,"angelitos,"and
thustheyare attiredin robes similarto those seen on theimagesof saints.
In thiscase, as well as in thecase of adults,processionsescortingthedead
to thegraveyardare accompaniedbymusic.
Obviously,then,funeralsare in themselvesa matterof great aesthetic
and culturalinterest.The great archaeologistMiguel Covarrubiashas left
us an invaluabletestimonyof such an occasion that clearlyillustratesa
customthat,withvariations,can be foundeverywhere
in Mexico, and that
deservesquotingat length.Referringto the funeralof an old womanfrom
Tehuantepecin thestateofOaxaca, Covarrubiaswrites:
Whenthewomanentered
intothedeathagony,all closerelatives
werepresent
and a prayerexperthad beensentfor.The deepsighthatescapedherwas regardedas a signthatthesoulhad leftherbody.A violentreactionshookthe
members
ofthehousehold,
calmandcollectedbefore,
strangely
the
particularly
women,
herdaughters
andsisters,
whogaveventtowildoutbursts
ofdespairand
screams.... Soon the neighbors
and distantrelativescame to the houseto
embraceandsympathize
withthemourners,
as wellas todeposittheiralms....
Thecorpsewasthendressedinherbestclothes,. . . andherhairwascarefully
combedandthenplaced,noton a bedor mat,buton thebaregroundinfront
of
thehousealtar,itsheadresting
on a littlepillowplacedovertwobricks.It was
withfourcandlesofpurebeeswaxandwithvasesoftuberoses,
provided
as wellas
withan incensebrazier.A maleprayer-expert
(rezador)kneltin frontof the
corpseto pray,alternately
censingthesaint'saltarandthebody.A litanywas
recited
andthewomenchanted....
As therewas enoughmoneyavailable,thewakeproceededthroughout
the
night,
andeverybody
cametohelp.A tablewassetfortheeldersandthecompany
was servedcoffee,bread,mezcal(a kindof liqueur)and cigarettes.When
was ready,thefuneral
everything
procession
startedforthecemetery
inthecool
ofthelateafternoon,
preceded
bya brassbandplaying
sadorfarewell
music....
The processionmarchedthroughthe principalstreets,the coffinflankedby
solemnmenintheirSundayclothes,theeldersinredfeltandsilver-braided
hats.
Immediately
behindfollowed
thehusbandand sistersanddaughters
of theold

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Death inMexican Folk Culture

533

lady,ina stateofutterdespair,
dramatic
intheirblackclothes,
unkempt
hair,and
trailing
shawls,crying
or rather
andwailing,
carried,
draggedbythearmson the
shoulders
offriends....
At thecemetery
. . . thecoffin
was nailedandloweredintothegrave.At this
ofthedeceasedto givea
pointit is thecustomforthenearestwomenrelatives
finalandmostviolent
display
ofdespair....
The mourners
returned
hometo initiate
theprayers
(rezos)saideveryevening
forninedaysaftertheburialbeforean earthandsandreplicaofthegrave.This
symbolic
gravewaserectedoverthegroundwherethecorpsehadlaininfront
of
thesaint'saltar,andwas coveredwithflowers,
witha candleat eachofitsfour
corners.
In Tlacotepec,
a beautiful
littlevillagebya spring
intheneighborhood
of
toplantgrainsofcornalloverthegrave,which
Ixtepec,itis customary
is watered
everyday,so thatthecornsprouts,
andbytheninth
dayithas becomea miniaturecornfield.
Thischarming
customhas no purpose,
according
to thepeopleof
Tlacotepec,beyondan aesthetic
one,butit is significant
thattheybelievethat,
thoughthebodyis gone,thespiritof thedeceasedremainswiththefamily
for
theseninedays,somepeoplegoingso faras to assureonethatduring
thattime
thedeadlivesunderthesaintonthealter.
Everydaytheflowers
on themake-believe
graveare replacedwithfreshones,
andthosewiltedare savedina basket.At theendofninedaysthemoundis distheearthandflowers
mantled;
are collected,
carriedaway,andthrown
intothe
or cemetery.
It is notuntilthenthatthehousemaybe
river,thechurchyard,
swept.Blackbowsare hungon thegateandwindows,
wheretheyremainuntil
thefamily
mustobservedeepmourning.
theyfallto pieces,andforninemonths
Womenwearonlyblackcostumeswithwhiteruffles
on thebottomoftheskirt,
butitis enough
formentowearblackribbons
ontheir
leftarmsfora while.'
In contrastto the somber,oftenpessimisticcharacterof much of its
funerary
ritual,Mexico is also wellknown,paradoxically,forthehumorous
naturewithwhichher people regarddeath. In the end death is to be seen
witha touchofhumorin orderthatthepsychologicalburdenitimpliesmay
be lessened.Not onlya smilebutoutrightlaughterand mockerydistinguish
some of the most typicalmanifestations
of Mexican folkloreconcerning
death; but it is a bittergaietythatphilosophicallyrecognizesthe factthat
the definitive
characterof death can onlybe successfullyconfrontedwith
and scorn. Among these cultural gestures the
gestures of indifference
"calaveras," versesthat celebratethe death of a still-living
personand his
arrivalin hellor heaven,are typical.Politiciansand otherprominent
figures
are favoritevictimsof thismorbidjoke. But poweror prestigeare not prerequisitesforreceiving,as a giftforAll Souls' Day, a versein whichone's
deathhas beenhumorouslyrelated.Apparentlyuniqueto Mexican culture,
the "calaveras" are seen as a particularlyeffective
antidoteforthe anguish
thetermination
thatall menmustfeelwhencontemplating
oftheirlife.
'MiguelCovarrubias,Mexico South (New York: Knopf,1946),pp. 390-94.

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Death in MexicanFolk Culture

535

The Mexican acceptance of death is perhaps best understood by


collectionof toyswhichare inspiredby it,and
observingthealmost infinite
whichare intendedpurelyto givepleasureto children(Figure5). As withall
popularcreations,theyare made in perishablematerials,byanonymousara groupof skeletonsinto
transform
tisanswhodo nothesitateto artistically
a band of "mariachis" (the musicalensembleswhichare hiredto entertain
on holidaysor serenades)wearingtheircolorfulhats and playingtheirtraditional instruments(Figure 6). It is also possible to encounterfestivearrangementsin cardboard,clay and even sugar, of funeralprocessionsin
which,bymeansof an ingeniousmechanism,thedeceased is made to spring
thehilarityof thosewhocontemperiodicallyout of thecasket,stimulating
platehim(Figure7).
folklorictraditions-thepoetryand songs,
These complexand diversified
the masks and sculpture-inevitablysuggestthe enormoustenacityand
wisdomof a people and a culturewhoseoppressedsituationhas notbeenan
obstacle forthe expressionof a uniqueand creativephilosophyof lifeand
death. But ultimatelywe returnto theexquisitepoetryof the nativeMexicans:
Notfora secondtimedo wecometoearth,
flowers.
rejoiceandbring
Oh,princes!
ofdeath;
Wearegoingtothekingdom
arewe.
Onlyintransit
It is true,itis truethatweshallgo,
toleave.
It is truethatweareforced
thesongsandtheearth.
It is truethatweshallabandontheblossoms,
Yes,itis truethatweshallleave.
Wherearewetogo?
Willwestillbealiveorshallwebedead?
willprevail?
Is therea placewhereexistence
is ourwealthandadornment.
Onearth,onlythebeautiful
songandthelovelyflower
Letus rejoiceinboth!
deTenochtitlan)
(Cant.Mex.,f.61 n.,lin.27 ss. Anonimo

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