Laughing in the face of death

As a Brit in Mexico, I am often painfully aware of my ‘difference’ and this is often accompanied by a strong sense of isolation. However, in embracing the clamour and chaos of the City, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that its tumult can actually combat loneliness.

I only have to open the window and there is the man selling water / gas / tamales / balloons / firecrackers and (on Sundays) ice cream outside our front gate. Every day I can enjoy the sight of Mexicans strolling, playing, trading, studying and courting in their numerous public squares which are used as an extension of their homes. In our local plaza, I am greeted by the old woman on the corner weaving baskets; the young girl in the newspaper kiosk is enjoying a brisk business in lottery tickets (she sells stacks of them, never as many papers – they’re old news whilst the national raffle offers tantalising hope for the future); the old men, wailing their wares, are sheltering from the sun under the colourful portales; the organ grinder has taken up his position outside the church, next to the child selling wooden rosaries; the middle-aged woman with dyed red hair and her over-weight daughter are dipping their boiled corn cobs into chilli and lime for a queue of customers. A tiny boy, he can’t be more than six, wends his way round the customers in a café, using his beautiful dark eyes to sell his miniature packs of chiclets.

Except for the cars, I wonder how much has changed in these plazas over the decades. Anything in one hundred years? Two hundred?

The main reason that solitude no longer frightens me is because Mexico City thrusts you into the here and now. The  past feels unimportant, the future no longer tangible. Sometimes I go for days without hearing from anyone back home. At times, I feel as though I live in a bubble, although much of what goes on around me is gradually becoming more comprehensible. Even in November, the sun can be scorching by midday causing the film of time to slow down. Instead of rushing from pillar to post, I linger over meals, stroll rather than stride through the leafy plazas, pausing to admire a pretty pair of earrings, an unusual clay pot or hand-woven shawl. Mexicans are always happy to talk to me; they want to find out where I are from, where I are headed, or just to laugh playfully at my Spanish.

Another powerful weapon against loneliness is an appreciation and understanding of the Mexican response to death. The writer who has come closest to explaining this is Octavio Paz. In his seminal book of essays, The Labyrinth of Solitude, he declared “Ritual death promotes a Rebirth.” To the ancient Mexicans, “Life, death and resurrection were stages of a cosmic process which repeated itself continuously.” Today, an innate love of ritual encourages Mexicans to continue in their celebration of death and, for many, it still “defines” “reflects” and “illuminates” their existence.

Whilst we celebrate Halloween, all over Mexico altars are erected in the name of the dead. Mexicans love the opportunity to dress up or to decorate something, but the preparation of altars for El Día de Muertos is phenomenal. The Day of the Dead actually lasts two days (on the first, the souls of children are honoured). On the nights of 1 and 2 November a family’s loved ones are tempted back to the land of the living.

Like the very best theatre, all the senses are assailed.  A table of ofrendas (offerings) is prepared, aromatic copal is burned, candles are lit, and the vibrant marigold flowers, known here as cempasúchil, decorate and brighten their way.

On the table itself are set various objects, sweets, and drinks that were enjoyed by the departed souls when alive. Their favourite food is lovingly prepared and laid out each night. Religious images are placed alongside tequila and sugared skulls. A poem or hymn may be composed and left for their perusal. Even a particular pan de muerto (sweet bread) is baked to commemorate the departed. It is best described as a sugary bun adorned with a cross, representing skeletal fingers seeking earthly sustenance.

Some of the best examples of altars are to be found in the grounds of Mexico City’s National University. This year, the various departments competed with one another to prepare the most imaginative ofrendas to American author Edgar Allan Poe, born two hundred years ago. The field resembled nothing so much as a Victorian fair-ground. As well as ritual and religiosity, there is a sense of fun. Many of the altars are the height of kitsch.

The fact that many of these miniature temples to the dead are works of art is recognised by the Dolores Olmedo museum, in the south of the City, renowned for its annual exhibition celebrating El Día de Muertos. This year it includes a stunning retrospective of ofrendas that have been displayed since it opened its doors in 1994. These include alters dedicated to muralist Diego Rivera, artist Frida Kahlo and engraver Jose Guadalupe Posada.

In Mexico, death is seen merely an extension of life and part of its immutable cycle. The lightheartedness of this annual ritual hits home. Surrounded by all the colour and vitality of the occasion, there is nothing left to fear. Laughing in the face of death proves a valuable lesson. When fear is absent, so too is loneliness.