Luring back the dead with tequila, cigarettes and mole: Mexicans mark Day of the Dead in Australia – RN
Since moving to Australia, Rosa Cienfuegos has built a cult following for her homemade Mexican food. (ABC Arts: Teresa Tan)
Rosa Cienfuegos has lived in Australia for close to a decade, but there’s one tradition from her native Mexico that she vows to keep alive.
“Day of the Dead is one of the most important [traditions] for all Mexicans,” she says.
“Everybody knows about it, [but] everybody’s misunderstanding the real meaning of it, I mean, in this part of the world.
“To me, it’s important to share what we really do in Mexico — it’s not a massive party with a DJ and full of dress-up things, it’s more a connection with family or the loved ones who’ve passed away.”
This year, Rosa has set up an altar in her small “tamaleria”— a store selling empanadas, tamales and other Mexican specialties — in the Sydney suburb of Dulwich Hill.
As is the tradition in Mexico, the altar (or ofrenda) is adorned with marigold flowers, chocolate skulls, incense, photographs of loved ones lost and, importantly, their favourite foods and drinks. Rosa says the Mexican dish known as ‘mole’ is particularly popular.
These items are believed to entice the souls back to earth for one night in November.
“They’re happy because you put the flowers and the picture out, and whatever they used to like when they were alive — like tequila or cigarettes or their favourite food and music,” she says.
“It’s a beautiful tradition, I would love people to actually get to know this.”
Mexicans put photos of lost loved ones on their home altars. This year, Rosa is remembering a close friend. (ABC Arts: Teresa Tan)
Rosa wants to dispel Westernised, commercialised stereotypes of Day of the Dead, and share the real rituals of this sacred holiday.
She points out that in some parts of Mexico — particularly the south-eastern states of Michoacán, Guerrero and Oaxaca — families also visit cemeteries to decorate the tombstones of their deceased relatives.
“They stay there the whole night, they bring musicians, they drink there, they dance there — the whole family together — which is what’s really the Mexican thing.
“It’s not like, ‘Let’s bring a DJ and get drunk’.”
From a month, to a day, to a parade
Day of the Dead — or Día de los Muertos as it is known in Spanish — is very much alive in Mexico, but this ancient practice is believed to have existed for 3,000 years.
Dr Andrew Chesnut, a Latin America expert and Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the contemporary practice is a melding of indigenous and Catholic beliefs.
“Before the Spanish conquest and colonisation takes place, Day of the Dead existed amongst the Aztecs essentially as a month of the dead which roughly corresponds to our month of August,” he says.
“The Aztec death goddess by the name of Mictecacihuatl presided over this month that focussed particularly on deceased children.
“Then the Spanish come along and, of course, bring with them their ‘one true faith’ of Catholicism and already have All Saints and All Souls’ Days on November 1st and November 2nd.
“So the Aztec month of the dead is collapsed into this Spanish-Catholic version.”
Pan de muerto is a traditional bread baked specially for Day of the Dead. The crosses on top represent bones. (ABC Arts: Teresa Tan)
But the national holiday has undergone changes in recent years, too.
In 2015, the Bond film Spectre featured a fictitious Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City.
In a case of life imitating art, the city’s council decided to hold a similar street procession.
“Just last weekend, Mexico City had it’s third, now annual, Day of the Dead parade and Mexicans of all different walks of life participated,” Dr Chesnut says.
“Now you’ll see a lot of young, well-heeled millennial Mexicans who, years ago, wouldn’t have been caught dead participating in Day of the Dead seeing it as ‘cool’ and part of their unique cultural heritage.”
Sartorial skeletons and political messages
For Ximena Olvera, a friend of Rosa Cienfuegos, the Day of the Dead isn’t ‘cool’; but a natural fixture of life.
“Ever since primary school, each classroom put up their altar,” says the Cancun-born student.
“We brought in pictures of our loved family members that have passed; we brought in food, things they would like, so we got to remember in a good way the death of our loved ones.
“Day of the Dead is a celebration, not a time to grieve.”
This year, Ximena has dressed up as La Catrina, an elegant female skeleton created by graphic artist and satarist José Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s.
“Basically, La Catrina characterises a high society lady wearing a fancy French-style hat,” Ximena says.
The character is central to Day of the Dead celebrations, but as Dr Chesnut points out, Catrina is more than a pretty skeleton face.
“Posada came up with this figure of Catrina as a satire and parody of the government at the time that was using policies of death and starvation upon 90 per cent of the Mexican population,” he explains.
“It was used as a figure of burlesque to say governmental policies are creating death and hunger in Mexico.”
Rosa cooks the traditional Mexican dish pozole to lure her deceased family members back to earth. (ABC Arts: Teresa Tan)
Commemorating the dead, embracing those alive
Holidays, like Day of the Dead, bring Australia’s Mexican community closer together.
For Ximena, who’s only been in the country for two months, this tradition is a much appreciated reminder of home.
“I wasn’t expecting anything [for Day of the Dead], but it’s a good thing I found Rosa,” Ximena smiles.
“She brings Mexico to Australia.”
With the songs of Mexican troubadours playing, and the scent of pan de muerto wafting from Rosa’s kitchen, Ximena could be forgiven for feeling, even briefly, at home.
And that’s exactly what Rosa hopes for.
“I have lot of Mexican friends who are here by themselves, and I really feel for them,” she says.
“I always try to bring them here, they have a family here, whatever they need.
“If you want to bring your [loved one’s] picture, just bring it; and if you want me to make a special dish for your family, just let me know and I can do it.
“It’s part of bringing everyone together to make a community.”