MEXICO CITY – Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead is opening with a sadder tone than usual Wednesday.
People in Mexico City and nearby states are marking this year’s holiday by remembering the 369 people killed in the Sept. 19 earthquake, 228 of them in the capital, where 38 buildings collapsed.
Mexico’s traditional view of the dead is not ghoulish or frightful – rather they are seen as the “dear departed,” people who remain close even after death. On the Nov. 1-2 holiday, Mexicans set up altars with photographs of the dead and plates of their favorite foods in their homes. They gather at their loved ones’ gravesides to drink, sing and talk to the dead.
But this time many of the dead departed so recently that the grief is still fresh.
Nayeli Flores struggled to bring up her two children, working as a legal aide and studying law, so she never had time or money to set up an elaborate Day of the Dead altar as her son, Julian, wanted to do. This year Flores will fulfill his wish for an altar – dedicated to the 11-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister, Ximena, who died when the quake collapsed their apartment building into a pile of rubble on the city’s south side. The two kids had stayed home from school that day while their mom was working.
“My son always complained because we didn’t put up an altar,” Flores said between sobs. “So this year I am going to do it, in his memory.”
Altars are always personalized, with a photo of the dead and candles. Offerings for adults often include their favorite food, drink and even cigarettes. For kids, it is the same, only with candy or toys.
“One of Julian’s friends brought me a bag of candy, as a donation for earthquake victims,” said Flores, who has kept herself busy since the quake by distributing donated aid. “But I am going to take a few for the altar” for Julian.
Flores wants to make sure there are stuffed animals on the altar, too. “They used to love them; they would fight over them,” she remembered.
Many of the residents of the 1960s-era apartment complex Flores called home are still living in tents beside buildings that survived. Some of the structures can be repaired, but others will have to be torn down.
Seven other people died along with Flores’ kids in the building that fell. Survivors are erecting a big altar honoring the nine. Yet another altar commemorates all the quake’s victims.
“This is going to be difficult, because it is all very recent, but in the end we are honoring their memories,” said Carlos Luz, one of Flores’ neighbors. “It means a lot to the people who lost family members.”
There are already impromptu memorials at the collapse site: floral wreaths, balloons and candles, and painted hands on the plywood wall around the collapse site, which is also decorated with photos of the victims.
The quake hit particularly hard in the string of ancient villages on Mexico City’s southern outskirts where people had kept up particularly colorful and authentic Day of the Dead celebrations. Several people were killed, the local parish church was damaged and many of single-family homes made of adobe or brick collapsed.
“Everyone is very sad, their lives have been destroyed,” said Rev. Francisco Efren Castellanos, the parish priest in San Gregorio.
There is no money for the elaborate offerings of food, drink, flowers and candles that people normally make. Still, there will be offerings, no matter how simple.
“This year there is a sense of determination, even if it is just beans and tortillas,” Castellanos said.
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