The film Coco is inspired by the Mexican festival Day of the Dead. It is an important cultural artefact of Mexican life. In 2008, the celebration was added by UNESCO to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO stated “The Day of the Dead celebration holds great significance in the life of Mexico’s indigenous communities. The fusion of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Catholic feasts brings together two universes, one marked by indigenous belief systems, the other by worldviews introduced by the Europeans in the sixteenth century.”
According to this article by the National Geographic (Day of the Dead), the practice originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth.
The Day of the Dead, in Spanish, is known as Día de Muertos. It is a three-day festival from October 31 to November 2 in which the living communed with the spirits of the dead and families remembered their loved ones at graveyard vigils and altars decorated with offerings of food, drink and flowers. According to an Indian Express article (Why Mexico celebrates the ‘Day of the Dead’) , since the spirits are considering visiting, the aim is include the spirits as part of the family through the offerings. Families attempt to persuade the souls of their loved ones to return to Earth by adorning their grave sites with marigold flowers, candles, pictures and traditional handicrafts, and by making offerings of delicacies that the departed relatives liked. The path leading from home to the cemetery is also lit. For young children, toys can be given as offerings. Among the special offerings made is the Pan de Muerto or “bread of the dead”, a traditional sweet bread that is baked for this occasion. The breads and sweets are made in the shape of skeletons and skulls– symbols of death. Since pre-colonial times, Mexico’s indigenous communities commemorated the transitory return of their deceased family members to Earth around this time of the year, at the harvesting season of the maize crop– the chief produce of Central America. As per tradition, the spirits of children can rejoin their families on November 1, after the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31. On the next day, November 2, the souls of adults can visit.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the festival would honour the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl or “Lady of the Dead”, and would last a month. Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.
In recent years, the festival has got a party like atmosphere, having moved from the privacy of graveyards and households to the streets and public spaces, in the form parties and parades, including an annual Day of the Dead parade. In many places across the Mexican-US border, the festival has descended into a consumer driven buying holiday with promotion of consumer electronics to fashion.
What the future holds remains to be seen but what I do know is that someday, I hope to be in Mexico for the celebration of this important tradition.