Mexico's Customs and Traditions: Day of the Dead

by Enrique (Henry) Saldana (November 2011)

More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death.  It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate.  A ritual known today as DŪa de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

The ritual is celebrated in Mexico and certain parts of the United States, including the Valley.  And, although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls.

Today, people do wooden skull masks and dance in honor of their deceased relatives. The wooden skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead, while sugar skulls, made with the names of the dead person on the forehead, are eaten by a relative or friend.

The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations kept skulls as trophies and displayed them during the ritual. The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth.

The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the month-long ritual.

Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life, so instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

"The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic," said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. "They didn't separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures." However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan.

In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual.  But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die.  To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.

Previously it fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, approximately the beginning of August, and was celebrated for the entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The goddess, known as "Lady of the Dead," believed to have died at birth.

Today, Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and in certain parts of the United States and Central America. "It's celebrated differently depending on where you go," Gonzalez said.

In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigold flowers and candles. They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.

In the United States and in Mexico's larger cities, families build altars in their homes, dedicating them to the dead. They surround these altars with flowers, food and pictures of the deceased. They light candles and place them next to the altar. They offer incense, flowers, play their favorite music, and make their favorite food.

Culture and traditions are so ingrained in Mexicans that they have a major effect in their daily aspects of life, including their business transactions. This is why it is imperative to understand some of the most important aspects of their culture and traditions, if you are thinking about doing business or investing, in one way or another, in Mexico. You will be surprised, if not shocked, by the outcome, if you use traditional logic in your business transactions.

I myself, a Mexican-born individual, who lived the majority of my youth in Mexico, and have now returned after 30+ years of USA aculturalization, still find myself baffled by the business practices of many, simply because of the cultural and traditional way business gets done in Mexico.

No, you do not need to learn all the particulars of the Mexican culture and traditions that exist in Mexico, but a general understanding of the main aspect of the culture and its influences in business in your area of expertise, or residence, may help. Knowing a little with regards to the Maya culture, if you reside in Quintana Roo, or the Aztec culture and other central Mexico cultures, if you reside in Mexico City, and so on, may help.

Most importantly, make sure the person you are doing business with understands the culture. That might save you a lot of time and money in the long run.

I, for one thing, had to learn the process of doing mortgages in Mexico, and even though I bring 23+ years of mortgage experience from the USA, my last 4+ years, and close relationship to the Mexican Lender's Mortgage Executives, attorneys, notaries, local realtors, and other key professionals, have taught me more about the business than I could ever learn otherwise.

So, do your homework, and you should have a smooth ride in your business transactions in Mexico. Most importantly, if a mortgage is what you need, contact a professional who knows the idiosyncrasies of the culture with respect to the business, and HAVE A HAPPY DAY OF THE DEAD!!!

This report courtesy of Enrique (Henry) Saldana - Mexico Realty Solutions;; Tel: (984) 147-2388 - Cel: (984) 111-8743.