Día de Muertos

Have you ever thought of death as something colorful, cherished, venerated? I imagine not… Death is always the symbol of an end, the ultimate end. Death in many religions is the step to eternity… a transformation. In metaphysics, the changing of matter into energy or light. But something colorful, with music, dancing, delicious food and drink?

That is how “Día de Muertos” is present in Mexico and how it is celebrated. Depending on the region, you may find different types of meals, music, decorations, but the essential elements will always be there: the deceased members of the family, orange flowers called ‘cempasúchitl’ in Mexico, skulls made of sugar or the modern version, made of chocolate, dancing skeletons made of papier mache, or of plastic, and the traditional Pan de Muerto, or ‘bread of the dead’ a sweet yeast bread with formed dough bones as decoration.

Are Mexicans not afraid of dead or why do they seem to mock dead? They write funny poems, called calaveras, that are like a funny obituary to their living friends. They also decorate sugar skulls with the names of the living and they cook the favorite meal of the dead, leaving it served on an altar hoping that the dead will drop by and eat a little bit. These two days in November are then the bridge to the world of the dead… Does that sound creepy? It may be. Where do these ideas come from?

Festivity Day of the Dead

Festivity in Chignahuapan, Puebla

(Picture courtesy of my brother)

In pre-hispanic Mesoamerica, which started in the central part of Mexico and went way south to northern Costa Rica, in the time the aztec empire occupied that area death had a dedicated god. This god of the dead was called Mictlantecuhtli, in Spanish el señor de los muertos, the king of Mictlán (Chicunauhmictlan), a section of the underworld (now take a deep breath and try to pronounce the Aztec words…) As any other aztec god, he was venerated in many different regions and had his own ceremonial rites performed by the priests of dead.

If you want to know more about him, follow this link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mictlantecuhtli

In Mesoamerica, skulls and skeletons were part of the decoration of temples and dead had an important part in everyone’s life.

When the first Spanish missionaries arrived to Mexico around 1530 something, they started converting,missioning, the naturals of those parts of the earth, to the catholic religion. Most of these conversions were forceful and threatening to the so called ‘indian’ population. However, some of the missionaries, being shocked with the brutality used to mission the people, they decided to use a more ‘human’ conversion and they started tolerating some of the traditional rites adapted to catholic celebrations.

More on missionaries in New Spain: http://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/los-misioneros-en-la-nueva-espana.html

There is a very old town, rather a village, called San Andrés Mixquic, close to the huge Mexico City where you can appreciate exactly this integration of Aztec beliefs in catholic Mexico. Every Mexican village has a main church and a main square, where people used to gather. Many of theses catholic churches were built using the materials that were part of a pre-hispanic temple. In this town, the cemetery attached to the church still keeps its Aztec decoration, showing skulls, bones and other skeletal parts made of stone to decorate the graves, but also real skulls and bones were piled close to the tombs… This I found really creepy. The graves, that were very old, showed the names of the inhabitants which were usually a Christian first name accompanied by a nahuatl, or aztec, surname. I found this town to be a fantastic relic of the past.

San Andres Mixquic

Cemetery in San Andrés Mixquic

Let’s move to a nicer element, the orange flowers, called Cempasúchitl. The golden orange flower is well known all over the world. It is named “marigold” in the English speaking world and its scientific name is Tagetes erecta. I was reading that in Mexico this flower is also used to cure abdominal pain. In Germany, it is very popular in the Summer gardens to attract snails and avoid them eating other flowers or vegetables.

What about food? I was mentioning above that families like to prepare the favorite meal of the remembered dead family members. However I have never seen KFC (fried chicken) or tiramisu or burritos in any of the altars… So what is usually cooked in these days? In Mexico, as it is Fall, you usually cook a dessert with lots of molasses (in this case a dark sugar cane sirup) and pumpkins. To make it even tastier, cinnamon, cloves and oranges are added, too. You can imagine that every family has a secret recipe. Another traditional dessert is one similar, but using a small orange fruit, sour and tasteless, called “tejocote” instead of pumpkin.

However, a real meal to commemorate your dead relatives would be nothing without some “Pan de Muerto”, Here you can find a recipe, in Spanish though: http://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/pan-de-muerto.html

It is usual to find all theses elements on an familiar altar in many Mexican homes. The altar will include cempasúchitl, pan de muerto, may be some “mole”,  or another real spicy dish, and nice photos of the relatives that are not anymore among us.

Family altar, Dia de Muertos

Family altar, courtesy of my cousin

People usually go to the graveyard in those ares and take care of the graves arranging them with colorful flowers. I remember visiting the graves of my grandparents and buying the flowers in one of the many booths at the entrance of the graveyard. I also remember as a child that there were lots of “gladiolas”, gladioli or gladiolus, mostly white or pale pink and carnations.  I don’t know why, but to me these gladioli always make me think of a cemetery…so don’t send me any 😉

I almost forgot to mention the dancing. There was a very famous illustrator, Javier Guadalupe Posada, who depicted skeletons and skulls in Mexican daily life, as part of life and not death. He satirized the political situation of the dictatorial Mexico he lived in.

Music and dancing have an important role in celebrating any festivity. To celebrate Día de Muertos in many cemeteries, especially in the smaller towns and villages, live music is played while children, people and animals, like dogs or pigs, are simply running or playing around. This celebration usually takes place by night and a sea of candles will light the darkness. In Mexico, in the state of Michoacán there is a folk dance called “La Danza de los Viejitos” ( The Dance of the old ones) performed during the celebration of “Dia de Muertos”… a little bit macabre, but quite true…

Bailamos flaquita?

Shall we dance, my skinny one?

Many elements of these celebrations my be found in cultural expressions, for example, in films, paintings, and popular folklore. In 1960, a film conjugated successfully many of these special elements in a surrealistic atmosphere. It is called “Macariobased “on the novel of the same name by B. Traven, set in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (modern-day Mexico)” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macario_(film)).

To finish this fascinating topic, I would like to include some popular sayings in Spanish that show the sarcastic and humorous way of seeing dead in Mexico :

“El muerto al pozo y el vivo al gozo”. (more or less… The dead to the water well and the living to pleasure)

“No andaba muerto, andaba de parranda”. (He wasn’t dead, he was out partying). This is also the refrain of a popular song.

“De gordos y tragones están llenos los panteones”. (Graveyards are full of fat and gluttons) Mmmm, nowadays completely political incorrect. Sorry…

“El que por su boca muere hasta la muerte le sabe”. ( The one who eats by the mouth, savors even the death)

And there are tons and tons of saying, songs, pictures, music… to joke about death in Mexico.

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Tying the knot

For many the wedding day is the most expected day in their lives, it’s the day a dream comes true. It is the day when you officially commit to your best half. Every culture has its own traditions and rites. Rites are more often observed on such a day than in normal life. We all want to show our best face and share joy and happiness with the guests.

I remember the weddings of my older cousins, lots of planning, deciding and excitement. Who will be invited to the religious ceremony and who will attend the party afterwards? Where is it going to take place? Coming from a country where the extended family plays a very important role, weddings are usually very big events. However, the longest weddings I have attended to have been German weddings. I know that Indian weddings may last for days and that brings to my mind the funny film ‘Monsoon Wedding‘ where bride and groom hadn’t met before. Their marriage had been arranged by their parents. Although this doesn’t sound very nice to our “Western” ears, I sometimes wonder if this method is not better that our ‘marrying the love of our lives’.

Monsoon Wedding

Film “Monsoon Wedding”

Thinking of the weddings I have attended in Mexico City, I remember every one of them as being quite formal, except mine. Everything designed and well combined. They usually started with a religious ceremony in church and then a big meal in a luxurious restaurant. After the meal, mostly a dinner, live music was played and everybody would dance. Sometime later, the just married couple would cut the Wedding cake and shorty afterwards the party was over. Weddings in small towns or villages in Mexico are very different, depending on the geographical location. In general, they last longer and may even include the whole village to celebrate the marriage.

In the city there is always a dress code that should be followed unless you would like to stand out… I remember that for the wedding of one of my brothers, one of the younger ones who had been working in Europe, came into the restaurant, that was a colonial hacienda with a big garden, in a kilt. It was quite a surprise! When the dancing started the nicest couple was my brother in his kilt dancing with my daughter, at that time 5 years old, in her Bavarian dress, a dirndl. They were very sweet!

In Sao Paulo, women like to dress feminine and elegant, I would say, very sexy, with deep décolletés and very high heels. However, many of them are catholics and want to get the blessings in church. Therefore, the witty Brazilians always have a box with all kind of shawls in different colors to lend to the ladies while attending the mass. Clever, isn’t is? Another great idea for ladies wearing really high heels is that the couple orders many pairs of flip-flops in all sizes to be given out when the dance is starting. The flip flops or thong sandals may be designed in the colors used for the flower bouquets and the table decoration and they can even have the name of both printed, for example Pedro e Leopoldina 😉

I have also attended a couple of traditional weddings in Bavaria. Lots of food and tons of cake! Weddings over here are either Bavarian or simply different. I like to see the families in their traditional costumes, called Trachten in German. For younger men shorter Lederhose and knee high Lederhose for older men. In these occasions women are the ones wearing the longer dresses! There are also long ‘Dirndl‘, that’s the name of the traditional dress for ladies, middle ones and the very short ones, very popular among young girls, and men… All men, at least all Bavarian men, will agree that a Dirndl is the best way to underline a woman’s treasures… for the dirndl women usually wear a special brassiere called “balconette” that offers a very good support and forms a perfect décolleté… a little bit like a balcony…  Traditional clothing has become so popular that during the world’s famous Oktoberfest it is now normal to see Asians, South European, African Americans wearing a dirndl, an imagine, even Mexicans!   I’m mentioning those origins, because it is difficult to distinguish a blond Swedish or Austrian from a blond German girl, that’s why, me, a small dark haired Mexican looks very different indeed…(Me 😉 )

That to the dress code. Other German weddings are not that strict regarding the dress code. You can wear what you want, a little bit more elegant than everyday… and I think that sometimes that is the problem… Some guests keep their blue jeans and if lucky, wear a shirt instead of a t-shirt keeping their comfortable walking shoes.

A Bavarian wedding is not only Bavarian fashion, there are also lots of food, music and anecdotes.  Some traditional weddings start early, at about 10 or 11 o’clock and while waiting for the guests and family to gather,  “ Weißwürstchen und Brezen” are served. For those who are very thirsty, they can start the day with a Weizen or Weißbier, a wheat based beer.  After this “light” second breakfast, there is usually a ceremony in church, catholic or protestant.

weißwurstfrühstück

Brezen, Weißwurst und Bier

(Image from: http://www.typisch-bayerisch.de/index.php/essen-trinken/weisswurstfruehstueck/248/)

After mass, guests and the just married couple go to the restaurant where the party takes place.  Drinks will be served, yes, you’ve guessed right, more beer: a Pils or a Helles or a Radler or… and of course, other beverages. If it’s noon or half past noon, lunch will be served. A typical starter is a broth with some “Spätzle” or thick noodles made of eggs and flour and others with liver. There is a special “Wedding soup” also made of broth, usually no chicken broth, served with two or three dumplings, one only made of eggs and flour, and the other one with liver, too.

Afterwards they serve a traditional salad, not very big, with raw red and white cabbage, rasped carrots, rasped turnips and maybe lettuce and tomatoes. Ah, and of course finely sliced paprika, red or yellow. The dressing is usually thin and a little milky and it shouldn’t be sour.  Sometimes in between the courses there are stories on the life of bride and groom, usually funny, sometimes indiscreet… depending on the person telling the story. The now married couple expects their friends and family to perform some sketches with funny and nice episodes in their lives for example, how the couple met, or the first visit to the in-laws, among others.There may be some games and word games, but not for everyone to take part in, but only as clapping and laughing spectators. That would be too spontaneous… Continuing with the menu, usually some dish with pork meat, may be some filet medallions with champignons or pepper sauce, and to be fair, there may also be a “meatless” option for the many vegetarians here.

Afterwards the dancing music starts and the couple and guests start to dance usually in pairs and strictly following the steps they have learned in dancing school. It is very common for teenagers in Germany to go to dancing school to officially learn the most popular dances, especially the Waltz. The ladies are the ones who enjoy this part of the party while many of the gentlemen discreetly engage in deep conversations about football or they simply “disappear” out of the room to stretch their legs 😉

Everybody brings the presents and congratulates the freshly baked couple. Hopefully, everything turns out fine and the couple may start their honeymoon…

I also hope not many of the delighted couples organize dress, wedding car and honey moon on a boat with these items I found close to my place.  They remind me of Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride”…

Bride's paradise

Brautparadies… (= Bride’s paradise…)

Have a nice week!

Black and White

Is it that simple? Can we simply divide the world into black and white or good and bad? Who decides the criteria and what are the rules to do so? When educating young children we tend to tell them what they should do. We encourage them to do some things a certain way because it is good and we tell them what they shouldn’t do because it’s bad. Prohibition and rules are for many the basis of education. Religions, for example the Catholics, want their followers to be good and do no evil because if not, they will go to hell… Other religions act on the same principle, they promise marvels and beauty, if you’re good and stick to their rules, and punishment or catastrophes, if not…

Is it really that simple? After reading a couple of news in the weekend newspapers of different countries I got really depressed… What is going on with the world? It has never been a very quiet place to live in, but seriously? Right now everything seems to be on the verge of collapsing: wars, epidemics, financial crisis, politics… Just to mention some.

Some time ago I decided not to watch the news on TV anymore because I felt angry and impotent about the news. Usually the news take only 15 minutes of a whole day and they only show what they think is more important and relevant. And as any egoistic human, as we all are… almost every one of us think that doesn’t affect me directly, so… and continues on with their lives ignoring the discomfort that those distant events caused them.

I then decided to read the newspaper, but as you may know, reading only one newspaper gives you only one version of the facts… One particular way of seeing and presenting things explained according to the ideology of the newspaper or magazine… That’s why I decided to take a look at several newspapers all over the world. What did I find? Unfortunately, at the moment everywhere  the same: despair, anger, greed…

Newspapers

The press

(Image from http://www.anglaisfacile.com/exercices/exercice-anglais-2/exercice-anglais-47957.php)

Let me mention some of the articles I was reading about. The very first one about the massacre of the alleged students in Guerrero, a southern Mexican state. They still don’t know who the people were. Officially three students were murdered while 43 others have simply disappeared. They have found a mass grave, but they still don’t know who is lying quietly there.  Were they all students, were other people killed and buried in the mass grave? It’s difficult to tell, who it was and why they did it… The police? The police in combination with the drugs cartel? With or without the approval of the governor?  The military? Awful and sad… On the other hand, one of the big news in Mexican papers was the big and expensive presidential plane, one of the most exclusive and expensive planes in the world, that arrived to the Mexican capital and was handed to the same president… Yuk!

Economists and politicians were very worried because Mexico would present a bad image and the big European and foreign investors could be afraid of the country. And the families, friends and relatives of the victims? And the Mexican people?   Everyone asks me about this case, as if I would know more because I’m Mexican. People over here even try to warn me about going back. They are maybe right, but…

On the other hand living here in a safe place in Western Europe, reading the news, I got confronted with another problem. Because of the ISIS war in the southern border of Turkey with Syria, here in Germany and Europe they have started worrying a lot about all the people looking for political asylum .  It is sadly true, thousands have been arriving to Germany, many to Bavaria and for example, in Munich there is no place where to shelter them. Before school began they started putting people in school gyms. However, school has started and they had to move the people, who arrive from different regions, with different nationalities. Families are often separated from their relatives and are distributed all over the state.  The government has built some tents to shelter them, but Winter is almost here and the nights in Fall are really cold. It has been a big challenge for the German state to organize housing, medical care, food and many other things for them within a very short time. Some politicians want to limit the amount of asylum seekers, which is understandable to a certain extent. But if I imagine, these are people fleeing from war having to leave everything behind, even their dignity… So what is the best way? Where can they go or who can take them? I also read that even Uruguay has offered to take some asylum seekers, and  Uruguay and the Middle East are very far away…

Asylum seekers

Asylum seekers

Image from: https://koptisch.wordpress.com/category/koptische-asylanten/

So in this war who are the good ones and who are the bad ones? Of course, we all agree that those who kill innocent people, especially children, women, old, are bad, but in a war this distinction is kind of grey. Military forces, like Americans or European, “helping” the good ones and bombing theoretical shelters where terrorists are hiding?  This, as we all know, causes casualties or the so called “collateral damage”. What would be the way of solving the conflict? Although in this case, there are no defined two parties. Terrorism in Middle East is difficult to grasp and define so that it can be dealt with. What is the best way to deal with it?

I found a 5 minute explanation of Syria  in the Youtube channel of the “Vlogbrothers”. If you can follow the very fast and lively explanation of this young Youtuber, you may get a good grasp of why it is so complicated. By the way, the brothers are Hank and his brother John Green, a famous writer.  This made me smile a little.

You may want to take a visual guide to the crisis in Iraq and Syria by the New York Times.

To make my morning gloomier, I continued reading the news, trying to digest the next topic: Ebola. When it first started, we all thought, poor Africa, poor black continent, but it’s far. Now things have changed. Ebola is on our doorsteps. I don’t want to sound in panic or very alarmed, but the reality is that there have been more cases in Spain, England and even Texas. We know that it is difficult to get it, but…  Here is the Ebola information sheet of the World Health Organisation .  You can take a look at this very fast, 94 seconds, and clear explanation of ebola here.

Humanity has dealt with other plagues, but at that time the news travelled very slow and I imagine that they were not as “informed” as we are. What makes me nervous is exactly that, are we really “well” informed? For good or for bad?  We all know the secrecy that governments and institutions keep and the ways they can influence people propagating information… So, yes, let’s keep informed, but trying to get the most extensive panorama we can get before panicking, judging or even fighting.

Have a good and relaxing week, if you avoid the news!