UNAM UK, Centre for Mexican Studies, KCL’s Mexican Society and KCL’s Modern Language Centre set up an offering once again and organised talks about the ritual

The day of the dead is an annual ritual that is celebrated on the first and second day of November to remember those that have passed away. Currently, there are endless ideas about its origin and its comprising elements; however, it is common to hear that this festivity is Mexican and that it was born from the union of the Meso-American peoples, mainly the Mexica, and the Spanish. Nevertheless, if we reflect on the elements that comprise the day of the dead, we realise that this ritual and its symbols are more complex than what they seem.

If it is true that there were similar ideas about death among Meso-American peoples, it is also true that the commercial and military control of the Mexican took over the interpretations of this cultural area. Something similar occurred once again with the Spanish conquest. The Meso-American peoples, their beliefs and practices, were filtered once again by the gaze of the conquistadores. The Pre-Hispanic rituals associated with death, for instance, were interpreted according to the catholic dogma and received new meanings and elements. Some Meso-American ideas about death were incorporated in the catholic calendar and broadly in the colonial culture. This is how what we know now as day of the dead began; however, its influences go beyond this cultural encounter.

The yearly offerings are of great importance for this ritual, but they are also a sign of historicity and complexity. The bread that we see in so many of these rituals was a Spanish legacy, but this had been brought previously from what is now Egypt. The cut paper was probably brought from China, and the many dishes that are set on the offering required the flux of people and ideas, both from East and West, as well as from North and South. Pretending that the day of the dead originates solely from the union of Meso-American peoples and the Spanish essentialises the cultural process. This idea reflects the foundational myth of mestizaje, repeated constantly through myriad channels, but its use simplifies the cultural interchange. Describing the day of the dead as a mix of Meso-American rituals with Spanish ones, creates ahistorical interpretations, while it also simplifies that which we describe as “indigenous”, “Hispanic” and even “European.”

The day of the dead is one of many rituals that does not respond to a fixed tradition, it is subject to interpretation over time and is implemented differently by the socio-cultural groups that celebrate it. The current day of the dead ritual has incorporated both indigenous and Hispanic ideas, but also received influences from African and Asian communities, among others. Based on these ideas, UNAM United Kingdom, set up an offering dedicated to Leonora Carrington and to the 1968 student movement. The Languages Resource Centre at KCL hosted this offering for the second time. This was also the second year in a row where the Modern Language Centre at KCL, the KCL Mexican Society and UNAM United Kingdom worked together to set up the altar, have a day of celebration and organise talks around this festivity. In this occasion, we enjoyed pan de muerto and chocolate on 1 November 2018.

Besides the celebration, and the presentation of the offering by Dr Ana Elena González, Deputy Director of UNAM United Kingdom, Centre for Mexican Studies, the team at the latter organised talks about the offering and the day of the dead. Spanish students attended these talks and asked questions about the symbols, mostly after watching Coco. During the talks we emphasised the changing character of the tradition. Throughout its history, the day of the dead has transcended Mexican borders, but the massive cultural productions of the past decades have expanded its reach. The films have altered the ritual and the expressions within it, which raises the questions: Which traditions make the day of the dead? Which elements do you repeat every year to celebrate it?