"Day of the Dead" in Terlingua, TX

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009


"Death is not the greatest loss in Life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live" [Norman Cousins]

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We were in Alpine the other day, I have a habit to stop at the always cheerful "Chamber of Commerce", wi fi, wash up, coffee and a candy… all for free courtesy of the City. I think it was a couple days ago as I was chatting with the Lady at the desk "we are on our way to Terlingua for the ‘Day of the Dead’ Celebration…". She started laughing, one of those faces which let me know I could explain till I would turn blue in the face, she would still think it was a… bad joke. Come to think of it, I will probably return and give her some links to read as "Day of the Dead" has become one of the largest celebration around. Maybe even this link here.

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Terlingua has been no exception, the crowds have been increasing since this is our fourth year attending, the food was plentiful, so was a huge bonfire and Music, conversations and all within an atmosphere of reservation emanating much respect toward the Souls at rest near by, their own Day of Celebration. Every year I learn a bit more about this Day, an outlook through Life and Death where the crossing can take place in such an instant, where the Lives resting are now at Peace with it all surrounded in those moments by the caring Livings that have come for this one Day to keep company, a reminder they are not forgotten.

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Mexico celebrates this yearly tradition called "Day of the Dead" during the last days of October and the first days of November. Due to the duration of this festivity and the way people get involved it has been called "The Cult of Death" or "All Souls Day". The legacy of the past civilizations is graphically manifested on this occasion through people’s beliefs that Death is a transition from one Life to another in different levels where communication exists between the living and the dead. This communication takes place once a year throughout the country. Differing from the Roman Catholic imposed ritual to commemorate "All Souls’ Day", which is observed in many countries, the custom established by pre-colonial Mexican civilizations becomes a ceremony where indigenous beliefs blended with Catholic beliefs. Therefore, the "Day of the Dead" in Mexico, and adjoining towns near by the borders, is not a mournful commemoration but a happy and colorful Celebration where Death takes a lively, friendly expression.

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Indigenous people believed that souls did not die, that they continued living in "Mictlan", a special place to rest. In this place, the Spirits rest until the day they could return to their homes to visit their relatives. Before the Spaniards arrived, they celebrated the return of the Souls between the months of July and August. Once arrived, the Spaniards changed the festivities to November 2nd to coincide with "All Souls Day" of the Catholic Church. Presently, two celebrations honoring the memory of loved ones who have died take place: on November 1st, the souls of the Children are honored with special designs in the altars, using color white on flowers and candles, on November 2nd the Souls of the adults are remembered with a variety of rituals, according to the different states of the Mexican republic.

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Whatever name is given, this is an ancestral tradition that blended with Catholicism to create a special time and space to remember and honor the loved ones by offering them an "ofrenda", the fragrance of the flowers, the light of the candles, the aroma of special foods and the solemnity of prayers. It is also a time to joke and make fun of death through "calaveras", poetry allusive to a particular person, generally politicians; sugar, chocolate and "amaranth skulls" which are given to one another with their friend’s name so "they can eat their own death" and special crafts allusive to different aspects of the living, with skeletons representing daily activities.

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Whichever way is celebrated, "Day of the Dead" is a time of reflection about the meaning of Life and the mission that one needs to fulfill. Death in many situations imparts a feeling of pain and loss, particularly for those who do not know the purpose of their path on this earthly plane. For others, Death is transcendence, transformation and resurrection. During the celebration of "Day of the Dead" all those feelings and beliefs come together in a season that brings to life the memory of the loved ones.

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Food is considered indispensable for the celebration. The foods offered in the memorial are different according to the wishes and social status of the deceased. Typical foods include: bread, fruits vegetables, and sweets. Other delicacies available for the celebration are: sugar skulls (bought from the bakeries with the names of each on of the members of the family who are alive and of the deceased), candied fruit and pumpkins, tamales (corn meal with meat or raising wrapped in corn husk) and maize dough cakes, as well as enchiladas and chalupas (thicker corn tortillas with toppings).

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Beverages which are placed on the memorial include: water, coffee, beer, tequila, and "atole" (corn starch fruit flavored hot drink, a special drink made from corn meal.)Depending on how elaborate the display is, it will show the status of the deadest to the neighbors. While the tradition as stayed mostly the same throughout time, the foods have changed. Today, for instances they honor the dead with beer, enchiladas and chocolate, in ancient times it would more likely have been chickens and turkeys.

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One thing has remained constant, and that is the use of bread. The custom of having a loaf of bread relates to the early custom in Spain of begging for souls. Some believe that the Spanish technology of bread-baking and the identical term used in Spain highly suggests that this tradition was Spanish in introduction. It has been written that the Zapotec Indians (State of Oaxaca) listed bread for the Dead, among their death offerings for the departed souls. It is believed that this ritual dates as early as the colonial period of Mexico.

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Fourth time as a participant, a witness to this all still gives me much to think about. It is a Spirituality I am not accustomed with, and yet, speaking with the ones knowledgeable gave me a certain sense of "happiness"? "calm"?… as my thoughts, always with Lance, knew that he is not forgotten as himself present was smiling and happy to witness such array of food, the sounds of the Music played and us Livings spending those moments on that beautiful evening and night with much respect and Love.

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Till next time, you be well.
Ara & Spirit

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3 Responses to “"Day of the Dead" in Terlingua, TX”

  1. Bill Says:

    Great video! Maybe one of these days I’ll get to Terlingua.


  2. john Says:

    Hi Ara, I can’t wait to see your Oasis.Its more than I ever imagined.Thanks for sparking great joy in my world. see you soon, t/c John.

  3. Zelda Says:

    Beautiful, Ara, just beautiful, as always. Throughout this past year I have revisited your “Day of the Dead” post from last year. It gives a feeling of great enrichment and peace. The video is a wonderful addition to this already rich feast. Thanks again for giving so much to enrich all of us visiting your site.
    Love to you, Spirit and the denizens of Terlingua,

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