Death in Mexico Means Something Different Now

Mexico once cultivated a “special relationship” with death. But cultural globalization and rising violence is weakening that bond.

After the Mexican Revolution ended in 1920, the country began the construction of one of its founding myths: an ideology of death, exemplified in Día de los Muertos, “the day of the dead.” The idea of Mexican death fulfilled a particular function within the framework of the new regime’s official ideology: hiding, through a process of sublimation, the real collective trauma provoked by that mass experience of revolutionary violence.

In recent years, however, two substantial phenomena have opened a deep gap between this official mythology and the concrete reality of death as a collective experience for Mexicans.

First is the global diffusion and appropriation of the Mexican iconography and mythology of Día de los Muertos, in a process led by the US. This process has taken multiple forms, from the rise of “Catrina makeup” among young people around the world to the transformation of the Day of the Dead festivity, as in the Pixar animated film Coco, into an object of the global entertainment industry.

The second reason for the transformation of Día de los Muertos is the massive and unprecedented expansion of crime and violence—especially murder—throughout the national territory over the last 15 years. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared a new “war on drugs” in 2007, actively involving the armed forces in the fight against drug cartels, the rates of violence in Mexico have continuously increased. This unstoppable wave of terror has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. To date, there have been about 400,000 homicides and 100,000 desaparecidos (missing or disappeared persons). The violence has disrupted the cultural meaning of death for millions of Mexicans and broken the key assumptions that legitimized its national mythology.

In the aftermath of this catastrophe of collective suffering, death in Mexico no longer means the same thing as before. The ideology of “Mexican death,” with its festive and scathing overtones, simply no longer corresponds to the reality of the daily horror, immediate or latent, in which a major share of the national population now lives, constantly threatened by the possibility of being murdered or disappeared.

Over the past 15 years, then, Mexico has been plagued by violence without a narrative, alongside the internationalization of Mexican iconography of the dead. And these twin phenomena have put, so to speak, the final nail in the coffin of the Mexican idea of death.

In his essay The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz, Mexico’s foremost poet and essayist, mused on the tragicomic relationship with death that, in his opinion, defined the country’s national character. At yearly festivities of Todos los Santos and Día de Muertos, celebrated on November 1 and 2, respectively, Mexicans of all social backgrounds celebrate the contemporaneity between the living and the dead. Relatives visit the tombs of their loved ones and build colorful altares de muertos at home where pictures of the deceased coexist with ofrendas containing their preferred foods and favorite belongings.

These festivities are milestones in the building of a buoyantly rich Mexican cultural tradition. From the humorous calaveras—death-themed limericks—illustrated by José Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera’s depiction of “La Catrina” to skull-shaped caramels and pan de muerto, an exuberant gallery of images, textures, flavors, and sounds have accompanied the fundamental premise of a “special relationship” of Mexico with death, to the point of identifying it with the marrow of lo mexicano (“that which is Mexican”). Books ranging from Roger Bartra’s The Cage of Melancholy to Claudio Lomnitz’s Death and the Idea of Mexico have explored how this “nationalization of death” is expressed both in popular culture and in state appropriations of that culture. The composite effect was the creation of a “Mexican idea of death” enshrined as a fundamental mechanism of the official image of Mexico and Mexicanness.

In addition to appropriations by the postrevolutionary Mexican state, the festivities are also living witnesses of a longue-durée continuity of both pre-Columbian customs and the Catholic rites and traditions brought about by Spanish colonization in the 16th century.

The violence of Mexico’s War on Drugs has disrupted the cultural meaning of death for millions of Mexicans and broken the key assumptions that legitimized its national mythology.

Unlike a century ago, when widespread loss of life due to revolutionary struggle was successfully integrated into an official account of the facts, the present violence in Mexico is without a narrative that would give it a semblance of meaning.

The seeds of this change had been sowed years before. The Tlatelolco massacre of October 2, 1968, is an example—the Mexican army and police forces murdered tens, if not hundreds, of people in order to repress a student protest movement. Yet not until the 21st century and the beginning of the current crisis of violence did the ideology of Mexican death begin to truly mutate, perhaps even dissolve.

In this century, the concept of death in Mexico has been overwhelmed by unassimilable experiences. New massacres, such as the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college in 2014, have extinguished, by force of impunity and horror, any remaining legitimacy that ideology had. There are also the desaparecidos, missing persons whose families have been deprived of mourning as a form of the symbolic integration of loss, and the femicides, which project the threat of violent death on a majority group, women, for the mere fact of their sex and gender.

Moreover, according to anthropologist Rita Segato, crimes such as homicides of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, on the US-Mexico border, are intended to transform death into a language, even a sort of spectacle. Such atrocious acts present a performance of terror expressing the control both of men over women and of a mafia over a territory. Their ruthless explicitness darkly mirrors, as in a nightmare, the commonplaces of the official culture of death in Mexico.

Because of its inconsistencies and contradictions, the discourse of the “war on drugs” can’t perform any legitimating function. The practical consequences of waging this war have ranged from the futile to the paradoxical: drug consumption has not decreased, and today the country is more dangerous and crime prone than before.

Perhaps the work of Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, characterized by an uncompromising reflection of the brutality of violence, embodies the closest contemporary equivalent of what Posadas’s lithographs might have represented a hundred years ago. No comedy is possible in the face of these horrors.

The internationalization of the Mexican images of death would not have been possible without the mediation of the US, whose popular culture has been the platform for this worldwide projection. The effects have been so powerful that among Mexicans themselves the festivities of the dead now resemble more and more North American and global appropriations. Mexicans’ way of imagining their own culture has begun, in a certain sense, to be part of that other very Mexican predisposition: “Americanization.”

Perhaps the principal example of this change has been the recent creation of a mass “Day of the Dead parade” in downtown Mexico City, not as a spontaneous initiative born of a homegrown culture but as a deliberate imitation of the fictional parade depicted in the James Bond series film Spectre, from 2015, after the city’s administration realized the idea’s potential for international tourism.

Is this “Americanization” a reflection of the reality of Mexico as a partner (for more than a quarter of a century) of NAFTA (now USMCA)? Is it an expression of Mexican reality as a country that is becoming more “North American” than “Latin American”? Or is there another way to see this transformation? Could it be part of a broader historical process—identified by historian Miguel León-Portilla—involving the expansion of Mesoamerican civilization beyond its pre-Hispanic borders (roughly the geographical area from central Mexico down to Nicaragua) toward the northern parts of the continent, as an unanticipated effect of Mexican and Central American migration to the US?

A shocking criminality and the diffusion of traditional Mexican images in the stream of global entertainment have erased any trace of a “special relationship” between the national culture and death. This “special relationship” functioned for almost a century as a filter, a sort of masquerade, for the Mexican population to avoid immediate encounters with trauma and fatality. With the forms of this mental disguise worn out, the third decade of the present century has inaugurated a new era of national culture, in which Mexico and death have to look at each other face to face, without the mediation of the distorted mirror of ideology.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

Featured-image photograph by Valeria Almaraz / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)