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Gordon Nary

November 1998

The celebration of El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) during the first two days of November in Mexico, other Latin American countries, and in Mexican-American communities in the US, has its origins in both the Catholic and Aztec religions. The Catholic Church celebrates November 1 as All Saints' Day to honor and remember those spirits who are recognized by the Church as saints, and November 2 as All Souls' Day to remember and pray for the spirits of those whose proximity to the Infinite is less certain.

The original celebration of El Dia de los Muertos can be traced back to the Aztec month of Miccailhuitontli which was presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead) and celebrated the spirits of dead children. The celebrations also included rituals in the honor of the war god Huitzilopochtli (Sinister Hummingbird) to whom the Aztecs offered many of their human sacrifices. The Spanish conquest of 1521 resulted in an attempt to fuse Catholic dogma and rituals with what the Spanish friars considered were vulgar Aztec rituals and beliefs. This fusion, however, favored more of the Aztec rituals than Catholic as is evidenced in the celebration of El Dia de los Muertos. In most Mexican communities, November 1 is set aside for the angelitos, the souls of dead children, and November 2 for the adult deceased. The Aztec and Catholic religions share many common beliefs. Both religions believe in the resurrection of the faithful and union with the divine. The Aztecs believed that to die in this world would allow one to be reborn in eternity. Each day was a metaphor for life. Each evening was a rehearsal for death, each morning a rehearsal for the resurrection. Both religions are centered on the need for a human sacrifice to God. The Catholic concept of redemption is based on Christ's self-sacrifice of a life both human and divine. The Church also has taught that martyrdom automatically confers sainthood, i.e., union with God. The Aztecs also shared the belief that those who were honored for sacrifice would enjoy proximity to their gods.

A closer study of Aztec beliefs may provide some clues for the unique affinity of Mexican culture with death. Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz observed that the Mexican culture does not fear death in the way that most other cultures do. Rather than ignore the reality and inevitability of death as many of us choose to do, Paz noted that the Mexican often appears to pursue death, "… chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love." This mystical affinity with death is based on a belief that death is simply a passageway to our destiny of eternal life of the spirit, a life unencumbered by poverty, disease, and suffering.

El Dia de los Muertos also has been a time of remembrance of many who have died from AIDS. IAPAC is designing a cyberspace altares Web site to honor those of Mexican heritage who have died from AIDS. The altares will feature the deceased's photograph, icons that are connected to the deceased's life, and prayers/and or other tributes. Details about this project, including sample altares, will be presented at IAPAC's Second International Conference on Healthcare Resource Allocation for HIV/AIDS and Other Life-Threatening Illnesses. We hope that this memorial will help overcome some of the religious and cultural obstacles to this disease and help reduce the continued sacrifice of life to the human immunodeficiency virus, the real Huitzilopochtli.

This article was provided by International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care. It is a part of the publication Journal of the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

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