Día de Muertos: Remembering the Unborn

Día de Muertos, or ‘Day of the Dead’, is one of Mexico’s greatest traditions. Starting on the last day of October and ending on 2 November, the Day of the Dead stands as an ancient tradition to celebrate death and the return of the dead – which our ancestors understood to be part of the duality of life. When the Spaniards colonized our lands, existing celebrations of death fused with Catholisism and created what we know today as Día de Muertos.

We celebrate those who have left this world, but, somehow, still feel as if they are here with us. We honor them with an altar, at which we place photographs of our beloved ones who have passed away along with things they used to enjoy in life. From their favorite drink, to their hobbies, food or music of choice; we celebrate their life and share a night of fun with them in both the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Less well-known is the process to set the altar in line with indigenous traditions. The dates vary from region to region, but from October 28th, specific days are set to honor:

  • Those who died in an accident or very suddenly
  • The drowned
  • The forgotten souls – those without family to remember them
  • Those who were never born or were never baptized
  • Children
  • Adults

On October 31st, my group of friends and I gathered as we do every Tuesday. However, this time it was with the purpose of sharing energies at the end of one month, welcoming the new one, and setting the altar for our dead.

In my family’s history there have been several miscarriages, so I don’t have pictures or anything to set in front of the altar. No favorite food, no favorite music, no favorite blanket. My family and I never knew the babies, but we remind them with love that we count them as part of the family. Without consciously knowing, I dedicated my altar to them, and the next day I found out that October 31st was the day for ‘the ones who were never born’. I felt a chill run down my spine.

I told my friends about this, and we shared stories of women who have had miscarriages or abortions. We talked about how often miscarriages and abortions happen and yet how little we talk about the women affected and their processes for dealing with it. We acknowledged the many different forms the process might take; some women don’t want to share their story, some carry sorrow, some see it as a part of nature, some seek support groups to cope, to name just a few.

One of our friends is an anthropologist, and she always has incredible stories about women from different contexts and cultures. She told us one that I want to share:

The Nahua people – indigenous people from the central region of Mexico – have a vision of the human being as part of the cosmos. They believe that pain, suffering, death and sickness are all consequences of the cosmos. They have different gods, and one of them is Apanchaneh or Chalchiuhtlicue – ‘Woman of the Water’ or ‘Mermaid’ (Sirena in Spanish). Nahua women who have miscarried or decided to ‘secretly’ end their pregnancy throw their foetuses into the river, believing them to become ‘mermaid children’ – sons and daughters of the Mermaid who wanted them for herself. With this belief, Nahua women’s understanding of miscarriage or abortion is different to those of other cultures. Nahua woman know that what happened wasn’t their fault, or their bodies’ fault: it was the Woman of the Water who asked for those children.

These past few days have been magical for me. My friends and I have created rituals to reconnect with ourselves and everything that surround us: the dead and the living. We shared stories, music and new traditions. We have taught each other things that have helped each other grow. Our sorority has become stronger during the festivities as we have shared in knowledge and love.