In Mexico, we have this saying that goes “En Mexico nos reimos de la muerte,” which translates as “in Mexico we laugh at death.”
This sentiment is perhaps best summed up by Mexico’s most celebrated 20th-century poet, Octavio Paz, who wrote, “Mexicans frequent death, they make fun, cuddle up with and party with it as one of its favorite toys or unwavering lover.”
Death imagery in Mexico dates back to prehispanic times as cultures such as the Maya, Mixtec and Zapotec are well known for incorporating skull and death motifs into their ceramics, architecture, and just about every other art form imaginable.
To go with these artistic representations, Prehispanic cultures developed a complex universe around the great mystery of death, full of symbolic portals to the other world, bloodletting, gods, spirits, and even (though much less common than people assume) human sacrifice.
In some places these ancient rituals continue relatively unaltered, as is the case of the community of Pomuch in Campeche, where locals exhume the bodies of their deceased for ritual cleaning and display, beginning three years after death.
A little less macabre, but still very much in keeping with ancient custom, people across Mexico will leave out offerings for their dearly departed on special altars during Día de Los Muertos or Hanal Pixán, as it is known in Yucatán.
With violent deaths rising in parts of the country beginning in the mid-’90s, there has been a revival of the cult known as “La Santa Muerte,” or holy death.
With so much inequality in Mexico, death is seen as democratic, in that it comes for the rich and the poor alike. In the end, under it all, we are all just a skull and bones after all.
This is all to say that while Mexico is not the only country with its own unique cultural views on the topic of death, it sure seems to have taken this obsession to a whole other level. Heck, it’s so pronounced that Disney-Pixar even made a movie about it.
The irony with films like Coco, or the establishment of a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City that traces its origins back to the filming of a James Bond movie, is that these long-held beliefs and attitudes about death are now being reflected back into Mexico through a foreign lens.
So back to the title of this post, are Mexicans really unafraid of death? Quotes like Paz’s may be thrown around, sometimes even in jest — but yes, we Mexicans are afraid of death. This is to the point that we have developed an entire set of complex rituals which enable us to deal with it in much the same way we deal with so many other of our problems.
By poking fun at it.