Dia de Muertos & Mexican Courtesies
What a wonderfully rich and family-oriented culture Mexico is ... and how fortunate are we to be able to share this celebration and learn the traditions. Here, family is cherished in a very deep and meaningful way. Multi-generations live together and support each other. And, once a family member dies, that person is honoured is a wonderfully warm, loving, and celebratory way. We tend to grieve privately on the anniversary of a relative's death. We often don't know how to support a grieving friend of relative. Not so in Mexico.
In Mexico, Dia de Muertos is a busy, loud, community celebration that lasts several days. Hundreds and hundreds of people make their way to the cemetery over three days that culminate on November 2. Flowers decorate the graves, families spend the day visiting together at the gravesite, parties go on all night. At the cemetery, they wash and decorate the grave, they have a day-long picnic, hire mariachi bands to play the deceased's favourite music (often 5 or 6 bands were playing at the same time) and visit with neighbouring families at their gravesite. From young children to the elderly, they all gather together to remember the deceased.
Dia de Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico over several days, but primarily November 1 (day dedicated to deceased children) and November 2 (day dedicated to all departed relatives and friends). It is celebrated differently in various regions; however, the celebrations focus on gatherings of family and friends, the decoration of the graves and the creation of an altar to represent and honour the deceased person and help them on their spiritual journey. It is not Halloween! It is a party to celebrate the deceased and honour them.
Part of the tradition is to paint one's face like a Catrina (women) or Catrin (men) to look like a skeleton. Catrina, in particular, is an icon of Dia de Muertos and you will see hundreds of handmade sculptures of Catrinas for sale around the towns. Although Dia de Muertos has been celebrated for hundreds of years, the Catrina image is a more recent tradition that was created by José Guadalupe Posada over one hundred years ago. She became more entrenched in the culture when popularized by Diego Rivera in one of his murals.
Although we share the same continent, Canadians and Mexicans have very different cultures. While living here, it's important for us to better understand how Mexicans see the world. The owner of the school that Jan and I are attending, Warren Hardy, gave us a lecture recently on the differences between American and Mexican culture. One of the things that he focussed on was time and how differently each culture treats it. He feels that Americans value: financial opportunity, time and its control, and individual freedom. Mexicans value: respect/personal dignity, trust, family & friends, and free time.
Mexican Spanish has only a few phrases for time whereas we have dozens: kill time, waste time, spend time, save time, time flies, spare time, make time, time is money and more! He said that killing or wasting time is totally lost on Mexicans. Time can never be wasted because free time is so valued. Sitting for hours with friends or family, for no apparent reason (to us), is extremely valued. Being on time depends on whether something else takes priority, like unexpectedly having to drive a family member somewhere, or a enjoying a visit with a friend who stops by unexpectedly. They would never cut short a visit with a dear friend and tell them that they have be somewhere else. That would be disrespectful toward that friend and tell them that they are not important. As more American culture infiltrates Mexican culture, time and being on time is becoming more important .... but usually does not take priority over the needs of family and friends.
I think we can learn a lot from them. Whereas many Canadians and Americans might feel disrespected when a person is not on time (as in "my time is valuable and you arriving late is a sign of disrespect"), is a concept totally lost on many cultures ... as it is with Mexicans. Saying "I trust that you will respect my time, by being on time," is responded to with "of course." But, the follow through may not be there.
Another deeply held custom throughout all of Mexico is La Courtesia - The Courtesies. These "rules" were mandated into law in the 1940s although no one went to jail if it wasn't followed. It took a couple of generations for La Courtesia to become deeply entrenched. Essentially, they are a set of rules of courtesy that became the responsibility of mothers to teach to her children. A child or young adult who doesn't follow the rules is seen as uneducated and their behaviour is a direct reflection of the mother's ability to educate her children.
Two of the courtesies taught are:
- To always greet a person when that person enters a room or you enter a room ... and you say it to each and every person. So, when entering a person's space, they will say "Buenos Dias" (good morning), "Buenas Tardes" (good afternoon, noon to 7pm) or "Buenas Noches" (good evening) to each and every person. To enter a room or personal space without greeting is considered very poor manners. So, while walking down the street, if a person makes eye contact, they will almost always acknowledge you warmly with a smile and a greeting.
- To use "Buen Provecho" or just "Provecho" when entering a restaurant as you pass by a table of people eating. It will always be responded to with a smile and "Gracias," and shows that you are respectful and well brought up by your mother. Although similar to Bon Appetite, it literally means "I hope you get the most from your meal" and is a blessing on the meal. When entering or leaving any space where people are eating, it is considered rude not to say it. Even in a crowded restaurant, as you pass tables, you would say to each table "Buen Provecho." It feels really awkward at first, but the responses are so warm that it encourages me to step out of my comfort zone.
Mexicans usually perceive North Americans as cold or even rude because we don't greet each other. We might say a short "hi" but we usually don't look the person in the eye and make a point of greeting each and every person. Es muy importante to practise these courtesies ... they aren't ingrained in us. Ok, well, we Italians (or part Italians), are used to the hug, the kiss and the embrace. But, we don't usually go out of our way with strangers. Again stepping out of our comfort zones. Muy importante!!
And so it goes ... the lessons continue on many levels. Different cultures teach us so much about ourselves, don't they ... whether we want them to or not :-)