Dia de los Muertos – to be, or to be, on the Day of the Dead

OAXACA, Mexico

Just before the Day of the Dead, while sitting in an outdoor cafe, two men with guitar and pan pipes play “Dust in the Wind,” a haunting song of the mid-70s. It’s chorus line is: “all we are is dust in the wind.” I love that song, but in Oaxaca, on el Dia de los Muertos, the living and the dead are not dust in the wind;they are mmuch more than that.

El Dia de los Muertos is a uniquely Mexican celebration of indigenous origins that, to an American eye, appears as a colorful, magical celebration mixing elements of Halloween and Mardi Gras. But it’s neither of those. It began as an indigenous celebration of Mictecacihuatl, the guardian-goddess of the dead. Spanish missionaries co-opted this festival and merged it with the celebration of All Saints and All Souls days (November 1 and 2) creating the syncretistic Dia de los Muertos.

Yesterday Estella’s extended family gathered at her mother’s house for “la comida” or dinner. There, a large “ofrenda” or altar flanked by huge bouquets of marigolds and tall candles filled a nook in the room. The ofrenda is the focus of the celebration. A dark wooden crucifix, a family heirloom of some 200 years, sat in the center. On either side, photos of the “difuntos,” or deceased of the family. Before them were tamarindos, bananas, pecans, bottles of cerveza and mezcal, aand other things the difuntos liked. This is an offering to invite their spirits to join the rest of the family for a visit.

We sipped mezcal and beer, feasted on mole negro, a traditional and piquant dish Estella cooked in a large, clay casarola over a charcoal fire in the courtyard. The mole and rice and tortillas, the beer and conversation made for a festive day. Later, back in our neighborhood, a brass band played in a cobblestone alley, children and adults in faces painted to resemble skulls, danced to the music. Bands played in every barrio of Oaxaca, people danced until morning’s first light, tired but happy.

Festive but not trivial, serious but not morbid, the skeleton figures, the flowers, the pan de muerto, and other decorations are festive, colorful, and symbolic; each one carries a meaning beyond words. Each icon speaks to the nature of “being,” of mortality. It’s a celebration of life and “being” and transcendance; it’s a celebration that we are more than dust in the wind.

Day of the Dead begs the question of: “What is being?” Being. Being alive. What are your ideas about your “being?” Or the meaning of “to be?”

Spanish has two forms of “to be,” two forms of “being” One form of to be (ser) refers to what is permanent, inherent; the other form of to be (estar) expresses impermanence and change if not action. Maybe we haven’t considered these questions before. But if we do, we can consider them clinically, standing outside the culture, or, like language immersion, we can enter into the moment and understand the question through participation. In either case, the meaning of the Dia de los Muertos confronts us with the question of “being” and, by extension, the verbs for “to be.”

For me, el Dia de los Muertos speaks to the miracle of being human and mortal as well as human and spiritual. The skeleton figures and masks remind me that, beneath our present status, position, and wealth, we are all skeletons; we are all equal in death. This is a reminder we are transitory beings in this world; We are and then we are, but not as we were before. Or so we believe and hope.

And then there is the practical conundrum of using the two Spanish forms of the verb “to be.” “Estar” refers to a transitional or temporary state of being or location as in: “He is ill,” or “She is late,” or “They are here.” “Ser” refers to inherent and unchanging aspects of one’s existence as in: “My eyes are brown,” or “I am a man.”

Which one to use? English has only one form of the phrase “to be” and it encompasses both temporary and inherent states of being. The conjugation of the English verb form doesn’t change to distinguish permanent from temporary being. We distinguish by modifying the phrase with an adverb, as in: “He was ill temporarily.”

But it’s one thing to learn the rules of grammar and quite another to use them correctly in a conversation, especially when we’re accustomed to using one form. Which state of being applies? How can I tell? Well, I said to myself, if the being can move, it’s probably changeable so my choice is “estar.” And if it doesn’t move or change, then it’s probably “ser.”

But it isn’t always clear cut and there could be a cultural twist as well. I faced this when writing an essay of impressions about my first encounter with el Dia de los Muertos. In passing, I mentioned my mother’s death and wrote: “Mi madres es muerto,” stating she was in a permanent state of non-being. Death to an American seems permanent and inherent.

My teacher read my essay, arched her brows, and then said: “No, tu madre esta muerto.” Why, I wanted to know. She’s not dead temporarily, and she’s not going to return to life. Isn’t death inherent andn permanent? No, that’ wasn’t the case. When she was living, it was “esta vivo,” and that changed with her death to “esta muerto.” Alive and dead, being and non-being are changeable states of being.

“To be, or not to be” came to mind. Until that moment, it never occured to me I could have different states of being at the same time. I am a man with brown eyes, and I am tall (inherent qualities), but at the same time I am happy, chilly, and dressed (changeable states). Our being is fluid, in a metaphysical sense. And I never would have thought of it but for Spanish.

If you are still with me – Bravo! You may be wondering what is the point. It’s this: the structure of language has a metaphysical aspect that both reflects and affects how we live our daily lives. If we poke at this enough, we may see in the verb phrase “to be” nuances about the meaning of life and death we hadn’t encountered before.

Yes, a person’s physical state does change with death and the spirit leaves them. The mystery of life is that we come out from a state of non-being, we live, we die, and enter a different state of being. We are never alive forever as mortals. Yet, when we speak of the deceased of the dead as “esta muerto,” we go on to describe their physical features using the “ser” form of to be because they were inherit to the deceased. Thinking this way can be a little mind-bending. Distinctions such as these do influence the culture and shape its approach to death and life. It has influenced my view.

In my room I receted a small “ofrenda” on a credenza with a photo of my parents in the enter, with papel picado (pierced paper), a vase of cempazuchitl (marigolds), and flor de muerto, a painted crania, and a candle. In the photo, my parents are forever in their late 40s, still full of “being,” and about to set off for an evening event. For awhile, I sat vigil in my room, remembering them, and through remembrance, something of them returns to me.

Are memories transitory or permanent? Should I use “ser” or “estar” when writing of them? I don’t know. But I do know this: Our “difuntos” live on in memory, and for as long as we, and our children, and maybe their childre remember us, we live and they live and we are not “dust in the wind.”

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