By: Frida Mar
Illustration Credit: Maarya Zafar
Before I immigrated to Canada at five years old, my family and I made an ofrenda in Mexico for a family member whose name I’ve long forgotten. For us, an ofrenda was a collection of precious objects, like candles, pictures of the dead relative, and marigolds. All of these were placed on a table display during the indigenous Day of the Dead celebrations. It was a time of honoring our past ancestors, our deceased relatives who showered us with love and hard work during their time of living. I remember looking up in awe at our ofrenda back then. The whole display seemed to slowly burn at night, as the red flames curled from inside the candles and the orange marigolds glowed from within. I knew something magical was going to happen that night, but I had no idea what it was.
Years later, during this month’s celebration of Dia de Los Muertos in Harbourfront, I was still searching for that elusive magic, and this time I was looking for a magical connection to my Mexican background. I went to the celebration with my brother and another Mexican friend from school. There were many powerful ofrendas, such as the one dedicated to the “671 Mexican victims of femicide in 2017” by Brian Medina. This ofrenda had marigolds hung all around a pink space and pieces of paper were attached to the strings, marking heartbreaking facts like “Between 2006 and 2017, three thousand girls have gone missing in Mexico.”
Photo Credit: Mathuja Jeyakumar
But my favourite ofrenda was Vero Diaz’s Rebirth Altar: Call to Action, a ritual display with a mirror on top of the table and various Mexican snacks, candles and flower that were dedicated to the audience. The ofrenda was for the dead parts of ourselves that we wanted to grieve, such as heartbreak or old addictions. We were encouraged to write down what we wanted to let go of and place the words in a communal basket that would be burned in ceremony later. I quickly wrote down “self-criticism” and looked at my face in the small mirror at the top of the display.
The last time I attended the celebration was ten years ago with my family. So much had changed and so much had remained the same since then. To start off, the crowds were larger and more diverse than from what I remembered ten years ago. As we drifted past the exhibits, I saw many Asian and white families mixed in with the Latinx community, partaking in the wonder of the celebration. Despite the large size of attendants, the celebration still lacked some vitality. Perhaps the weather was too gloomy or there was some solemn observation of holiness around the celebration that I missed out on. However, I still loved the smell of chocolate and freshly baked tortillas in the air. I also enjoyed the live music at the event. We went to see the Mexican band Becerros, and they played classical Norteña music with a modern twist of cumbia and electronic sounds. It was so lovely seeing all the couples dancing smoothly in the dark. I never understood the magic of cumbia when I was younger, but I felt much closer to it now, like I could dance with all my heart and not care about anything else. The eccentric mix of classical and modern that was evoked in the music seemed to speak to my own Mexican background, mixed in with my modern Canadian nationality.
In the end, I was glad to have attended this celebration from my childhood, to touch base with the ofrendas that I found so beautiful while growing up. I think that the Harbourfront celebrations could be an invaluable experience to recent immigrants who are homesick and to those who are genuinely curious about this booming celebration. Ten years ago, none of my friends knew what Dia de los Muertos was about. Now, with the vibrant cinematic creations of Del Toro’s The Book of Life and Pixar’s Coco, there are halloween costumes for the Day of the Dead and people are genuinely curious about the celebration.
This celebration didn’t provide me with a strong and magical connection to my Mexican ethnicity, and that’s okay. It didn’t need to wash away all the comments so many people have thrown around my Mexican ethnicity (“You’re not Mexican, that’s crazy” and “are you sure you’re not Bengali?”). Growing up in Canada, it was difficult for me to feel Mexican because as one Uber driver told me last week, I look like I could be from “multiple places.” And the first time I saw myself on mainstream media was not through Dora the Explorer, but when I was nineteen years old, sitting in a packed Scotiabank theatre where Coco was playing. I was by myself, crying my eyes out in the dark because Coco’s mother looked like me, all big cheeks and brown skin and smart eyes. All my life, I’ve had to relate to white people who dominated my comedy sitcoms, my fantasy novels and my magazine spreads. Coco’s mother was the first time I saw someone who looked like me and she was Mexican. This was so important to me because growing up, I criticized myself for not “looking” or “acting” Mexican enough. I hated how my face looked and I couldn’t speak Spanish as fluently as my parents. Over the years, I’ve slowly learned to accept myself but it took a lot of hard work to burn my feelings of self-criticism for not looking or acting Mexican enough, and to finally look at my face in the mirror with love.
There are so many dimensions of feeling and being Mexican. And it’s important to authenticate my own experience of going to the Day of the Dead Celebration as Mexican enough. In the end, how much can I collect to make everything about my Mexican ethnicity valid? There is the smell of fresh wheat tortillas, the sounds of cumbia playing in the dark. The silky texture of sugar skulls underneath my fingertips. I choose what magic is enough for me. I choose which memories from the Dia de los Muertos make my Mexican heart glow.
No, I may not speak Spanish fluently. I’ve never made a sugar skull in my entire life. No, I may not look Mexican to others. But I believe I am Mexican enough, just the way I am, and that is all that matters to me.
This article was originally published on our old website at https://thenewspaper.ca/the-arts/lost-death/.