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Joy In Her Bones

An American journalist honors her mother with an altar during Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration.

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Photo Credit: Cristina Taccone

Mexico’s obsession with death—its manic skeleton figurines, its altars festooned with tequila, cigarettes, and skulls—always seemed strange and macabre to me. Then, a few years ago, I visited the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende and woke up on November 2, the Day of the Dead, to streets lined with marigolds, candles flickering in homes and stores, colorful cut-out papers fluttering everywhere, and families picnicking and playing guitars in the decorated cemetery. Suddenly, death was everywhere, in the guise of beauty. The mood was almost joyful, just tinged with sadness. It was a day of dressing up altars and streets to greet the dead, who, the Mexicans believe, visit for the short period when the gates of the other world open to the earth for a day.I was struck by how death—which we whisper about in this culture, ignore and deny in its process, and sweep away, afterward, with discreet tissues and platitudes of being Sorry For Your Loss—was warmly embraced in Mexico. As Mexican writer Octavio Paz put it, “The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrat …

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