In recent months, we have faced challenges that have helped us reassess what’s truly important in our lives, especially the people that are a part of them. We approach the time of year when we celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed on. In Yucatán, the celebration that is internationally known as Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead, is known as Celebración de Finados (Celebration for the Deceased), or in Maya, U Jaanalil Pixanoob. When I was growing up in Peto, one of my teachers was, and continues to be, Amadeo Cool. Amadeo told me recently that in the last 20 years, this festivity is best known as Jaanal Pixán, a controversial term that does not precisely express what the tradition is about.
Amadeo learned from his grandparents that this tradition began when a group of young warriors that had planted their Milpas, had to leave for a battle from which they didn’t return. Mothers gathered and went to the Milpas their sons had left behind, where they found abundance. The women began to cry, remembering the efforts of their sons who never got to see the fruits of their labor. They decided to harvest the corn and offer it to their sons’ spirits. This is why it is said that this custom was created by women, by mothers. This oral tradition coincides with reality since this celebration takes place during the harvest season. By October, the corn that was planted should be ready for harvest, and it is then set out for the spirits.
Offerings are made: Atole Nuevo placed in a Jícara, tortillas made with new corn known as Is Uaaj, boiled corn cobs, food baked in the underground oven known as Pib, and candied sweet potato are all put on the altar along with the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks. The table is always set with flowers, a Jícara with plain water, candles, and if there is a photo, it is placed in a special place on the altar. Prayers are important during the whole process of setting up the altar, preparing the food items, and the celebration in general. I remember that when I was a young girl, schools would organize altar competitions in the park, and thankfully this tradition remains strong. During this time, the souls of our ancestors come back to visit and enjoy everything that is set out for them.
Amadeo tells me that oral tradition has kept this rite and its beliefs alive, as well as the adherence to the custom of using what the Earth gives us: the food, the Jícara, and fresh flowers. Plastic and other contaminants are not used. Altars are covered with handmade tablecloths. Food is wrapped in corn husk, known locally as Joloch, banana leaves, or other large leaves that grow in the Milpa. Everything is done in the most ancient and traditional way possible, so that it will please the spirits that come to visit their families. The souls of adults, children, and those who are alone and don’t have anyone to remember them, are all welcome to enjoy the offerings.
This is a belief that has stayed with our people and that remains strong in spite of other celebrations taking place at this time of year that can seem new and exciting to many people. In some communities of Yucatán, this tradition is maintained because young children see their parents celebrating and continue the customs as they grow up. As Amadeo tells me, this tradition goes hand-in-hand with farm work and takes place thanks to the work of the men and women who work the land. Let’s continue to value our land, our crops, and let’s celebrate with our beloved deceased.
Editorial by Amadeo Cool and Andrea Medina
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