November 1 is celebrated in Mexico as the "Day of the Dead." This holiday, which mixes indigenous and Spanish colonial traditions, is a day to honor relatives and friends who have passed on to the world of the dead. This year there are special remembrances for those who died in the United States in the September 11 terrorist attacks.
On a corner outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City there is an altar full of flowers, candles, food items and pictures. It is an ofrenda, an offering, to those who have died. This traditional Mexican "Day of the Dead" altar has special meaning because of its location by the embassy, on the street where long lines of visa-seekers line up each day. Its symbolism is made all the more evident by the photos of the World Trade Center and other references to the tragedy of September 11.
A woman who calls herself Nayeli, who came with her niece to apply for a U.S. visa, looks at the ofrenda and voices approval for what it represents. She says that Mexicans generally construct such altars in their homes with the idea of honoring and remembering their own family members. But she says this altar is dedicated to those who died at the World Trade Center and she thinks that is a nice touch.
One of the Mexicans who helped build the altar is Marcela Cortina de Sauro. ”We had this idea about two weeks ago that we wanted to do something very special to show our solidarity with our friends because we have so many friends in the United States,” she says.
She says dozens of people contributed to the construction of the altar and that it met with great approval by U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow when he saw it for the first time. ”He opened the embassy, had some coffee, some chocolates and some brownies, very typically American, and every person that was here, every person that came, without any security or any formal invitation, he just opened the doors of the American embassy,” she said. “This is very symbolic.”
Mrs. Cortina de Sauro says she and her sister decided to make this gesture of support for the United States partly because of a connection they have to New York and the city's fire department. Only a few weeks before the terrorist attacks, her nephew celebrated his third birthday in New York City and part of the festivities included a visit to two separate fire stations. On the altar, she points out, is a little red plastic fire helmet above a card that says Engine 40, Ladder 35 and a list of names. ”My nephew celebrated his birthday party in New York in that fire station and he was given, by the chief or one of the firemen, that beautiful helmet,” she says. “When we learned that eight of those firemen had died that was one of the reasons that we wanted this to be set up. It is a very special memorandum [memorial] from Mexicans to all the fire fighters and, symbolically, all those involved.”
Marcela Cortina de Sauro says it is important that people in the United States know that many Mexicans sympathize with them and support them at this time of crisis and sorrow.
Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration is a time when people typically take a whimsical view of death, representing dead people in sugar candy statuettes of skeletons decked out in the finest clothes they wore in life. But the tradition is also a way to promote healing for those who have lost loved ones. It is a reminder that we all will die eventually and that, one-day, those who have been separated by death will be reunited.