It is 15:30 in The Hague and I have a video call with Monserrat (Monse), a BSN parent originally from Mexico. I want to talk with her about Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), her family’s traditions (in Mexico and here in the Netherlands) and how she shares her culture with the BSN Community.
On the call, I have Monse, her sister and her brother-in-law; Monse is visiting her family in Monterrey, Mexico, and it is 07:30 over there.
We chat for a while about their recommendations for must-sees in Mexico before I begin with my questions. It has only been 10 minutes and I already feel welcomed into their family.
How do you celebrate Día de Muertos in the Netherlands?
The first thing that we do is set up an altar in our home. Every year, together with my family, we create an altar with the three levels (Heaven, Limbo and Earth). We place photos of the people who were close to us and have passed away on the altar and surround their photos with items and food that they enjoyed while alive.
On 2nd November we eat pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a traditional sweet bread baked for the occasion, with chocolate.
We also pray for the Muertos (the dead), talk with them as they come to visit us, and thank them for their love and care while they were alive.
Sometimes, we share a meal and read calaveras literarias (literary skulls), with a funny or satirical poem or verse about the person. In a way, this is similar to the poems that are written during Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.
Do you do anything with friends and community in the Netherlands?
The Mexican Embassy organises an altar de muertos competition which my family has enjoyed participating in. The Embassy also invites Mexican citizens to visit the altar they create and to eat pan de muerto together.
We usually invite friends, many of which are from the BSN Community, into our home to show them our altar and tell them about the traditions, and to share a meal together.
Every year my daughters and I set up an altar on campus, Junior School Leidschenveen (JSL) in the past, and Senior School Voorschoten (SSV) now that they are all older. We place photos of famous people significant in Mexico who passed away and put interesting facts about Día de Muertos on the altar.
What do you think of the comparison of the Día de Muertos and Halloween?
In general, Mexicans don’t like the comparison to the interpretation of Halloween that is common in the United States at all.
Día de Muertos is a family festivity where we get together and remember our dearly departed, while in the United States (and more commonly, here in the Netherlands) Halloween is a festivity where children dress up in scary-themed costumes and ask for candy. Halloween is a fun tradition but not to be mixed up with Día de Muertos.
Editor’s note: A distinction can be drawn between the secular interpretation of Halloween as Monse is referring to and the Catholic All Hallows Eve (shortened and commonly known as Halloween) which originated from the syncretism of the Celtic harvest festival Samhain (31st October) and Catholic All Saints Day (1 November) in Ireland, Scotland and Britain.
Do you feel like people are disrespecting your culture or committing cultural appropriation when they dress up in Mexican inspired costumes?
Not at all; I see it as an appreciation of our heritage.
Is there a lot of tourism around Dia de Muertos in Mexico?
Ever since the James Bond movie, Spectre and Disney’s Coco, the tradition has become increasingly popular among tourists.
There is now a parade in Ciudad de Mejico (Mexico City) with giant catrinas (models of a female skeleton) and people dressed up, carriages with decorations and much more. People from all over the world come to experience the festivities.
Tips for visiting Mexico during Día de Muertos:
Did you know? “A degree of longing is inevitable but at its heart, this is not a day to mourn or miss but rather a day to look back on what was with happiness and the wish for the persistence of the soul after death.”
Read more about the Día de Muertos traditions and origins here.
Monserrat is a Dr in Chemistry and a Material Scientist.
She is an active member of the BSN Family Association and has three daughters who attend The British School in The Netherlands (BSN).
Juan Arias is the Graphic Design Lead for The British School in The Netherlands. He led the last TEDx event for the BSN. Spanish born, he has been in the Netherlands for 13 years and working in Graphic Design for 25+ years. He enjoys drawing, travelling and basketball. He lives in Voorburg with his wife, two sons and dog.