Spirits of Mexico

Whether you avoid your countrymen or seek out their company, everyone needs something to remind them of home. For Mexicans, it’s the Day of the Dead

Fancy coming to a massive party? It’ll be chock-full of music, dancing, inappropriate jokes and skull-shaped sugary treats in all the colors of the rainbow. The guests of honor may not be present in person, but they’ll certainly be there in spirit.


dia de los muertos
In Vienna the holiday is celebrated by the growing Mexican community, as well as interested non-Mexicans, at Doña Irma, a restaurant in the 3rd district. // © Yulia Kopr

It’s not the way the Austrians do it, but there is something to be said for honoring your ancestors Mexican-style. It all happens during the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival, when, according to tradition, the gates of the afterlife open and the souls of the dead are allowed to come back to Earth.


But they’re only allowed a brief visit, of course. And always at the beginning of November, coinciding with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. In Mexico, it’s a time for families to gather and remember their loved ones. For Mexicans in Austria – numbering roughly 1,900 – it’s also one of the rare opportunities to get together as a community, says Rafael Donnadío, one of the organizers of this year’s event.

A concert pianist, Donnadío moved to Vienna 33 years ago. He has been in charge of bringing this holiday to Austria for many years – first as head of the cultural department at the Mexican embassy, and later as a private citizen. “The Day of the Dead could seem strange or macabre to Austrians,” Donnadío says. But only at the first glance, because “every human being has two things in common: He reveres and remembers with joy his loved ones that have passed and the happy moments they shared; and he has joie de vivre, a zest for life.”

The Day of the Dead celebrates both. It is rooted in the Aztec belief that death is just a moment in a cycle of life, not its end. And as the relatives only get a short holiday from death, you really want to make sure that they have a good time, says Daniel Robles, a student from Tijuana living in Vienna.

“You want to do something special for them, give them this little celebration to make them happy,” he says. There are also some who believe that the dead may get upset if they don’t get a proper party in their honor. They might even bring their wrath upon those who have neglected them.

día de los muertos
Elaborate festivities take place at the Weltmuseum, where traditional dancers give a taste of their cultural heritage. Historians trace the celebrations back to the Aztecs. // © Yulia Kopr

An altar for the afterlife

Central to the celebration is an altar with a picture of the deceased, a favorite dish, flowers, some objects symbolizing the person’s profession, a cross of salt and some water, to quench the soul’s thirst after an arduous journey from the afterlife. People also add items that remind them of the person. The altars in Mexico can cover entire courtyards, with some neighborhoods holding competitions for the most elaborate memorial.

And then there’s the food. The guests eat well (and a lot), picking from a menu prepared according to the favorite recipes of the departed. Vienna marked the fiesta with a week of events across the city. Among them was Catrina’s Night at Doña Irma, a cozy restaurant in the 3rd district.

Catrina’s cranium

“When you say Mexico, most people think tequila, sombrero, mariachi, taco… and la Catrina,” says the restaurant’s owner, Adriana Montiel. Catrina is the woman’s skull, often elaborately decorated, that has become the symbol of the Day of the Dead. In Doña Irma, there are Catrinas everywhere – on the wall, in the window display, even as part of the restaurant’s logo. On Catrina’s Night, any women arriving with skull makeup were offered a free drink. A Catrina Negra, of course.

© Yulia Kopr

While the bright skeletal grin that greets the guests at Doña Irma may startle an occasional Austrian diner, Montiel says, for a lot of South and North Americans familiar with the tradition, she is just another friendly face.

Catrina began life in the early 20th century as an etching by Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada. She represented rich Mexican women who, according to Posada, had money, but no class. He was reminding the upper classes that, at least in death, everyone is equal. He titled his etching La Calavera Catrina (The Elegant Skull), and the name Catrina just seemed to stick.

Bustling in the Boneyard

The story of the skull, embedded in a tradition of black humor and satire, says much about the Mexican attitude to death. As Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz put it, a Mexican may fear death but he “looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.” This intimate relationship is in part a result of proximity, says Donnadío. Life without a social safety net is precarious. Making fun of death makes you feel more alive, he says.

The Viennese share this black humor – they, too, know how to crack a joke about death, or invite it for a glass of wine in a tavern song. Austrian satirist Georg Kreisler went so far as to suggest that Death himself could be a Wiener (see “Death in Vienna”) .

And while there may not be any mariachi bands at Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery), there are families taking a Sunday stroll with chestnuts in hand, and an occasional soprano belting out an Ave Maria over an open grave.

In Vienna, too, life and death seem to be on intimate terms, but you’d be hard pressed to call it a fiesta.

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