In Xilitla, Morelia and Puebla preparations for Dia de los Muertos are in full swing. Plazas are festooned with “Ofrendas” – traditionally, families would set up an Ofrenda for a recently deceased family member, complete with food offerings to help them with their journey on the other side of the divide – now they are more general celebrations of the event by individuals and groups, sometimes with awards. These complete with sugar calaveras (skulls), candles and Marigolds.
You see the Marigolds, know as cempasuchitl in Nahuatl, everywhere. Women fresh in from the countryside selling bundles in the square off their spot on the pavement, truckloads of the flowers being unloaded in the market, and decorations made with them in the public square. Marigolds were considered flowers of the dead by the Aztecs and were used to honor the Goddess of death Mictēcacihuātl during two feast days to commemorate the dead.
A Franciscan monk referenced the importance of Marigolds in Aztec culture in a codex written in 16th century. I found this fine description of their mythical relevance in Aztec culture while doing some research, which I will quote in full.
Their use in these celebrations is believed to be tied to a romantic Aztec origin myth about two lovers, Xótchitl and Huitzilin. According to the legend, the lovers would often hike to the top of a mountain to leave flower offerings for the sun-god Tonatiuh, and to swear their love and commitment to one another. When Huitzilin is tragically killed in battle, a distraught Xóchitl prays to the sun-god to reunite them on earth. Tonatiuh, moved by her prayers and offerings, grants her wish by sending a ray of sun that transforms her into a flower as golden as the sun itself, and reincarnates her lover as a hummingbird. When Huitzilin the hummingbird approaches Xóchitl the flower with his beak, her twenty petals bloom, filling the air with cempasúchil’s distinctive and powerful scent.From REMEZCLA – a site about Latin / Hispanic culture
Marigolds are now grown around the world, some types are considered invasive species, and the bright orange of the flower – carotenoid lutein – is used as a food coloring.
I recall reading that part of the reason the Catholic church flourished under the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas was due to its flexibility in adapting to local religious customs – the absorption of Aztec death rituals into the church calendar is but one example of this trait.
Disease too may have played a role in the spread of the Christian faith in the New World. Cortes and Columbus brought a host of diseases to the New World, including:
- Bubonic plague
- Scarlet fever
that killed millions of Aztecs, Mayans and Caribbean islanders: this would have done much to weaken a sense of autonomy and agency. You might be more open to an invader’s new faith if are you are being wiped out by not one Covid pandemic but ½ a dozen inexplicable diseases.
Interestingly, Christianity has experienced a second wave in Latin American, through the more recent, and rapid spread of Pentecostalism.
Pentecostalism started with a revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906, which was presaged by a number of revival movements in both American and England, and spread rapidly. It focused on personal experience through healing, miracles and speaking in tongues. Pentecostalism was mostly rejected by mainstream Christians who didn’t want their faith to be up close and personal and because it challenged social norms. Pentecostal churches were interracial well before ‘20s of the last century – comfortably mixing whites and blacks – long before many mainstream churches were. It has gained popularity in Latin America over the last 30 – 40 years, often taking in adherents from the Catholic church.
Pentecostalism focuses on a lively personal faith, a direct connection of the believer to Jesus, discarding much of the traditional church’s structure, liturgy, doctrine and history, and focuses instead on the swift improvement of both self and one’s surroundings. In a way, it is an all-American version of Christian mysticism, which has a long tradition dating back to the desert fathers in the 3rd century. The Pentecostal faith is – well – mystical, but a lot less about suffering and acceptance and a lot more about change, healing and possibility.
Pentecostalism was a faith of the working class, and it maintains this sense in Latin America today, addressing as it does basic, everyday needs of health, hope and work, particularly in poorer communities.