Tuesday, October 18, 2011


It may seem strange to be reading about death in the Living section of the paper, but the
Days of the Dead are quickly approaching and we're going to be increasingly aware of them wherever we look.  Bakeries will be the first to be decorated with skeletons as they begin to offer us their pan de muerto -- bread for the dead – but particularly enjoyed by the living.  

As we get closer to November 1st and 2nd -- All Saints Day and All Souls Day in the Catholic calendar -- we'll see businesses of all kinds decorating their display windows, lobbies, and sales areas with decorations allusive to dead returning to visit their living relatives.  Even automobile dealerships will have skeletons behind the wheels of new cars in their showrooms.  Municipal, delegational, state, and Federal District governments will award prizes to the best Days of the Dead altars in competitions in parks and government buildings.  In 2010 this column was inaugurated with a three part series about Days of the Dead and the traditional Mesoamerican way of observing them.  (Please Email me if you would like copies of them.) 

Today I'd like to deal with two aspects of dealing with death and the dead.  Both are associated with Latin American printed media.  Particularly interesting is the printing of esquelas in the newspapers.  There is no English word for such a notice though I translate it as a death announcement.  Whereas in English-speaking countries newspapers will have an obituary section with extensive biographical information about those who recently died, in Latin America articles about the recently deceased are treated as news items and are usually only about particularly famous people.   Some newspapers will publish funeral home advertisements titled obituario but they are limited to listing the names of people who died the day before, accompanied by the time and place of their burial.  Biographical information about the deceased is not included. 

In an esquela a person, family, company, government official or office, laments the death of the featured person and offers consolation to that person's family.  Esquelas are framed with a black border enclosing what is mostly empty space -- very little text is included.  They usually do not include the cause of death nor the age of the deceased.  Only those inserted by the family of the deceased would indicate the place and time of funeral services and burial or cremation.   What they usually do include is reference to the relationship between the deceased and whoever is placing the notice in the newspaper.  On occasion there may be dozens of esquelas for the same person in the same issue of the newspaper.  They do not make reference to one another.  

Upon the death of a person who was important in the business community they become particularly interesting to read and compare.  In them you can see how many boards of directors the deceased was a member. You see individuals, boards and companies positioning themselves in relation to the deceased.  By tracking the first and second surnames, the observant reader can become aware of family relationships and business links.  The religion, or lack thereof, of the deceased is evident by symbols centered at the top of the esquela, the most common being a cross, a star of David, or a black ribbon.  
Esquelas are an important source of income for newspapers and they are not inexpensive. The size of an esquela is important. The largest I've seen is a full page. but I’m waiting for a two-page centerfold esquela.  That certainly would be memorable and impressive.  If the esquela happens to be the notice of the death of a relative of an important person in business or government the name of the relative is also included.   It's not unusual for the name of the living relative and some reference to his or her position in government or business to be printed in larger sized font than the name of the deceased -- another great source of information for those skilled at reading between the lines.  For some, esquelas are places in which they can name-drop with abandon.
Another Mexican journalistic tradition is the printing of calaveras.  In proper Spanish, that would translate as skulls.  However in Mexican newspapers and magazines calaveras are short witty poems about living people referring to them as if they are dead -- in fact, mourning their recent death.  Unlike esquelas, calaveras will tell us their cause of death.  Newspapers and magazines are already asking their readers to submit calaveras and cartoonists are working on portraits, to accompany the poems.  They are drawn with such skill that we will be able to recognize people we see over and over in the daily press but when drawn to accompany calaveras they will be skeletons; some with no flesh, not even on their skulls.  Watch for them on November 2nd.  Despite the cutting humor, those portrayed in the calaveras are expected to be able to laugh at themselves from this side of the divide.  It's all part of the particularly Mexican way of dealing with the inevitable.

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