Mexican Day of the Dead: Cause of Death?

An altar for the Mexican Day of the Dead

Wednesday, November 2nd was “Day of the Dead” here in Mexico.

This national holiday is a unique combination of Pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions in which families remember deceased family members. Linked with All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2), people honor the dead by building altars: festive displays of flowers – mostly marigolds – candles, food, incense, and pictures of the deceased. In the cemeteries, the grave stones are cleaned and decorated, and food and drink is put out for the deceased.

It’s a very colourful celebration. Menacing skulls and gleeful skeletons are everywhere. Chocolate skulls, like Easter bunnies, and Pan de Muerto – the Mexican version of Mennonite Paska – are the favoured edible treats. Paper streamers with intricately cut designs decorate the walls and ceilings.  In the last few years, some commercial Halloween trappings have been added to the mix – children dressed up as witches, princesses, and action heroes walked our neighbourhood with orange plastic pumpkin pails asking for candy, and stores sell Halloween decorations like those found in Canada and the United States.

Candy Skulls

Yet, underneath this cheerful celebration lies a dreadful truth.

What are the leading causes of death among Mexicans? If we added up the number of Mexicans who have died of natural causes like old age, and those who have died of violent and preventable causes – which group would be bigger?

Cause of Death: Violence

Many Mexicans die due to violence of various types. For instances, around 500 people die each year trying to cross the border into the United States. They drown crossing the river, die of thirst crossing the desert, and are killed in vehicle accidents and armed episodes. In the last few years, an increasing number of migrants have died from kidnapping and extortion perpetrated by the organized crime gangs.

And of course, the current “War on Drugs” in Mexico has increased the number of violent deaths. Since 2007, an estimated 40,000 people have been killed, mostly young men.

Decorated Gravesites

Today homicide is the leading cause of death of young men aged 15 to 29 years. According to statistics from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), the homicide rate for males aged 15−29 increased 154 percent from 2007 to 2009. In the northern state of Chihuahua, which includes the border city of Ciudad Juarez, there were 1,647 youth homicides in 2009, a 719 percent increase since 2007.

Armed conflict and crime are not the only causes of violent death. Structural violence also produces senseless and preventable deaths. Structural violence includes the economic, social and political structures and polices that create poverty and oppression.

Almost half of Mexicans (about 52 million people) currently live in poverty -$5.80 per day urban, $3.60 per day rural, and lack at least one basic social right, such as education, health, or utilities. About 12 million Mexicans live in extreme poverty – $2.60 per day urban; $1.90 per day rural (CONEVAL, 2010). In Mexico, poverty-related infectious disease continues to be one of the top causes of premature death. Maternal and infant mortality rates have declined in the past three decades, but continue to be extremely high in rural and indigenous communities.

 One Way to Help Reduce Violent Deaths in Mexico

Approximately 70 to 90 percent of the guns used by Mexican drug cartels originate from gun sellers in the United States.  Weak gun laws within the US allow guns to be purchased without a background check.  There also are no laws limiting the number of weapons that a buyer can purchase, allowing illegal traffickers to buy in bulk.  And since the expiration of the federal ban on assault weapons, military-style and high capacity weaponry is readily available.  It is estimated that 2,000 weapons flow from the United States into Mexico each day.

The Mennonite Central Committee has joined a coalition of Mexican and U.S. civil society organizations petitioning President Obama to implement several administrative reforms to US gun policies to prevent smuggling of guns into Mexico.  Individuals of all nationalities are welcome to sign on to the petition, which will be presented to President Obama early in 2012.

More information about the campaign is available at this link

This is one way in which we as American and Canadian Christians can support the thousands of Mexican families who create altars, light candles, and pray for their loved ones who have been killed by the violence that Mexico is living today.

Candles, Incense and a Cross of Marigolds

Further information:

Halting U.S. Firearms Trafficking to Mexico

Stop Gun Smuggling

Special thanks to Heather Sell, International Affairs Intern, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office for her work on this campaign.

This entry was posted in By country, Mexico, Urban Peacebuilding. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mexican Day of the Dead: Cause of Death?

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