A Celebration of Death
Tucked away on one of the longest streets in the world, the Buñuel bookstore has been plying its business for decades. Since the till started ringing on its opening day in the early 1960s, the décor has remained almost the same. Books are stacked waist high, the air feels musty and finding anything by category is down to sheer luck. Yet, for all its antiquity there's something reassuring about a book store wedged in a time warp, which provides a refreshing escape from the urban mesh of Mexico City.
Located on Insurgentes, this quaint center for culture boasts another superlative - the smallest theater in D.F.
At the back of the store, customers can find a thriving theatrical wonderland. Plays for adults and children, monologues, sketches, farce, even musicals have graced Foro Buñel's stage. This time round, to celebrate the Day of the Dead, director Alejandra de la Rosa has put together cuentos (stories) in "Ay Que Muertos Tan Ca…Laveras!"
A homage to the deceased, the Day of the Dead harks back to pre-Hispanic Mexico when the ruling Aztecs would honor their fallen by laying offerings at burial plots.
Today commemorative altars, chock full of sweets and flowers, spring up in cemeteries, houses and commercial centers all across the nation between late October and early November.
When writer Octavio Paz described death as "a word not pronounced in New York, Paris, London, because it burns the lips," he was taunting the philosophy of the West which associated death with fear and punishment. In contrast, he claims Mexico is "familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love."
And it's this nurtured love that brings tales of the living dead onto a 15-foot stage in downtown Mexico City. In its fifth year, De La Rosa's production is a mix of song, dance, mime and puppets. Much of the show spotlights familiar stories that have been performed for generations, with audiences often invited to join in the general revelry.
"The principal idea behind the production is to use the public's imagination," says De la Rosa. "We're not trying to impress the audiences with fancy costumes or expensive props. Instead we're getting them involved through snappy song numbers which people instantly recognize."
Among the 15 cuentos that make up the hour-long show, is a tale of a child looking to buy an offering for his dead aunt. As he scours the market for his gift, it quickly dawns on the audience the boy's aunt drowned while trying to enter the United States illegally. In a Brechtian flourish, the audience is forced to become the market vendors, having to answer the boy's innocent inquiries as he ponders over his aunt's demise. Ironically, it's the only story penned by a U.S. author.
"What this story depicts is a modern slant on the traditional Day of the Dead cuentos.…I think it's all the more touching that it's been written by an American," says De la Rosa.
In recent years, the saturation of U.S. culture has worried some that Mexican identity has been usurped by the Big Mac.
Halloween, which falls on Oct. 31, equally is celebrated here - at least in the supermarkets where shelves are brimming with pumpkin heads, witch costumes, monster outfits, etc. In an effort to sterilize the so-called U.S. invasion the government has encouraged more commemorative altars in public areas.
"I think it's fine if children want to celebrate Halloween as well, but lets fuse the two things together. It doesn't have to be a case of choosing one or the other," implores De la Rosa. "Each day our ties with the United States are getting stronger, that's irrevocable, but we shouldn't forget the hundreds of years of history that lie behind the Day of the Dead celebrations. It's such a beautiful thing."
Foro Buñuel is located on Insurgentes 32, near Reforma intersection, Col. Juarez.
By Umair Khan
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