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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mexicans put own mask on Halloween

MEXICO CITY -- The merchants at the Sonora Market are doing a brisk business in plastic pumpkins, wizard costumes and devil's pitchforks. Eerie music blares from the loudspeakers: It's the Halloween rush.

"I want my Halloween!" Mexican children will shout this week, though not necessarily the same night as kids north of the border. "Quiero mi Halloween," they will say, because there is no commonly used translation of "Trick or treat!" for this American import that falls at about the same time as the more spiritual Day of the Dead.

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The English syllables that make up the word "Halloween" carry an additional note of weirdness for Mexicans. Some choose to write Halloween with the Spanish transliteration jaloguin, as in the statement: The Roman Catholic Church requests that the faithful refrain from celebrating that pagan American holiday known as jaloguin.

"Against Halloween," one poster wrote this month on a Spanish-language Catholic website. "I propose a cultural rebellion, a Christian rebellion, a Catholic rebellion!"

Like baseball and fast-food restaurants, Halloween is one of those U.S. cultural products that has inexorably worked its way into Mexican life. And just as the local McDonald's outlets dispense packets of jalapeño sauce for their customers' Big Macs, people here have taken Halloween and given it a Mexican touch.

When Mexico City children go door to door dressed in costumes and ask for candy, it isn't necessarily on Oct. 31. Many children here will seek their treats on Friday of this week, when Mexicans mark the Day of the Dead.

In Mexico City, the masks and costumes of Halloween are a lighthearted, secular flavoring on top of the more solemn Day of the Dead, when many families perform rituals meant to honor and comfort the souls of their departed loved ones.

"Here in Mexico we still celebrate the Day of the Dead more than Halloween," said Enrique Garcia, a 36-year-old Mexico City native whose stand at the Sonora Market was filled with latex Halloween masks. "But with Halloween we make a little more money."

One day this month, Garcia sold half a dozen masks in less than 15 minutes, the most popular being the Ghostface character from the "Scream" movies. Shoppers squeezed through the market's narrow aisles in search of costumes, Frankenstein statues and bottles of fake blood.

Halloween has long been celebrated in northern Mexico, where the cultural influence of the United States is stronger, said Stanley Brandes, a UC Berkeley anthropology professor and author of a book on the Day of the Dead, "Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead."

In recent decades, Halloween has gained in popularity in central Mexico, despite criticisms from Mexican intellectuals and church leaders, who have periodically instructed Catholics on the perceived dangers of the holiday.

"The majority of the people in the country actually like Halloween and accept it," Brandes said. And criticisms of Halloween's commercialism ignore one important fact, he said: "There's a lot of money being made from Day of the Dead too. I don't think it's any less commercial than Halloween."

A few stands down from Garcia's, Isaac Montes de Oca was buying plastic buckets in the shape of pumpkins and mummies for his daughter's first birthday party. She was born Nov. 2, so Montes de Oca and his wife were organizing the party with a Halloween theme.

"We're from Guerrero," a state south of Mexico City, "and there we celebrate the Day of the Dead," he said. "We have big parties where we reenact scenes from the Bible. They don't do that here in Mexico City. Here, it's Halloween."

Bernice Rodriguez, a vendor wearing a pair of red-sequined devil's horns, sold the Montes de Oca family six pumpkin buckets and six mummy buckets for the wholesale price of $1.50 each.

Rodriguez's wares were a mixture of cheap Halloween imports and locally made products with origins in the Day of the Dead. Papier-mache skeletons hung from a wire, alongside a tall statue of "La Catrina," a female skeleton dressed in formal clothing and based on famous Day of the Dead etchings Jose Guadalupe Posada drew almost a century ago.

"People here buy La Catrina so they can decorate their Halloween parties," Rodriguez said. "Halloween is not something I grew up with. . . . In my house we still put out the offerings" for the Day of the Dead.

On Nov. 2, many Catholic families in central Mexico leave plates of food and glasses of water in their homes overnight, alongside a votive candle. Folk tradition has it that the souls of the dead appear during the night to eat and drink.

"We put out the offering for my father," said Gabriela Gonzalez, a vendor at the Sonora Market.

"It's a little plate of mole, because that was his favorite food. And a little shot of brandy, too. And a cigar."

Though packed with Halloween shoppers in October, throughout the year the Sonora Market is a place where people come in search of the herbs, incense and other paraphernalia necessary to seek favors from the spirit world.

Gonzalez runs one such stall, a few paces from the ones selling Halloween costumes. Once Halloween is over, those other stands will return to selling cheap toys and other goods.

"You burn incense on the Day of the Dead, because the smoke helps the dead to find their path," Gonzalez said.

"If you try the food you left out during the night and it doesn't have any flavor in the morning, it means the dead person came and tasted it."

One Day of the Dead night not long ago, Gonzalez said, she awoke to the sound of a man chugging down water and chewing food. It was her departed father, she said, come to enjoy a meal in his old home.

Telling this story, Gonzalez broke into a warm smile. She had told a good ghost story, just like the ones you hear on Halloween.

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