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Ephemeral Angels

by Luis Fernando Gutierrez Razura

Death. From earliest times, it has been the benefactor of myths and rituals used to explain the meaning of life for many groups of people. The circle of life birth, puberty, adulthood and death is a fundamental part of religion and the motivation for an infinite number of celebrations. Perhaps the two most important celebrations in the Christian religion are when a new member of the community is born and when one leaves this world for another. Religious rites like baptism revolve around easing the transition from one world to the other. In Mexico, a child who dies after being baptised but before having lived a full life is known as an "angelito" or little angel. The term represents the child's purity free from sin and so destined for heaven. The ceremony surrounding the lose of a child not only serves to ease the family's tremendous pain, but is also a type of celebration, because the child will be spending eternity in paradise.
In order to understand the Mexican rituals surrounding a child's death, one must look to Spain, the country which introduced the Catholic religion to Mexico during the conquest. Historians like George M. Foster, in the publication "Cultura y Conquista: La Herencia Española en America," and Eduardo Mata, with "Muerte al Filo de Obsidiana," explore the parallels between these two countries outlook on the death of a youngster. "According to Catholic faith, children die without sin. They go directly to heaven, without having to pass through purgatory, and become angels. Parents must therefore put aside their personal suffering and rejoice at the death. Friends and family, especially younger people, used to gather together to celebrate a child's death with a night of music, singing and dancing. It was customary to meet in the town square and dance with family members of the departed after the funeral service."1
The celebration of a child's death, or "mitote" as it is called in Nahuatl, is a combination of many different heritages. Mexican customs surrounding infant mortality are a deep-rooted part of the culture. Mesoamerican indigenous beliefs held that when a child passed away, his spirit would go directly to the garden "Chichihualco." In this garden grew a tree that bore not fruit but milk-laden breasts, providing nourishment for the infant and thus comfort to the surviving family members.
Art historian Gutierre Aceves conducted a series of interviews in Ameca, Jalisco on the ceremonies surrounding children's funerals. Thanks to his research, and a collection of photographs he discovered documenting infant funerals taken by Juan de Dios Machain during the 19th century, we are able to understand how infant mortality was viewed in the Mexican community. Aceves is the author of "Transito de Angelitos," published by the Museo de San Carlos in Mexico City in 1988 and also worked with the Museo Poblano de Arte Virreinal in Puebla on their 1999 publication, titled "La Muerte Niña."
Aceves explains that when parents believed that their child was going to die they would call the godparents, who were responsible for dressing the infant. Boys would often be dressed like Saint Joseph and girls like the Immaculate Conception, or they might simply be attired in white or in their best garments. Complimenting the outfit would be cardboard sandals covered in gold paper, a bouquet of flowers in the child's hands, and a crown. The godparents assumed the financial responsibility of the funeral, including the costs of the crown and the mariachi which would accompany the procession to the burial site.
During the wake, the child would be laid on a table covered with roses, marigolds and wild flowers. The godparents would place the crown on the child's head as the ceremony reached its peak and cake, coffee and cinnamon flavored alcohol would be served. The following day a procession of children carrying flowers and a mariachi band would accompany the body to the cemetery.2
He adds that the death of a child represents a premature interruption in the cycle of life. In an attempt to maintain the memory of the lost child's life, mankind has often turned to different forms of artistic expression to capture death and thus celebrate life. One way in which this was done in Mexico was by photographing the deceased child.