The Mexican culture is one steeped in legend and myth. Parents pass these myths on to their children as moral advice, threats, or entertainment. The way native Mexicans, as well as Mexican-Americans, view their legends are based on a combination of cultures throughout their history. The legend of la Muerta, death, is no different. To understand why this legend began, and to understand why Mexicans view death in such a different way than other cultures, one must become familiar with their past, and with the societies that clashed to create the beliefs still adhered to today.
Death has an unusual prevalence in Mexican culture. “It would be simplistic to say that Mexicans in general have a different concept of death and a more comfortable relationship with the dead than Anglos” (Tatum 184). However, the happy celebration, Dia de los Muertos, is only one example of how death is celebrated rather than feared, accepted as opposed to being met with trepidation. Death surrounds the life of Chicano culture throughout every step. “To understand the bases of the Mexican cult of death, one must look back first to the basic religious beliefs of pre-Conquest Mexico, for every phase of life throughout the development of Mexican culture was integrally bound with religion” (Brodman 1). Also effecting the Mexican preoccupation with death is the history of the Spanish invasion and the advent of Catholicism. The force of the church, combined with the ancient beliefs of the Toltec and the Aztecs, create the modern folklore of la Muerta that many Chicanos on both sides of the border believe in.
Early Toltec concepts of creation are fatalistic. They believed the world they lived in was the fifth world in a succession of four others which had already been destroyed one by one before the fifth ever came into being. The fifth world was to meet the same fate. Thus, death and life are seen as two sides of the same reality. This belief was not seen as ominous, but simply as natural as a plant sprouting from a seed in the ground (Brodman 3).
With the arrival of the Aztecs, the somewhat ethereal beliefs of the Toltec were put into grim practice. While the Toltec believed life was what one endured before universal destruction, the Aztecs distorted this into a destruction made real on earth. Human sacrifice and cannibalism became common practice, and the specter of death was made ever more prevalent in Mexican culture. “…since the Aztecs believed that it was the manner of a man’s death and not his conduct in life which determined his spiritual destiny, death in battle or on the sacrificial stone was often pursued as it carried with it the reward of attaining one of the most desirable of the several Aztec heavens” (Brodman 7). With the combination of the beliefs of these two ancestries, the preoccupation with death as seen in modern Mexican society is only a logical progression of two cultures, which were among the most death-oriented in history.
To further explain the matter of how the folk legend of la Muerta was derived, one must also look at the Spanish influence, and that of Catholicism. The roots of Spanish character lie in a number of indigenous and non-indigenous cultures. It was the Germanic tribes that introduced Catholicism to Spain in the late 6th century. “From that time on, Catholicism and the cult of death went hand in hand in Spain, for the Catholic Church provided the Spaniard with a philosophy which was delightfully compatible with his inherent fascination with death” (Brodman 20). The religious tenets of Catholicism place contempt for terrestrial life in favor of a less materialistic eternal life. In other words, Catholicism places a far higher value on death, and the life after death, than on actual life itself. Christianity also places a profound emphasis on the ideas of heaven and hell, or the belief that man can achieve everlasting life through good deeds. This is a concept unheard of in Toltec and Aztec religions, but one that becomes more prevalent in modern Mexican beliefs.
Keeping these factors in mind, one can now begin to understand with more clarity the Chicano folklore tale of La Muerta. “Death, personified as a woman and dressed in white clothing, is a well-known character in Chicano and Mexicano folklore…she is a frequent personality in legends, urban belief tales, and is integrated into many family folk belief systems. Death is sometimes feared, but it is also accepted as the transition to another stage of the life cycle” (Castro 162). According to the legend, la Muerta is seen as a beautiful temptress who beckons lone men to her while keeping her face averted. It is only when they are within her clutches that she reveals her true face to them—a grisly skull. She appears to men who are immoral or who are prepared to do misdeeds in their heart. Sometimes, after tempting the man, la Muerta will release her prey so that he may wake up prepared to return to a life of fidelity and good deeds. It is a folk legend meant to inspire adherence to social norms in young Chicano children (Castro 162).
One can see the influence of both the ancient Mexican cultures and the invading Spanish-Catholic culture. On one hand, la Muerta is not something to be feared. If anything, her outside beauty and temptation pay just as important a role as the fact that her face is something terrifying to behold. Men in her presence do not so much feel fear, as they feel curiosity and eagerness. This signifies the influence of the Toltec and Aztec religions, where death was not feared, but was met with courage and self-possession.
On the other hand, la Muerta is also a cautionary tale, a parable if you will, like many found in the Holy Bible. Her presence is meant to teach a lesson on fidelity and moral good. If one does not change his ways, la Muerta may not be so quick to send him back to his loved ones with nothing more than an otherworldly slap on the wrist. The myth encourages one to consider his own misdeeds, lest one finds himself on a dark road, his only company a woman in white who beckons in the distance.
It is the combination of ancient religious practices and long-ago conquests that form the Chicano folk legend of la Muerta. The beliefs of the Toltec and Aztec people, as well as the ideals of the Spanish-Catholics provide the basis for the Mexican obsession, acceptance and celebration of death. Death is something that has rarely been feared by someone of Mexican origin. Rather it is a rite of passage, something everyone must commit to, a task every person must complete.
Brodman, Barbara, L.C. The Mexican Cult of Death in Mexican Literature. Gainsville: The University Presses of Florida, 1976.
Castro, Rafaela, G. Chicano Folklore: A Guide to the Folktales, Traditions, Rituals, and Religious Practices of Mexican-Americans. Oxford: University Press, 2001.
Tatum, Charles, M. Chicano Popular Culture: Que Hable el Pueblo. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2001.