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Q&A: Mexican Ambassador Gerardo Lozano Talks About Mexican Culture, Filipino-Mexican Connection, Quincentennial Commemorations, Future Plans and More

Embassy of Mexico in the Philippines

This article is available in Spanish.

MANILA, Philippines — The Embassy of Mexico in the Philippines celebrated the Day of the Dead, an important Mexican tradition, at the Mexican ambassador’s residence in Makati city from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.

In an interview with La Jornada Filipina’s Editor-in-Chief, Arvyn Cerézo, Mexico’s ambassador to the Philippines, Gerardo Lozano Arredondo, talked about Mexican culture, Filipino-Mexican connection, the Mexican embassy’s participation in the quincentennial commemorations, its future plans and more.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

La Jornada Filipina: Can you tell us more about this celebration?

Lozano: The Day of the Dead is one of the most important celebrations in Mexico; this celebration of the Aztecs evolved during the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexico and with the arrival of Catholicism. This is a very old tradition.

Mexicans are celebrating the Day of the Dead [by making an] altar, remembering their loved ones that passed away. The altar incorporates some Catholic elements, but not just that because it incorporates some more contemporary elements. It [also] incorporates many indigenous elements that came from different parts of the country.

The very important [element] is the traditional flower called cempasúchil. In the Philippines, it’s the marigold. The Bread of the Dead is also an important part of the altar. We put, for different reasons, a glass of water, a little salt, and also incense, and each one has a meaning in this altar. But in addition to these basic elements, you can introduce whatever you want that can remind [you of] your loved ones [who] passed away.

JF: When did you first organize it here in the Philippines?

Lozano: I just completed four years here in the Philippines. During those four years, we have been presenting and showcasing the altar of the Day of the Dead. And unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we had to build the altar inside of the Mexican residence.

JF: And in the previous years, where did you hold it?

Lozano: In the past, we showcased the altar at the Ayala Museum and at the National Arts Museum in Manila.

In addition to that, we’ve worked with some universities [like] Miriam College and Asia Pacific University.

In the case of the Philippines, you have quite a similar tradition [called] Undas. People also remember [their] loved ones [by] going to the cemetery, and you also put salt in the altar. And for me, I was very surprised that Filipino people … They participate with a lot of enthusiasm in these kind of celebrations.

JF: For the past in-person events, who are the kinds of people that went there?

Lozano: We invite people from cultural sector. We invite some authorities from the Philippines in general — students; diplomatic corps, of course; and the Mexican community. Those are the most common people attending this kind of event.

JF: Speaking of the Mexican community, how many Mexicans are currently in the Philippines? Did they go here this year to visit the Ofrenda?

Lozano: The Mexican community is not so big. We are talking about more or less 300 Mexicans. But yes, this is a very important tradition to Mexicans; we have received small groups of [them].

JF: This celebration has similarities with Halloween. But what are differences?

Lozano: There are many differences. The skeletons and the orange color … The elements, in the case of Mexico, are totally different, and each one has a meaning. The [intention] is not to scare people.

Q&A: Mexican Ambassador to PH Talks Mexican Culture, Filipino-Mexican Connection and More | LaJornadaFilipina.com
Skeleton sculptures are common during the Day of the Dead celebration. La Jornada Filipina

We try to represent the way in which Mexico see the dead. Of course when someone passed away, people are very sad. At the end of the day, they consider that the best way to celebrate people is to celebrate their life, to remember the life of the time that you passed with them [by] putting some food and drinks that people loved.

In some cases, just like in the Philippines, [people] go to the cemetery — cleaning the graves, putting flowers and talking with them.

JF: What do the items in the altar represent?

Lozano: The most important element is that each year, we try to dedicate the altar to an important person that passed away. For the Mexican embassy, we are dedicating the altar of the Day of the Dead to Mr. Vicente Rojo. Vicente Rojo is a Mexican-Spaniard artist [who is] very famous around the world.

We are [also] dedicating the altar to those who passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, people at the front line.

In this altar, there are some interesting elements. Each element has a meaning: We have here the marigold; we have the candles that are always in the altar; [and we have] the bread, it’s quite similar, people told me, to ensaymada.

One important element in Mexican altars is the Catrina. Catrina … is a very Mexican word that means a “very elegant lady.” And that kind of lady was a sort of criticism in the Mexican politics arena.

JF: What did Catrina do?

Lozano: She’s the representation of a rich girl or lady. But at the end, what the artist tried to represent is that no matter [how] rich or poor [you are], at the end of the day, you became a skeleton.

Q&A: Mexican Ambassador to PH Talks Mexican Culture, Filipino-Mexican Connection and More | LaJornadaFilipina.com
Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death. La Jornada Filipina

Around the world, it’s now very common to see parades of girls that dress like Catrina — in New York, Berlin, Madrid and Paris.

And also we tried to introduced the “kid’s corner” this year. In [some] families, there are some kids that passed away very early, and we want to introduce some elements [like] some toys that the kids can enjoy.

JF: Where are the Filipino elements at the altar?

Lozano: We put some Filipino elements like handcrafts. For example, abaniko.

[The Mexican embassy also prepared a petate or banig in Filipino]

JF: Is it fine to put some things there even though they are not part of your culture?

Lozano: Yes, because the idea is to introduce the elements that we consider that can honor them. It’s a way to offer things that we consider that people — the dead people — could love if they are still alive.

JF: Does every Mexican household in Mexico make altars during the celebration?

Lozano: Yes, most of the houses. But there are [some who prefer to] remember people in another way. Majority of the family have something small or something bigger. But yes, in all the households, you can see the altar.

JF: Is the Mexican embassy participating in quincentennial commemorations?

Lozano: Yes, we participated. I myself participated with one presentation of the historical relations between the Philippines and Mexico. Did you know, during at least 200 years, the Philippines was administrated by New Spain through Mexico? In the Philippines, there is a big presence of Mexico that maybe in some cases, people don’t know very well. But it exists.

Magellan didn’t pass in Mexico, but the historical relations between the Philippines and Mexico are so longstanding and deep rooted, and that we had some information to share with the Filipino people.

JF: What are the embassy’s future plans? What are the cultural activities you have in store?

Lozano: During the year, we had some different activities. Unfortunately, this year has not been easy, but some of the cultural activities are related to the relations between Mexico and the Philippines. In September, we just started working in the recuperation of a botanical garden in Intramuros.

There are also activities related to Mexican food.

Mexican food is very well known around the world. Before the end of the year, we are going to publish a book with Mexican recipes that incorporate some Mexican and Filipino elements, and try to show how the Mexican cuisine and the Filipino cuisine can blend in a very nice way.

JF: For 2022, what plans do you have?

Lozano:  For 2022, it depends a little bit on how the COVID-19 situation evolves.

We are planning some movie festival.

We are also planning to have this altar of the Day of the Dead once again in collaboration with universities.

And also we are planning to make an exhibition with some photos of Frida Kahlo; she’s a very famous and popular artist also here in the Philippines.

We’re also planning to organize [an event] related to the Galleon that traveled from Acapulco to Manila; we are planning to make an exhibition of some elements that traveled from Mexico to the Philippines and some others from Philippines to Mexico.

But it depends on the situation of the COVID-19 — if the Philippines is open to receive people from the outside.

Arvyn Cerézo
Arvyn Cerézo is an arts and culture writer/reporter with bylines in Book Riot, Publishers Weekly, South China Morning Post, PhilSTAR Life, the Asian Review of Books, and other publications. You can find him on arvyncerezo.com and @ArvynCerezo on Twitter.

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