Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos occur at the same time (by the way: not a random thing — the Spanish forcibly moved the Aztec death celebrations from August to All Saints’ Day as part of their whole conquering bit).
Although Day of the Dead still appears to be the predominant celebration, Halloween has definitely been at least partially adopted by Mexican kids. As in, trick or treating. And not just for one night – but an entire weekend of trick or treating, since Day of the Dead is actually several days long, and why limit trick-or-treating to just one night?
And while we’re at it, why limit it to candy?
Last Friday night, Jeremy, Nancy, Brendan and I were having a few beers out on the leafy central plaza in Puebla, Mexico. Being that it was Day of the Dead weekend, there were many elaborate altars set up in the plaza, and hundreds of families milling about.
It didn’t take but a few seconds before we heard “calaverita???” We turned around to see a small child, dressed in a costume, holding up an orange plastic pumpkin.
Calavera means skull in Spanish, and sugar skull candy is one of the main decorations that adorns altars. But a calaverita (little skull) means something entirely different. In some instances, it can mean a little poem about death. And, more important to this story, it’s what kids here say instead of “trick-or-treat.”
AND, well, once you’ve been asked to give a calaverita, don’t expect to hand out candies in return. Kids here want money. Pesos. Thank god we’ve been in Mexico long enough to be aware of this “cultural difference” or else it could have gotten really awkward really fast.
It’s brilliant, really. Why mess with Smarties or Snickers when you can collect cold, hard cash?
Many of the kids that night who approached us were dressed in costumes, polite and accompanied by their parents. Perhaps because we were obviously tourists (no kids with us, and one of us is a 6’4” white guy) we got approached more than other diners around us.
As you can imagine in a country that is struggling so much with poverty, and in a situation where money is literally being handed out, street kids also make grand efforts for calaveritas, regardless of whether they have a costume. We had one such young boy approach us.
You’d assume that when faced with a street kid, you’d immediately feel a melting sensation your heart and feel compelled to give, right?
Wrong. He was a tough, old street kid, not interested in making any effort to elicit sympathy. You could tell he had dispensed with that long ago and replaced it with straight-up aggression.
He was maybe five years old, and clad in dirty clothes. He ran up to our table demanding “DIEZ PESOS! DIEZ PESOS” (10 pesos, which is similar in value and size to a dollar coin). Because of how brazen he was, we all laughed — “what a great opening line,” “this kid’s funny,” we thought.
We normally gave even the most polite children a peso (about a dime’s worth), and so, we did the same for him. Each time one of us plunked a peso into his pumpkin, he’d hold the pumpkin up to his face, peer deeply inside, and then look up at us with a pissed-off face. He kept demanding more, and so we gave him a few more pesos but had to eventually cut him off.
Finally, seething at us for not forking over sums of money he considered adequate, he (without asking) grabbed at a plate of peanuts on the table, took a huge handful, and started eating them, in front of us. After one big swallow, he did it again.
Again, you’d think this would immediately cause us to have a heart attack of guilt – he’s so hungry!!! — but this kid was 4 going on 45. He was arrogant about it, laughing defiantly and checking closely to see if it would piss us off more — a goal you could tell he was clamoring to achieve. His attitude was basically: We should be grateful he was eating our peanuts. Jeremy finally shooed him off (gently) and we resumed drinking our beers, a bit floored by the whole event, but not having much time to really think about what it meant to be this kid, and act that way, since after he left, it didn’t take long before more kids approached, Halloween pumpkins in hand.