Thursday, June 20, 2024

Mexico and mental health: Exploring the power of traditions and faith

Growing up in India, I was surrounded by all kinds of traditions. Most of them had a religious or a social context but as a kid, I didn’t understand or care about any of that. Traditions meant celebrations, and celebrations meant homemade Indian sweets, family friends visiting us for long hours and getting a lot of play time with cousins.

I adored my cousins, they were all younger than I am so I could be the ring leader. I particularly loved carrying my little cousin sisters on my back. During those days, our home was filled with laughter, noise and joy — my dad was pretty strict about noise but my aunts would help overrule that. My grandmother would often lead us around what to do in terms of rituals or offerings, but I was more interested in eating the sweets that were a part of the offering. I would quickly learn that there was no way around disobeying my grandmother.

My favorite Indian holiday was Diwali, now known around the world as the “festival of lights.” Diwali meant a week of festivities where I would get to exhibit my artistic skills with Rangoli — patterns created on the floor with flower petals, limestone paint and other organic paint colors. Diwali symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness or goodness over evil. Like many other Indian traditions, Diwali is not about consumption, it is about exchange and offerings. The festival of Diwali itself, like every other Indian festival, has religious roots but to me it has always felt like a cultural celebration.

What I remember the most is that there was a lot of joy in our surroundings. No matter what income level people of all faiths from every city and town in the country celebrated Diwali in some form. As a kid, that feeling was very grounding because it symbolized togetherness with my family and our friends. As I grew up, Indian traditions also rooted me spiritually. I find it very calming how in countries like India, their fabulously rich and ancient history is passed on from generation to generation.

Living in Mexico, I often go down that memory lane from my childhood in India. Mexico too has such a rich, ancient history. Most Mexicans are Catholic, but I am often corrected by young Mexicans who clarify that today, for them, the traditions in the country are more about being a faith-based person, than being Catholic. In Mexico, in cities and towns across the country, it is common to see locals celebrating various ancient Indigenous traditions and rituals.

No matter how small the town is, there is always at least one church, and a few homemade altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe. I love sitting on a bench outside a church on a religious holiday, or wandering around watching the town get prepared for the traditional processions. There is something very special about a community coming together to celebrate their faith. From young to old, people take the time out of their daily routine and responsibilities and celebrate something bigger, something higher than themselves.

Holidays here incorporate similar elements to my childhood memories: food, color, flowers, laughter, exchange and offerings, family and friends. Even as a mere observer, I feel a part of the celebrations and they make me feel part of something bigger than myself. In Mexico, I find myself reconnecting with the energy that traditions carry. Around big Mexican holidays, I like visiting beautiful churches, absorbing the peaceful energy and paying my respect to the faith of the people around me.

I love listening to the hymns and prayers and while I don’t understand the words, I find them very calming. For me, it is not about the religious institution, it is about the physical and mental space it provides me to reconnect with myself. A feeling of transcendence, a place where I can pray to the higher powers of the universe. It is grounding.

As humans, we are wired to strive for social connections. We are more connected than ever today via social media platforms or chats and yet we have an epidemic of mental health issues in many parts of the globe.

In the United States, I wonder what role a decreasing focus on traditions and gatherings plays in this. It didn’t happen overnight, but it does seem to be a contributing factor. A number of books that I have read on longevity and happiness point to the importance of social and communal connections. Not surprisingly, none of them are online connections but rather in-person, and often are around creative pursuits and sharing the fruits of labor.

Traditions enforce such connections by pulling a family, a society, a community, a town together around celebrations. They help foster a set of societal values, pay homage to the cultural heritage and also help us to lean on each other during tumultuous times. While I write this, I wonder how we can bring this back into our lives, regardless of where we live.

I leave you with a heartwarming story of a Mexican friend, Claudia. When I saw her today, she looked tired. She explained how she had been celebrating a family tradition of everyone getting together on May 1 (Labor Day). Her entire extended family had gotten together at a nearby hot springs, and she animatedly explained how each family member brought their favorite food to share and how the party of over forty people ate, swam, talked, danced and sang for hours. Claudia is now 52 years old, yet has been doing this since she was a kid — she grew up that way.

Her advice to me was: “Keep your life simple, figure out what brings you joy. For me, it is gatherings around food and family. We are not immune to family issues but we stay together because we are happier when we are together.”

My takeaway is this: start small and keep it simple. It can be your extended family, your chosen family, your faith-based family, your communal family, it doesn’t matter. The point is to spend time creating, participating in, and celebrating traditions — both new and old.

If it leaves you feeling grounded, you are on the right path.

To read more from Tamanna:

Behind the scenes at Mexico News Daily: Our interview on “Mexico Matters” podcast

Lessons I have learned from moving to Mexico and buying Mexico News Daily

3 things I learned from moving to Mexico and buying a business

Tamanna Bembenek was born in India, studied and worked in the U.S. and lives in Mexico with her husband, Travis. They are the co-owners of Mexico News Daily.

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