Día de Los Muertos: Day of the Dead October 31, 2013
Día de Los Muertos: Day of the Dead: Celebrated throughout Mexico “Dia de Muetos” is a Mexican holiday which focuses on family and friends to pray for and remember deceased loved ones on October 31, November 1 and November 2. Historians believe that the celebration originates from Aztec festivals honoring Michtecacihatl (Meek-teka-see-wahdl ... I know I need the phonetic pronunciation!) the goddess of the underworld/dead. Like the Mesoamerican civilizations prior, the Aztecs believed that they were merely part of a wider life cycle. The few offerings that survived destruction at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, tell us the story of a rich heritage which greatly valued ritual venerations at sacred spaces and a belief in the afterlife. The statue included here of the Aztec "Mother of Gods" called Coatlicue, stands wearing a necklace made of severed human hands and a skull entwined with snakes that creates a skirt and may have stood near the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan. Though attributes center on death, the Aztecs believed that Coatlicue was both savage and tender and ultimately that through the destruction of death life is reborn. These indigenous religions helped pave the way for the Day of the Dead as we know it today. It was only after the introduction of Catholicism by the Spanish that the Day of the Dead conveniently blended with All Saints Day. The belief is that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31 and the spirits of all the deceased (children who died are angelitos) are allowed to reunited with their loved ones for 24 hours.
Día de Los Muertos is one of the biggest holidays in Mexico. Offerings honoring the deceased include calavera/skulls, marigolds, the deceased’s favorite items as well as their favorite foods and beverages. Decorative sugar skulls, or calavera, were introduced by Italian missionaries in the 17th centuries to adorn the sides of the altars. Skulls depict colorful, sparkling colors and happy smiles resulting in a positive celebration of life rather than a ghoulish haunting by death. Festivities to toast the deceased are held by the grave. "Se lo (la) llevó la calaca" is a popular phrase in Mexico which translates as the calaca (skeleton) took him/her, meaning "death took" the deceased. Calaca's (like Tim Burton's infamous "Nightmare before Christmas") are often depicted enjoying life in death.
Calaveras: José Guadalupe Posada’s was a Mexican satiric-cartoonist/illustrator who died 100 years ago this year. At the turning of the century when printed media became a medium to mobilize political ideologies, Posada created a series known as the Calaveras which intended to satirize the life of the privileged wealthy. These images were poignant cultural symbols and helped rally illiterate audiences. In many cases Posada was depicting notable politicians, revolutionary leaders as well as well-known heroes. By choosing the calavera skull, Posada intended to comment on the social inequality present in Mexico. Posada’s relationship with authorities was tumultuous during the Mexican Revolution. A notable example of Posada’s controversy includes “Calavera de Francisco I Madero,” a depiction of the upper-class lawyer Madero who briefly served as President of Mexico after the fall of Diaz but shortly thereafter was assassinated. A second popular example is "La Catrina" depicting an aristocratic female skull wearing popular European inspired fashion. His mastery in printmaking resulted in abundance of popular works of Art. Since his death, his Art has closely become associated with Día de los Muerto. Posada’s work inspired a generation of notable Mexican artists including, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. Rivera famously included "La Catrina" in his 50' mural "Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central" ("A Dream of Sunday Afternoon in Sunday Park) located on the grounds of an ancient Aztec marketplace in Mexico. Rivera chose to include Posada's famous Catrina as a central figure in this fresco study holding the hand of Rivera himself as a 10 year old. Hailing Posada as one of his greatest influences, Rivera includes him as the man in the well dressed suit to her left. This epic painting narrates three principal eras of Mexican History including The Spanish Conquest, The Porfiriato Dictatorship and The Revolution of 1910. By representing Catrina cloaked in a feather boa reminiscent of a plumed serpent with a belt-buckle brandishing the Aztec astrological sign of Ollin, Rivera is evoking deep-rooted Pre-Columbian traditions and intentionally juxtaposing them with Spanish Colonial traditions. Some critics argue in his painting the Catrina here, Rivera is alluding to the Ancient Aztec mother-goddess, Cōhuātlīcue. Rivera's wife, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo stands close by holding a Chinese symbol ying & yang unquestionably representing the duality of mythologies and merging of traditions.
A tradition was born during the Mexican Revolution to also write satiric poems, intended to be irreverent verses or in many cases a social commentary through epitaphs portraying an alive politician as if they were dead. The calavera literarias, or skull poem, was a medium used to express content that would have been difficult to communicate. Many of those published have been destroyed, no doubt, by those who were roasted and insulted by them. Posada wrote "Revumbio of Skulls" to accompany one of his calavera compositions:
Quien quiera gozar de veras
// Whoever really enjoy
y divertirse un ratón, // and sporting a mouse,
venga con las calaveras //Come with skulls
a gozar en el panteón // to enjoy in the pantheon.
Literatos distinguidos // Distinguished Literati
en la hediondez encontré // I found the stench
en gusanos confundidos// in worms confused
sin ellos saber porqué // without them knowing why.
Y en gran tropel apiñados // And to a large throng crowded
Los vendedores corrían // Vendors ran
contentos y entusiasmados // pleased and excited
por el negocio que hacían // for the business they were doing.
Cereros de sacristía // Sacristy Chandlers
que roban la cera al rato // who steal the wax while,
que con mucha sangre fría // who coolly
se echan el sufragio al plato // suffrage are cast to the dish.
José Guadalupe Posada worked for the grandfather of Nobel Prize winning writer-poet-diplomat, Octavio Paz. It was there he published his infamous Calavera prints. It felt fitting to include his poetry here. What I love about Paz is the aim to (in his words) “produce a text which would be an intersection of poetry, narrative and essay.” (I strive to do the same here on this website with photography, art and writing!) In his essay, “Labyrinth of Solitude,” Paz writes of the grapple between identifying with a cultural pre-Columbian heritage and the guised mask of Spanish colonialism. It’s well worth reading this encompassing portrait of a diverse Mexican society and its' struggle for national identity. Like so many poets, the confrontation and coping with mortality is also something which Paz explores in his poetry. Paz’s poem, “Between going and staying” struck a chord with me the first time I read it. I feel like I am always caught between coming and going. I always say that I never feel so much myself, so at the core-soul of who I am, as when I am on foreign ground. In a strange way, I am rooted in the traveling condition of wanderlust.
“Between going and staying”
Between going and staying
the day wavers,
in love with its own transparency.
The circular afternoon is now a bay
where the world in stillness rocks.
All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can’t be touched.
Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.
Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.
The light turns the indifferent wall
into a ghostly theater of reflections.
I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.
The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause.
Beautiful, right? As with so many of Paz’s poems, the words move in and out, almost like a gentle tide, freely open to interpretation. Perhaps it is the meditative state travel brings, devoid of any mundane tasks by daily distraction, but to me this poem evokes that mindset achieved from wanderlust. Though I easily lose myself in time with the delights spontaneous travel brings, the passing of time is nonetheless pronounced and feels much like Paz describes; “throbbing in my temples repeats.” When I witness grandeur and beauty, it is as Paz writes; “all is visible and all elusive, all is near and can’t be touched.” When we behold ephemeral greatness, we simultaneously become aware of our own unknown mortality. My impulse in those moments is to immediately preserve it in a photo to be shared and capture that moment. In those evanescent seconds, I think we all reflect on life. We become a witness to our own experiences. When you are taking a photo it is very much like finding oneself in “the middle of an eye, watching myself in its blank stare.” Despite the effort, I am always aware that the moment, like all things, will pass. As Paz puts it, “The moment scatters.” My next impulse? Find another fleeting moment!!!
But as I’m doing so, I’m always reminded of a quote my father has long cherished by Paul Bowles from “The Sheltering Sky” :
“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
Limitless is right! Our family is all about the carpe diem spirit and consequently I'm a BIG fan of enjoying the moment, transitory as it may be. We're all on a journey and reminded about the finality of life. What's so cool about The Day of the Dead is the positivity involved in the celebration. I've never gravitated to any of the horror or terror surrounding Halloween. In recent years, I've been known for enthusiastically donning outlandish costumes. On an incredibly general level, costuming and Halloween is also a tradition of permitting a change in identity. It's fun to put on a guise for a night. As an Art teacher, I'm always up for the challenge of creating a good costume. This year, I didn't have anything planned, but after a week devoted to this Calavera project, I opted to try to adapt Posada's Catrina using supplies in my basement. I've also included this fun video celebrating Day of the Dead and some resources that may help you to learn more about this festive holiday! ¡Viva Calaca!
How to make the traditional sugar skulls: http://www.mexicansugarskull.com/
Damien Hirst's "For the Love of God" http://www.damienhirst.com/for-the-love-of-god
Video of Hirst's "Cornucopia": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0T5D04kjvFM
And a special thanks to my amigo, Señora Nicole Peterson Ridge who is an infinite source of wisdom and fun!