The supreme appeal of this holiday can be seen in its very name. What dualism is more compelling than life and death? Religion, philosophy, and science all engage the mystery of death and its consequences for life. Dia de los Muertos taps into the human need to aknowledge, understand, and assign meaning to the ephermeral nature of life and death. The relationship between life and death, between the living and the dead, takes center stage each year in Mexico during the three days of this holiday. It is Mexico's unique heritage that makes Dia de los Muertos a time of joyful celebration, one full of warm expectation of reunion with the dead.
What we know as Dia de los Muertos today is the result of a syncretism of pre-Columbian polytheism and Iberian pagan and Christian practices. This cultural syncretism has given the holiday its unique folkloric and artistic tradtion. As disimilar as the pre-Columbian and Iberian cultures were, there was some commonality which served to bridge the differences and create a uniquely Mexican tradition.
Mexico is the site of many great pre-Columbian civilizations. The mysterious ancient Olmec civilization set the cultural patterns for the succession of great cultures that were to follow. The cultures of the Mayans and Aztecs incorporated elements of the cultures absorbed as their empires expanded. If one examines the material remains of these cultures and the histories recorded by the Spanish, many of today's practices during Dia de los Muertos pre-date the Catholic presence in the Americas. Images of skulls and skeletons carved into stone walls, tzompantli (skull racks), the ubiquitous flower of the dead "cempasuchil" (marigold), paper banners used to mark graves, ritual cleaning of graves and offerings of food to the dead, and the decoration of graves with candles are all antecedents to today's observance of Dia de los Muertos. Interestingly, these images invoke many of the traditions of the Iberian penninsula. Tzompantli recall the charnel houses and ossuaries of medieval and renaissance Spain. The folk-Catholicism of Spain gave continuity to pagan traditions of making food offerings to the dead. When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they encountered ancient and well established celebrations honoring the dual nature of existence grounded in life and death. The holidays were absorbed into the Catholic calendar.
The FestivalIn keeping with the Catholic calendar, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated over a three day period from the eve of October 31 through the eve of November 2. Preparations typically begin months before the holiday is celebrated. Altars are constructed for the household, cemetary graves, and often civic spaces. Papier mache and all manner of plaster figures are fashioned in the form of friendly skeletons dancing or conducting the activities and chores of everyday life. Masks, costumes, paper cutouts, and elaborate sugar skulls are made at home, by artians, or mass-produced. More often than not, these items are highly personalized and are meant to recall a departed family member, loved one, or even a beloved pet. In some villages, processions with a mock casket parade throughout the village and end with a mock funeral. Sometimes these processions stop at each household en route to the cemetary. Altars for the dead become the focal point of the home. Graves are cleaned and decorated with marigolds and candles. Photos and objects symbolic of the departed's profession or favorite activities and amusements adorn the graves as families and friends gather and commune with the spirits of the dead. At night, the living gather in the glow of candles to commune and remember the dead. Food, beverages, and cigarettes entice the souls of the dead back for a visit. The scent of marigolds and the aroma of the deceased's favorite foods are thought to help guide the spirits to their former homes. Personalized altars act as landing pads for the long-missed dead. There is no air of the morbid during the celebration of Dia de los Muertos. Even the dancing, mischievious skeletons (calaveras)provide comic relief with their lampooning gestures and garb. The reunion of the living with those lost to death gives Dia de los Muertos a distinctly joyful ambiance.
Ephemeral Art and Symbols of Dia de los MuertosThe creation of a distinctive Mexican culture from the pre-Columbian and Iberian cultures has informed the folk art and symbols associated with Dia de los Muertos. As ephemeral as life itself, much of the art so laboriously created for Dia de los Muertos is intended to be consumed and destroyed by the end of the festival. Only more recently has the ephemera of Dia de los Muertos found its way into permanent art collections. Consider the ancient flower of the dead, the cempasuchil (marigold.) It guides the souls of the dead back with its beauty and scent, both of which are temporary. The delicate papel picados, the elaborate paper cut outs used to decorate the altars and which harken back to Aztec paper banners for the dead, are left to the elements and disappear in the rain. The calaveras de azucar, beautifully decorated sugar skulls, are eaten with gusto, as are pan de muertos. The intricately designed, ubiquitous candles which illuminate the altars and graves melt away as surely as the the blue copal incense disappears into the air.
In Mexico today it is hard to think of Dia de los Muertos without the iconic influence of the artistic icon Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Posada created an iconic body of work with biting, satirical illustrations featuring calaveras (skeletons) who lampooned class conflict, corruption, abuse of power, and other contemporary issues. He lived during the ruthless dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and lived to see the first few years of the Mexican Revolution. In Posada's world of calaveras, rich and poor alike share the same ossified fate. Over one million Mexicans died during the Mexican Revolution. The national trauma of mass death reinforced the prominence of Dia de los Muertos. A "dance of death" continues to play a prominent role in Mexican cultural life. The writer Octavio Paz has commented, "The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it. It is one of his favorite playthings and his most steadfast love."
The Third DeathNorth Americans have a baseball saying, "Three strikes and you're out." In Mexico, people die three legendary deaths, the third being the most poignantly final. The first death is the failure of the body. The second is the burial of the body. The most definitive death is the third death. This occurs when no one is left to remember us.
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Jose Guadalupe Posada: My Mexico. University at Hawaii at Manoa Art Gallery. 20 Oct. 2002<http://www.hawaii.edu/artgallery/posada.html>
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