Friday, November 2, 2018

Day of the Dead: So Much More Than Cool Makeup

Man dancing in elaborate feathered headdress and costume, holding large rattles
Aztec Dancer - Day of the Dead in Los Angeles
Modern Americans have adopted the Mexican tradition of the Dia del los Muertos (Day of the Dead) into mainstream culture. Not too many years ago, it would have been difficult to find skulls and skeleton-embellished clothing readily available beyond Halloween. Today, commercially made items can be found everywhere from a nationwide chain like Party City to designers like Alexander McQueen. There is even a website that features everything skull and skeleton related for your accessorizing, d├ęcor and clothing needs.

A sure sign that the Day of the Dead is been taken over is that Disney made a movie about it – Coco. Fortunately, the creative forces behind Coco took great care to appropriately depict the cultural and spiritual event that is Dia de los Muertos. For its first movie to depict a minority character in the lead, they consulted extensively with the people whose traditions they were depicting. The result was a beautiful movie filled with heart and music that deserves the recognition it receives.

Mictecacihuatl - The Lady of the Dead
Celebrating death as a continuous part of human existence and remembering those that have passed on has extremely deep roots in Mexico. These traditions date as far back as 1800 BC and were practiced by indigenous people throughout Mesoamerica. The origins of contemporary Day of the Dead celebrations lie with the Aztecs, who believed in a complex and vibrant afterlife (for a fun few minutes in their underworld, click here). They had been celebrating death and harvest rituals for more than 500 years before the Spanish arrived in 1519. The Spanish quickly and aggressively converted indigenous people to  Catholicism, but many ancient traditions were tightly held and the Spanish wisely allowed the native people to meld the two belief systems. The result is a form of Catholicism that is unique to our continent. Modern Mayan and other native peoples continue their singular celebrations to this day. This includes the Pascua Yaqui tribe here in Tucson, whose observances last two days (Nov. 1-2) and are tied to All Soul's and All Saint's days.
La Calavera Garbancera (Catrina)
One of the most iconic symbols of the Day of the Dead is that of La Calavera Catrina (or just Catrina). This image was the creation of Jose Guadalupe Posada in 1910. Inspired by the Aztec Queen of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl (The Lady of the Dead), Posada’s skeletal beauty was new and yet familiar to the Mexican people. Catrina was born the same year that the Mexican Revolution broke out in response to the long and corrupt dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. The Diaz regime was characterized by a push to modernize Mexico by embracing all things European, further enriching the elite on the backs of the poor. Posada was a lithographer and his work was distributed widely among the huge numbers of illiterate workers. He named his creation “La Calavera Garbancera”, “Garbancera” being a derogatory phrase used at that time for native Mexicans who tried to pass as Europeans. When asked about Catrina, he is said to have replied, “We are all skeletons”. Their fight for a new Mexico was long and bloody but ultimately successful and Diaz was overthrown, in large part because the poor and disenfranchised were able to rally under symbols like Catrina.

Image of a mural with many people in it depicting 400 years of Mexican history, titled Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera
Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera
Catrina was further entrenched in Mexican culture when the painter DiegoRivera painted the dandified skeleton into his masterpiece “Dream of a SundayAfternoon in Alameda Park” (1946-47). In the massive mural depicting 400 years of Mexican history, Diego placed Catrina front and center, with Posada on one side of her and himself and his wife, Frida Kahlo, on the other. Diego was a firebrand with strong Communist ties and he greatly admired Posada and looked up to him as a mentor. Even 35 years after she was created, the symbolism of Catrina was important enough to Rivera to make her a focal point in what was arguably his most important work.

In this time of picking sides and divisive politics in our own country, it seems important that we take a moment to look around and recognize what has come before us to get us to where we are now. Struggles for a better life and to work with dignity have taken place over and over again since mankind started creating societies. The crass commercialism of many American Day of the Dead events ignores the depth of culture and belief that these celebrations were founded on. I, for one, enjoy the day much more knowing the history behind it.

Submitted by Pam

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