Death Mask 2003
Day of the Dead traditions change with the times.
Thursday, October 30, 2003
El Día de los Muertos is upon us, and it''s time in Central California to reconsider what the Nov. 1 celebration means. Just as the American tradition of Halloween and trick or treat has been diluted by time and commercialism to the point where people haven''t a clue about its roots, so the tradition of El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, has changed. Looking at its history can provide insight into cultural connections and how traditions evolve over time, and over borders.
Maria Carmen Zielina, a professor of Spanish in Cal State Monterey Bay''s World Language and Culture Program, points out that in Mexico, acknowledging the dead in special ways goes way back. Surviving poems from the ancient floricanto (sung poem) tradition speak of death during war and the afterlife. "The pre-Columbians held the belief that for the person fighting for their country, there was life after death," says Zielina, "It wasn''t for everyone, just the warriors."
Even further back, Zielina adds, evidence of honoring the dead was found at the archeological site of Montalban, near Oaxaca. There, Zapotec/Mixtec peoples produced a figure of a man covering his face with a death mask. "This is proof that they were honoring the dead," says Zielina, "Many other artifacts, figurines and so forth, confirm their belief in life after death."
Jorge Sanchez, instructor of Anthropology and Chicano Studies at Hartnell College in Salinas, explains another connection meso-Americans had with the dead. "Data from west Mexico--Jalisco, Colima, Michoacan--is traced to the second and third centuries before Christ. Subterranean burial chambers connected the living to the afterlife; they maintained close contact with those who came before. DNA studies of remains have been made and it appears that these were family members, multiple and successive generations arranged below the living quarters," explains Sanchez.
"Moreover, the tombs have maquettes, or ceramic figurines, establishing the kinship ritual. Simple activities are depicted, for instance, a mother giving birth. Many practices were in place for a long time before the Day of the Dead rituals we see today. These were to present death as an important part of life."
After Cortez and the introduction of Spanish Christianity to Latin America, the cultures mixed. Native traditions incorporated Christian components to varying degrees, depending on the locale. In urban areas, the day-to-day influence of the Church fostered a more Christian aspect to Day of the Dead, while in the countryside, Day of the Dead traditions remain only marginally affected. "Christian songs and ceremonies are seen today in Central Mexico, Mexico City and among the mestizo people," observes Sanchez, "while in southern Mexico and northern Guatamala, Day of the Dead rituals are more aligned to the Mayan ways."
According to Professor Zielina, the Mexican Indian culture reserved Nov. 1 as a day to honor children. The Catholic Spanish, who observed All Saints Day and All Souls Day on Nov. 1 and 2 respectively, absorbed the Indian day of celebrating children. Today, the Day of the Dead is a time to both honor those of the past, and acknowledge the hope for the future in children.
Photo: Día de los Muertos has changed with the times.
Like Halloween with its requisite jack o''lanterns, ghoulish costumes and candy giving, Day of the Dead has its recognizable features. "The centerpiece is the altar, called ''ofrende,'' or offering," says Zielina, "First, the altar is erected in the middle of four symbolic columns. These represent the four stages of life, the four points of the Earth, the four seasons. The altar must have marigolds and the four elements: water, fire, earth and wind. Shells represent the water on the ofrende, candles are the fire, corn, tomatoes, cacao and chiles represent the earth, and there is a flute for wind."
The marigolds serve as a symbol for the brevity of life. As can be seen in European cultures'' art and folk practices, a flower embodies sweet short life and fragility as it ripens to blossom, maintains this supple beauty for a few weeks at most, then withers away in the manner of all flesh.
Explains Zielina, "Also on the ofrende is copal, incense. The fragrance of marigolds and burning copal produces a smell like bones of the people who have passed from the material world. In addition, there is the figure of a black dog that represents a guide for the soul to the other life. Money is also placed there, for generosity and wealth, as well as a glass of water as a sign of respect."
The path to the house where the ofrende is set up must be prepared, or decorated, by a member of the family of the deceased, according to Zielina. That way the soul will recognize its people on its journey to its altar.
Toy skeletons and skulls are popular decorations for Day of the Dead altars today. Though evidence of such imagery dates back to the death mask figurine found at Montalban, the real renascence of these images came with the Mexican graphic artist Jorge Guadalupe Posada, who, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries produced thousands of woodcuts, lithographs and engravings featuring skeleton figures interacting with everyday people. These inexpensive broadsheets were wildly popular with the masses, who delighted in the depiction of well-known politicians and leaders being outdone by the skeletons. Posada, whose name is now synonymous with that type of satirical image, influenced Diego Rivera, David Siquerios, and the many muralists of post-revolution Mexico. Posada''s sense of absurdity, irony and disrespect served as a balm for the people as they went about their difficult lives. Today, that irony can be seen on many ofrende in the form of toy skeleton mariachi bands, a humorous embrace of death and the afterlife.
Says Sanchez of the Posada phenomenon, "I personally believe the irony was already in place. For example, in Oaxaca, people dress up as devils and make fun of the local leaders. Posada just took what was already there and brought it to the forefront."
Day of the Dead is a holiday in constant flux. Urban Mexicans, like their American counterparts during Halloween, run to the store to buy the things they''ll need. Rather than traditional handmade items and foodstuffs, they place mass-produced objects on their altars, candy skeletons and skulls instead of papier mache. Altars are designed according to modern themes--AIDS or 9/11--and some are commercial extravaganzas in hotels or public buildings designed to attract tourists.
As Sanchez points out, the holiday is still evolving: "Mexican-Americans have taken over the mestizo traditions, appropriating the Day of the Dead. The Chicano movement of the late 1960s identified the Day of the Dead as an important aspect of their heritage, but now it is in the United States and subject to change that comes from American culture."
For a schedule of local Day of the Dead festivities, see p. 29.