USD Presents a Day of the Dead Altar & Exhibit of Student Art
By Antonieta Mercado
The Day of the Dead celebration is a syncretic mix of Latin American indigenous practices and Catholic spiritual tradition. Families in many Latin American countries and U.S. communities honor the spirit of the dead as the ancestors did by creating altars or ofrendas (offerings), placing favorite foods, photos, special bread (“pan de muerto”) and other items associated with the ones who are gone.
The traditional cempazúchitl or zempoalxóchitl flower (marigold) that is used in altars symbolizes the color of death (yellow) for many indigenous groups, such as the Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Nahua. It is believed that the yellow color of the flower can be seen by the dead, so its petals are placed forming a road directing the souls to the altar. Abundant marigolds are placed in different forms, either as an arch, or in flower vases around the altar.
European colonization also brought religious syncretism to this custom, and placed the current celebration on November 1st, to honor the souls of dead children, and on November 2nd to honor the adults who had passed. November 2nd is also All Saints Day in the Catholic Tradition. Pre-Colonial festivities honoring the dead used to last from one to three months, depending on the particular group or region. For example, the Nahua, Totonaca, and Maya, believed that the dead would go to the underworld or Mictlán region to meet Mictlantehcutli, the dual male/female deity of death.
In order to help them reach Mictlán the living have to give offerings and celebrate the lives of the departed during the festivities, which are a moment to remember the dead with joy. Indigenous culture in Mexico and other parts of Latin America conceive death in a dialectical way, as part of life, and represented artistically in many cultural productions.
This spiritual celebration has also been used as a communication device and a channel for socio- cultural expression and political criticism, something that can be linked to what is known as a “cultural public sphere” or the space where culture turns into social and political action. Before the Colonial period ended in what is now known as Mexico, many critics started to use day of the dead images to criticize the colonial aristocracy and mock their convoluted names with satirized verses and images of death.
At the early stages of Independence, journalists and artists used “Calaveras literarias” (literary satirical verses) to criticize politicians and members of the upper classes. At the end of the Ninetieth and early Twentieth Centuries in Mexico political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada published drawings of male and female skeletons dressed very elegantly (as the catrines or the aristocrats would do) to criticize the extreme economic and social polarization that led to the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Posada also portrayed peasants and the poor as skeletons, to call attention to their miserable conditions under the Diaz dictatorship.
The tradition of criticism that Posada inaugurated has prevailed and grown in recent times, making the Day of the Dead a time when journalists, artists, cartoonists and the public write satirical poetry and draw cartoons about the rich and famous (celebrities, politicians, members of the elite, etc). The satire implies that a particular figure was been taken by la muerte (death) as punishment for his or her bad deeds. It is also common to exchange satirical poems, and candy in the form of sugar skulls among friends as a sign of comradery.
This type of art associated to the Day of the Dead’s spiritual tradition and social criticism, keeps evolving and with increased migration and global flows of communication, the celebration has become popular among different communities in California and other parts of the United States. Many Latino families and immigrants have celebrated the holiday for spiritual reasons, to honor their dead, and have also used the critical side of the celebration to foster community spaces for social justice and dignified representation in an unequal society.
The custom is rapidly moving to become mainstream as “tradition” becomes more syncretic with new elements added to it by the cultures that adopt it. In California, the figure of “catrina” or the skeleton woman elegantly dressed has taken a new meaning, with the mix of images of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who had an extensive Day of the Dead art collection in the house she shared with Diego Rivera.
Many women now paint their faces to resemble either Frida or “la catrina,” around the celebration of Halloween and the Day of the Dead in the United States, men also paint their faces in a mix of “catrines” and gothic motifs. The aesthetic elements of the altars have also been commercialized in the United States in something akin to cultural appropriation. It is possible to see widespread celebrations of the holiday attached to sales of crafts, wine or food in the US and Mexico. Even Nestle is posting Day of the Dead colorful skulls on its bottles of drinking water!
In 2013 Disney Corporation unsuccessfully tried to trademark the Day of the Dead to be able to make movies and other products using the very attractive artistic motifs of the altars. Hollywood Forever, a cemetery located in East Hollywood and in which celebrities such as Rodolfo Valentino are buried, now hosts a huge celebration of the holiday every year where artists such as Lila Downs have performed.
In San Diego, there is a growing interest for the holiday that has been celebrated mainly in Latino neighborhoods such as Barrio Logan, and now is extended to a big celebration in Old Town, where craft merchants and restaurants join in the elaboration of altars, and in the organization of a parade that goes for several streets.
In October 2014, 20th Century Fox released an animation movie called “The Book of Life” inspired in indigenous beliefs of the afterworld, and with images of the modern celebrations of the holiday, mixed with European culture, particularly Spanish culture in the image of a bullfighter from Spain.
In this movie, the underworld looks like a giant ofrenda or altar. The aesthetic elements of this tradition have made cultural appropriation and commercialization very easy, without much consideration for its more profound spiritual and social criticism components, and for the communities who celebrate the tradition mainly from the spiritual significance of honoring the ancestors. For example, since 2007 Disney has had a Day of the Dead display in its amusement park in Anaheim California.
Our Altar at the University of San Diego
In this altar at the University of San Diego, we have tried to incorporate the artistic, to the spiritual and the journalistic criticism sides of the celebration with artwork from students and the university community members.
José González, a Mixteco indigenous migrant from the state of Oaxaca, and member of Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations), will share with us the spiritual traditions of his elders and will give an explanation about the meaning of different objects in the altar. Students taking Introduction to Media Studies and Intercultural Communication classes had been working since the beginning of the semester on their art projects and reflections about the value of cultural celebrations for initiating dialogue in the public sphere.
Day of the Dead Altar & Exhibit of Student Art
October 30, 2015
University of San Diego
Student Life Pavilion Exhibit Hall
Comm130 and Comm475 Students
Organizer: Professor Antonieta Mercado
The purpose of the altar is to show our campus community the ever-changing face of “tradition” and the dialogical and transformative role of culture in the public sphere.