Since ancient times, El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead has been celebrated in several regions of Mexico, as well as in other Latin American countries. November 1st and 2nd involve various rituals-- this is when every year those who are living remember their departed relatives. Sometimes when people of other cultures hear about the celebration of the Day of the Dead, they mistakenly think it must be gruesome, scary, ugly or sad. Nothing could be further from the truth. Day of the Dead is a beautiful observance in which Mexicans and other Latinos happily and lovingly remember their relatives who have died…much like when we go to a cemetery to leave flowers on a loved one’s grave.
One of the largest and wealthiest kingdoms of pre-Hispanic times was the Purepecha or Tarascan empire, in what is now the state of Michoacán. The Purepecha were able to maintain their independence from the powerful Aztecs, who at the time had control over most of Mesoamerica. Like other pre-Hispanic civilizations, these people succumbed to the Spanish conquerors, who imposed their customs, their language and their Catholic religion. The native people acquired these new cultural elements, but blended and adapted them to their own culture; from this fusion new beliefs and rituals were born, such as the celebration of the Day of the Dead.
Michoacán’s religious traditions represent the merging of the two cultures. Towards the last days of October, the entire region prepares for the great Los Dias de Muertos or Days of the Dead. The plaza fills with stands that offer all types of colorful figures allusive to death, the most popular being skulls made of sugar. Markets are filled with the cempasúchil flower, the orange marigold that was the flower the Aztecs used to remember their dead. Its color represents the tones of earth and is used to guide the souls to their homes and altars. Many families grow their own cempasúchil, believing that doing so is more appropriate for their offerings. Through their work and their care, these flowers grow and will finally adorn their altars and tombs.
All over the country, bakeries offer the delicious Pan de Muerto, the bread of the dead, which is adorned with strips of dough simulating bones and a small round piece of dough at the top symbolizing teardrops. These breads are placed on the altars at home, and are also taken to graveyard. At home, ofrendas or altars are set up on a table covered with a tablecloth and papel picado. They are decorated with sugar skulls, candles, cempasuchil flowers, photos, and paper mache skeletons. Plates with the favorite foods and drink of the dead relatives are placed on the altar. And on the ofrendas for children who have died, relatives place special toys.
Characteristic of the Michoacán region are the wooden arches, created by the families for the cemetery, which are adorned with cempasuchil and fruit. Families spend all night at the gravesite, talking, telling stories, remembering their loved ones. There is no crying, no sadness, but a strong belief in the spirits that will remain for all eternity.
JOSE GUADALUPE POSADA
The name Posada and his lively skeletons are linked as icons of contemporary Day of the Dead celebrations and culture. Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) popularized humorous images of death in bitingly satiric, mass-produced etchings and lithographs that have enthralled Mexicans for generations. By depicting social and political personalities as calacas or skeletons, Posada's posters achieved lasting and unrivaled popularity. By caricaturing his targets in their bare bones, his scathing and often risky political satire became funnier and thus more acceptable.
In his posters, priests, politicians, farmers and street sweepers share the same destiny -- death, an end neither money nor power can outwit. For a country living in extreme social inequality during the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, the idea of the rich and poor alike one day rubbing elbows (if only bone to bone) was attractive to the masses.
Posada's handprinted calaveras, accompanied by witty social commentary in rhyming verse, reached the farthest corners of the Mexican Republic. To this day, his work pervades the image and spirit of Mexican folk artists. The Catrina, an upperclass lady of the turn-of-the-century always depicted in her broad-brimmed hat, has become a classic in Mexican folk art and is displayed prominently in many store windows. The images can be found in everything from fine ceramic and artistic paper mache figures, to inexpensive papel picados and plaster miniatures.
Another visual homage to Posada appears in Diego Rivera’s mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park), 1948,in which he included the printmaker and one of his famous creations, the Doña Catrina Calavera.
Posada’s imagery has appeared in everything from Chicano murals to rock music album covers and book jackets in recent years. In a paradoxical prophecy, Diego Rivera once said: "Posada was so great that perhaps one day his name will be forgotten." It is true that many people who are familiar with his dynamic and imaginative calaveras--even those who continue to use and modify his work--have never heard his name.
“Posada’s was a life of hard work, relative poverty, and anonymity. Yet, within this context he created a body of work of incredible originality and expressiveness, employing a remarkable economy of artistic and material means. As his calaveras remind us, death makes fools of us all. Rich and poor, proud and humble are placed on a level playing field. The closest we can come to eternal life is the longevity of those who leave something universal behind, like Posada.? – Stella de Sá Rego