Originally published in the Occidental Weekly.
This Latin American holiday has undergone transformations in the United States that have extended its celebration beyond conventional reverence for the dead to include expanded festivities favoring skulls and bones in an open-ended political forum.
Skull faces grin from the corner bakery’s storefront. Children eat bone-shaped bread and skull-shaped candy. Neighborhood florists display baskets of golden marigolds. Scenes of skeletons are displayed everywhere-dancing, laughing, hugging, singing and thoroughly enjoying the afterlife. Los Angeles is ready to welcome Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
Currently celebrated throughout much of Latin America, Day of the Dead originated in Mexico from the Aztec practice of ancestor worship. Spanish conquerors brought their own rituals to Mexico for honoring the dead including a holy day called All Soul’s Day, celebrated on Nov. 2. Day of the Dead was created from the union of indigenous and Catholic rituals.
According to American Studies professor Tony Sandoval, “Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of loved ones and ancestors. It is a period of time given to show and tell your beloved ancestors that they are not forgotten.”
In traditional Mexican culture, death is considered to be one more phase of life and does not have the connotations of evil or pain as in much of American society. “Death cannot be avoided, so Mexicans. . . demonstrate that they do not fear it and are determined not to let it destroy the joys of living,” Boyé De Mente, author of There’s a Word for it in Mexico: The Complete Guide to Mexican Thought and Culture writes. “As a result, Mexicans joke about death as if it were a comic ritual.” Day of the Dead becomes a time to laugh at death while celebrating the joys of life.
The spirit of celebration prevails in Mexico’s vibrant festivities, typically including the preparation of elaborate altars dedicated to dead family members. Frequently called “ofrendas” in Spanish, from the word for “offering,” displays are filled with candles, photographs, flowers and other objects that were meaningful in the life of the remembered person. Families often spend the night at cemeteries, adorning graves and celebrating the lives of their loved ones with food, drink, conversation and music.
Day of the Dead symbols include the skull (calavera) and skeleton (calaca). Calaveras, often made of sugar candy or brightly colored papier-mâché, are lighthearted and joyful. Calacas are frequently whimsical, playful figures in festive dress.
Another symbol is the golden marigold, in keeping with its Aztec name meaning of “flower of 400 lives.” It is believed that the bright, fragrant flower helps lead the dead spirits home to be among their loved ones.
Even the food prepared for Day of the Dead is symbolic. An essential item is pan de muerto (bread of the dead) baked in the shape of a heap of bones and often decorated with cheerful rainbow sprinkles. Of course, no Mexican fiesta would be complete without papel picado – the brightly colored paper flags in intricate designs often adorned with figures of skeletons and skulls.
In the 1970s United States Latino communities began embracing Day of the Dead. Chicano leaders recognized the holiday’s importance as a source of pride in Latino heritage. Activists organized public events that became more popular over the years as the number of Latino immigrants increased.
As the holiday’s popularity grew, it took on new meanings. While festivities in Latin America are family-oriented and emphasize ritual obligations to the deceased, United States communities reinvented the observations as choreographed, public events. Observed in community centers, schools, libraries, museums and parks, Day of the Dead events may include dance and music performances, art shows, altar exhibits and processionals appealing to Latinos and non-Latinos alike. Day of the Dead has become a hip Halloween alternative, incorporating pumpkins, costumes and trick trick-or-treating.
One example is the celebration at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, final resting place of notables such as Cecil B. DeMille, Jayne Mansfield, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, John Huston and Dee Dee Ramone. Founded in 1899, it epitomizes Hollywood’s glamour and glitz with its elaborate mausoleums and structures including the site of the Paramount Studios building on the original lot.
For Day of the Dead, the cemetery trades its somber atmosphere for dazzling colors, rollicking music and masquerade. Revelers enjoy tangy tequila in neon-colored plastic cups and tasty tacos. This fusion of contemporary celebration and ancient tradition at a cemetery-festival seems to define the unique culture of Los Angeles. This is expressed by Los Angeles Times writer Sam Quinones who commented that the festival has a “quirky, only-in-L.A. sensibility.”
At last year’s Day of the Dead festival, the sight of hundreds of elaborate altars on borrowed grave sites was a delight to both the senses and imagination. Some altars were traditionally Mexican-themed, with bright banners and marigolds. Some made political statements like the altar dedicated to fallen soldiers of the Iraq war. Others were one-of-a-kind tributes, such as an altar of skeleton-style Looney Tunes characters. One featured a checkerboard dance floor adorned by record album covers from long-gone rock and roll stars. Yet another humorous display honored the Beatles, with images of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr appearing alive and well, while John Lennon and George Harrison looked, well, skeletal.
There seemed to be an even mix of Latinos and non-Latinos taking advantage of the chance to be expressive and creative. One of the altar-makers, Maripat Donovan, expressed her non-traditional intentions as “very American and show-bizzy. We’re not Mexicans. . .but we’re going to incorporate the holiday spirit in our own little Hollywood way.”
One element of the altar assembly was decidedly untraditional by Mexican standards. The altars were not only for display but were also entries into a competition. Winners were awarded prizes of up to $3000.
The altar to the Ramones, the classic 70s and 80s punk rock band, also reflected an unconventional portrayal. Although Dee Dee is the only Ramone actually buried at the cemetery, a bronze cenotaph of Johnny Ramone and his guitar stand on the site, adjacent to a flea-market-style display of Ramones tee-shirts for sale. The display of grave, cenotaph and tee shirt concession stand makes a great photo opportunity.
Surrounding the rows of altars were parades, crafts, giant puppets, theater, music, food and drink. There’s something remarkable about hearing raucous, loud music in a cemetery, performed by musicians dressed as skeletons with painted skull faces. Two years ago, I heard Jaramar Soto, a singer/songwriter, display her mellifluous, passionate vocal style at the festival. Her beauty inspired one audience member, a man in a skeleton costume who seemed to be enjoying his tequila as much as the music, to leap on the stage and present Jaramar with a marigold. As she warmly hugged the skeleton-man, his skull face erupted in a grin of pure delight.
I loved the traveling brass bands with their ample complement of clarinets, trumpets and tubas along with enormous papier-mâché calavera masks. Another highlight was a Mexican guitarist playing inside the mausoleum among displays of flashily-dressed calacas.
But there was still more. Rows upon rows of arts and crafts and merchandise booths sold typical craft-fair items-purses, jewelry, clothes, scarves and hair ornaments-each reflecting a unique and clever representation of Day of the Dead symbols.
The atmosphere was embellished by the parade of mingling Hollywood hipsters, Mexican grannies and wide-eyed-babies. Many were dressed in what Hollywood Forever calls, “calaca-wear” while others chose Halloween black-and-orange attire or costumes.
Traveling to East Los Angeles, L.A.’s Latino community greets Day of the Dead with a frenzied enthusiasm. Self-Help Graphics, a fixture of L.A.’s Chicano art world, traditionally hosts an elaborate schedule of events. Preparations begin in mid-October with a series of workshops in constructing papier-mâché puppets, papel picado and even a family-altar-on-a-stick. On Nov. 1 the community altar is built and a procession takes place ending at the Self-Help Graphics building. This year, an exhibit entitled “A Call to Witness: All is Not Forgotten” will run until Nov. 29th featuring altar displays whose theme is the cultural legacy of Self-Help Graphics.
Another prominent event is the Festival de la Gente (People’s Festival) taking place in Downtown L.A. on Nov. 1 and 2. Previously, the festival took place on the Sixth Street Bridge between Downtown and East L.A., but this year it moves to the Barker Block, a new loft complex in the downtown arts district. The enormous party is sponsored by Arte Calidad, an academy providing art training and job preparation to Latino youth. Arte Calidad creates giant papier-mâché figures, puppets and piñatas, specializing in calaveras and skeletons for Day of the Dead.
They also specialize in a creation known as “the Judas figure.” Founder and artist Tony Dominguez, who once made an 80-foot calavera, described the work saying, “Judas figures are like giant puppets. . .you light them on fire, you break them and you blow them up with fireworks. They celebrate destruction of old spirits and the celebration of new life.”
In addition to the large Day of the Dead festivals there are events in Occidental’s neighborhood. The Cactus Gallery at 4534 Eagle Rock Blvd. is presenting a show called “Skullz” until Nov. 6, featuring oil and acrylic paintings on canvas and wood, 3D works, mixed media works, photography and printmaking contributed by 39 artists. An altar installation is replete with traditional marigolds, candles, photos and candy.
The Day of the Dead show at Ave 50 Studio is called “Letters and Secrets of the Dead.” Running until Nov. 2 at the gallery on 131 N. Ave. 50 in Highland Park, the show features the work of 22 artists and explores the final messages of the dead, written and/or illustrated by notable Chicano artists. One particularly moving piece is an artfully embellished letter from a father to a son apologizing for failing to deter him from a life of crime. Another notable piece is a framed letter from Madama Butterfly (of the Puccini opera) to her lover, Pinkerton, whose faithlessness led her to suicide.
In nearby Pasadena, the Folk Tree, a Latin-American folk art store at 217 S. Fair Oaks Ave. commemorates Day of the Dead with an exhibition of “Altars and Ephemera” through Nov. 2. The store is a treasure chest for striking folk-art pieces. The altars on display are highly personal, commemorating a range of people, events, and issues. An altar invited viewers to write messages on papers which are then bound to sticks and planted in the exhibit’s sandy base. When the exhibit closes, the artist will burn the messages with ritual fire with sage, cedar and sweet grass.
An altar created by students of Pasadena’s Sequoyah School is an arrangement of yarn to signify the connection between Mexican crafts and the shared community represented by woven products. In addition to the displays, the Folk Tree sells folk art that is typically found and sold on the streets of Mexico before Day of the Dead.
At the Tropico de Nopal Gallery at 1665 Beverly Blvd. in Echo Park, the fashion world collides with the realm of the spirits. For the fifth year, the gallery will host the Calavera Fashion Show on Nov. 8. Over 14 artists and fashion designers will participate in elaborate “Walking Altars” and dramatic presentations. As gallery owner Reyes Rodriguez said, “This is as alternative as it gets.” Each design has its own theme, whether serious or humorous. In 2004, one design was a Calavera-Alligator-Wrester from Echo Park. The costume consisted of a helmet which had a papier-mâché alligator skull and skeleton bones attached.
Another way in which the United States has recast Day of the Dead is as a stage for social commentary. In this country, highly visible celebrations can help raise awareness of significant issues that may otherwise be ignored by mainstream media and government. Because of this holiday’s novelty and colorful photo opportunities, Day of the Dead activities receive significant news coverage. Community vigils, public altars, dramatic processions and spectacular performances with dance, music, masks and puppetry attract attention providing a forum to express opinions about societal issues.
On occasion, Day of the Dead events serve as forums for consequential political statements. In Santa Monica, a 1994 candlelight vigil attracted over 1,000 people to protest the rising number of gang-related deaths. Featuring altars honoring slain gang members, it culminated in a truce between warring gangs.
Also in 1994, Los Angeles Communities United for a Sustainable Environment (L.A. CAUSA) held a Day of the Dead community forum and art exhibit to draw attention to environmentally-caused illnesses. “Revisiting the Dead: Latinos and the Environment” focused on the influx of toxins in South Los Angeles created by a high concentration of industrial plants in the area. The festival initiated a community-based action to reduce environmental hazards.
This year, several Day of the Dead exhibits in Northeast Los Angeles address social concerns. At the Avenue 50 Gallery, a large canvas entitled “Dear Ecology” depicts a Monarch butterfly accompanied by a message proclaiming, “Dear Ecology. . .we are all dead,” suggesting that Día de los Muertos should recognize not only people but also a decaying environment.
An altar at the Folk Tree gallery protests mistreatment of cows in slaughterhouses. Entitled “Meat is Torture,” a large, collage-like, colorful rendition of a cow overlooks the artist’s statement expressing concern for the animal. Although the altar lightheartedly depicts cows with felt wings flying in a night sky, further inspection shows the stars to be made of hamburgers and slabs of raw meat, giving the work a startling meaning.
Day of the Dead festivities in contemporary Los Angeles have strayed from their traditional roots. Along with these, many alternative celebrations become a reflection on the essence of the holiday. Is it appropriate for Day of the Dead to take on new meanings? Does the re-invention of the holiday reflect a loss of culture and tradition?
Occidental Spanish Teacher’s Assistant Mercedes Muñoz believes in traditional observances of Day of the Dead as practiced in her native country, the Dominican Republic. She says that, “In spite of all the colorful paraphernalia that is used for it. . .it should be lived, maintained and communicated with the highest respect possible.”
Juan Medina, external affairs chair of Occidental’s Mexican-American student group MeCHA, applauds modern, non-traditional observances of Day of the Dead as a creative way to engage in social commentary. However, he believes the most important function of Day of the Dead is education. He said, “Dia de los Muertos serves not only as a way to remember our ancestors and pay respects to those in our families who came before us, but, it also serves as a means to teach the future generations about their past; about their own personal family histories.”
Jim Marquez, author of East L.A. Collage and columnist for the Downtown LA’s art magazine Citizen LA, appreciates Day of the Dead festivals but does not find public celebrations meaningful to him. He said, “I prefer to do that in private.” He also emphasizes that he honors the dead every day, writing, “I don’t need a day set aside for it.”
Certainly, Day of the Dead is uniting Latinos and non-Latinos in new observances of old traditions. Gustavo Arellano, acclaimed satirist and writer of the nationally syndicated “¡Ask a Mexican!” column published regularly in the OC Weekly believes that Americanization of ethnic holidays is part of the assimilation process. He wrote, “America doesn’t truly accept its immigrants until ethnic cultural feasts get warped. . .and people forget the original meaning behind the occasion.” He pokes fun at hipsters who buy “do-it-yourself sugar-skull kits available at craft stores and build altars not to honor the souls who rest with God but because they read about it in Lonely Planet.”
Naddia Palacios of Occidental’s Intercultural Community Center explains her view that in the United States, Day of the Dead observances are becoming more and more commercialized. She said that using the day for social commentary and protest might be “another way of changing its true meaning to appeal to a crowd that might not be interested in it as simply a day of remembering family members.”
© Copyright 2010 The Occidental Weekly