Wednesday, October 26, 2011

La Muerte, La Calaca, La Pelona: Jose Guadalupe Posada and Day of The Dead

One of my favorite artists, is Mexican illustrator and cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). His drawings (engravings), reminiscent of Francisco Goya's work, are masterful satires of all classes of society, from the "Los Jodidos" (The "screwed" or poor) to "Los Ricos", the Rich, portray death is the ultimate Equal Opportunity

The pet names Mexicans have ascibed for Death speak volumes: La Calaca (Bag of Bones), La Pelona (Old Baldy), and La Chingada (The Screwed One).

Posada's death figures are not "monstrous" or "scary" but laughable, a thing not to be feared but laughed at and mocked, and they are not to be confused with the skulls and skeletons of our own Halloween. 

The beauty of Posada's work for me lies in how evenly his satire is distributed across society, and his piercing, unflinching eye for the whole laughable burden of human folly and suffering. No one is exempt; no one escapes.

His "Calaveras", the skeleton figures mocking life's brevity, and death as a grinning and fitting end for us all, have become the iconic image for Dia de Muertos, celebrated each November 2nd, in Mexico.

The annual celebration is a fusion of ancient Precolumbian Indian beliefs about death and the afterlife, and European Catholic ones. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, the Catholic church, in its quest to assimilate the local peoples, was quick to encourage "similarities" between European beliefs, and native ones, so All Saints Day, already celebrated on November 2, was combined with indigenous celebrations to honor the dead at that time of year, to become Dia de Muertos (Day of The Dead). 

Native peoples believe that for one day, the spirits of the dead visit with the living, so home and public altars or "ofrendas" are prepared to welcome and honor the wandering spirits.

These are laden with candles, candy, food, liquor, religious prints and statues and mementos, and decorated  with brightly colored "papel picado", cut tissue paper created especially for the occasion. It is believed the tired, and hungry souls will partake of the offerings.

Weeks before, the martket places are filled with candy, sugar skulls, "Pan de Muerto" (sweet bread in shapes of skulls), and a myriad of death figurines, to be used on the altars.

Unfortunately, the holiday also falls near Halloween, so people are quick to conclude that Dia De Muertos is a Mexican Halloween. It is not. And if anything, it is much more like our own celebration of Memorial Day where we take flowers and mementos to the cemetery to remember our dead.

Days before, the grave sites are cleaned and decorated with wreathes made of Cempasuchil (Merigolds), the ancient Flower of The Dead, and also laden with candles and food for the ancestors. The entire night of November 2nd is spent at the cemetery with family members sitting together on the grave sites, praying and singing, and serenaded by roaming Mariachi bands. The holiday is most popular on the island of Janitizio, Michoacan and in the city of Oaxaca, in the state of Oaxaca, and attracts visitors from all over the world.

At dawn, the souls return to their eternal dwelling in the afterlife, and the living clean up the cemetery, and tear down the ofrendas until the next year.

Not surprisingly, the holiday jumped the border (legally) sometime during the Chicano Movement of the 1970's when things Mexican became precious to us Chicanos in the U.S., and Chicano artists across the Southwest introduced Americans to this unique tradition, but with a touch of the North. Altars now became works of art, to be appreciated in gallery or museum settings and were sometimes dedicated to groups of individuals, musicians, artists, actors or to a social or political idea, AIDS, war, discrimination, immigration, instead of only family members.

Tragically, the holiday has been associated with "hocus-pocus", Black Magic, or Satanism, by certain ignorant do-gooders, or religious conservatives and incidents of parents trying to "sue" school districts because their son or daughter was forced to participate in this barbaric or heathenish ritual in the classroom of some liberal educator, are not uncommon.

If you want paricipate in this tradition on November 2nd, you can create a simple altar of your own on a table, dedicated to one or more of your own beloved deceased, decorated with candles, flowers, photos, food and mementos. It's easy and simple, and special.  (Avoid Halloween decorations).

And while you're at it, why not take a moment to have a beer or a shot of tequila with an ancestor for old times sake?


Elizabeth said...

Found your blog in a round about way from Latinopia feature on L.A.XICANO
DIGA ME. Enjoyed the Dia de los Muertos post. I made my first ofrenda this 56...never too late! I also started my first blog, and have hit a snag on a manuscript about my husband's struggles with his PTSD. Reading your work, and others is strangely reassuring. Thank you.

Rick Rivers said...

Gracias, Elizabeth. No it's never too late to make first ofrenda. Many people are simply timid, afraid they will do it "wrong". I am member of a Chicano/Mexican cultural center and hold yearly Day of Dead exhibit. I really enjoy helping others create their first altar. It is a deeply spiritual experience. Hang in there with your new blog. I will try to find it.

V said...

I LOVE Dia de los muertos...probably too much, in fact. I have an alter up in my house every day. And I am obsessed with calaveras. I've even make sugar skulls from scratch. Haven't done pan de muertos, though. Not the best cook.

Rick Rivers said...

V. I love calaveras too. I have done several pieces of art, ceramic sculpture, drawing and paintings. If you scroll way back to some of my first posts, you will find a few pics of my art. You haven't posted for a while? Miss your stuff!