Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dia de los Muertos

A day for the living

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel Oct. 23, 2010.

“The Mexican…is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it…”

--Octavio Paz

I was fortunate enough to attend dancer/choreographer Tandy Beal’s multi-media presentation “HereAfterHere” last month at Cabrillo College, which attempts to “imagine the unimaginable” in exploring the question, “What happens after we die?” The performance explored the topic of death not only through spell-binding, thought-provoking dance, video, music, and theatre, but also, audience participation.

At intermission, we were asked to call another audience member on our cell phone—someone we didn’t know, but had been given their number—and share our personal view of what happens after we die. I was a little embarrassed by the experiment, but, with uncharacteristic optimism inspired by the performance, I plowed ahead, babbling something like, “if life itself is such an unknowable miracle, maybe death will be too.” When I asked my anonymous cell phone partner what he thought happens after we die, he offered, “I don’t know.”

Of course there are many cultures who embrace a very specific notion of the afterlife. The indigenous people of Mexico—the Aztecs—for example, believed that souls did not die, that they continued living in Mictlan—a parallel continuation of life. Mictlan was an ideal, peaceful place to stay until the day they could return to their old earthly homes and visit living relatives. Upon their return, relatives would not see them, but would feel their presence.

In Mexico today, the ancient traditions continue, woven together with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2). Each town and region in Mexico has its own way of celebrating the return of the dead on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), but the purpose is the same—to welcome relatives’ souls as guests, feed them, bring gifts and spend time with them.

In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigolds and candles, providing scents, colors and light to guide the souls home. They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.

In the United States and in Mexico’s larger cities, families build ofrendas (altars of offerings) in their homes to commemorate their loved ones. The elements are usually decorative (like cut tissue paper), symbolic (like incense, bread, candles, and flowers), personal (like photographs or possessions of the deceased), or traditional (like sugar skulls and skeletons).

In contrast to the more personal, home version, ofrendas can also be a kind of public art, frequently invested with humor and irony. Elegant catrinas (skeleton figurines) and sugar skulls created for use in public ofrendas may poke fun at transitory possessions like money and social status. It’s as if to say, despite all our pretentions and the inequalities in this life, death will ultimately be the great equalizer. They also remind us of our own mortality. Sometimes the sugar skulls are painted with tears, to show that the dead miss their everyday earthly life.

Jose Guadalupe Posada , the early 20th century Mexican cartoonist illustrator and artist, and after him, the muralist Diego Rivera, were the first to use skeletons in their work to make social and political statements. Posada’s best known works are his calaveras--whimsical engravings of elegantly dressed skeletons, meant to satirize the life of the upper classes. Since his death, his images have become associated with the Día de los Muertos.

Each year, all over the Bay Area, Día de los Muertos is celebrated privately and publicly on or near November 1-2 (see for a listing). But you don’t really need to go any further than Watsonville for a wide array of events. The community celebration—including impromptu altar-building, a peace ceremony, music, art and dance—will continue all day at the downtown Plaza on Saturday, October 30. At 4:30, a procession will travel from the Plaza to the Pajaro Valley Arts Council (PVAC) gallery on Sudden Street, to view altars created by local groups.

The theme for the gallery’s annual Día de los Muertos display—Mi Casa es Tu Casa, Celebrating Community Diversity—is inspired by Día de Los Muertos, but emphasizes multi-cultural interpretations. PVAC solicits applications each September, holds an altar-building workshop in October, and then offers a small floor/wall space for each altar in the gallery.

At the altar-building workshop on October 9, many participants were still formulating the concept for their altar. José Ortiz, from Hijos del Sol Arts in Salinas, helped participants get started by showing them how to cut lacey tissue paper designs (papel picado), and make dancing skeletons and tiny coffins from paper.

More experienced groups have gotten started on their own, and embracing the multi-cultural approach. Representing the Corralitos Artists’ Collective, Ann Cavanaugh and Mary Manfre have emphasized their Irish heritage to create their altar. “The Celts’ were a nature-based culture,” explains Cavanaugh. “They saw the earth as being home to all of us, and the ‘other world’ belonging to all of us too.” In their ofrenda they have used a doorway, a river, and animal imagery to symbolize a Celtic sense of eternity. Death is about “a spiraling world, in and out, recycling,” says Cavanaugh. “We come out of nature and we go back to nature.”

Groups typically meet ahead of time to work out their concept and distribute the tasks involved. But some altars are amorphous and organic, and don’t actually take shape until the group finally constructs their piece in the gallery.

The VooDoo Ridge Collective, discusses their theme and approach ahead of time, but they don’t necessarily work from a blueprint. During September and October they gather on Saturdays to work in their mentor Tom Wolver’s studio. This group of sculptors has created two boats to symbolize spiritual journey, but various members will add their own personal ceramic pieces to the finished altar, reflecting themes such as transition and transformation. “We all bring what we think will fit in,” says Pat Taylor. “It’s like working in clay. You don’t have a fixed thing in your mind, but somehow the creative process takes over and this amazingly spiritual thing is created.”