Reflection: Prof. Mercado Shares Dia de los Muertos History, Significance

Reflection: Prof. Mercado Shares Dia de los Muertos History, Significance

University of San Diego Communication Studies Assistant Professor Antonieta Mercado, PhD, organized a Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) Altar and Exhibition of Student Art Nov. 1-2. This year, the altar and exhibit is in the Student Life Pavilion Exhibition Hall across from Torero Store. A Nov. 1 program featured José González, a Mixtec immigrant from Oaxaca and member of Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations), sharing the spiritual traditions of his elders, and explaining the philosophical meaning of death for indigenous cultures in Mexico and other parts of the Americas. Florencia Camacena, a Mixteco language teacher and community representative in Linda Vista, blessed the altar. The USD Mariachi Band performed and three students from Dr. Mercado’s Introduction to Media Studies class — Grace McLeod, Jazmin Moore and Daisy Nutter — shared stories about their contributions to the exhibit, which can be viewed Nov. 2 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Below, Dr. Mercado reflects on the history and significance of Dia de los Muertos, the altar and more.

Day of the Dead display 2016

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.

Celebrations, Remembrances

The traditional cempazúchitl or zempoalxóchitl flower (marigold) used in altars symbolizes the color of death (yellow) for many indigenous groups, such as the Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Nahua. It is believed 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 brought religious syncretism to this custom, and placed the current celebration on Nov. 1, to honor the souls of dead children, and Nov. 2 to honor adults who had passed. Catholic traditions have Nov. 1 as the Feast of All Saints and Nov. 2 as the Feast of All Souls.

Pre-Colonial festivities honoring the dead used to last 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.  

Socio-Cultural Expression and Political Criticism 

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 19th and early 20th centuries in Mexico political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada published drawings of male and female skeletons dressed very elegantly (as catrines or 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 draw attention to their miserable conditions under the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship. 

The tradition of criticism 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.), many of these verses are called “Calaveras literarias.” The satire implies that a particular figure was been taken by la muerte (death) as punishment for his or her bad deeds in an ultimate act of justice. It is also common to exchange satirical poems, and candy in the form of sugar skulls as a sign of friendship. 

Day of the Dead Artistic Evolution  

The 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 U.S. 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 muralist Diego Rivera in the first part of the 20th century. 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 U.S. Men also paint their faces in a mix of “catrines” and gothic motifs. 

Cultural Appropriation 

The aesthetic elements of the altars have been commercialized in the U.S. 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 U.S. and Mexico. Even Nestle is posting Day of the Dead colorful skulls on its bottles of drinking water. In 2013, Disney Corp. unsuccessfully tried to trademark the Day of the Dead in order 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 actor Rodolfo (Rudolph) Valentino are buried, now hosts a huge celebration of the holiday every year. 

In San Diego, there is a growing interest for the holiday that has been celebrated mainly in Latino neighborhoods such as Barrio Logan, and some indigenous migrant communities from Mexico in North County; and now is extended to a big commercial 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, or Mictlán, 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. 

— Dr. Antonieta Mercado, Communication Studies