October 30, 1998

Dias De Los Muertos - Celebrating Death

"The word `Death' is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London because it burns the lips. The Mexican in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about, caresses it; it is one of his favorite toys and most steadfast love."

Octavio Paz

By Daniel Muñoz

Artist's renditon of an altar for Dias De Los Muertos, created by Jose Morales, on display at the Museum of Man.

It used to be that Dias De Los Muertos was strictly a Mexican holiday, celebrated south of the border. For most Mexican-Americans Halloween was as close as it came to celebrating the souls of the dead. But with growing cultural awareness, the desire to share in its heritage, and the fact that it just feels good to remember loved ones in a festive atmosphere, Dias De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is becoming more and more popular.

Throughout the Southwest, from San Diego to San Francisco Dias De Los Muertos is being celebrated this weekend. In San Diego County the Museum of Art, the Museum of Man, Sherman Heights Community Center, the Center of the Arts, in Escondido, to name a few are celebrating the return of the souls through community programs, art, and lecture.

But what is Dias de Los Muertos and where did it come from?


Dias de Los Muertos Tradition

Day of the Dead is an occasion for celebrating, cleaning and decorating graves, dancing and making music.

All over Mexico families gather to welcome souls of the dead on their annual visit. The smells of burning copal incense and pungent cempasuchil (the yellow and orange marigolds that cover the fields in November) mingle with aromas of fresh bread, new clothing, sweets, and candles.

Dias de los Muertos is celebrated on November 1st (a day for the children) and 2nd (for the adults). On these days it is believed the dead come from the beyond to visit with the living. Death is a party celebrated with: laughter, sugar, cempasuchil and candles.

Special foods are prepared, such as mole, and special breads are baked. It is believed that the souls of the dead gain strength with the vapors they breathe from the food. Once the dead has had his spiritual food, the relatives of the deceased eat heartily.

This is a time for visiting the cemetery, cleaning the graves, repainting, repairing headstones, and embellishing the graves with flowers. It is a time of recuerdo (remembrance), a time where the living relate to their dead in direct and familiar ways.


The Origin of Dias De Los Muertos

Dia De Los Muertos is a convergence of the Catholic Church and Aztec traditions.

Grace Johnson, curator of Latin American Ethnography, for the San Diego Museum of Man, describes the wedding of the two cultures:

"In the ninth century the Feast of All Hallows, or All Saints, was established by Pope Gregory IV as a celebration honoring the saints on November 1. Five centuries later All Souls Day, November 2, was established in the Roman Catholic calendar as a day to pray for the souls of the faithful dead in purgatory, to lighten their suffering. The Spanish friars brought these holidays to the New World in the sixteenth century.

"For the ancient Aztecs, the opposition between life and death was not absolute. In Aztec times, this concept led to human sacrifice, through which man could appease the gods, and in turn nourish the social life of the group.

"In pre-Hispanic Mexico, there was a belief that souls of the dead continued to need the fundamentals of this world. For the Aztecs, death was a compliment to life and intimately associated with life, therefore not necessarily better than the other. Death was perceived as a place, a further step in life that would offer more security and serenity when contrasted with the suffering and worries on this plane.

"The ancient Mexicans did not fear death, but accepted it as a complementary part of life. These beliefs were easily incorporated into the beliefs and rituals of the Catholic religion."

The Aztecs honored the souls of the dead children for a month and souls of the dead adults for another full month. The Aztecs offered human sacrifices, the Catholics offered prayer, but at the root of these traditions was to honor the dead. There was a middle ground where the two religions could meet.

"The missionaries compromised when they imposed the Catholic religion, resulting in the merging of native beliefs with Catholic beliefs," stated Johnson. "Instead of keeping the original meaning as a day to pray for the souls in Purgatory, All Souls' Day became a day to visit with and entertain the spirits of relatives. By doing away with human sacrifice and combining the Indian rituals with the Catholic All Saints' and All Souls' Days, the Mexicans were able to continue their ancestral practices of honoring the dead while incorporating the new religious system forced on them by the Spanish."

There were other coincidences that helped with the transition to the Day of the Dead. In Aztec mythology the symbol of the cross represented fire and therefore the sun, and it also represented the universe with the four cardinal directions and the center. In northern Spain at the time of the conquest, Catholics celebrated a mass to the dead on November 2, and went to the graves with offerings of wheat, bread, and wine. The Madrid custom of lighting a lamp on All Souls' Day for each dead family member might be the origin for the Mexican custom of lighting candles.

"The sky awakes in red. The aurora presents itself and the golden birds sing colored in lights of fire. The butterflies have returned. For all this the ancients say: Whoever has died has returned a god, wanting to talk about death. This was the thinking of the old generation of ancient Mexicans and with this concept they have respectfully made these ceremonies in order to help in the journey to the other rebirth leaving their material world.

For this reason the Day of the Dead is not considered a sad observance, it's a day of joy, because it is when our dearly departed ones re-visit us.

Toltecas en Aztlan,
San Diego

Dias De Los Muertos, Today

With time the Day of the Dead has changed, evolved.

Toward the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries Jose Guadalupe Posada delighted the Mexican people with his humorous skeleton illustration in publications that featured humorous rhymes known as "calaveras" or skull verses, which ridiculed public and private people, anyone with notoriety was a potential target. These calaveras became particularly popular during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz as a way to criticize without fear of reprisal.

Today, in Mexico the Day of the Dead is an elaborate set of customs and rituals. According to Johnson, it is also believed that the souls of the dead are the protectors of the living souls (angels), who demand good behavior and high-mindedness from those still on earth. At the same time the Day of the Dead allows family and friends the opportunity to spend time and enjoy the spirit and memory of the dead.

Altars with offerings of food, candy, toys (toys for a child, for adults items such as liquor and cigars are added), candles, flowers, and incense are set up in the homes for the returning spirits. In addition, pictures of the Virgin and various saints, sugar skulls, paper cut-outs with skeletal and/or religious imagery, photographs of the dead, and their favorite foods.

In addition to the alter set up at home, this is the time for the family to repair and clean up the grave sites, to plant fresh flowers and make offerings at the grave site. In some cases the people make a path of flower petals from the cemetery to the house so the souls can find their way back to their homes.

The living await their loved ones on the Day of the Dead. On the alter, prepared by the families, are items that the dead once enjoyed during their life, as well as the the dead's favorite foods on which they can feast on the aroma of. After November 2, friends and relatives are invited to eat the food.

In the United States the observance of the Day of the Dead has become an expression of the Mexican-American people getting in touch with their culture and heritage. You can see this at local cemeteries where families have cleaned and decorated the graves of family members.

The creation and decoration of the altar has become more than just a personal home alter, but has developed into an artistic expression of Mexican culture and as an opportunity to make political and social statements.

But more than anything else celebrating Dias De Los Muertos allows the living to once again share in the joy and love of our departed ones, not in a solemn fashion, but in a joyous festive celebration of death and life.


Day of the Dead Schedule of Events

Museum of Man Los Dias De Los Muertos: an illustrated lecture

The Musuem of Man will host Los Dias De Los Muertos, an illustrated lecture by Grace Johnson, curator of Latin American Ehtnography, Monday, Nov. 2, 1998, Noon. Cost: free for Museum Members, $5 non-members.

In this lecture, Ms. Honson will discuss the Days of the Dead, from the pre-Hispanic to today highlighted with a slide illustrated presentation.


Museum of Man's "Family Day"

The Museum of Man celebrates Days of the Dead Holiday noon to 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 1. Family Day combines the Museum's popular new Mummies exhibit with Mexico's "Days of the Dead" Holiday.

Local multi-media artist Jose Morales will demonstrate and teach his creative techniques in tissue paper cutting. Participants can partake in a variety of hands-on projects, including decorating miniature skulls, making clay mummies, and crafting skeleton puppets.

Family Day is free with Museum admission.


Death Comes To Everyone: A Participatory Offering

One of the most anticipated outdoor exhibitions offered by the Museum at the California Center for the arts, Escondido returns for its third year will be on view from Sun., Nov. 1 through Mon., Nov. 30.

The exhibit will open on Dia de los Muertos/Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday observed Nov. 1. From 6 to 8 p.m. on Sun., Nov. 1, the Museum will host a free reception featuring traditional Mexican bread and hot chocolate, and music for the occasion. As part of the celebration, the community is invited to participate by bringing and leaving photographs or personal belongings to their loved ones who have passed away. Visitors will have the opportunity to make traditional Mexican flower offerings during the reception. For information of the museum, call (760) 839-4120.


Museum of Contemporary Art Celebrates "Dia De Los Muertos"

Both locations of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego are open to the public free of charge the first Sunday of every month. In addition, special programs take place each first Sunday at MCA Downtown (1001 Kettner Blvd.) Museum hours on Sunday are noon to 5 p.m. Family activities take place from 2 to 5 p.m. This program is a component of Ojos Diversos/With Different Eyes.


"Dia de Los Muertos" At MCA Downtown

The theme of November's Free For All First Sunday is "Dia de los Muertos." Mary Lou Valencia returns to conduct her popular calavera workshop during the traditional Day of the Dead celebration. Pay homage to your ancestors and learn how to decorate your own sugar skull. Apply your talents to "cartoneria" (cardboard toys) or make an offering at our community altar. While you work on your projects, enjoy the live sound improvisations of Guillermo Mendosa and Carl Deese.


Días de los Muertos:

"Pasado y Presente"

Sherman Heights Presenta un simposium y exhibición

El Centro de la Comunidad Sherman Heights será el lugar donde se llevarán las celebraciones honrando a "El Día de los Muertos" y que durarán cuatro días.

Jueves, Octubre 29 de las 6 p.m. a las 8 p.m. habrá la presentación de dos lecturas. La primera será una dispo-sitiva sobre la importancia de Día de los Muertos, ex-poniendo este día festivo tan antiguo que data de la cultura Mexicana, Nativos Ameri-canos y Celtica, presentada por el Capitan Mario E. Aguilar.

La segunda lectura será presentada por Beatriz Barreiro sobre "La Ofrenda". Ella discutirá el simbolismo de los objetos tipicos mexicanos que se dan en ofrenda.

Viernes, Octubre 30 de las 6 p.m. a las 9 p.m. se llevará a cabo la construcción del altar comunitario en el cual la artista comunitaria Mary Lou Valencia dirigirá a los participantes mano a mano en la elaboración de éste.

Traiga recuerdos de sus seres queridos, (fotos, objetos, etc.,) para colocarlos en el altar en honor de sus seres queridos fallecidos a los cuales desea recordar en este evento.

Sábado, Octubre 31, 10 a.m. Apertura oficial de la exhibición de los altares de Día de Muertos, incluyendo una bendición especial a los Danzantes de Mexicayotl. La exposición de los altares estará abierta hasta las 5 p.m.

Un taller de Decoración de Calaveras de Azucar se llevará a cabo de las 11 a.m. a las 12 p.m. ($4 por persona, cupo limitado). Dulces hechos en formas variadas ha sido la tradición en estas celebra-ciones y ceremonias.

Taller de Papel Picado, de 1 p.m. a las 5 p.m. (cupo limitado). La tradición de papel picado en la cultura mexicana antecede al con-tacto con Europa.

Domingo, Noviembre 1, 12 p.m. a las 5 p.m. Exposición de los altares, incluyendo la presentación de los Danzantes Zapotecas de la Pluma de Zaachila, durante todo el día. Una exposición de Arte describiendo el Día de los Muertos. Exposición de Altares en el Gran Salón del Centro Comunitario de Sherman Heights represen-tando individuos y diferentes estados de México y Centro América.

El Centro Comunitario Sherman Heights está situado en el 2258 Island Avenue, San Diego.


Dias De Los Muertos: "Past and Present"

Sherman Heights presents a symposium and exhibition

The Sherman Heights Community Center will be the sight of four days of celebration honoring the "Day of the Dead."

Thursday, October 29 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. there will be two a presentation of two lectures. The first will be a slide presentation on the importance of the Dias de los Muertos, discussing this ancient holiday that reaches back into Mexican, Native American, and Celtic Culture presented by Capitan Mario E. Aguilar.

The second lecture will be presented by Beatriz Barreiro on "La Ofrenda" (The Offering). She will discuss the symbolism of the typical Mexican objects given as offerings.

Friday, October 30 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. there will be a Community Altar building. Community artist Mary Lou Valencia will lead interested participants in hands-on construction of a group altar. Be sure to bring momentos (e.g. photos, objects of remembrance) to place on the altar in honor of deceased loved ones you would like to remember for this event.

Saturday, October 31, 10 a.m. The official opening of the Dias de los Muertos altar exhibition, including a special benediction by the Danzantes de Mexicayotl. The altar exhibition will remain open until 5 p.m.

A Sugar Skull Decorating Workshop will take place from 11 a.m. to 12 noon ($4 per person, class size limited). Candy shaped in a variety of forms has been a tradition of long standing in celebration and ceremony.

Papel Picado Workshop, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. (class size limited). The tradition of paper banners in the Mexican culture is one that predates European contact.

Sunday, November 1, 12 noon to 5 p.m. Viewing of the altars, including performances by the Zapotec Dan-zantes de la Pluma de Zaachila throughout the day. An Art exhibition depicting the Days of the Dead. Altar exhibitions in the Grand Ballroom of the Sherman Heights Community Center representing individuals and different states of Mexico and Central America.

The Sherman Heights Community Center is located at 2258 Island Avenue, San Diego.


19th Annual Milhuikaihitl Aztek Naua Ceremony

Dia de los Muertos

Toltekas en Aztlan invites the public to commemorate the "19th Annual Traditional Milhuikaihuitl Aztek Naua Ceremony," Dia de los Muertos at Chicano Park, this Saturday, October 31, from 12 noon to 5 pm.

Toltekas en Aztlan will perform with poetry and traditional dances, featuring the special `Aztek Holistic Fire Ceremony', an ancient traditional prayer. In addition their will be workshop on altars, Aztek offering of flowers, and performances by dancers from Mexico, Los Angeles and San Diego.

If you are planning to attend the event the Toltekas are asking that you bring a donation in the form of food, flowers, candies, cardboard, sage, incense, charcoal or anything that you may think as appropiate for the Day of the Dead ceremony and the creation of an altar.

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