Museum Blog

El Dia de los Muertos

Posted 10/27/2011 12:10 AM by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh | Comments

With life, inevitably arrives death, the great immovable mountain of the human landscape.

Yet despite death's common claim, societies have developed their own particular ways of grieving, remembering, and healing. Each year, at November's beginning, we may share in one of the most dynamic cultural traditions offering a salve for death's sting.

El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is practiced across the Americas, a time to remember our ancestors, beloved, and friends. Like Christmas and many other holidays, Day of the Dead has multiple points of origin. The deepest roots, however, reach back to ancient Mexico, to the Aztec belief that the dead could at times revisit the living. Aztecs held special rites when they suspected that the facade fell away between the spirit world and our own.

After Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors conquered the Aztec empire in 1521, European colonialists attempted to end Indigenous traditions they thought violated Christian orthodoxies. But because this Aztec cultural practice of death paralleled the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day, it was tolerated and quietly survived through the centuries.

Today, Día de los Muertos is celebrated in many ways, varying regionally. A shared practice is to make an altar laid out with photos, flowers, candles, and the favorite things of a person to be honored. Commonly, accompanying the altars are parades, music, dance, and feasts. What is so wonderfully unique about this holiday is that it is a joyous occasion; it is not a funeral though it often takes place in graveyards, but an embrace of death in the rush of our ever receding lives.

Several years ago, my museum accepted an altar by the local Chicano artist Jerry Vigil, who was dubbed the "Dean of the Dead" in 2005. This piece conveys that contradictory mix of the macabre and merry that epitomizes Day of the Dead. The altar stands about two feet high, painted black and covered in illustrated skulls, their jaws yawning in laughter. At the heart of the altar is an old black-and-white portrait of a serious man with a thick mustache and three-piece suit. Surrounding the photo are decorated sugar skull sculptures and paper marigold flowers, both of which present Aztec symbolisms of death. A banner arching above the altar reads "Jose Guadalupe Posada." Jerry recently told me how he chose to honor Posada, an artist who more than a century ago began designing the dancing skeleton imagery that predominate the modern celebration's iconography.

This exuberant altar highlights the latest adaptation of Day of the Dead -- a shift to using these traditional crafts to make art forms that speak across different cultures. For no matter what your ethnic background or religious creed, all of us can understand the desire to respect our ancestors and reflect on our mortality. And, this is why we collected Jerry's fantastic piece, and perhaps why in recent years we have seen ever more public Day of the Dead festivities in schools and communities around the Rocky Mountains and beyond it. 

Because while the language of Day of the Dead is passed down from Aztec and Catholic traditions about death, this day nevertheless says something universal about life.  

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