In “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” writer-poet Octavio Paz said, “The opposition between life and death was not so absolute to the ancient Mexicans as it is to us.
“Life extended into death, and vice versa. Death was not the natural end of life but one phase of an infinite cycle.”
That view is never clearer than during festivities for Days of the Dead, or Días de los Muertos, when the spirits of our departed loved ones come alive in joyful celebration.
Rituals surrounding the holiday have been practiced by indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica for thousands of years. They believe that the souls of the dead have divine permission to return to earth each year to visit their relatives. Offerings of flowers and food are set out to welcome them. It is a time for feasting and reunion – not a somber occasion.
Celebrations are held on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, for deceased children; and Nov. 2, All Souls Day, in honor of deceased adults.
The relatively recent phenomenon of Day of the Dead in the United States illustrates the power of cultural traditions as opportunities for people to exchange ideas and learn from each other.
The Riverside Public Library offers interesting, authoritative books about the tradition. I recommend “Día de Muertos en México – Oaxaca,” by Mary J. Andrade, and “Fiesta: Days of the Dead & Other Mexican Festivals,” by Chloë Sayer.
Both books are beautifully illustrated. Andrade’s is bilingual and Sayer’s is in English.
Death for the indigenous of Mexico signified a stage in a constant cycle, not an end of life. Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures kept skulls as trophies and displayed them to honor the dead. The skulls symbolize death and rebirth. In Mexico, the deceased are honored at cemeteries, homes and businesses through elaborate altars displaying offerings of candles, incense, photos, memorabilia, favorite foods, beverages, and flowers (particularly cempasuchitl, or golden marigolds).
Why marigolds? According to legend, during the Aztec travels in Mesoamerica, the ruler Tenoch led the Nahua tribe in search of a place to settle. Many people died during the arduous journey. The travelers stopped to pray to the sun god for flowers to honor the places where their loved ones perished. A day later the fields were covered with beautiful golden cempasuchitl. The ancestors adorned the graves with this flower, hence the traditional flower of the dead.
Legendary Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada used calacas, or “skeletal” images, as political and social satire – making fun of the aristocracy during the repressive Porfirio Diaz presidency. Posada’s caricatures in Mexico’s newspapers sent direct messages that even the illiterate could understand: the disdain for the corrupt regime. His illustrations successfully molded public opinion against Diaz, and served as the “face” of the Mexican Revolution. Posada’s calacas are favorite images in U.S. Day of the Dead memorabilia.
UNESCO declared the city of Oaxaca in 1987 as part of the cultural heritage for mankind, and in 2003, UNESCO recognized Day of the Dead celebrations as part of the intangible cultural heritage of world humanity. A dream came true for me last year when I traveled to Oaxaca for the weeklong Day of the Dead festivities where the meaning of the indigenous beliefs are kept intact.
According to Andrade, the author, “The new gods have yet to displace ancient ones.” It’s the season in which bright magenta and golden orange flowers cover the expansive fields like a fine cape.
The Central Valleys of Mexico are sprinkled with rural towns imbued in tradition and culture. I visited several Zapoteca and Mixteca quasi-ceremonial centers: Teotitlán del Valle, Etla, Mitla, Ocotlán, Tlacolula, San Martin de Tilcajete, and Zaachila where the land is infused with history, legend and folklore.
Subtle variations in the festivities reflect each town’s particular cultural character. Everyone anxiously awaits this short but substantive season when aromas stimulate one’s senses to reflect on those who have departed physically, and share in famous Oaxacan delicacies: mole, bread, tamales, chocolate, mezcal. The capital city of Oaxaca is the jewel of the valleys whose architectural design is a colonial monument.
Residents hold colorful processions through the streets featuring large puppet figures. Elaborate altars are installed everywhere: homes, businesses, hotels, restaurants and cemeteries.
The Inland area’s premier Day of the Dead festival will be held 3-10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, in downtown Riverside on Market Street between University Avenue and 12th Street. The family-friendly celebration will highlight a procession of Aztec danzas to invite the spirits to dance and rejoice during this symbolic annual reunion. Of special interest are the family and community altars along 10th Street from Market Street to the Ysmael R. Villegas Medal of Honor Monument.
Visitors to the community altar are invited to write down the names of departed loved ones and include satirical, brief poems in the form of epitaphs, or humorous anecdotes about the deceased. Admission is free.
For more information, visit www.riversideca.gov/museum/day-of-the-dead.asp.
Frances J. Vasquez is president of the Inlandia Institute board and a member of Inlandia’s Riverside writing workshop.
For more literary journeys, go to inlandiainstitute.org.