Books Illuminate the Days of the Dead by Frances J. Vasquez

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.

Inlandia Founder Remembered by Cati Porter

No one could ever say “no” to Marion Mitchell-Wilson.

After I began attending Inlandia events in late 2007, Marion invited me for coffee. Before my cup was empty, I had agreed to become a member of Inlandia’s Advisory Council.

Smiling, thoughtful and almost always full of energy, Marion had a way of making you want to help with her projects. And you never regretted it.

Marion, founding director of the Inlandia Institute, died a week ago after a long battle with breast cancer.

I never envisioned an Inlandia without Marion. Occasionally she would say things like, “Cati, when I retire,” but I couldn’t think past the here and now.

Even after she officially “retired” in 2012 to work on getting well, she continued to be present for me, whispering suggestions and offering solutions, serving as Inlandia’s institutional memory.

Many of us have fond memories of Marion, and how she got us involved in promoting the Inland area’s literary life. We’ll share a few thoughts here from several Inlandia board members and local writers.

FRANCES J. VASQUEZ

Marion Mitchell-Wilson cared passionately about many things and all things Inlandia: the people, their stories, and the literary expression of our regional voices. Multi-talented, she was a wonderful gourmet cook who loved to share her bounty and her kindness with others.

One Friday, I helped Marion with preparations for an Inlandia member reception being held the next day. Her amazing menu included a favorite recipe for asparagus spears roasted with orange slices in lemon-infused olive oil and orange vinaigrette. And, a reconstructed whole poached salmon with cream cheese, cucumber sauces, and other delicacies.

During several hours of washing, peeling, and slicing fruits and vegetables, I spilled water on the kitchen floor. I asked for paper towels or rags to wipe the floor with. Marion, in her efficient way, quickly turned to a drawer and handed me a large cloth towel. I bent over to wipe the spills when Marion stopped me. “No, Frances. Don’t bend. Skate like this.”

Marion tossed the towel on the floor, stepped onto it with both feet and skated gracefully around her kitchen floor. We both laughed heartily and continued with the food preparations.

ELIO PALACIOS

I met Marion at last year’s Advisory Council workshop. My first impression was how unassuming she was considering the part she had played in creating and shaping Inlandia. And her love of and dedication to Inlandia was also very apparent as was her knowledge and wisdom.

KAREN RAE KRAUT

Marion and I met in 1990 when the California Humanities Council sponsored a series of public programs on the theme of “Place” and its effect on how we experience our lives. How’s that for foreshadowing?

Our expanding group of interested people went on to receive a grant from the Humanities Council to locally sponsor the American Renaissance Chautauqua, which resulted in the formation of a non-profit organization called the Inland Empire Educational Foundation. IEEF (rhymes with leaf), as we fondly called it, sponsored reading and discussion groups and public programs for the next five years.

Marion was an important part of all these free programs, and her vision and common sense contributed greatly to their success.

ELLEN ESTILAI

It was impossible to be part of the Riverside arts and culture scene and not know Marion Mitchell-Wilson, but I really got to know her after she invited me to a meeting with Malcolm Margolin at the Riverside Main Library to talk about the literary landscape of what we would eventually come to know as Inlandia.

That meeting helped lay the groundwork for Heyday’s book, “Inlandia: A Literary Journey through California’s Inland Empire.”

When the anthology was published, no one in the community wanted that journey to end. Marion was the engine that drove the bus, and she cajoled and sweet-talked fellow travelers into hopping on.

In 2007, I retired from the Riverside Arts Council to devote more time to writing. I was hoping for a respite from meetings and committees, but Marion was having none of that. She told me she wanted me to serve on the advisory council of a new organization, the Inlandia Institute.

“It’s just a few meetings a year,” she assured me. When I demurred, she said, “There will be liquid facilitation.”

I’ve now been in for eight years, as a council member and board member, but also as a writer. Luckily for me, the Inlandia Institute emerged just as I was learning to be a writer. I cannot imagine writing without Inlandia’s support. Like many others in this unique literary community, I am indebted to Marion for her vision, strength, and yes, occasional liquid facilitation.

ENDOWMENT

When Marion first learned the cancer had returned and was terminal, she met privately with Inlandia board members and staff, sharing her one big wish: that an endowment be founded in her name, so she could ensure the future of the organization.

In keeping with Marion’s wishes, the family is requesting donations in lieu of flowers.

Contributions can be made via PayPal, using donations@inlandiainstitute.org, through CrowdRise and by mailing a check to the Inlandia Institute, 4178 Chestnut St., Riverside, Ca., 92501.

And save these dates: Aug 28 for a memorial service at the California Citrus State Historic Park, and Sept 18 for a special endowment kickoff party in Marion’s honor at the Riverside Art Museum.