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Today, The Day of the Dead in Aztlan, has become one of the most widely celebrated Mexican cultural traditions in the Southwest, United States. It strengthens the cultural cohesiveness of the Chicano community and is an unparallel example of how Chicano movement politics and Neo-Indigenous philosophy fused to create a new and vital Chicano art form.
By the mid-20th century, the festivities held to commemorate El Día de los Muertos suffered a decline and even disapearance of its celebration within the Mexican American population living in urban communities here in the United States. This was the product of increased cultural assimilation. In 1972, Chicana/o artists living in Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, took a stance against this whitewashing trend and reclaimed Day of the Dead as an ethnic ritual by reviving, renewing and reinventing it. This cultural phenomenon was adopted by many communities across the Southwest, triggered by social and political struggles, known today as The Chicano Movement, giving it, its decidedly political nature.
Chicano artists have incorporated Day of the Dead practices ever since, and their art production shows cultural reclamation efforts of self-preservation and empowerment. It is important to mention that most efforts have been ephemeral and not intended to be observed by the community or critics as artistic practices. According to Carlos Francisco Jackson, Day of the Dead is the result of Mexican and Mexican American hybrid religious practices, resulting from blending pre-Columbian spirituality with Spanish Catholicism. El Día de los Muertos or El Día de los Fieles Difuntos, links the rituals that homage pre-Columbian remembrance of the sacred afterlife, with two Roman Catholic holydays. In efforts to enlarge and enhance their evolving visual vocabulary and symbolic system, Chicano artists uncovered this hidden pictorial language in Mexican sources and carefully appropriated it, just like a visual archeologist would. In this cultural excavation for a new, meaningful, and self-defining iconography, Chicano artists adopted Mexico’s indigenous past.
Día de los Muertos finds its’ origin in ancient Mesoamerica, encompassing Mexico and the northern part of Central America. These cultures practiced similar ceremonies and shared similar values towards death and the afterlife. It was believed that human beings descended into the underworld at death where they would reach Xibalba (Place of Fright), coined by the Mayan belief system, were there was not much chance of escaping unless an individual died a violent death, avoided Xibalba altogether. The underworld was greatly associated with water, with its own vast and varied landscape. It was ruled by a group of around 9 or 14 gods possessing fearsome names, known collectively as the lords of the underworld, and as inhabitants, blood-thirsty predators lived there.
The Maya believed that the underworld had nine different levels and two great rivers that run through it. To reach the ninth level, the deceased had to face many trials and tribulations, which included crossing dangerous waters and rivers of blood, high mountains, fending off spinning obsidian knives and arrows, to include sacrificing one’s heart. To help souls survive this ordeal, they were buried or cremated with weapons, tools, weaving kits, jade and other precious goods, foods like hot chocolate, and even real or pottery dog figurines to guide the souls and serve as companions.
For the Nahua people, the soul was a divine creation making it indestructible, henceforth allowing it to enter the afterlife. Special destinations where assigned to those who died in battle, water diseases, childbirth and for babies who died prematurely. Nonetheless, the majority of the people who passed away entered Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead, ruled by Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl. Chicunamictlán, just like Xibalba consisted of nine levels. The journey to reach Mictlán, their final resting place, would last about four years, where the souls would face many perils. Rituals to honor the dead held by the Nahua people in August, compelled family members to provide provisions such as food, water and tools to aid the departed in this arduous journey.
Coincidentally, ancient Europe also held pagan celebrations for their departed in the fall. These celebrations included bonfires, dancing and feasting. The Roman Catholic Church, unofficially adopted some of these customs and incorporated them into two of their minor holidays, All Saints Day celebrated on the 1st day of November and subsequently All Souls Day, celebrated on the 2nd days of November.
On All Souls Day, people living in medieval Spain would take wine and pan de ánimas (spirit bread) to the graves of their deceased. Then, they would cover the graves with flowers and light candles with the purpose of illuminating the defunct soul’s path to find their way back home on Earth. Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, introduced these traditions to the New World, with a darker view of death, product of the devastation caused by the bubonic plague.
Aztec, Mayan, Toltec and other indigenous groups of people that commemorated their deceased at different times based on whether their loved one was an adult or a child at the time of passing, mixed these two Spanish holidays with their pre-Hispanic traditions to designate November 1st as a day to remember the children who died, while November the 2nd served to honor the adults. Jackson informs us that traditionally, practices to celebrate Day of the Dead include a special mass, prayers, visits to the graves of deceased loved ones, candlelight vigils, the making and consumption of particular dishes and provisions for the dead to include food, water, flowers, candles and personal symbolic trinkets placed and arranged on home altars, called ofrendas (offerings) during Día de los Muertos celebrations. Influences on the development of a Chicano iconography, include the lithographs and engravings of Mexican printmaking master, Jose Guadalupe Posada. His Day of the Dead inspired popular art was satiric and political in nature, were his animated skeletons (Calaveras) became well-known. Posada’s calaveras provided a powerful medium for moralizing and social equalization. In the United States, Chicano artists in the 1970’s produced Día de los Muertos art referencing Posada’s work, taking the calavera image into new frontiers. Chicano artists have also seized the usage of altars and nichos, which are used to display saint’s images, to bring to mind and pay homage to the lives and input that deceased family members, friends, and community figures have left through contributions, to document the collective memory of the Mexican American community.
In 1970, painter Carlos Bueno, photographer Antonio Ibanez and graphic artist Sister Karen Boccalero, started an artistic collaboration in an East Los Angeles garage. This artistic collaboration lead to the creation of Self Help Graphics, which became a primary driving force for other Chicano/Latino variations of Día de los Muertos celebration. In 1972, these artists acquired studio space in Boyle Heights, were other local Chicano artists joined them, to include Michael Amescua, Manuel Cruz, Frank Hernandez, Leo Limon, Sarah Pineda and Pete Tovar. A tradition to pilgrimage towards Evergreen cemetery was organized on All Saints Day. This happened spontaneously and without publicity, city permits and little activity at the cemetery. By doing so, these artists goal was to generate cultural awareness, ethnic pride, and collective self-fulfillment for the East Los Angeles community. Calavera imagery, altar making and poster art became primary elements for Day of the Dead’s iconography.
In 1974, the celebration lured other artistic collaborations from a cross Los Angeles Chicano art communities. Art collectives such as ASCO (Harry Gamboa, Gronk, Willie Herron and Patssi Valdez) and Los Four artists (Carlos Almaraz and Frank Romero), participated in this event. By l976, Día de los Muertos gained the admiration of community members who also participated in this annual, communal and locally staged celebration. To fund these activities, a grant was established by the National Endowment for the Humanities and city permits were approved. Music, dance, Catholic and Indigenous American rituals attracted a thousand people to the cemetery.
From 1974 to 1982, the event followed an established format. Starting in Evergreen cemetery, community participants, students, artists and student-artist collaborations would bring popular art objects such as Calavera masks, puppets, papel picado banners, papel mache crosses, costumes and sculptures of Mexican pre-Hispanic imagery. Activities at the cemetery included Native American rituals and a Catholic mass, followed by the parade back to Self Help Graphics studio, which normally attracted participants along the way. Different performers came each year, to include El Teatro Campesino’s ‘Calavera Band’ (1977) and ‘El Fin del Mundo’ (1979), and the cast of ‘Zoot Suit’ (1978).
After arriving to the studio, the participants placed art objects, photographs, cempasuchil flowers and offerings on altars constructed before the event, concluding the march. Followed by musical and teatro performances, art objects’ vending, and traditional foods such as atole and pan de muerto. At evening, a candlelit procession to a nearby Catholic church would mark the end of the celebration. In 1978, a three-page handout was produced for the community by Self Help Graphics artists describing their Día de los Muertos ceremony. It writes, ‘In our ceremonia we use Copal Incense from pine trees, Feathers, Fire, Music and Dance, the Turtle Drum, and most important a Sincere heart…Our Ancient Elders teach us the way to develop Cara y Corazon, a sincere heart. Face and Heart, to become a whole people.’ After attracting national recognition and the interest and investigation by scholars, Self Help Graphics acknowledged its contribution to the North American culture. Self Help Graphics also organized an annual art exhibition featuring the work of local Chicano artists, inspired by the thematic of El Día de los Muertos. In 1977, Galleria Otra Vez was created by a group of artists that included Carlos Almaraz, Michael Amescua, Richard Duardo, Ricardo Reyes, Linda Vallejo, Ben and Sybil Venegas which were involved with Self Help Graphics at the time. By late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the studio’s art production mainly consisted of elaborate altars and ofrendas with the collaborations of students and artists, due to the fact that the parade festivities consumed a large amount of time and energy. In 1980, Day of the Dead art productions had become an integral part of the Chicano iconography, influencing artists throughout North America.
Box sculptures and altars are probably the primary media used by artists to incorporate ancient memory and recollection. The CARA exhibit held numerous examples of altars or three-dimensional altar installations. One example can be observed in Amalia Mesa-Bains’s “Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio”, celebrating the screen actress who worked in both American and Mexican film making. Carmen Lomas Garza is another notable altar creator who commemorated family members. “Ofrenda para Antonio Lomas” is a woodcut scene involving a typical Garza tableau on the wall accompanied by garden tools, depicting the artist’s grandfather watering a garden, nurturing his family. Both Mesa-Bains and Garza have placed altars that visually recall traditional Day of the Dead practices in surroundings where they are considered and esteemed as art.
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