Day of the Dead and Dynamite-fueled Dreams

Day of the Dead, devils in a cantinaTen summers ago my husband and I drove through a dusty, sparsely-populated area in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico, in search of the devil. How we found this tiny village at the top of a hill on a windy, narrow dirt road, based on vague directions, is still a mystery to me. We immediately identified the only commerce – a board-and-tin shack which served as a market – and asked the shopkeeper, “Donde estan los diablos?” Fortunately he did not escort us to jail, or to church, but instead directed us around the corner. We walked around and asked a man standing in front of a shack, “Diablos?” and, seeming to know what we wanted better than we knew ourselves, he gestured for us to enter his place. He pulled the curtain back on a dark room, and we stood there — feeling really big and really white — as we all waited for our eyes to adjust. We saw a couple of tiny old women sitting on the dirt floor, surrounded by dozens of wildly imaginative sculptures of devils misbehaving. We spent a memorable afternoon in a few homes, looking at these loosely put together, single-fired clay figures, painted with garish poster paint.

Day of the Dead papier-mache demonBut I wanted more than that. I had seen a few of these sculptures in a private collection in Salt Lake, and what intrigued me is why they were made. These devils couldn’t have been more different from the malevolent devil I heard about as a child growing up in a small town, or from the devil in films like Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist. No, these Mexican devils were entertaining figures who draped themselves over the eaves of a cantina, drinking and jeering one another. Or several devils hamming it up on a bicycle, on the verge of tipping over. Or driving a milk truck swigging from a bottle of tequila, as their night of carousing crosses over into their day job. These devils were more like loose cannons, or pals, or maybe bad companions. The kind of individual many voters in the last election said they wanted for president: ‘a guy they’d like to have a beer with.’

“Por que diablos?” I asked tentatively, knowing that any reply addressing motivation or imagination would completely overwhelm my rudimentary Spanish. I got back an enigmatic two-word response from different artists – “No puedo” – which I took to mean, “I can’t.” In my mesmerized state of mind I imagined they were not allowed to reveal the reason.

Once I got home with my sculptures and my at-home pragmatism, I realized that they can’t have known what kind of answer I was looking for. “Because my mother made devils?” “Because we’re laughing at death?” “Because people like you buy them?”

I got my question answered three years ago when I traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico with a dozen women to attend a week-long Day of the Dead, or El Dia de los Muertos celebration. I found out why Mexicans make devils and skeletons, and why they are generally behaving badly.

Who the devil does he think he is?

Day of the Dead La Mano Magica

Right off the bat we attended a lecture given by Mary Jane Gagnier de Mendoza, author of Oaxaca Celebration. de Mendoza is a transplanted French Canadian who married a Mexican artist 20 years ago and has since immersed herself in Oaxacan culture and folk tradition. Day of the Dead, the delivery roomWe sat in their gallery, La Mano Magica, where we were surrounded by a throng of preternatural characterizations in clay, wood, tin, papier-mache, sugar, chocolate, fruit, and flowers. Anything from a skeleton the size of a pinkie finger to a life-sized, leering devil. And morphed human/animal figures. And skeletons doing things live beings normally do, like giving a massage or practicing medicine. There was a three-inch skeleton gynecologist pulling a skeleton head out of its skeleton patient’s birth canal. Denial got suspended on many, many levels.

de Mendoza got straight to the point, wading right into the Borgia Codex. This is a Mesoamerican ritual and divinatory manuscript written on animal skins sometime before the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 1500’s. One of the images depicts two gods joined at the spine – Quetzalcoatl, who ruled the earth and sky, and Mictlantecuhtli, who ruled the underworld and the dead.

As any grade-schooler knows, when Christians pasted their beliefs onto native beliefs, they didn’t always stick. Or they stuck in unpredictable ways. “The Catholic and indigenous traditions came together like a marble cake, chocolate in one place, vanilla in the other, not mixed, but separate,” de Mendoza told us. For instance, the Christians tried to teach the locals that their glory in heaven was determined by their good works on earth.  But the native belief was that they would be sent to the god associated with the way in which they died, such as in childbirth, in water, or in war.

Day of the Dead devilsThe Christian devil got trapped in this confusion because their devil was god of a fiery, sulfurous underworld, and you would spend an eternity with him if you lived a sinful life. This didn’t jibe with the native belief that you went to the god of your particular type of death. So they evidently didn’t take the devil seriously. They were not frightened of him and turned him into a subject for mirth. He became a jokester, a trickster.

This or that
The next aspect of Mexican culture de Mendoza asked us to recognize was that of duality: animal/human, earth/heaven, life/death. Apparently, Mexican folk art is very big on duality, especially life and death. “Images of the living and dead sharing a single body or head remain a common visual theme,” de Mendoza said.Day of the Dead, Catrina Mexicans are fond of balancing images of the dead (skeleton) with life (food, tequila, clothing). They get a big laugh out of Catrina, a grinning skeleton female dandy who wears a gaudy dresses and oversized hats. She’s dressed to the nines while the peasants are dressed in drab clothing, but “We’ll all become the same bag of bones when we die.” de Mendoza noted. Many familiar skeleton images come to us or are influenced by 19th Century lithographer, Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose irreverent images satirized the government and the upper class. El Dia de los Muertos marketers now mass-produce his drawings on t-shirts and post cards.

At this very moment in the lecture we had an unscripted duality experience of the Mexican/American variation. de Mendoza was interrupted mid-sentence by an El Dia de los Muertos parading brass band out on the street, followed by young children dressed up for Halloween — American style – a holiday which is now morphing with the Mexican holiday. These little Draculas and Disney characters with their pumpkin-shaped trick-or-treat bags were seen all over the city in the days that followed. They would march up to us and demand a treat, without really seeming to know why. Of course we wanted them to be following their ancestors to the cemetery to decorate the graves. Modern/ancient. Commercial/spiritual. The disconnect was invigorating.

An American Altar in Oaxaca
In the course of the week, we heard this maxim more than once: We die three times. Once when we take our final breath, once when we are lowered into the ground and, finally, when the last person who knew us dies. This is one reason for remembering the dead to the living, to extend their potential years on earth.

With this in mind, we spent the next day shopping for items to put on an altar, or ofrenda, to our dead humans or animals. Though the particulars vary from village to village, Mexicans believe that during the 1st and 2nd of November the souls of their dead loved ones visit, so they need to lure them to the right spot. Anything that the departed loved – foods, flowers, and drinks — are assembled on a three-level ofrenda, amid photographs and mementos.  Plus a container of water so they can wash up after their long journey.

Day of the Dead, chocolate & spicesWe visited a chocolate factory where Oaxacan women lined up three-deep with their family recipe for mole negro, the classic dish served during El Dia de los Muertos. Their recipe will include specific combinations of Mexican chocolate, sticks of cinnamon, cloves, nuts, and herbs — which the clerk assembles then throws into the hopper of a grinder. Out comes the senora’s mole spices that will go into their family’s turkey mole. Her family may travel miles for this complex, ritualized meal. Rather like our Thanksgiving.

If the soul is that of a child, the ofrenda will include frothy hot chocolate, sugar skulls, gummy candy, and animals or angels decorated with frosting. This is where the miniatures come in – miniature metates or clay jugs for daughters, tiny tools for the boys.

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Miniatures are also seen in the skeleton dioramas created for the populist.  There are skeletons eating feasts, repairing roofs, drinking tequila, doing the fandango, driving a truck, or caught in bed with a big-haired female skeleton. The purpose of these objects is to identify the deceased by their trade (or trademark), and to help the soul find its way to the ofrenda. Mexicans believe you keep your identity after death. So if you were a gynecologist in life, you would look for the tiny skeleton gynecologist figure mentioned earlier.

 

 

Day of the Dead skeleton and dogDay of the Dead, Ofrenda

The ofrendas are intuitively ephemeral. The pungent candles and burning copal incense are meant to last only a short time.  The lacy tissue banners cut in skeleton or flower patterns are hung around the room to transform it into an enchanted space for a brief time. Richly-scented flowers like marigolds, fruit garlands, sweet egg bread, aromatic moles, along with steaming tamales and hot chocolate go onto the ofrenda to attract the soul. These elements are meant to be used then cast off after this occasion — not saved from year to year.

Many Mexicans believe that the spirits consume the aromatics, or the energy, of the food. This is why many of the living refuse to eat the altar foods after the celebration. It lacks flavor because “The spirits have consumed the essence”, de Mendoza told us.

Instead of building an ofrenda to just one family member, ours was created in memory of about 20 people and a handful of pets. We brought photos of our dead friends/pets we wished to remember, along with mementos. We visited two dizzying public markets where we bought tin ornaments, milagros (tiny metal representations of body parts used with prayers for wellbeing), articulated clay skeletons, crucifixes, marzipan candies, armloads of fresh flowers, and Lux Perpetua votives. With several bottles of mescal and a few tears in the retelling of their lives, we managed to erect a proper ofrenda in the front passage of our little hotel. It’s unclear whether we lured our deceased Americans to Oaxaca, a destination they would have found perplexing, but we did attract several live Oaxacans who were impressed by our attentiveness and our design sense.

Grave attention
All Saints Day, beginning the afternoon of October 31st, is the day when the souls of the children, or angelitos, visit. All Souls Day, November 1, is when the adult souls show up. It may have indeed begun at three o’clock in the afternoon with church bells ringing as we were told, but what we heard was fireworks. Not whistling, popping fireworks — more like a sharp blast of dynamite that shook the hotel.

Our group leader knew a local Episcopalian priest who invited us to decorate a grave with her handful of ex-pat parishioners that evening. So we walked a couple of miles with our supplies to the church then continued another mile to the cemetery. It was dark when we neared the grounds and we found the street choked with temporary vendors selling tamales, moles, fruit, candy, and thousands of cheap tchotchkes. Loud music wailed overhead, and I found it impossible to imagine how we were going to get in a mood to venerate anything as subtle as the essence of a dead stranger.

Day of the Dead, mausoleumAfter passing through the tall gates of the enclosed cemetery, we wandered along the interior wall which was 20-feet high and a couple of blocks long. The walls contained niches, each of which glowed with a votive. I realized it was a mausoleum, and each of these niches likely contained a corpse. The effect reduced everyone to a whisper; the music and pandemonium of the street melted away. We tried to enter the area in which our chosen soul’s grave was located, but were curiously banned from passing through. (Mystery is another pleasure of the tourist.) We turned back and walked down another lit mausoleum wall, then snaked between the gravestones until we found one worthy of our attention. The cemetery itself was very old with large, multi-layered, ornate markers. An earthquake years ago felled walls, graves, and part of the chapel. I couldn’t help but notice the adjacent grave; the marble slab on top was unseated, creating a fairly good-sized crevasse — an opportune conduit for mischief.

 

We swept and washed the gravestone. Then we lined it with cockscombs, marigolds, scarlet gladioli, palm leaves, tapers and votives, then placed a loaf of sweet egg bread at the head. Day of the Dead, decorated graveWe lit the candles and circled the grave as someone passed around shot glasses and mescal. A question of disrespect fluttered across my consciousness: was it appropriate to swig mescal over this stranger’s grave? I was feeling really big and really white again. But a few locals paused and accepted a glass of mescal for themselves, and my American thoughts wrapped themselves around another Mexican custom. Our Episcopalian priest offered a prayer, then we all raised our glasses to this dead new friend who, for a few moments, became our link to this ancient ritual. We exchanged greetings with our live new Oaxacan friends, then filed out of the cemetery, immersed in duality.

Morality Plays and Mysterious Street Celebrations
I was in no frame of mind to join another communal meal in a noisy restaurant after the cemetery, so decided to wind my way back through the city. I had visited Oaxaca years ago, and found this elegant, colonial city — with its large central plaza, or zocolo – to be completely safe. In June 2006, however, the city was the site of demonstrations that began with the teachers camping out in the zocolo and staging rallies; and ended with bus burnings, occupation of a radio station, and several shooting deaths. President Vicente Fox sent federal troops to Oaxaca in October to clear out the protesters and keep peace long enough for the locals to clean up their streets, scrub off the graffiti, and get El Dia de los Muertos underway.

Day of the Dead mystery playThe graffiti persists and, though I was distressed at the damage to these gracious neighborhoods, I never felt any political tension in the air.  Groups paraded through the zocolo carrying outsized papier-mache characters: a grinning, horned demon towering over his handlers followed by boys dressed as friars bearing a coffin  with an upright skeleton inside wearing a powdered wig and a powder blue uniform.

Day of the Dead, mystery play

I followed a moveable play with a cast of disparate masked characters. They included a gypsy-looking woman with exaggerated breasts, a sexy nurse, a friar, a masked bishop wearing a mitre, and a red devil with a giant head who was clanging brass bells. They and a dozen more characters paraded down the street behind a small brass band. Once they found a suitable spot, they laid down a woven grass mat and began what looked like a morality play, or mystery play. The bishop gave a reading, and the devil swaggered around intimidating people. At one point a character goes down onto the mat and another character in white robes holds a wooden cross at his head. The crowd, obviously familiar with this play,was delighted. When it ended, the players joined the audience in a fandango, encouraged by the brass band.

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Then they packed it up and marched along looking for a fresh audience. I returned through the zocolo in time to see a pair of creepy demons with huge, arching horns and hundreds of tiny bells sewn onto their red costumes. They shivered with sound at every move and menaced onlookers with their fangs and long tongues. They were a little too much like the demons of my childhood. I headed for the hotel and a long night of dynamite-fueled dreams.

Day of the Dead, menacing devils

A version of this article originally appeared in Catalyst Magazine

 

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