Dia de Muertos:
The Dead Come to Life in Mexican Folk Art
By Mary Jane Gagnier Mendoza
foreigners, the traditions and celebrations in Mexican homes and cemeteries
during the Day of the Dead seem strange, if not incomprehensible. There is
mourning and rejoicing; sadness and silliness - woven together into one
To me, it's like welcoming the return of a dear friend or relative, who moved
far away and visits just once a year. Mexicans try very hard to be with their
families for this fiesta, as the living and the dead gather for the most
complete of family reunions.
The Day of the Dead activities actually span several days, beginning late at
night Oct. 31, when the spirits of dead children (angelitos) start
arriving, followed by adult spirits sometime during Nov. 1. They leave, after
joining in a family meal, on Nov. 2. Although exact times for the spirits'
entrances vary from pueblo to pueblo, the angelitos always arrive ahead
of the adults.
I grew up in a French-Canadian Catholic family. From an early age, I believed
that when you died, you put on a white satin smock with lace around the cuffs
and joined the anonymous army of souls (in heaven if you were lucky).
Mexicans have a distinctly different view of themselves in the afterlife. First,
you keep your identity, since to return to this world for the Day of the Dead,
you must remain who you were. This explains the profusion of skeletons of all
sizes, doing ordinary day-to-day things. If uncle José was a barber, he
continues as a barber after death. Placing a skeleton figure of a barber on your
altar reaffirms to uncle José that he has not been forgotten on his spiritual
Most Oaxacan homes have a highly adorned Day of the Dead altar. Sugar skulls
with the names of dead loved ones inscribed in their icing indicate to the
returning spirits that they have indeed returned to the right spot, where the
living await their arrival. The altar is a sort of landing pad and its objects
serve as signals to guide the spirits home.
Throughout the year, but especially during the Day of the Dead season, calacas,
or skeletons, are displayed in shops throughout the city. In the Abastos market,
for a few pesos each, you'll find cardboard, wire and cotton-ball figures
depicting nearly every walk of life. The more upscale folk art stores display
elaborate ceramic and paper mache calacas, individually signed by
renowned Mexican folk artists.
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