Dia De Los Muertos
By Antonio Ramblés AKA Tony Passarello
It’s about this time each year that I lament the creeping encroachment of America’s shallowly commercial Halloween tradition upon Mexico’s deeply spiritual Dia de Los Muertos observance.
In the States, trick-or-treat decorations may have been replaced by Christmas decorations and candy now relegated to discount bins, but a month-long event in Guadalajara’s Centro Historico proves that Dia de los Muertos is not only alive and well, but ably adapting to fit itself into the twenty-first century.
For the third consecutive year, Guadalajara’s secondary school students have built upon the traditional image of the catrina – the elaborately decorated skeletons that are the holiday’s trademark – to make a timely plea for peace.
Around 100 of these larger-than-life-sized installations can be seen on the plazas that mark each of the primary compass points around Guadalajara’s signature downtown Catedral.
The work is remarkable not only because it ably links Mexico’s past with its present and because the artisanship is of such high quality, but because it demonstrates these young artists’ surprisingly mature grasp of how violence begins and spreads through a culture.
For Mexicans, peace is not an abstract ideal or a wished-for outcome in some far-off country, but a heartfelt hope for change in their everyday existence.
In this fifth year of the government’s war on narcotics traffic and narco-terrorism, fatalities have now passed the 50,000 mark. While the violence is largely confined to combatants and limited to a small part of the country, only a few degrees of separation lie between the casualties and an increasing number of civilians.
The theme of peace in the face of such violence necessarily lends a somber note to many of these works, but most of them still manage to deliver their weighty message with the same wry fatalism that has always marked the catrina tradition.
Photos don’t do these catrinas justice. Almost all of the standing figures tower over the spectator by a foot or two, and many others lean lifelike against poles and fences or sit on park benches as city pedestrians and traffic stream past.
There are several Gandhi catrinas and one of the Dalai Lama, but it’s the more traditional images which are often the most compelling.
While catrinas are an expression of pre-Colombian concepts of the relationship between life and death, the catrina image itself is barely a century old, the invention of a Mexico City newspaper’s political cartoonist.
The catrina was nearly relegated to history until rescued by the resurgence of pride in Mexican heritage following the Mexican Revolution.
Like Argentina’s tango, it began as a working-class tradition and grew in less than a generation to become a symbol inextricably woven into the national identity.
It’s possible to walk all 100 or so of Guadalajara’s Catrinas de la Paz in less than an hour, but you may – like me – become caught up in reflection upon one or another that particularly speaks to you and linger longer.
Whether you browse this exhibit quickly or deliberately, don’t pass it up!