Day of the Dead

By Doreen Woelfel

While in California, recovering from knee replacements this last May, I was taken aback when it was announced that the Disney Corporation had filed an application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to slap a trademark on the phrase: Dia de los Muertos, surely one the best known of traditional holidays celebrated in Mexico, November 1 and 2. I was incredulous to say the least, and wondered that Disney, in looking really greedy, would really try to usurp what can be traced back 3000 years in Mexico, and try to make money off the holiday tradition. Day of the Dead has been celebrated in California, and the Southwest as well, for many years, and is very much a part of the culture of states with a significant Latino population. Turns out, of course, there is a movie coming out in the fall, tentatively titled Day of the Dead, from Pixar. I thought, oh, and now we have a Disney movie coming to explain a cultural tradition to a world that has been celebrating this holiday for a couple thousand years.

A petition was started by Grace Sesma, stating: “I am deeply offended and dismayed that a family-oriented company like Walt Disney would seek to own the rights to something that is the rightful heritage of the people of Mexico”.   I wasn’t surprised. A lack of understanding of a spiritual tradition by corporate America is indicative perhaps, of the lack of information and understanding by one country, who shares the border with another. This tradition was entered on the UNESCO list of the “Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”, so why not make a buck off the name, Dia de Los Muertos?

Many communities in the United States celebrate Dia de los Muertos. In Oakland, California for instance, a dominant Mexican-American neighborhood, Fruitvale, is home to Corazon Del Pueblo festival during the October 31-November 2 holiday, and is the center of annual celebrations where traditional Aztec dancers, regional Mexican music, and Mexican artisans celebrate Dia de Los Muertos. The Oakland Museum has a room with altars, put together by community members and artisans during these days as well, to celebrate life and death, Mexican style. Check out, to see the impact of this holiday on the United States. My students made sugar skulls every year, and built a classroom altar to commemorate a passing friend or loved one.

Celebrating Dia de los Muertos can be traced back to the Aztec month of “Miccailhuitontli”, and presided over by the Lady of the Dead, who was Mictecacihuat, and depending on resources and interpretation, was celebrated in the eighth month of the Aztec calendar, which was July/August.

In traditional Aztec mythology, Mictlantecuhtli was the lord of the dead and the King of Mictlan . He was traditionally depicted as a skeleton or a person with a toothy skull. “Mictecacihuatl was the wife of Mictlantecuhtli and was the Queen of Mictlan, also known as the underworld. Mictlan is the lowest level of the underworld, located far to the north. Women who died while in childbirth and warriors who died during battle were the          only ones who did not go to Mictlan after death. Therefore, Mictlan can be thought of as a type of purgatory.” (A Beginning History of the Day of the Dead, Helen Tafoya-Barraza, MA, LPCC, University of New Mexico.)

As discussed in previous issues of The Eye, this is a celebration to encourage visits from loved ones who have passed on, and is a three-day period where graves are cleaned, decorated, and offerings are made, including those wonderful orange giant marigolds and of course food and drink. Favorite foods are made and consumed at the grave, there is music, and color, and laughter, as friends and families recall events and the life of a long gone relative, as much as a recently departed loved one. Skulls are very much a part of this tradition, for they symbolize the cycle of death and rebirth. The Aztecs honored the dead using skulls. Death is not to be feared, it is something to be embraced, believing that life is the dream, and only in death does someone become truly “awake”. One can imagine what the Spaniards thought, when they first viewed this tradition. Catholicism didn’t exactly fit into this idea of death, and it’s celebration. The Aztec’s view of a peaceful underworld where souls rested until they could visit during the celebrations were undoubtedly viewed as macabre.

But alas, the intrusion of the Church has altered Dia de los Muertos, and it has been folded into two Catholic holidays, known as Los Dios de los Muertos, November 1 (All Saints day – when children are celebrated) and November 2, (All Souls Day – when adults are celebrated).   In Oaxaca, one will find altar displays in homes, businesses and schools, as well as churches. Masks, incense, candles, marigolds, objects associated with the loved one, including mezcal and beer, can be found on altars. Many modern day accompaniments are found on the altar as well.   The papel picado (tissue paper) cut into intricate, delicate designs can be found among the altars, each color symbolizing an aspect of the holiday, from black for the pre-hispanic religions and land of the dead, purple for the Catholic calendar and the grief of death, white for hope and purity, yellow and orange for the marigold, light, sun, and red representing Christianity and life blood of humans and animals.

Artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), an illustrator and engraver well known for his metal print work of skeletons, gave Mexico its best known image of Dia de los Muertos, La Catrina (or Lady Death), who can be seen everywhere in Mexico today; in art, sculptures, jewelry, bags. It has become an icon representing Mexico, not only just as a Dia de los Muertos adornment.   Death is considered a normal stage in the circle of life on earth. It is revered, considered life’s own reward, and not considered an ending. Octavio Paz remarked in his work The Labyrinth of Solitude, that Day of the Dead affirms “the nothingness and insignificance of human existence…. Mexicans look at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony” and often joke about death as “they caress it, sleep with it, and celebrate it”.

So it is hard to imagine that the Disney folks truly did not understand what the uproar was about, considering the historical impact and cultural significance of Dia de los Muertos, but they pulled their application for trademarking the holiday after a ton of public pressure, an avalanche. How could they not?   If you have an opportunity to be in Mexico during Dias de los Muertos, it is quite a spectacular event. Here in Huatulco, one can go to the pantheon (graveyard) up in Santa Maria de Huatulco, and have an incomparable experience (the music, food, candles lighting the graves, all spectacular, moving, rich). Better yet, if you can find a room, head up to the city of Oaxaca, where Dias de los Muertos are one of the most beloved traditions of that city, and certainly one the most beautiful celebrations in Mexico.

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