“The Mexican … is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.”
Octavio Paz, Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)
As we celebrate Día de los Muertos from this side of the Mexico-United States border (and from this side of the grave), I am always humbled and inspired by how the ancient Mesoamerican practices continue to beat in the heart of Día de los Muertos observances that we practice today. El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated in Latin American countries and parts of the United States. Combining indigenous traditions with Catholicism, it is believed that the spirit of the deceased children visit their families on November 1, and adults arrive on November 2. In Mexico, the streets near the cemeteries are filled with decorations of cut paper, flowers, candy calaveras (skulls), and parades.
In terms of the beliefs distinguishing Spanish and indigenous practices, the Catholic system holds that the dead undergo purification (purgatory) before they can reach heaven, and their surviving loved ones must pray for their souls that are in need of mercy. In contrast, the natives saw death as a continuation of their relationship to the deceased that was strongest during these days in which their loved ones returned. The Mexican Día de los Muertos is a joyous and sacred time, a time to welcome the souls of the dead back to this world and celebrate life.
The first time I set up a home altar was in 2003, the year that my father died of lung cancer. I was living in Mexico City at the time, a student in my junior year on a study abroad program, and I needed to have a form, something tactile, a way to acknowledge the complexity of the continuity of death and life, and a way to show my gratitude not only for what my father had given me, but also for what death was teaching me.
Many years later, I began to create altars with my students and members of my university community in the wake of September 11, 2001 in New York City. It was cathartic to come together and express not only our profound distress, mourning, and fear, but also the determination to cope, and find strength in each other as we prepared collective altars and took refuge in ritual.
Over the years, I came into contact with one of the most important Midwest celebrations of Día de los Muertos when I lived in Chicago’s predominantly Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen. It was there that I began to conduct calavera poetry workshops, a tradition that eventually traveled with me to Columbus in 2013.
Here in Columbus, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of collaborating with Leticia Vazquez-Smith of Latino Arts for Humanity at the Muertos celebrations she coordinated at Frida Katrina Mexica Folk Art (2014), and this year at the Green Lawn Cemetery (sponsored with Columbus International Program). Here I’ve posted some photos of this event, which included a procession led by Columbus’ one and only Danza Azteca ensemble, a Catrina costume contest, original artwork, conceptual live art by Aleha Solano, and arts activities for participants of all ages.
Ph.D. candidate Fernando Lima e Morato, Leticia Vazquez-Smith, and I shared a combination of original and published calavera poetry. Since the 19th century, calavera poems have been a way that Mexican culture satirizes the prominent public figures of the time, giving a voice to the people who use this poetic form to remind powerful elites that, in spite of their displays of privilege, are all going to end up in the same place as everybody else in the end.
Here are two of my calavera poems that I shared at Green Lawn Cemetery this year. I hope you can join us in celebrating Día de los Muertos this year on November 2 at the Thompson Memorial Library (2-3:30) for a talk by Dr. Ignacio Corona and a calavera poetry workshop led by yours truly, and on Saturday, November 4, for the all-day family festival starting at 11:00 AM at the Gateway Library, and ending at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum on the OSU Columbus campus. Here come the dead!
CALAVERA TWEET #45
Here lies a great president
Who died of grief
From having hands that were too small
Now he’s there in the tomb
Nothing left to exhume
Tossing paper towels
To the dead
COLUMBUS LOVE IN THE BONES
Columbus love in the bones
Two rivers, zero U-turns
From game day traffic, no escape:
La calaca wears a Brutus cap