Many ancient civilizations in Mexico, such as the Aztecs and the Mayans, celebrated "El Día de los muertos," which means Day of the Dead. Although the Spanish conquerors tried to eradicate this pagan celebration of mocking death, they were unsuccessful. Since Christianity was not an option for the Roman Catholic missionaries that were sent from Spain, they merged the celebration with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, which are celebrated on November 1st and 2nd.
During "Día de los muertos," many faithful Mexicans and their descendants in the United States of America remember their ancestors by taking flowers to their graves and attend special Church services. (Many Central Americans celebrate this holiday as well.) In some remote areas of Mexico, there are native descendants who believe that the spirits of those deceased will visit earth on this day. A trail of luminaries that lead the dead into towns are placed on the roads. Christian graves are decorated with candles, colorful marigolds, favorite food offerings, and even clay skeleton figurines depicting the deceased's favorite activities or colorful sugar skulls. There is even a parade of dancers and musicians wearing intricate masks and costumes that will weave their way through graveyards. Families gather around the graves to eat, drink and remember their ancestors. In their homes, many of these people will also construct intricate altars to honor those deceased. The same types of decorations will be used, along with crosses and photographs of those deceased.
Since I grew up in an Episcopalian household in Mexico, my family and I only attended special services and took flowers to our deceased family members' graves. However, I was aware of some of these unique traditions through the work of world renown illustrator José Guadalupe Posada and muralist Diego Rivera. These two artists, as well as many other Mexican descendant artisans, have incorporated the skull and skeleton into their artwork in commemoration of old world traditions. In addition, about seven years ago, I was able to witness personally Mayan descendants celebrate "Dia de los muertos" during a missionary trip I made to the state of Oaxaca. It was truly fascinating! Since then, I've incorporated the skeleton and skull motif into some of my fall artwork. Below are a few examples:
Zentangle Inspired Skull
2½ x 3½ Card in pen and ink, with pencil shadowing
Marigolds on a Skull
Sketched using Omnisketch app for iPhone
Mixed Media - Black crayon, markers and watercolors
Felt Collage Skull Banners
My two daughters and I made these banners to represent our family in the tradition of mocking death
Skeleton stamp print embellished with a punched hat and an opaque paint marker
To form a border around the image, I wrote a traditional "calavera literaria," or literary skeleton. A calavera literaria is a rhyme dedicated to a live person, which makes reference to one of his/her traits or characteristics and mocks death.
I hope you've enjoyed this nugget of Mexican history and traditions, as well as my artwork. As you can see, it's all about honoring traditions. What cultural traditions do you keep?