The day of the dead — which has one foot in ancient Aztec culture and another in the exploitation of Misfits T-shirts — is all about being alive. At its most secular dia de los muertos, with its sugar skulls, sweet day of the dead bread, and those colorful paper offerings to the underworld, may easily be written off by the uninitiated as about as spiritual as that Tim Burton claymation movie Corpse Bride. At its most serious and traditionally observed, the Latin American holiday with corresponding cousin Samhain in Europe, is a holy alert calling for happy altars.
Like the Oingo Boingo song says, it’s a dead man’s party... and sooner or later we all get our invitation.
Due to the extreme inclusiveness of the event, dia de los muertos requires an active community. Since its inception in 1980, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, with its cinematic festivals and local arts installations, has been providing just that. Committed as they are to preserving and presenting Latino culture, they have done their part in making the tradition a date to mark and remember. “Dia de los muertos is a project that we prepare for all year long, and we take very seriously,” says event coordinator Anel Flores.
This year’s November 2 event commences with the annual Dia de los Muertos Parade in front of San Antonio Cultural Arts’ Peace and Remembrance mural, located at Trinity and San Patricio, and finds its climax at Guadalupe and South Brazos streets, where reverent revelers will congregate before GCAC’s César Chávez Building. There will be, as in past celebrations, a community altar where locals are encouraged to leave mementos of their loved ones now gone. Along with the reverential markings there will be how-to classes — sugar skull creation and calavera face painting — to keep the tradition going. Along with plenty of pan de muerto and hot chocolate, there will be a performance by the Guadalupe Dance Company to enliven the observance.
In past years, the event has been geared more toward artists. Last year, San Antonio’s shamanic visual master David Zamora Casas contributed his haunting and socially pointed pieces to the event. This year there will be no single artist’s work celebrated. Instead, the Guadalupe is partnering with several groups and causes, including the San Antonio Eye Bank, completing an altar in honor of organ donors who have given the gift of sight, and the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative, who will create an altar for families who have lost loved ones to domestic violence.
If there are no specific artists represented this year, there will be a definite academic aesthetic. “It has almost become faddish and more about the artistic elements than about the real reason for having an ofrenda” says Norma E. Cantu, who teaches Mexican-American literature at UTSA and is building an altar with her students in one of the Guadalupe windows dedicated to Chicano writers like Tomas Rivera, Gloria Anzaldua, Raul Salinas, Ricardo Sanchez, and recently deceased UTSA professor Debbie Lopez.
Cantu, who cherishes her childhood memories of going to the cemetery to visit the tombs of her great grandparents and the vendors who would set up outside and sell delicious sugar cane stalks that they would peel and chop into chunks, sees the difference between the Dia de Los Muertos and other holidays in the variety of its expression. “It is a tradition that blends the indigenous Mexican tradition with the Catholic or European tradition — how that happens depends on where it happens. So that in Michoacan or in Sonora the traditions are different. So are they different in San Antonio or in California.”
For Cantu, the observance is all about recognizing the debt of the people who have passed, “seeing how we remember our antepasados, those who have come before us. Acknowledging their lives.”
And the purposes of the altar is twofold: “I want the students who have not experienced this to understand it, and I want the students that are familiar with the tradition to keep dia de los muertos alive.” •