Yesterday was the occasion of my very first signing for my novel, Graves’ End. Needless to say I had an amazing time. It was a chance to see and say thank you to many of the family members and friends who’ve helped me along the way, as well as to make a few new friends and find a few new readers. Del & Sue Howison, the owners of Dark Delicacies Bookshop (darkdel.com), put on one hell of an event, and I can’t thank them enough for hosting. My fellow panelists ( Jace Daniel, Melissa Finch, Bart Brevik, & Peter Clines) were a witty and talented bunch of local authors, and I was delighted to be in their company. All in all it was a great experience, one I’ve been dreaming of and working toward pretty much since I learned how to read. Thanks to everybody who came out!
It’s my favorite time of year again, when the skies are looking a little bit grayer and the air feels a little bit colder than it did just a few weeks ago. Summer has slipped away, but winter hasn’t yet begun. (‘Fall’ is something of an urban legend here in southern California— a rumor spread by those who’ve come from distant places, one that’s never quite believed in by the natives.) It’s at this particular time of the year, midway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, when the earth’s tilting axis inclines us away from the warmth of the sun, that the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead grows thin.
It’s something we’ve sensed for ages. Pagan Europe called it Samhain: a festival to mark the beginning of the dark half of the year. The medieval Catholic church repackaged the old observance as All Souls’ Day, and the folk tradition we now know as Halloween grew up from the resultant tangle of beliefs. A similar process of syncretization occurred on this continent when ecclesiastical memes exported from Spain collided with indigenous practices and el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, began its ongoing evolution.
The holiday’s roots run deep in Mexico. That nation’s Aztec ancestors once celebrated a month-long festival in honor of their death goddess Mictlancihuatl, and her shadow can still be seen in the calaca costumes and colorful Catrinas that abound today. While few in L.A. have the option of holding a nocturnal graveside vigil to welcome home returning souls, many other traditional trappings—such as candlelit altars and sugar skulls, marigolds and copal incense—are here to experience at any number of local events. Olvera Street’s procession showcases Mexican heritage, but the massively-attended party at Hollywood Forever Cemetery allows for more avant-garde variations on the theme. Like everything else in Los Angeles, our Day of the Dead is flexible and subject to reinvention, ours to fashion in any way we please.
Even so, at its core el Dia de los Muertos remains unchanged. It’s our annual chance to remind those we’ve lost that we remember them, as well as to mock the specter of death that stalks us all, at every moment of our lives. Our most fundamental human wish—to hold onto some small part of what death insists on taking away—is summed up by images of skeletons celebrating in joyous defiance of life’s harshest truth. The offerings of food and drink left out for departed friends and family help us to reconnect, once per year, with the ghosts of our past… who must be gone again by morning.
One of the first ghosts to arrive for el Dia de los Muertos each year is the familiar image of La Calavera Catrina. Shown as a grinning female skeleton wearing a fancy, flowery, broad-brimmed hat, the well-dressed corpse shows up just about everywhere towards the end of October. You’ll find her stationed on traditional altars and cut into colorful paper banners, as well as adorning t-shirts, appearing in video games, and sanctifying other pop culture shrines. She’s become a sort of unofficial patron of the modern Day of the Dead, but she didn’t begin her long, strange afterlife that way.
José Guadalupe Posada was an engraver and printmaker working in Mexico City around the turn of the 20th century. His cartoons graced the pages of newspapers as well as advertising posters and the cheap leaflets that graphically illustrated the events of the day for a largely illiterate audience. Best known were his Calaveras, a series of caricatures depicting costumed skeletons going through the motions of everyday life. La Catrina was one of these, originally published as a broadside sometime around 1910.
The Calaveras were a form of social satire, poking fun at rich and poor alike and reminding everyone that death awaits us all, regardless of status or wealth. La Catrina and her ostentatious hat first served to lampoon the pretentions of the upper classes, who at that time were desperate to emulate European style and culture. The contemporary face of the Day of the Dead first came into the world as an ephemeral political cartoon.
Her current popularity transcends her ironic origin, however. The century-old print has inspired generations of craftspeople, and creative variations on the Catrina theme in a variety of media have become a staple of Latin American art. She has been loosely identified with Mictlancihuatl (also called Mictecacihuatl, the wife of death god Mictlantecuhtli), who oversaw the Aztecs’ Feasts of the Dead, observances which eventually syncretized with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days to become the Dia de los Muertos celebration we know today. On the darker side of things, she even resembles the ominous figure of Santa Muerte (Holy Death), an unofficial folk saint who is venerated, often in secret, by the disenfranchised throughout Mexico and the Spanish-speaking US. For her followers, the afterlife feels uncertain and intangible, but death itself remains a starkly immutable fact. As Death’s personification, Santa Muerte (also called ‘La Flaca,’ or the Skinny Lady) can be petitioned to show mercy when the dreaded end at last arrives.
José Posada’s old cartoon would seem to have tapped into something that resonates more deeply than the artist’s original socio-political intentions. The image of the elegant skeleton speaks to our fundamental desire for our lives and our identities to continue on beyond the grave. La Catrina’s post-mortem finery hints that maybe we can take it with us, after all— or at least come back once a year to enjoy everything we’ll miss.
Imagine you’re an Aztec in pre-conquest Mexico, and you’ve just died.
You wouldn’t have called yourself Aztec, first off— historians applied that name later on. You would’ve been Nahua or Mexica by your own description, a speaker of the indigenous Nahuatl language, and your traditions taught you that a person undergoes three deaths. The first when the body expires, the second when it’s placed in the ground. The third and final death occurs when no one living remembers your name anymore, so take a number and get in line. You’re going to be here for a while.
You know that several housing options exist for the newly deceased, although assignment to an afterlife is based less on how you lived than on how you died. Warriors, including women who perish in childbirth (casualties in the ongoing fight to bring new life into this world), become hummingbirds that either track the sun in its course across the sky or else descend with it into the underworld at night. Those individuals lucky enough to die by drowning are forwarded on to the watery paradise of Tlalocan, while pretty much everybody else trickles down to the lowest point in the cosmos, a vast and dreary plane called Mictlan. It’s this realm’s king, Mictlantecuhtli (pronounced Meekt-lahn-te-koot-ly), who oversees the entire soul-sorting operation.
Mictlantecuhtli. You’ve seen him depicted as a freshly-flayed skeleton with bulging, lidless eyes and his jawbone gaping wide to swallow the stars that disappear during the daylight hours, perhaps in the decorations of the temple at the heart of Tenochtitlan.
(The Aztecs’ ancient capital has been built over as Mexico City in our modern-day world, but in 1994 a pair of statues was excavated at the site of the former temple. While they’re often cited as being twin images of Mictlantecuhtli himself, the 2010 book “The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire” by John M.D. Pohl and Claire L. Lyons instead identifies the statues as Tzitzimime, another class of being known to dwell within the boundaries of Mictlan.)
Lord Death was certainly a fearsome-looking deity in the sacred artworks you saw in life, often shown with his arms upraised to tear out hearts and a garland of eyeballs strung around his neck, but it’s not him you’re afraid of now. Gloomy as it sounds, Mictlan is known to be a place of rest and quiescence for the departed… once you get there. Not every soul, or teyolia, makes the four-year journey in one piece. Mictlan has nine levels, each with a corresponding obstacle to overcome. You’ll need to pass between two mountains that crash together, and climb another made of jagged volcanic glass. Wild beasts will try to tear you limb from limb, arrows will pierce your body, and frigid winds will slice your skin. Fortunately, your family was kind enough to cremate and bury a small red dog alongside you, to act as your guide through this grueling series of challenges. They also left you with a jade bead to offer Mictlantecuhtli in place of your heart. A little bribe, something to ease your way and ensure your comfort when you finally reach rock bottom and meet the king of the dead. Very thoughtful of those you left behind.
So you’re on your way. The trip won’t be easy, but at least a respite from all of life’s agonies lies at the end of the path. And who knows, you might even be back for a visit now and then. The relations who buried you with a dog and a bead aren’t going to abandon you now. They and their children will continue to build marigold-covered altars to honor the dead every year and to ply returning spirits with offerings of favorite foods and drinks, just as you and your ancestors always did before them.
Life is short but memory is long, even in a changing and uncertain world like this one.
The Dia de Los Muertos traditions we celebrate today are a complex blend of customs and beliefs, both imported and domestic. The Conquistadors did their best to eradicate the practice of native ceremonies, but, as in the case of Haitian Vodou, some rituals and mythic figures endured by putting on acceptably Catholic-looking masks. Dominican Friar Diego Durán (a Nahuatl translator and a sympathetic recorder of Aztec myths) noted that the Feasts of the Dead, traditionally held in late summer, had been moved to coincide with the European tradition of All Hallow’s Eve even before his death in 1588. So it seems that Mictlantecuhtli never really went away at all— he just went further underground. Today, as with all our ancestors, it’s living memory that keeps the old god’s name alive, and who knows how long our memory might last?
Photos by Tamara Traver / Originally written for CreepyLA.com
For generations, children throughout Mexico and the American southwest have whispered the same woman’s tragic story into one another’s ears, provoking nervous giggles while planting the seeds of nightmares. She’s called la Llorona, the Weeping Woman or the Woman in White. Almost every re-telling of her popular tale contains its own variations, but the basic elements are usually these: a poor but proud young mother, her disloyal lover, and their children, murdered by drowning in a flash of jealous rage but mourned for an eternity thereafter.
Maria’s beauty was the envy of her entire town. So much so that she became certain her charms were destined to win her a husband of wealth and status, one who could raise her up out of the poverty to which she’d been born. The man she set her sights on was the son of a local landowner, a handsome young bachelor whose attentions were sought after by girls from all the best families in the area— girls far more privileged than Maria. She was right about the magnetic power of her beauty, however, and soon enough…
(An article I wrote for Creepy L.A. – the Los Angeles Halloween & Horror Website)
Death isn’t separate from life in the works of sculptor John De Jesus— it’s simply the flip side of the same celebration. His subjects may be deceased, but you won’t catch them dead in shrouds or somber mourning garb any time soon. They’re still having too much fun for that.
La Bella Muerte, his series of original bas-relief woodcarvings, combines the ironic wit of traditional Dia de Los Muertos imagery with the glamor and excitement of an Italian fashion runway. His skeletal cover girls pose in slinky cocktail gowns and retro mini-dresses, or else rockabilly tops and (very) skinny jeans. Defiantly lively even in death, each carving has a distinct attitude and style all her own.