La Historia

After the conquest of Mexico, the Catholic observance of All Saints Day on November 1, honoring the souls of Catholic saints and dead children, and All Souls Day on November 2, honoring souls of departed adults, became a common practice known as dias de los muertos, the Days of the Dead. However, Mexican celebrations of those days have their roots in pre-Colombian religious practices. The indigenous peoples of Mexico brought some of their traditions to Catholicism and Catholic priests eager for converts blended certain aspects of native rituals into their own to make them more attractive to the converted. The Aztecs maintained a belief in the indestructibility of the life force of all things that melded with the Catholic belief in the transcendence of the spirit after death. The blend of religious expression from the native and conquering cultures produced often dramatic and mystical results.

Over the centuries, Mexican celebrations of dias de los muertos have featured elaborate rituals to welcome the spirits home for an annual visit. Mexico is a culture where the divisions between the actual and spiritual worlds are sometimes blurred. The belief is that spirits actually return to commune with their loved ones and consume the essence of food and drink. The festive events surrounding dias de los muertos provide the opportunity for the living to remember and honor loved ones who have passed on and to acknowledge that death is a part of life to be accepted rather than feared. Many aspects of the celebrations have developed to dispel the fear of death by poking fun at it, turning skulls and skeletons into folk art pieces, toys, and candies, and writing satirical poems called calaveras as jests about the living. Famed Mexican author Octavio Paz explained this aspect of Mexican culture in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1959): "To the inhabitants of New York, Paris or London death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips. The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, entertains it; it is one of his favorite playthings. It is true that in his attitude there is perhaps the same fear that others also have, but at least he does not hide this fear nor does he hide death; he contemplates her face to face. . ."

In south and central Mexico, the rural, indigenous celebrations of dias de los muertos became popular tourist attractions in the late 1970s and sparked a resurgence of interest in the traditions of native Mexican cultures. Cities such as the capital of Oaxaca, Patzcuaro in Michoacan and Huaquechula in the state of Puebla became meccas for tourists and folk art collectors. Travelers were fascinated with the fiestas and returned home with memorable food experiences, photos, and folk art pieces. The renaissance of these events helped to inspire a Latino cultural movement in this country, as well. For example, Mexic-Arte Museum founders Sylvia Orozco and Pio Pulido were inspired to mount Austin's first community Dia de los Muertos event in 1984 after witnessing the folk rituals in Mexico. Since its inception, the museum has mounted annual exhibits, offered altar-building seminars, and sponsored parades, including their famous Low Rider parades.

Cultural and arts organizations such as Mexic-Arte, La Peña, and Texas Folklife Resources in Austin and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio have been instrumental in showcasing and popularizing the holiday celebrations in Texas. In 1995, Texas Folklife Resources curated an exhibit at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center that chronicled the dias de los muertos observances at the San Fernando Cemetery II on San Antonio's west side. In Austin, groups as diverse as La Peña, ALLGO/Informe-Sida, Christo Rey Catholic Church, Roy Lozano's Ballet Folklorico, Las Manitas Cafe, and Joe's Bakery join forces annually to present a series of dia de los muertos events. The festive celebrations employ aspects of the religious, artistic, cultural, and culinary folk traditions to strengthen the cultural cohesiveness in the Latino community and memorialize community members who have died due to AIDS, substance abuse, or violence in positive and supportive settings. Day of the Dead observances also exist outside cultural center settings -- public school teachers have realized their value as teaching tools to illustrate Mexican culture and folk traditions. Three East Austin elementary schools, Sanchez, Metz and Zavala, build altars in observance of the dias de los muertos every year. -- V.W.

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