The skulls are back, pan de muerto is about to disappear from bakeries for 11 months, and I’m still a couple months away from heading back to DF. I didn’t get a chance to set up a proper ofrenda this year (too much time at the hospital trying to keep people from ending up muerto), but I did make it down to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen to see the museum’s collection of altars, calaveras, and other Day of the Dead exhibits. I’m not sure how much longer they’ll leave the Dia de los Muertos exhibition up, but the museum is worth a visit either way (free and easily accessible by the L!).
Filed under: Photo, Short | Tags: Chicago, Dia de los Muertos, flowers, food, people, Skulls
As a single post relating to day of the dead last year approaches 1000 hits (and climbs google image’s page ranking for “dia de los muertos”), it’s time to prepare for this year’s go-round.
Pan de Muerto is in the panaderias (though I’ve only had one loaf), skeletons abound (though far less in Chicago than DF), and I’ve slowly begun setting up an ofrenda here at home. It’ll be a first; hopefully no visiting spirits will be offended.
Will post a photo in the future.
Pan de Muerto, i.e. “Bread of the Dead”
I’m telling you, they are everywhere…
World of the Living, Day of the Dead
Aside from serious punks, Goths, and occasionally pirates, few people in the United States think of the human skull—a symbolic representation of death—as a decorative motif for all occasions. In Mexico, however, the skull is seen as appropriate adornment for everything from baby clothes to baked goods to candelabras. It is hard to overstate their popularity—for example, perhaps you remember the Tim Burton movie “Nightmare Before Christmas”. While few people in Mexico have actually seen the film, the entire country recognizes Jack Skelington—and at least half the population owns an object with his likeness—due to his extensive presence on everything from backpacks to window stickers to socks.
While skulls are a common sight year round here, their intensity has been kicked up several notches during the past several weeks. I am able to see fifty-four pictures, models, and stencils of skulls in the café where I’m currently seated. There is a skeleton nun, skeletons drinking tequila, skeletons getting married, skeletons dancing, skulls sitting on tables, a skull grim reaper, skeleton mariachi…. And the list goes on. I have eaten Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead), chocolate skeletons, and tamarind-sugar skulls. I have seen skeletons on stilts. I have seen more paper mache, clay, and plastic skeletons than you can shake a stick at.
Halloween likely played at least a minor role in the sudden explosion of skeleton-related décor, but the primary cause was without a doubt Día de los Muertos, Mexico‘s famous “Day of the Dead”. An ancient and cherished tradition throughout Mexico, Day of the Dead celebrates the return of the spirits of the deceased to the world of the living. Ofrendas, altars decorated with pictures of the departed, golden marigolds, and yes, skulls, are built, and gifts to the spirits—cigarettes, candy, beer—are left for their enjoyment. It is a colorful, celebratory affair, far from the funerary atmosphere one might expect. Rather than mourn the passing of loved ones, it celebrates their lives. In a sense, one might say Mexicans embrace death as a part of life, perhaps moreso than any other culture in the world.
In short, the skull represents death every bit as much in Mexico as it does in the United States and elsewhere. The difference lies instead in what death represents.
Skeletons aside, life’s been good in Mexico as of late. While I haven’t been particularly busy with my primary project, I have begun several side persuits. The first is a possible future study on how patient advocacy is taught during medical training, the other is a patient education project in rural Mexico with another Fulbright fellow and several Mexican healthcare providers (on a related note, if you have any patient health promotion-type materials please let me know). I made it to a pair of costume parties over the weekend as Michael Phelps, who apparently has quite a following among Mexicans as everyone seemed to want a picture with me. Other than a day trip to Mexico state, it’s been a while since I left the city. However, I plan on spending the weekend in Acapulco (you can hate me, it’s ok) which will be a nice change of pace.
Fun Mexican Word: La Catrina – Aside from the Virgin of Guadalupe, there is likely no image as widely recognized in all of Mexican culture. First appearing as a 1913 metal etching by Jorge Posada, a printmaker and political cartoonist, this female skeleton dressed in fashionable clothing and ornate hat of the period now appears in costumes, paintings, and ofrendas throughout the country.
Picture: Giant skeleton at UNAM (the national university). One of the many ofrendas put up to commemorate Dia de los Muertos on the campus quad.
Something I miss (aside from all of you, of course): Non-Mexican beer. While I generally like Mexican beer it’s basically all the same, which is to say incredibly light. I’m taking a 6-pack of the heaviest stout I can find back with me in November. Anyone who comes visit will be asked to do the same.
Something I like about DF: Street and market vendors. I’m not sure which is more impressive, the sheer number or the overall variety of their wares. 50 gallon stew pots? Check. Cactus paddles? Check. Bootleg porn DVDs? Check. It’s not an exaggeration to say that one could easily live here without ever setting foot into a formal store.
Hope all’s well in Chicago (for those of you there) and everywhere else for the rest of you. Enjoy the election tomorrow, I know I will.
Also, I’ll be home on the 20th for a week and a half or so; let me know if you’ll around Chicago or Ro/Ro and want to meet up.