//Día de Muertos Alive

Día de Muertos Alive

By I. smiley G. Calderón | smileygcalderon@gmail.com

For those of us who are not too familiar with Día de Muertos, or “Day of the Dead” – that seemingly mystical Mexican holiday that immediately follows our comfortably familiar Halloween night of all things spooky and sweet. Seeing skulls and bones not only decorated but celebrated alongside candlelit altars may seem strange – or even scary, and talking about death may seem eerie, too. But, the truth is, Día de Muertos is much more than a time to dress up and eat, or talk about death and dying. Unlike the Halloween of today, where fun and terror go hand-in-hand, Día de Muertos is a traditional time for commemoration and celebration of loved ones who have passed on. It is a special time of reflection and spirituality – a time to remember the dead and invite their memory and essence to come alive. Mini altars with candles and photos of loved ones surrounded by the foods and drinks that they enjoyed most while alive are erected and embellished to remember them by. Día de Muertos is a meaningful remembrance of our ancestors as a celebration of life along with the dead. Beyond that, it is at the same time recognizing our collective fate: death, the complete cycle of life.

Honestly, I’m no Día de Muertos expert, and personally, my Chicano family doesn’t even celebrate it. We’ve lost our traditional connection to Mexico through many generations of living in the United States, assimilating to mainstream culture. Like many Americans, I just conveniently thought that Día de Muertos was the Mexican version of the American Halloween. Oh boy was I wrong. Unlike Halloween, which has now evolved into a night of wicked fun without spiritual significance, Día de Muertos has maintained its indigenous tradition of honoring the dead. And despite any religious or governmental opposition. For example, the Catholic Church, in their attempt to convert the indigenous to Christianity and strip American natives of their roots, hijacked Día de Muertos and relabeled it “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day.” This came after they realized that the people refused to abandon such an essential part of their culture. Strong traditions die hard, and every year on the first and second of November, traditional Mexican families gather around to remember their loved ones. They invite their memory back to the land of the living, honoring and remembering their ancestors. All while enticing them with sweetbreads and drinks placed on personalized altars dedicated to their memory. It is a unique and magical time.

This is why I wanted to learn more about this important holiday from someone who could genuinely resonate its essence and help me better understand its magical tradition. So, I turned to a local popular Fresnan artist, Mauro Carrera, for the lesson. Mauro, a Mexican visual artist, and muralist raised and educated in Fresno, recently finished an acrylic painting celebrating Día de Muertos and graciously shared it with me. He calls it: Entre Mictlan y El Barrio (translated: Between Mictlan and The Neighborhood)What makes this piece so unique is that it captures a different vantage of Día de Muertos. Instead of the ubiquitous images of La Calavera Catrina – the iconic female sugar skull – and other myriad skull imagery, Mauro focuses on the more mystical and spiritual aspect of this holiday. He highlights Xoloitzcuintli, or “Xolo” for short – the ancient mini hairless dog breed who is said to welcome the dead as their spirit guide to Mictlan, the mythological underworld and land of the dead. In this piece, Mauro effectively demonstrates how visual representations of Día de Muertos can go well beyond skull imagery.

Mauro Carrera holding Marigold flowers for his family’s alter.

His work is a beautiful six-piece modular painting full of vibrant colors and evocative imagery that captures the nexus of two worlds connected – the living and the dead. Mauro’s color expression is crucial to him, especially in retelling ancient afterlife mythology. He tells me with an artistic seriousness that poignantly matches the topic:

“I’m trying to acknowledge all that is through color – tapping into the concept of God.” 

Indeed, with all of its incredible colors and tones, Entre Mictlan y El Barrio is a remarkable reflection that truly taps into the spiritual energy of Día de Muertos. In the center of the painting flickers a single candle – an iconic image of light and life in the next world – which Mauro painted to represent all of the colors of the chakras. For Mauro, incorporating all of the colors of the whole spectrum in his work is important and vital. And, it is especially meaningful in this piece.

Mauro explained to me his personal experience with Día de Muertos, as it is a significant spiritual holiday for him and his family. Every year, his family honors their ancestors by preparing beautiful altars for their passed loved ones. They decorate them with pictures, favorite foods and drinks and, of course, with the beautiful Marigold flowers for their potent scents and vibrant bright colors. (When Mauro described this altar flower to me, sadly, I didn’t know which he was referring to. So, he sent me a beautiful picture of him with an armful of them so that I’d never forget)

But, I asked him – what if I’m not Mexican, Mauro? Or, what if I’m atheist – can I still appreciate and celebrate this sacred holiday? His candid answer? Absolutely. To Mauro, Día de Muertos is about honoring and remembering your ancestors, your family, your loved and missed ones. 

“Even if you’re not Latino, even if you’re agnostic, even if you’re atheist,” he tells me. It is a magical time to celebrate the Day of the Dead – alive.