This ancient festival is rooted in Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past. It is celebrated every year on November 1 (All Saints’ Day) and November 2 (All Souls’ Day). Many customs associated with this festival reflect a mix of ancient culture and Spanish Catholicism.
As NPR reports on the history of the holiday:
“The Aztecs developed the ritual some 3,000 years ago because they believed one should not grieve the loss of a beloved ancestor who passed. Instead, the Aztecs celebrated their lives and welcomed the return of their spirits to the land of the living once a year. That’s where the food, drink and music offerings come in. . . . mourning was not allowed because it was believed the tears would make the spirit’s path treacherous and slippery.
During the Spanish conquest, Catholic leaders exerted their influence on the tradition, and the resulting mash-up created the Day of the Dead celebration as we now know it.”
The heart of the holiday is the honoring of deceased relatives. Gravesites are cleaned, repaired, and decorated with candles, flowers and incense. Inside the home, ofrendas, or home altars, are constructed to welcome back the souls of lost loved ones for a brief visit. Photos and mementos are set out along with special food offerings like pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”), sugar skulls and drinks. (Traditionally pan de muerto is a sweet, yeast-risen egg bread topped by crossed links of dough representing crossbones. There are many variations, however.) Pumpkin seeds or amaranth seeds are offered as snacks for the visiting ancestral spirit. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, and to remind celebrants that death is a natural part of the cycle of life.
When we first moved to Tucson, I knew little about Dia de los Muertos. Indeed, in spite of the large presence of people in Tucson originally from Mexico, all the dancing skeletons led me to believe there was some sort of local boosterism of the band The Grateful Dead of which I was unaware. Furthermore, images Frida Kahlo seemed to be an integral part of items sold in stores to be a part of the ofrendas.
I subsequently learned that Frida Kahlo is enjoying something of a cult status now among those of Mexican heritage. Her embrace of Mexico’s indigenous roots and her dedication to social and political reform in Mexico, combined with her colorful clothing, colorful sex life, and bright paintings, have made her a favorite daughter of Mexico. PBS reported in 2005:
“Fifty years after her death, Frida Kahlo’s life and work has inspired over 65,000 Web sites, numerous one-woman shows and art exhibits and even fashion designs. Reproductions of her artwork can be found on mouse pads, furniture and clocks. In 2001, the U.S. Postal Service placed her image on a 34-cent stamp, making her the first Hispanic woman to receive such an honor. All but ignored as an artist during her lifetime, Frida is now studied, analyzed and idealized.”
She was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907, and lived only until the age of 47. In her brief lifetime she created 143 paintings, 55 of which are self-portraits. She also managed to have love affairs with a number of movers and shakers of the time, including Diego Rivera (whom she married when she was 22 and he was 42), American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, Hungarian born photographer Nickolas Muray, and Communist leader Leon Trotsky.
Her work has been called surrealist because of its self-reflective style and emphasis on the subconscious.
This she combined with Mexican folk art which helped distinguish her work. During her lifetime, she sold relatively few paintings, but today her works fetch enormous prices at auction. In 2000, a 1929 self-portrait sold for more than $5 million. And, of course, she has become an important addition to the observation of Dia de los Muertos.
You can learn more about ofrendas on this interactive Smithsonian site.