In the course of our travels through some of the major cities of the Southwest, we have come across souvenir shops selling colorful painted skulls and skeletons in a variety--often humorous--of poses and attire. All were sold from display areas labeled "Day of the Dead." My first impression was that the artists were making fun of B horror films--or maybe mocking Death.
The recent celebration of El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) in San Diego's Old Town provided us with an opportunity to learn the meaning of this celebration. We started at the Adobe Chapel. Built in 1850 as a private residence, the structure was converted to a chapel in 1858.
Pat served as historian and docent as we learned about the chapel and the history of the Day of the Dead celebration. This unique festival that is the result of 16th century Spanish priests seeing a correlation between the Aztec custom of commemorating fallen warriors with offerings of food to altars and Christian celebration of All Soul's Day, a Roman Catholic holy day commemorating the dead.
It is believed that the spirit of the dead visit their families on All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2). To celebrate, the families make altars (ofrendas) and place food, such as pan de muertos baked in shapes of skulls, figures, candles, incense, yellow marigolds, and most importantly a photo of the departed soul on the altar.
It might sound somewhat morbid, but the Mexicans react to death with mourning along with happiness and joy. They look at death with the same fear as any other culture, but there is a difference. They reflect their fear by mocking and living alongside death.
Celebrations begin with the cleaning of the graves and the construction of the ofrenda, or altar. In Old Town, the observance began at El Campo Santo Cemetery (above). Items meaningful to the individual are placed at the gravesite. In the case of Anita Gillis, an infant (left), a Teddy bear, small toys, and candies are placed by the headstone. Families hold a kind of picnic at the graveside where they interact socially among themselves and with other families exchanging stories, thereby not only celebrating their ancestors, but also celebrating the role that those ancestors played in a larger community.
Over 45 of Old Town's churches, homes, and businesses built altars to honor the memory of ancestors of the congregation, families, and employees at these sites. Many of the altars had paths to them strewn with flowers, such as the one at the Derby-Pendleton House. Yellow and orange marigolds are also called "the flower of the dead" and appear in all altar presentations.
As in the case of the gravesides, home altars are also adorned with religious amulets and food offerings. At least four types of items are represented in every altar--earth, wind, fire, and water.
Earth is represented by crop: The Mexicans believe the souls are fed by the aroma of food. Bread, sometimes a special pan de muerto made in the shape of a person is often featured, as in the altar at the restaurant 25forty.
Wind is represented by a moving object: Tissue paper is commonly used to represent wind. An example of this can be found in the altar at Around the World. This shop sells products made for fair labor wages by individuals in developing countries.
Water is placed in a container for the soul to quench its thirst after the long journey to the altar. Water is featured in this same altar at Around the World. The water is the gold-colored glass (center) is our drinking water; the water in the plastic cup to the right is impure, typical of the drinking water in these countries.
Fire is represented by a wax candle: Each lit candle represents a soul, and an extra one is placed for the forgotten soul. The altar at the Cosmopolitan Hotel featured many candles.
The altars vary in size, from this small one with the papeles picados, colored paper with cutout designs at the El Fandango restaurant to the larger ones
at Fiesta de Reyes and
the one at the Old World Market, depending on the number of people remembered and the number of items assembled in their display.
Other altar decorations include images of the deceased as well as foods that the deceased enjoyed during his life. The altar at Tienda de Reyes remembered Juana Machado, the "Florence Nightingale of Old Town," and Marlana Williamson Coronel, "Preserver of California Culture. The bottle of Pepe Lopez Tequila must have been enjoyed by a person commemorated by the altar.
All in all, the altar represents a recognition of the cycle of life and death that is part of human existence.