Cualli teotlac, mimichtin! 🐠 I am back with a special thread this week, a topic near and dear to my heart. #StarTalk This week we'll be discussing the origins and cultural importance of one of the few remaining indigenous holidays turned alt cult phenomenon, Dia de los Muertos! So buckle up, we're in for a ride and our first stop is as it always is: Past Aztlan and to the beginning, Mictlan
Who today isn't familiar with the sight of skull faces decked out with rhinestones and streaks of neon paints? Crowns of cascading roses and marigolds or maybe a tall pinstriped topped hat framing a grotesquely grimacing face and fanciful clothing to complete the look. The past 25 years has seen Dia de los Muertos go from an obscure ritual celebrated in remote Mexico to global phenomenon with parades and parties hosted from October 31st to November 2nd, both religious and as pop art.
From Disney movies (Coco) to Fox movies (Book of the Life), makeup tutorials, art prints, Halloween costumes, wallpapers, candy tins, down to cheap party decorations sold by Party City and Target, we can't seem to really escape the sights once October rolls around. For better or for worse, it seems here to stay.
So.. What exactly is Dia de los Muertos and where did it come from? You know its not Mexican Halloween. Something about skeletons crossing marigold bridges? Huh??
The story begins eons ago, before Mexico, before the Aztec Empire, maybe even before the Olmec and a people we have no name for. Its a story we still tell ourselves today in many different capacities, but the indigenous people knew it as Mictlan, the final resting place.
Lorded over by Mictlantecuhtli and his Queen, Mictecacihuatl, Mictlan was the 9th and final layer and resting place of the underworld.
One had to fight and struggle their way to Mictlan to earn their final rest. It is said to have taken a soul four years to conquer the journey through treacherous ranges where the mountains crashed into each other, across expansive plains where the winds whipped your body like sharp knives, and through a wild bloody river hounded by fearsome, hungry jaguars.
Not everyone had to go through this, of course. Some proved their worth in life and were rewarded for it.
Warriors that died either in battle or as a sacrifice were sent to the East where they rose with the sun and came back to Earth as humminbirds to defend their home and family.
Mothers that died in childbirth were sent to the West to accompany the setting sun.
While souls taken by drowning, lightning, or certain disease went to Tlalocan, the paradise presided over by god Tlaloc.
A soul had help on their way through the layers of Mictlan, both in the form of an animal companion- the greeks called them psychopomps, we call them alebrijes- usually a Xolo dog (and this goes way back to another thread: Don't be mean to your doggies! They may just ditch your ass at the bloody, jaguar infested river instead of helping you across!) or another animal and offerings left behind by the family in the form of tools, weapons, armor, or food.
Does this sound familiar? Its the most likely direct relative to the ofrenda we leave out today as offerings to our ancestors. Every year, we deck out altars large and small with flowers- traditionally marigolds- and photos of our ancestors surrounded by all their favorite earthly comforts: beer, coffee, tea, pan dulce, candy, platters of enchiladas, tamales, often little toys or musical instruments.
Beyond the religious iconography of Saints and Jesus, Spanish Catholicism is deeply embedded into the celebration now, for better or worse.
Dia de los Muertos was once celebrated sometime around August, but Catholicism moved in and it merged into the minor holiday of All Souls Day. Other traditions included the flowers and candles said to light the way of the souls from the cemetery to the family home, as well as the iconic breads left on the altars, pan de muerto y pan de animas
One of The icons of the celebration is, of course, La Calavera Catrina also known simply as la Catrina. We all know her by her wide brimmed hat and slinky gown, but where did she come from? Meet the artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, who created the Catrina around 1910 as a scathing commentary on the native population trying desperately to assimilate into the European standards of beauty and forgetting their proud heritage for French fancy.
The name as well as her popularity are attributed, however, to one Diego Rivera, the famous painter and oft forgotten other half of Frida Kahlo. She was painted in part of his mural "Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central" in 1947, standing amongst other figures such as Benito Juarez, Maxamilian I of Mexico, and Hernan Cortes, a cadre of upper class figures in the forefront while an indigenous family is beaten back by police batons.
She's since taken on a life of her own, symbolizing the Mexican willingness to laugh in the face of death, and to act as a reminder that all of us die, even the rich and powerful that would like to think themselves immortal.
In a way, she is also linked to our dear Mictēcacihuātl, the Queen of Mictlan who watches over the bones of the dead and presides over the celebrations surrounding them. Its unclear if this link was intentional by Posadas, but undeniably it is fitting.
And now for, inarguably, THE MOST recognizable and iconic of all the imagery associated with dia de los muertos: the sugar skull
These intricate little sweets are traditionally formed in clay molds with boiled sugar, set, and then broken out and decorated with colorful icing, feathers, foil, rhinestones, buttons, and anything else your campy little heart could desire. They are an art unto themselves with a bit of a gruesome history.
If you're an avid reader of my threads, you can maybe already guess where this is going lmao
The process of cast sugar work was brought over by European candy makers sometime in the 17th century, but the tradition of painted skulls is one that stretches back, oh.. a few thousand years.
Only of course, it was real skulls. And the paint was probably blood. Its a bit unclear what these were used for, trophy or temple decoration, but it was definitely a thing that today delights us all.
In all actuality, these painted skulls were likely offerings or temple decorations for Huitzilopotchli made from the skulls of the warriors sacrificed to him.
Today, calaveras are made from sugar, chocolate, clay, wood, anything, really and brightly colored to bring us joy as celebrate the lives of our loved ones.
So now we know more about the history, but what about today? How do we celebrate Dia de los Muertos? Well, it depends on where you are.
In Pátzcuaro, Michoacan, colorful costumes and dancing are combined with a midnight tradition on November 2 of taking a mariposa ride to Janitzio island where the cemetery resides for celebrations.
In Ocotepec, visitors bring candles to the homes of families that have lost children recently and are given tamales and atole in return.
In places where the lineage is from the Maya, the celebrations are much the same as in Mexico, candles and flowers and the decorations of grave sites to honor the ancestors. Brazil, Peru, and Beliz by the indigenous Yucatec celebrate similarly.
In some places of Guatemala, large kites are flown in the belief that they will help guide the souls home and then back again. In Sumpago, this is also a major festival.
Ecuador's indigenous people Kichwa hold this holiday especially important, celebrating with traditional ceremonial foods such as colada morada, a spiced fruit porridge made up with purple maize and berries, as well as guagua de pan, breads shaped like swaddled infants or in the city of Loja, shaped like pigs.
La Paz, Bolivia celebrates Día de las Ñatitas on May 5th, a tradition celebrated on the 3rd year after burial with the bones of the departed. Today, only the skull is kept by the family to watch over and protect them, and on November 3rd they are honored with crowns of flowers and favored foods.
In the Philipines (culture cousins!) they have Undás, a similar feast revolving around deceased loved ones, cleaning tombs and offering foods.
In the USA, most prominently in the Southwestern states, Dia de los Muertos is celebrates with days of parades, parties, art installations, picnics in cemeteries, as well as private celebration within family homes.
This resurgence of interest in the holiday contrasts sharply with certain Mexican cities which have increasingly seen their traditions displaced and instead today treat it as their own Halloween, roaming in costumes and asking for candies or money.
Ultimately, Dia de los Muertos is a beautiful tradition of love and comfort and I am personally endlessly excited to see that it has been revitalized by the modern generations. When the Spanish arrived, they tried to squash it out but we refused to allow our spirits to be destroyed and we persevered. It is not the same as it once was, true, but it is no less important to who we are. So celebrate, because we are still here and we will never vanish.
And for those of you that are not latine/ latinx/ indigenous, I'm glad for your interest in our celebration! The festivals aren't forbidden to you. Ask your latine friends that celebrate if they would allow you to celebrate with them, but please restrain yourself from co-opting a cultural cornerstone for aesthetics or costumes. We love to share our culture, we don't love to see it commercialized and mocked.
Lets wrap it up!
*Today's Dia de los Muertos is a mishmash of Spanish/ Catholic/ Indigenous traditions
*Everyone cried over Coco its okay to admit it
*BE NICE TO YOUR DOGGIES
*Birth givers = Warriors
*Life cannot exist without sacrifice
*The macabre is not bad or weird, it is necessary to a balanced life
Thank you for reading!!
🚨 And finally! IF you can spare it, please tip the writer! Funds go towards feeding my fat ass alebrijes
@star thank you so much, I've wanted to know more about dia de los muertos for ages! I find this way of thinking of and celebrating the connections with those who already died so consoling and empowering, also for ways of fighting power. thanks for every layer of this Startalk!
@kikir i'm so glad you enjoyed it! i love making these threads and this is a topic i love so much for its layers of importance.
@star Thank you for this thread, it was incredibly detailed and important! Sent a coffee.
@star also that video series I had to watch as a high schooler.
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