The Day of the Dead – el Día de los Muertos – is celebrated in many places around the world, but particularly in México where it has attained the status of a semi-national Holiday, a day to remember and commemorate and celebrate ‘those who have gone’ – ‘those who are still remembered’ – and those who, some people believe, may come back once again, one day a year, to walk the earthly haunts (pun intended) they once frequented.
Oregon, my adopted home state, is not generally known for being a hotbed of Día de los Muertos celebrations. But even in Oregon, here and there, in small pockets and outcroppings, among some people – very old, very young and in between – el Día de los Muertos is celebrated. In Ashland, in a former school now converted to an arts and crafts center, the Dead are remembered…with photos, trinkets, sculptures, paintings, drawings….in small altars consecrated to Spirits – to people – to memories and faces and beings who are gone but not forgotten.
A child misses her grandmother.
A two-dimensional drawn Calavera or skeleton threatens to enter the world of 3-dimensionality with wheels to supplement its skeletal feet.
Old images of once-young people rub shoulders with pleas for Peace and Love.
playing a piano keyboard
pays tribute to the spirits of illustrious dead Pianists
whose faces stare down at us from photos
or from within the silent sculpted contours of molded plaster
Some of the Dead have names
that are celebrated by ancient handmade figurines
and evoked in the poignant wording of the living who miss them.
Other Altars for the Dead – Altares para los muertos – celebrate social themes and struggles. In one, the words of Subcomandante Marcos – the spokesperson of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Naciónal Mexicano (the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the revolutionary movement from Chiapas, Mexico) appear
“El mundo que queremos es uno donde quepan muchos mundos” – The world we hope for is one which contains many worlds – including a world where you can lose your job, but find your true calling
A world where people, not just the Dead but the Living too, not just some people but all people, must be treated fairly
A world where greed – where everything is For Sale – may, ironically, lead to Death (a spiritual and moral death) faster than other natural or unnatural causes
There are Altars where indigenous ways and customs, some dead, some dying, come to life again
Handmade skull masks or Calaveras which stare with sly humor from empty eyesockets
Or grin when they find themselves next to the old-world staple of life, el maiz, corn.
The Dead need music
and trinkets, small seemingly insignificant objects which may contain immense hidden purport for a given spirit.
They like flowers too
And while perhaps the Devil may not be literally in the details here, there is someone with a twisted sense of humor
For some of the Dead, there is a sense of tragic majesty….
but when you look closer, you see they are attracted to some things we the living are….like the timeless beauty of a rose.
Two small faces look out from an old photo. A skull lies sideways. An Egyptian sculpture stares in disbelief from wood eyes while the eagle eyes of Horus the falcon seem to take everything in
Nearby a delicate Japanese paper parasol, like the kind my mother favored, shades the face of a young dark-haired woman from a sun that no longer shines
roses grace her altar
Her name was Gloria. Next year, 2012, she will have been dead 50 years.
and the hanging feathers
and the nearby feather-shrouded box that hangs suspended vertically like a raptor’s eyrie
suggest she may fly again some day. Across the corridor, a gray-haired woman, Patricia, smiles quietly at us from between corn and flowers
While the last altar, blazing with multi-colored brilliance
reveals a wealth of edible Calaveras, skull cookies
pies and candy (mmmmm…..who ever knew Death tasted so good? ‘We did’, the smiling Calaveras answer quietly)
with the incongruous image of the woman who inspired them, la Frida Kahlo.
And through it all, the living move quietly from one altar, one image, to the next. Letting yourself be pulled in if you are willing….ushered to an amorphous nether zone (is it just in your head?) between living and dead.
But here in Oregon, el Día de los Muertos is not just for observation, for the depiction and remembrance of the Dead, in image, sense, words, or song. Or for the trancelike powers of memory.
Wait. There’s more. A whole lot more. The darker side of the dark side. Outside, in the heart of the night….where Spirits walk. Where the Dead, los Muertos, are not merely welcome but special guests – invitados – on this night. In an ancient celebration, an age-old ritual of purification….of sacrifice….of fire.
How did this happen?
What the hell is going on here?
Who are those people?
And exactly what are they burning in that fire?
We’ll get to that.
(if we live long enough)
But not yet…..