Continuing this fifth instalment of my Mexico City travel blog, I outline and compare the range of experiences of being in and around the city for the ‘Day of the Dead’ festival 2011.
Episode 5.2: Experiencing the festival of ‘The Day of the Dead’ part 2
6) The State Day of the Dead
Of course there is a State response to the festival, with numerous exhibitions and performances, readings and concerts on the themes of death, ghosts, the folklore of spiritually, and ancient mythology. I haven’t managed to attend any of these enticing events because my focus has been so much at community level, but this annual artistic attention to the themes associated with the festival must have created an immense cannon of work which will doubtless have mined these universal as well as culturally specific human experiences to produce sophisticated ideas and expressions… I’m already vowing to explore this work on future visits! Perhaps needless to say, the State-sponsored reflection of this people’s festival studiously avoids political references, for example to the incredible 50,000 unexplained murders and further disappearances of ordinary citizens and activists alike, over the past 6 years in this country deeply troubled by violence and death.
7) The artistic and social ‘interpretative’, versus the artisan Day of the Dead
An artistic aspect of the festival which I have been fascinated by is the breadth in the style and approach of the ofrendas exhibited everywhere. Amongst the clearly traditional styles, with an artisan flavour of cut paper, Catrinas, skeleton sculptures involved in active scenes, flowers and incense, there are also ofrendas aiming at something different.
At the Ciudad Universitaria, the campus of UNAM, the largest university in Mexico (and in Latin America), some of the ofrendas exhibited were much more conceptual: white tissue paper hung from posts in a labyrinth construction, gradually being torn and distressed in the wind, perhaps symbolising an ethereal journey, or a fragile divide between life and death; pieces using video and audio snippets to heighten a dramatic ambiance in an installation of abstract images; blood and gore pieces making links between a youth fascination with gothic imagery, the problem of depression in young people and the symbolism of the festival; altars to political activists, artists and intellectuals who have lost their lives in struggles for justice. My friend Margarita was sceptical about the ‘arty’ altars, suggesting that many people feel these are a twist too far and find them alienating, whilst she herself was very pleased to see those altars honouring revolutionary heroes, especially the unsung, ordinary people whose deaths have come in the fight for indigenous people’s rights. I was simply surprised and intrigued to find the festival being used to draw attention to political issues at all, after so little of this kind of resonance in the general flavour of how the festival is presented. Margarita also expressed that making traditional altars can be a political act in itself, a way of claiming space for the voices of peoples substantially disenfranchised by the State and by mainstream Mexican society. Other friends here yearned for more of the conceptual works, pushing the boundaries and meanings of the festival to new places, and felt the traditional pieces were like a comfort blanket, stifling genuine responses to life, death and violence.
8) The politicised Day of the Dead
On the first night of the festival itself, on 1 November, I took part in a theatrical procession which further explored interpretative facets of the festival, by virtue of its diverse complexion of contributors. The route led from the top of a hill in the Iztapalapa district of the city, down through successive, working class neighbourhoods and into a main Iztapalapa plaza, which was filled with beautiful altars, food and a concert of live music. This lantern-lit community procession comprised a truly eclectic mix of influences and contributions. The overall theme, set by a short drama at the beginning of the event, was to enable modern day Mexicans to make contact with what the festival has meant and symbolised through past eras and into the present day. The procession was led by performers from an indigenous group, of Aztec heritage, who marked the beginning with a ritual presentation of dance, drumming, incense, calling with conches (by blowing large conch shells to produce a bugle-like tone) and cleansing and symbolically reclaiming the land for their forebears.
The leader, dressed in leather patches, his shoulders adorned with a dead (stuffed?) eagle, feathers spread wide, brought with him a Xoloitzcuintle, an ancient Mexican breed of hairless dog believed by Aztec peoples to act as spirit guides.
He delivered a powerful declaration of the ancient origins of the festival, reminding the audience of the former importance and modern-day marginality of indigenous Mexican cultures, and then led us down the hill, dancing to a drum beat all the way. The procession of perhaps 150 people, many carrying lanterns, some women carrying child-sized coffins and moaning, included a brass band bringing up the rear, playing a series of slow and solemn death marches. This, in combination with the drumming and dancing to a very different rhythm (in every sense!) at the head of the group, was quite a surreal experience for me – perhaps another example of Mexican ‘baroque’. As we processed down the hill, at several stopping points there were dramatic set-pieces presented by small groups of performers – dancers, singers, actors, video makers – each piece bringing into focus further prominent incidences of violence or deaths. This, it transpired, was a Day of the Dead procession for peace, and against violence – a powerful and disturbing lament. Each station along the route was a reminder or depiction of an aspect of Mexican life which has involved the deaths of or violent assault against civilian citizens, highlighting that Mexico is currently reeling under the weight of violence against its population. There were searingly poignant modern-day pieces about the unexplained deaths of 1,400 young women in the State of Juarez, the murders and disappearances of hundreds of political journalists, the deaths of migrant workers in illegal transit to the USA, the commonplace occurrence of domestic violence against Mexican women, the incredible numbers of young people murdered through their supposed involvement in the drugs wars (though the drugs involvement of many of the dead is heavily contested) and many other disturbing realities of modern-day Mexican society. There was no mistaking that this was a testament of angry despair, using the symbolism of the Day of the Dead as a platform to express indignation, and a call to action. How different this was from the whimsical skeleton figures drinking tequila, the face-paint, the almost fluorescent-coloured flowers, and the beautifully decorated ceramic skulls for sale on every street corner.
I have sketched here my initial impressions of contrasting and intriguing elements of the Day of the Dead festival and how it seems to function in many different ways. Despite the traditional flavour of the festival being light, festive and family orientated, the whole experience has for me been powerfully bitter-sweet and utterly paradoxical, with the beauty of the artisan folk crafts, the evocative iconography from ancient cultures, the playfulness and innocence of many of the altars, set in the end alongside the full-blooded cry of pain from people who can’t any longer bear to ignore that the ‘Day of the Dead’ has a much darker modern-day, political relevance.