By Elana Estrin
Artist José Guadalupe Posada’s graphic legacy is as recognizable today as it was in turn-of-the-century Mexico, and his distinctive skeleton print calaveras have become synonymous with the traditional Day of the Dead celebration, which is November 1.
In Jesse Cordes Selbin’s article, “José Guadalupe Posada: Printmaker to the Mexican People,” learn more about the man who ushered in Mexico’s golden age of printmaking and inspired the work of fellow artists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.
Hector Dominguez-Ruvalcaba, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portugese at The University of Texas at Austin, gives an overview of the traditions behind the Day of the Dead:
There were nine levels in the Mesoamerican afterlife. Tlalocan was a paradise reserved for those who died of contagious diseases, while those who died in war walked with the sun to the zenith. The relatives of these dead would lay offerings near their bodies so they could accomplish this task. These offerings would be left for four years, until the dead transformed into hummingbirds and began to nourish themselves by drinking the nectar of local flowers. The final—and darkest—level was called Mictlan, the place of no return. To reach this place, the dead would have to journey for four years.
Relatives would place offerings of food and leave the tools for working in the same job the dead had used in their jobs in life. In this sense death was then an endless cycle of traversing, going through different dimensions of existence. Offerings were the main resource that allowed the dead to reach the next level in their journey beyond the grave. There were particular different dates in the year to honor one or another group of dead, a religious calendar that was completely altered after the Christianization of America.
These offerings survive as a result of the syncretic religions that were established during the Spanish Conquest. Today, offerings to the dead are made on All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) of the Christian calendar.
In rural areas of Mesoamerica, November 1 is dedicated to dead infants (which in pre-Columbian times was celebrated in August), while November 2 is dedicated to dead adults. In many areas leaving an offering for deceased loved ones is a dutifully fulfilled obligation. Family comes together, bringing the dead to the reunion through nostalgic conversations.
The Day of the Dead is the day of filial love, but it is also the day of celebrating the harvest in the agricultural calendar. November is the month of bountiful harvest, and generously sharing food is the most sincere expression of gratitude. The altar of the dead is then a cornucopia of fruits, flowers, candies, drinks, and the most precious objects of beloved family members. The colorful ornaments, the saints of family devotion, the elaborate cooking, and even the delicate sugar skulls make death not a terrible image, but the core of human communion.