By Danny Zaragoza, Marcos Tijerina, and Giovanni Salinas
Colorful sugar skulls, papier-mâché skeletons in formal attire, and death themed crafts adorned the outside of the Laredo Center for the Arts as Laredoans celebrated the Dia de los Muertos this past November. But the Mexican holiday is more than bedazzled skulls and face painting.
One of the art vendors outside the Laredo Center for the Arts was a Texas A&M International University graduate, Jessica Tovar an art major who is inspired by Frida Kahlo. Most of her art pieces are about death and the afterlife. She has been painting since she was in middle school and it continues to be a hobby of hers. As an adult, it became a form of expression and a second source of income. Jessica believes that many at-risk youth in this city could benefit from art as a hobby so she demonstrated that in her Dia de los Muertos art. She believes “our culture bleeds art, beauty, and death. I seek to find a way to show people that death is the beginning. There is grace in death, there’s nothing depressing about it in my eyes.” This thought process feeds into her Dia de los Muertos art.
Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the lives and deaths of individuals and loved ones who have passed on to the afterlife. Although it revolves around death, this day has absolutely nothing to do with mourning, but serves as more of a tribute to deceased individuals and the lives they led. The holiday dates back more than 2,500 years ago, when it began with how the Aztecs celebrated death with parties and feasts after someone within their community died. The deceased are remembered by having their families carry portraits of them through colorful processions of papier-mâché skeletons known as calacas. The most recognized way of remembering loved ones is by creating a tribute altar that includes the deceased’s favorite foods, hobbies, drinks, etc. This helps cope with the loss and death, while joyfully remembering loved ones.
At the downtown Laredo celebration, Carmen and Alejandro Martinez continue the altar tradition for the third year in a row. They erected an altar to celebrate their lives of their mothers, Isabel Rodriguez and Dora Martinez. The altar was decorated with Butterfingers candy for Rodriguez and Starbucks coffee with pan dulce, or sweet bread, for Martinez. Their orange altar was adorned with lights and a jug of water to help the deceased’s journey from life to the after-life.
The holiday is increasing in popularity because there are now “so many more Mexicanos in the United States,” says Carmen Martinez. Alejandro points out that H-E-B, a popular grocery store chain in South Texas, now carries Pan de Muerto, a pastry made specifically for Dia de Los Muertos.
This holiday has gained attention in Hollywood as well. Disney and Pixar are releasing “Coco” on November 2017 and 20th Century Fox has also recognized the popularity of the celebration and made a film relating to the holiday, “The Book of Life”, in 2014 which made $99.8 million at the box office. In the opening scene of the 2015 James Bond blockbuster movie, “Spectre”, everyone is seen celebrating the dead by dancing and singing through the streets in Mexico City, while dressed with death motifs showing that they do not fear it, but would rather revel with it. This Dia de los Muertos parade “celebration” was created for the film, but one year later it became a reality when thousands of citizens of Mexico City enjoyed the spectacle, food and music of this perennial celebration.