The Birth of Day of the Dead 

La Catrina is the pinup girl for el Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — a traditional holiday in Mexico and Latin America, now increasingly celebrated in Detroit’s thriving Latino community. Muted here in past years as one of many cultural activities set aside for the sake of assimilation, Day of the Dead is undergoing a quiet rebirth in Detroit’s Latino enclaves while becoming a bona fide trend with gringo hipsters.

So Catrina will be busy this weekend, showing her bony face in social stops throughout Mexicantown, where she’ll be flanked by a host of rawboned compadres nestled in altars of vibrant marigolds, bottles of tequila, sugary treats and photos of departed loved ones. These ofrendas — literally, offerings — are designed to entice and comfort the spirits when they return Nov. 1 and 2 to visit family and friends for remembrance and lively celebration.

Far from being morbid or mournful, el Dia de los Muertos is a wryly comical, joyous revelry for — and with — the dead.

Dead man walking

Day of the Dead coincides with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and not by coincidence. Its origins date back to ancient rituals of the Mayans, Aztecs and natives of Mesoamerica. They viewed death as the release of the spirit, the only way to be truly free; and late summer celebrations were held using human skulls, meant to represent both death and rebirth, as decor.

When the Spanish Conquistadors descended on what is now Mexico some 500 years ago, they were alarmed by this jubilant treatment of the dead, which the somber Catholics mistook as irreverent and disrespectful. In an attempt to make the practice more Christian, the Spaniards took it upon themselves to move the holiday to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

Nov. 1 is the day when child ghosts — los angelitos — return to visit; the next day adult spirits descend. Unlike the macabre eeriness of Halloween, the dead on this holiday aren’t scary. Mexican kids delight in Day of the Dead’s mirthful nature — particularly the heaps of brightly decorated sugar skulls, other sweets and toy skeletons they’re given. The holiday is recognized widely in southern rural Mexico, where elaborate parades fill the streets with partying — something like Cinco de Mayo with skulls.

To honor the dead, Mexicans visit cemeteries where their loved ones are buried, clean and decorate the graves, leave gifts like toys or tequila and assemble ofrendas in their homes.

A traditional ofrenda contains several elements: a picture or favorite possession of the deceased; pan de muerto (sweet, glazed “bread of the dead” flavored with orange and anise, often shaped into skulls and bones); flowers, especially marigolds; intricate tissue-paper cuttings called papel picado; candles; cartoonish caricatures of skeletons; and a towel and water so the visiting spirit can freshen up before going back. The ofrenda should reflect the loved one’s passions in life, so personalized items, such as possessions and photographs, are essential.

Day of the Dead is slightly more subdued in the northern, urbanized parts of Mexico, partly because of the influence of American culture. The closer to the border, the heavier the influence of American Halloween, which now produces almost as much commercial consumption in this country as Christmas. The coinciding holidays mean Mexican-American communities in the United States often employ a delicate juggling act between Day of the Dead and Halloween.

Hector Perez teaches art at Earhart Middle School in Mexicantown. He says about 60 percent of his students are Latino, many of them recent arrivals from Mexico. He says he’s seeing more of his Mexican-American students recognizing both holidays. “They start to realize, we can do this, and we can go trick-or-treating too,” Perez says.

Each year, Perez assigns his students a Day of the Dead art project. “In Detroit, just about every student is related to a victim of violence,” Perez says, “It’s a way for them to remember and honor them.”

Perez tells of a young African-American girl who wanted to take home a figure from the class project — a papier-mâché mariachi band. “She had a neighbor who was in a mariachi band, and she said she wanted to take it home so she could show him she knew about his culture.”

“You’re eating skulls?

Detroit’s Day of the Dead celebrations revolve around the Mexican Community Development Corporation (mexicantown.org) and the Casa de Unidad Cultural Arts Center (casadeunidad.com). Although Mexicantown has no elaborate street parades, Mexican artists in Detroit create ofrendas and exhibit them throughout the neighborhood in churches, restaurants and community buildings. A centerpiece of the community is the ofrenda at the Casa de Unidad; each year the honor of creating it is bestowed on a different artist.

The cultural center is a modest house on Bagley — currently without heat, thanks to a fire — sparsely decorated with bright Mexican cloths and paints. Veronica Paiz became the director of Casa de Unidad earlier this year. An artist, she made the center’s ofrenda last year. Her altar included the traditional elements — but she added her laptop. Paiz gathered pictures of her ancestors and photos submitted by the community, and put them together in a continuous computer slideshow. “The fact that society evolves will affect what we put into altars,” Paiz says of her high-tech extra.

Gerardo Macias Jr. was born in Mexico and came to Detroit to study art at the College for Creative Studies. Just 26, he’s now director of the Institute of Mexicans in Michigan and Ohio. He’ll create the Casa de Unidad’s ofrenda this year, in honor of Cesar Chavez. Like Paiz, Macias has chosen to blend the traditional with modern technology — in this case, a video about his experiences with Day of the Dead in Detroit.

“I want my ofrenda to respect the traditions, but I want it to be more contemporary, so people can relate to it more,” Macias says. “Some people look at it, and say that’s nice, but they don’t get it. This is more relevant.”

Macias says more people are getting it in recent years. He’s seen more Day of the Dead activity, both in and outside of Mexicantown, and attributes this to better communication, an expanding Latino community and simple word of mouth.

“I think for the past three years more things are being done to communicate our traditions to Mexican-Americans,” he says. “Detroit is a melting pot. I think people are finally getting interested in what each culture can contribute to the common culture of Detroit.”

Paiz and Macias joined with Treena Flannery Ericson, gallery director of the Scarab Club, to create a Day of the Dead Exhibit at the gallery, which opened on Oct. 9, complete with a tapas bar and mariachi band. Several artists from Mexico City were brought in to participate. “I wanted it to be very authentic,” Ericson says. “A lot of people think it’s just the ‘Mexican Halloween,’ and it’s so much more than that.”

While Mexican artists in Detroit are assembling altars for public consumption, many families simply make small, highly personal ofrendas at home.

Liliana Narvaez, 22, grew up bouncing back and forth between Mexico and Detroit, recognizing both Day of the Dead and going trick-or-treating. She now works for Casa de Unidad.

“I have a little altar year-round, for my grandmother,” she says. “It’s small, not as extravagant.” To observe Day of the Dead, Narvaez will “just fix up my little altar, dust the picture, change the flowers.” She says she thinks most Mexicantown residents do something similar for the observance.

Day of the Dead’s celebratory nature is often perplexing or off-putting to Westerners who are more used to the somber death rites of Christianity.

“When I started working here and explaining the exhibit to people, they would say things like, ‘You’re eating skulls?’ Or, ‘Why do you celebrate death?’” Narvaez says. “We’re not celebrating death, we’re celebrating the person’s life, and remembering them.”

Paiz remembers an African-American woman who approached her after Paiz lectured on Day of the Dead at Cranbrook. The woman’s son was learning to make pan de muerto in school. “She had thought it was some strange, voodoo thing,” Paiz says. “And she came up to me afterwards and thanked me, and said, ‘Now I know it’s really about loving people.’”

Raised in the border town of Laredo, Texas, Mary Herbeck changed her middle name to Laredo in recognition of her Mexican heritage. Now a Detroiter, she enjoys creating ofrendas for art shows and for herself — her Corktown loft is dotted with tiny altars bearing beads, skulls and mementos. “In Mexico and other Latin American countries, death is not something taboo, it’s part of the cycle of life and continuation,” Herbeck says. “Here, we fear death in Western culture.

“This is a day to celebrate, it’s a very festive day, and there’s nothing morbid about it. It’s a day to remember family members and those who inspired you. It’s a big party.”

Herbeck will exhibit an ofrenda at the Bagley Housing Association in honor of her late flamenco dance instructor, Maria del Carmen Montes, a cornerstone of the dance community in Detroit. Herbeck tried to capture the essence of her instructor with castanets, a delicate fan, flowing scarves and papel picado in purple, Montes’ favorite color.

Herbeck is also working on a second ofrenda for the recently departed “Man in Black,” Johnny Cash. It will be displayed in a multi-artist Day of the Dead exhibit at the mid-city restaurant/bar Agave — where Herbeck is the sole Latino participant.

Skeleton chic

From the Misfits to the Punisher to pirate mania, skulls and skeletons have long been an emblem of punk, pop and the counterculture. A visit to Hot Topic — the alternative clothing and accessory chain found in almost every mall in America — will find a storehouse of cutesy skull-and-crossbones insignia emblazoned on bikinis, purses, shower curtains and everything in between.

This fascination with skulls is an easy point of entry to Day of the Dead, and many non-Latinos — especially twentysomething hipsters — have shown a growing appreciation for the Mexican holiday. Culturally astute scenesters are adding Day of the Dead art to their collections of vinyl LPs; you can even buy a La Catrina thong online.

Rachel Reed is the force behind the Agave show. Besides Herbeck, artists Tim Caldwell, Giles Rosbury, Nina Friday and Brian Cunningham will participate — all of them recognizable names in the local art circuit. An American, Reed was first introduced to the holiday by her husband, Manuel “Chato” Chavez. They were married on the Day of the Dead two years ago in Mexicantown.

“I got really interested in the art, and then the idea behind it,” Reed says. “It’s very spiritual and it’s a great treatment of death and dying. It’s not so fatalistic.”

Recently, Reed began to combine her artwork with her love of fashion. She calls the result “Skeleton Chic” — bras, purses and T-shirts decorated with glittery Day of the Dead skulls.

Is it offensive to paint a cultural emblem on women’s undies? No, given the obvious levity and lightheartedness of Day of the Dead iconography. The motif of clothed skeletons engaged in everyday activities — dancing, drinking, dining — was borne of Mexican turn-of-the-century artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, who created La Catrina.

“It’s partly honoring the dead, and partly daring it and making fun of it,” says Paiz, a fan of Reed’s work. “That’s what Posada is really about.”

Herbeck doesn’t mind that she’s the only Latino in the show — rather, she’s encouraged by the support of non-Latinos. “Maybe that will help change the way people view death in this culture, by having non-Latinos participate,” Herbeck says. “Rachel isn’t Latino, but she’s one of the most enthusiastic supporters [of Day of the Dead]. She aligns herself with that way of thinking, and you can see it in her work.”

The assimilation factor

With such a well-established Mexican community in Detroit, it’s natural to assume Day of the Dead is visible everywhere in Mexicantown. But that’s not the case, for several reasons. An integral part of the custom involves visiting cemeteries, and recent immigrants may find themselves thousands of miles away from the gravesites of their loved ones. Another factor is westernization.

“I wish it was bigger here, it could really be something,” Herbeck says. “But a lot of the families that have come here are assimilating. Unfortunately, some of the families here now don’t want to partake of the tradition. I’ve heard this from elementary schoolteachers whose students have been told by their parents not to participate in Day of the Dead activities.”

Paiz says that, like most immigrant groups, when Mexicans move here, “there’s a struggle between two cultures.”

Vito Valdez, another Detroit artist of Mexican descent, is preparing an ofrenda for display at the Zeitgeist Gallery on Nov. 2 in a multi-cultural show about the confluence of Day of the Dead, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day — and Election Day. Valdez created the “giant fish” sculpture in Mexicantown on Vernor at I-75.

“They have to learn a new language and they want to become part of contemporary lifestyles,” Valdez says of Mexican immigrants. “I think [Day of the Dead] is viewed by some as old history.”

However, Valdez recognizes the recent growth in appreciation for Day of the Dead in both the Latino community and beyond — illustrated by this year’s expanded walking tour of Mexicantown, and exhibits like the shows at Agave and the Scarab Club.

The artist hopes this blossoming interest will pave the way to even grander celebrations in the neighborhood. He’s determined to organize a Day of the Dead parade — like the boisterous, bright ones held in the south of Mexico — through Mexicantown. This year, he was hampered by lack of time and help.

“But next year,” he says with a smile,
“for sure.”

More:

Touring with the dead
A primer on what to do this Day of the Dead. Sarah Klein is Metro Times associate arts and culture editor. Send comments to sklein@metrotimes.com

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