Nuestras Historias: Day of the Dead

National Museum of Mexican Art

A common Mexican trait on either side of the U.S.–Mexico border is the passionate interest in Mexicanidad (Mexicanness) and what comprises Mexican identity. Perhaps this obsession to understand the concept of Mexicanidad comes from nearly five centuries of mestizaje – the interracial and cultural mixing that first occurred in Mesoamerica among Native Indigenous groups, European Spanish and enslaved Africans during the 1520s. By the 18th century, Mexican identity had developed. Mestizaje was the process that constructed it. The museum’s permanent collection showcases the dynamic and distinct Mexican stories in North America, and sheds light on why Mexican identity cannot be regarded as singular; its vast diversity defies any notion of one linear history. - Nuestras Historias destaca la colección permanente del museo, la cual expone las historias dinámicas y diversas de la identidad mexicana en Norteamérica. La exhibición muestra la identidad cultural como algo que evoluciona continuamente a través del tiempo, de regiones y de comunidades,  en vez de señalarla como una entidad estática e inmutable, exhibiendo para esto, artefactos mesoamericanos y coloniales, arte moderno mexicano, arte popular, y arte contemporáneo de los dos lados de la frontera EE.UU-México.  La gran diversidad de identidades mexicanas mostradas en estas obras desafía la noción de una sola historia lineal e identidad única. 

The National Museum of Mexican Art celebrates Day of the Dead annually. The celebration of the Day of the Dead has roots in both the ancient Mexican religious rituals of the indigenous people and in the Catholicism brought to Mexico by the Spanish. The two religions mixed to create a unique blend of beliefs and rituals, which include the folk tradition of honoring the dead.

An ofrenda (the Spanish word for offering) during the “Day of the Dead” celebrations is an altar or shrine dedicated to the souls of the deceased. On October 30 or 31st–even earlier in some homes la ofrenda will be set up in many Mexican households to ensure that it will be ready by November 2nd. The traditional ofrenda usually consists of a table adorned by a cloth and decorated with fruits, flowers, vegetables, and many other objects. Many ofrendas often incorporate a sky or cielo. The sky is a sheet suspended above the ofrenda or a string of colorful banderitas de papel picado (paper cut out flags). A photograph of the deceased, religious statues, pan de muerto, images of saints, candles, and a glass of water, incense, and cempasúchil flowers are also important elements of the ofrenda.

Along with the many objects, which decorate the ofrenda within traditional altars, freshly prepared dishes are incorporated; usually these dishes consist of a favorite food of the deceased. These offerings serve the purpose of inviting the souls to come home, as well as, making them feel comfortable and joyful during their stay.

Cempasúchil flowers–flowers similar to the yellow marigold have been offered to the dead for centuries. The cempasúchil lights the path for the souls of the deceased as they return to rejoin their families on November second. These flowers are round and yellow like the sun–an important deity in ancient Mexico. As the sun provides light during the day, the cempasúchil illuminates the night.

These flowers are offered in many ways: they are placed beside graves, in home altars, or their petals are scattered on the ground outside the homes, simulating a path to guide the soul of the deceased.

La flor de cempasúchil o flor de muerto –parecidas a la caléndula amarilla – se han ofrecido a los muertos desde hace varios siglos. La flor de cempasúchil alumbra el camino de regreso a casa de las almas que se reunifican con sus familias el día 2 de noviembre. Estas flores son redondas y amarillas como el sol – deidad de gran importancia en el México antiguo. Si bien el sol ilumina durante el día, la flor de cempasúchil lo hace durante la noche.

Estas flores son ofrecidas de muchas maneras: se colocan junto a las tumbas, en las ofrendas de las casas, o sus
pétalos son esparcidos sobre el suelo, fuera de la casa, para simular el camino que guía al alma del muerto.

It is estimated that in 2010, 261,100 breast cancer cases were diagnosed in women in the U.S., this altar is dedicated to the victims of breast cancer, especially my mother, Alicia Rodriguez.

My mother was born in Altamira, Tamaulipas, Mexico. She had 10 children and was widowed when her fifth daughter was born. She lived in the United States for a long time, working as a cherry picker in Michigan. Time passed and she remarried. After remarrying, she went back to Mexico where the rest of her children were born. She was a very private person and did not like going to the doctor and liked even less to say she was sick or in pain, she suffered the pain of others but never her own. Unfortunately, my sister Irma was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 41. My sister fought cancer for four years until the day came when she died. During those four years of struggle, my mother suffered a stroke and she too was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer was in an advanced stage when it was detected and there was nothing that could be done. My mother was in the hospital with my sister and the two fought the disease together. After two years of battling cancer, my mother passed away at the age of 73.

Credits: Story

NMMA remains true to our founding mission: To showcase the beauty and richness of Mexican culture by sponsoring events and presenting exhibitions that exemplify the majestic variety of visual and performing arts in the Mexican culture; to develop, conserve and preserve a significant permanent collection of Mexican art; to encourage the professional development of Mexican artists; and, to offer arts-education programs.

Exhibition Curator:
Cesáreo Moreno - Visual Arts Director / Chief Curator

Exhibition Information Coordinator:
Zarai Zaragoza - Visual Arts Intern, Summer 2017

Project Team:
Raquel Aguiñaga-Martinez - Visual Arts Associate Director / Registrar
Barbara Engelskirchen - Chief Development Officer
Rebecca D. Meyers - Permanent Collection Curator
Dolores Mercado - Associate Curator

Photo Credits:
Kathleen Culbert-Aguilar - Photographer
Michael Tropea - Photographer
Rocio Caballero
Lee Fatheree
Galeria de Arte Mexicano
NMMA staff
Michael Tropea
Shuzo Uemoto
Tom Van Eynde

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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