Until the late 20th century, Dia de los Muertos in the United States was a private holiday, usually practiced in homes or local cemeteries in the Southwest, along the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. By the 1960s and into the 1970s, civil rights and solidarity movements exploded all over the world and the holiday was brought into a new light. Self Help Graphics and Art was instrumental in making Dia de los Muertos a public celebration in Los Angeles.
Procession from Evergreen Cemetery (1977)Self Help Graphics & Art
In 1973, Self Help Graphics held the first large Dia de los Muertos procession along a 2 mile stretch of Caesar Chavez avenue (at the time Brooklyn) stretching from their original studio to Evergreen Cemetery.
Dia de los Muertos became a way for Chicanxs and Latinxs to reclaim their indigenous heritage while also expressing new cultural identities.
On Our Own Terms
By making the holiday a public event, Chicanxs and Latinxs in Los Angeles were given an outlet to publicly mourn on their own terms and embrace their culture openly.
What are the key elements of a Dia de Los Muertos Season?
Paper Mache Procession (2015)Self Help Graphics & Art
The use of papier-mâché to create skeletal sculptures is a traditional craft in Mexico. Many papier-mâché skeletons that are created for Dia de los Muertos represent cultural icons like Posada’s La Calavera Catrina or Frida Kahlo, but they can also represent loved ones.
Una Cita Con La Vida (2014) by Luis Genaro-GarciaSelf Help Graphics & Art
Skeletal art dates back to Mesoamerican cultures like the Mexica, the Maya, and the Toltecs. The skull was an important symbol of duality: the tense dance of opposite forces in the universe that kept everything in balance.
The popular image of the calavera emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada, who used skeletons to criticize the Mexican government and the upper classes.
Papel picado is the traditional art of cutting elaborate designs into pieces of delicate tissue paper.
Marigolds are often seen decorating altars. The vibrant color and distinct smell of their petals guide spirits of loved ones from their resting places to the ofrendas and their families.
Guadalupe Rodriguez, Autorretrato en el Panteón, 2003 (2020) by Sandy RodriguezSelf Help Graphics & Art
Altars and ofrendas are the centerpiece of Dia de los Muertos. While most altars are typically built in private homes or in cemeteries, they have grown to become larger, public constructions that represent entire communities of people.
What Goes on the Altar?
Most altars contain photos of deceased loved ones, favorite foods & objects, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), flowers (usually marigolds), candles (to light the way for the spirits), a glass of water (so that the spirits can quench their thirst after a long journey) and copal.
Chicanx and Latinx artists began painting their faces as skulls for Dia de los Muertos in Los Angeles in the 1970s, inspired by Mexica art and Jose Guadalupe Posada’s skeletal prints. One of the most popular themes is portraying the duality of life and death.
Dia de los Muertos Commemorative Print
Dia de los Muertos (four seasons) (1979) by Alfredo de BatucSelf Help Graphics & Art
Every year since 1972, a commemorative print has been created as a part of the Day of the Dead season. SHG artists' have always wanted to make a bold statement, using experimental techniques to illustrate their stories.
Here's a look at prints from Wayne Healy, Sonia Romero, and Rosalie M. Lopez.
Making a Statement
At the same time, artists used Dia de los Muertos as a way to address inequalities and injustices that deeply affected their communities like police brutality.
Throughout the years artists have worked with various techniques to match technological advancements. In this artwork Sonia Romero used a laser cutting technique to create a 3D artwork.
Her Hands Reminds Us (2017) by Rosalie M. LopezSelf Help Graphics & Art
Blending of Techniques
Artists have also worked to combine older techniques with newer practices. Like in this artwork where papel picado is combined with serigraph printmaking techniques to create a mixture of the old and new world.
A Closer Look
The artist completed this technique but cutting small fragments from each artwork in the edition set, 75 editions in total.
Self Help Graphics & Art is excited to present its 48th Dia de Los Muertos Annual Celebration this year which will feature a brand new artwork. For more information visit our website at SelfHelpGraphics.com
Historic and cultural references written by Ariel Hernandez-Neikrug