El Día de los Muertos

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El Día de los Muertos is a colorful Mexican tradition that honors and celebrates the dead. Artist Zarco Guerrero talks about the history behind this custom.

Jose Cardenas: Dia de los muertos, the day of the dead, is a colorful Mexican tradition that honors and celebrates the dead. Joining me to talk about the history behind this custom is artist Zarco Guerrero, known for his creativity in making masks. We talked about your work, your artistry, but this is a particular passion for you, tell us first about the Mexican tradition, and then the Arizona twist.

Zarco Guerrero: Well, the Mexican tradition goes back many thousands of years to the time of the OLMECs, so the images of death are very apparent throughout Mexican history, and probably the image of the Mexican skull is probably the most prominent image in Mexican art from ancient times to contemporary times. So this celebration is one of ancestors, and honoring ancestors, and remembering our beloved departed. So it's an ancient tradition in Mexico, and of course other traditions in the world, other cultures celebrate the dead, but nobody celebrates the dead to the extent that Mexico does.

Jose Cardenas: And that celebration includes people spending time in the cemeteries, cleaning the graves, taking favorite foods and so forth.

Zarco Guerrero: Yeah. Every region has its own way of celebrating dia de los muertos. And of course Mexico is very well known for people going to the cemeteries, spending the night, decorating the graves, bringing food, playing music, and just being there with their dead relatives and having a conversation and visiting with the dead. And so that's one thing, the making of altars in the home, the processions for the dead. So it's a very beautiful ceremony. And very much an indigenous celebration in Mexico. It's one of the few things we have as Mexicans and Chicanos that we can truly say is part of the legacy of our indigenous past.

Jose Cardenas: And yet I assume a conscious attempt by the church to not to co-opt it, but incorporate it, because the timing is typically also all saints day.

Zarco Guerrero: Well, you know, like a lot of other things in Mexico, and Latin America, the Spanish tried to -- When they couldn't destroy something completely, they tried to twist it to fit their needs, and of course the Catholic church was no exception. And so the actual day of the dead in Mexico was at another time, during the winter season. But they had the Mexican people change the date so it would correspond with all souls day, and try to cooperate the celebration and make it into something that wasn't as indigenous and more Catholic.

Jose Cardenas: So let's talk about the celebration here in Arizona, and while we're talking we're going to put pictures up on the screen. You are the founder of the first one here in Arizona, many, many, many years ago. Tell us about the Arizona version of day of the dead.

Zarco Guerrero: In Arizona, like other parts of the southwest, celebrating dia de los muertos sprung up spontaneously, simultaneously throughout the southwest. And I like to say that it was a reaction to resistance and affirmation. At that time we were looking for our identity as Chicanos in the southwest, and we looked at the ancient traditions of Mexico, and we didn't celebrate dia de los muertos here as a community, some people celebrated it in their homes by making altars, but --

Jose Cardenas: We've got pictures even now, this one in particular, what does it symbolize?

Zarco Guerrero: We have -- The way we do it here in Arizona as in other places, we bring in the local community, and organizations, and get them involved. And the thing that makes Arizona different is our extensive use of the CALACA, the mask. And the puppets as well.

Jose Cardenas: And here, the dragon is a relatively recent addition.

Zarco Guerrero: Yeah. The dragon actually is a Mexican version of the feathered serpent. And so 2012 as we all know was according to the Mayan calendar, was a very important date, and a lot of people had different interpretations of what that meant. It didn't mean the end of the world for the Mayan, what it meant was the return of consciousness, the return of the ancient past and readies covering the past.

Jose Cardenas: And the mask we see here I assume are masks you've made?

Zarco Guerrero: I make all the masks for the celebration, and do a lot of the visual arts, the installations, and the murals as well. But we do have an artist that involves a lot of the local artist and we'll have over 200 participating performing artists, who will be using masks for their celebration.

Jose Cardenas: You're talking about the upcoming celebration, tell us about that, and I think these are pictures from last year's celebration. Is that --

Zarco Guerrero: This is Margaret Park, and these are a few of the performers. Desert dance company, and it's -- This Sunday, October 26th, at Margaret Hands Park and November 1-2nd at Botanical Gardens.

Jose Cardenas: A couple weeks from now.

Zarco Guerrero: Yes.

Jose Cardenas: And so the park, any admission park?

Zarco Guerrero: No. It's completely free to the public. And it will go from 12 noon to 6:00 in the evening, we'll have a candlelight procession, we'll have a dance, a lot of music, spoken word, performance. There will be a lot going on throughout the day. There will be a little bit of something for everyone.

Jose Cardenas: I know one of the things that's important to you, and to your wife, Carmen, who is very involved in this, is the involvement of the artist. Tell us about that.

Zarco Guerrero: Well, this is a way for us to reach out to our community, and to get them involved in the celebration of culture. And to create culture. To create our own interpretation of culture here in Arizona. So we're very proud of the fact that we have been able to work very closely with our community for well over 30 years now, and now we're really overwhelmed with the participation that we have, from local community groups, from all over the valley, from Chandler, from the west valley, from the east valley, every year we have more and more artists and dance companies, theater companies who want to become involved in the celebration.

Jose Cardenas: And lots of things for kids to do as well.

Zarco Guerrero: A lot of activities for kids. Mask making, flower making, we really go out of our way to try to make it family friendly. We're also making a big attempt this year to add healthy food to the menu, vegan choices, we're promoting native foods as well. So we want to change the whole mind-set of what culture is, and what culture can be. Culture can be something that heals us. We can use our culture to heal or community, not only through the arts but promoting indigenous philosophies about death and dying, and also about living. About healthy living. And that's why we feel we have the opportunity to our community to create alternatives to what they usually get when they go out for a public event.

Jose Cardenas: It sounds like another great celebration. I wish you the best and thanks for joining us on "Horizonte."

Zarco Guerrero: Thank you so much. We hope everybody comes out and enjoys us.

Jose Cardenas: Yes indeed.

Zarco Guerrero:Artist;

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