Dia de los Muertos

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Learn about the history, beauty and symbolism behind the Dia de los Muertos tradition from Oliverio Balcells, Mexican contemporary social artist and scholar of ancient Mesoamerican cultures.

JOSE CARDENAS: Good evening. I'm Jose Cardenas. Tonight on "Horizonte" -- in sounds of cultura, SOC, learn about the history and symbolism behind the Dia De Los Muertos traditions. Plus hear the sounds of Latin jazz from a musician blending Caribbean rhythms in the southwest. And what one company is doing to encourage women and Latinos to consider a career in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. All this coming up next on "Horizonte."

VIDEO: Funding for "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions by the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station.

JOSE CARDENAS: Thank you for joining us. Dia De Los Muertos, day of the dead, is a colorful Mexican tradition that celebrates and honors the dead. Joining me to talk about the history behind this custom is Oliverio Balcells, Mexican contemporary social artist and scholar of ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Oliverio, welcome to "Horizonte."

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Thank you very much.

JOSE CARDENAS: I want to begin by pointing out that I am dressed for the occasion. I wore my -- tie, it has the sugar skulls, the marigolds, the bread of the dead on it and these are all symbols that you will tell us about.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yes, those are the symbols of the offerings and traditional affairs.

JOSE CARDENAS: And we're going to begin with the pre-hispanic traditions and this first image, and a couple more that we are going to show all relate to the origins of the celebrations. Tell us about that.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yeah, at least 2,000 years old in Mexico. It started with the concept of -- essence of -- the symbol that we are looking at right now. One of the signs of the calendar, and what it means is recollection, repose, and also tells you that we have to assimilate and -- again what it means to be alive and what it means to be dead.

JOSE CARDENAS: We have two other images that go on the first set of pictures also, of basically, historical artifacts.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yeah, exactly. This concept was developed all over with different cultures in ancient Mexico and it was part of the celebration after the cycle every year during August, it was the time that they used to celebrate this concept, with the corn, beans, and squash. This is a time where everything starts to develop as a concept of a celebration for the children and then for the adults 20 days after.

JOSE CARDENAS: We have one last image we will put up on the screen. Also basically the same --

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yeah, the same concept. Totally related to the sign of the calendar.

JOSE CARDENAS: And you have the conquest. Spaniards bring their own religious traditions and trying to assimilate.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yes. I think you call this the Mestizo period because it's the fusion of what we get to know as -- basic concept with the "Todos Los Santos," celebration from Spain.
JOSE CARDENAS: All Saints Day?
OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yeah. And the All Souls Day. That was for the little kids and then for the adults. What happened is Spanish always tried to assimilate the ancient rituals to their own evangelization concept. They put together these important dates and closer so that they can still practice, as a religious way. And this is a time when the offering of what we know right now was born.

JOSE CARDENAS: And the traditional altars, we have three images that we'll put up on the screen of the altar most often associated with celebration of the day of the dead.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Exactly, the altar, has the elements of the tradition which are water, candles, you have flowers, you have --

JOSE CARDENAS: Those are the Marigolds.
OLIVERIO BALCELLS: You have the food of the person who made the offering and it can actually be a religious object and pictures.

JOSE CARDENAS: We have two more pictures that we will put up while we're talking about the altars. You've mentioned pictures of loved ones who have passed and this is a good example of that.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: This is very relevant to mention, that depending on the state or the region or the culture, the altar will change. It will not be the same, the altar from the state of Guerrero and the one from the state of Yucatan. It will have the basics of the symbolism of the characteristics but the design is always different.

JOSE CARDENAS: One of the elements you see in this picture is what is called "papel" above and around the altar. Tell us about that.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Papel comes from most of the modern times, which we are going to talk about also with the remains of the art in Mexico before the revolution. This is where the artist -- these artists, what they did, they developed a style, a unique style of the Mexican art and spread all over in the fine arts. So, what happened then, Jose Guadalupe Posada came with this image that is very well known right now.

JOSE CARDENAS: That's the next image we have. And we want to put that up. This is one of the most famous images. He lived at about the time of the Mexican revolution.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Right before. This is where he was having control in the country, so all of these artists to develop a conscience -- being an artist and uniqueness of also being a Mexican. So what Posada did, he did -- image of a - person called Katrina. Katrina means a woman very well dressed.

JOSE CARDENAS: Very elegant.


JOSE CARDENAS: It was a political statement in many ways against the rich.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yeah, all of the engravings that he did, characterization of different personas. So, what happened, with Diego Rivera, one of his famous mural, on a Sunday afternoon sitting, he painted the Katrina in a full body holding his hand. He painted himself as a boy and he was holding the hand of the girl, Katrina.

JOSE CARDENAS: And Frida Kahlo, his wife is standing next to him.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Exactly. At that moment what happened is that the Katrina image explodes all over the country and people get to know about it and that is about the time he gets popular and schools start having altars, public buildings, bars, everywhere, and --

JOSE CARDENAS: And that's kind of -- even though it is more than 150 years ago, that is kind of the beginning or -- yeah, about 120-130 years ago, the beginnings of what you would call the modern --

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yeah, that would be the modern times, exactly. Because at this point, it starts to spread through the whole country, different countries, and now as we can see, spread all over the world including the United States and Europe and Japan and actually it is very unique and important because all of the cultures identify themselves with this celebration.

JOSE CARDENAS: So you have some young ladies here really going all out.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yeah, now everybody wants to be a Katrina, you know. It's fun to have your face painted. It's fun to dance. It's fun to celebrate. And especially that you can make your own altar at home or you can be at the cemetery. It is many activities that you can do with your family and friends and spread this beautiful tradition to everybody.

JOSE CARDENAS: I want to come back to some of the celebrations that are going on right now in the valley. One last image that we have kind of reflects the recognition that this really is a tradition that has achieved world-wide status.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yeah, this is very relevant, because UNESCO, United Nation Educational Scientific Cultural Organization -- named in the masterpiece -- of humanity. This means that we can be part of it, even if you -- if you're not Mexican. That's relevant. It is for the whole humanity and it is something that we can celebrate all over the world.

JOSE CARDENAS: Let's talk a little about celebrations here in Arizona. CHICO is the oldest kind of popular celebration of the day of the dead. CHICO is still in existence. They will be doing theirs this weekend at St. Mary's. Cultural coalition did theirs a week ago. The original founders did theirs. And you and a number of other artists are participating in a festival at the desert botanical garden.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yes, that is this weekend, saturday and sunday. We have a lot of activities for the whole family and the beautiful botanical gardens. We have artists selling their art related to day of the dead and we will be having music and food and all of these beautiful celebration with everybody.

JOSE CARDENAS: And what will be on exhibit also are the altars that you and the other artists have done.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yeah, that is something that every year botanical garden does and we will have altars over there for the public to view.

JOSE CARDENAS: And each one is really personal and unique to the artist. Tell us about the one that you did.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: The one that I did is dedicated to my mom, who just passed away this year. And what I did, I wanted to focus on the levels with the dimensions, where the spirit can go. I included the Virgin of Guadalupe, she loves the virgin. A picture of her, her favorite flowers, purple flowers, and I included her favorite "chiles" for her dishes and candy. She loves candy. Some of her objects that she used to use and photographs of my grandfather and grandmother and my favorite pictures with her. It's very--

JOSE CARDENAS: Very special.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Very special, yes.

JOSE CARDENAS: And one last tradition we should mention is Guadalupe, the population there celebrates in a more traditional way. Spending the night in the cemetery, cleaning the graves and having a party basically.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Yeah, that is what it is about. This is a celebration of joy. It's tradition that the souls come back to this world and spend time with the loved ones. That is what it is about. People are really enjoying the time and being there and celebrating the day. That's what it is about.

JOSE CARDENAS: Oliverio Balcells, thank you for joining us on "Horizonte" to help us celebrate this wonderful tradition.

OLIVERIO BALCELLS: Thank you very much for inviting me.

Oliverio Balcells : Mexican contemporary social artist and scholar of ancient Mesoamerican cultures.

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