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The best books on The Day of The Dead

recommended by Regina Marchi

The Latin American holiday commemorating dead relatives is characterised by altars decorated with skulls and marigolds, explains the author of a book on how the festival has now migrated to the American mainstream

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Before we look at your five books can you give a basic description of what the Day of the Dead is?

The Day of the Dead is a two-day holiday observed in various countries of Latin America on November 1st and 2nd. It is a fusion of Roman Catholic rituals from All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and pre-Christian indigenous festivals that occurred in agrarian communities throughout Latin America before the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 1500s. The latter were rituals for honouring ancestors – you made altars on which you put harvest offerings to thank the ancestors for their blessings. It was believed that the spirits of the dead were very active in helping the living to be successful, in things like having a good harvest or helping childbirth in the family.

Is it celebrated in other parts of the world apart from Latin America?

There are many parts of the world where they perform similar types of ritual offerings for the dead, especially around harvest time. For example, in Ancient Egypt there were offerings to Osiris, god of the dead and also god of the harvest. You also find similar rites in Africa and Asia. So this is actually a very common form of ritual throughout many parts of the world. But when I researched this subject I focused on Latin America. My own book deals with the Day of the Dead as it is observed in the United States, and in the US the celebration was brought here by Mexican-Americans.

Your first choice, The Skeleton at the Feast by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer, is a good introductory book about how Mexicans celebrate this festival.

For people who don’t know much about the holiday, this is one of my favourite books. It is a wonderful way to get acquainted with it. The book is written in a very accessible way, which makes it good for both high-school students and adults. It goes through the holiday, and discusses the ancient celebrations that took place in Mexico with the Aztecs and other indigenous groups. From there it goes on to show how it has been observed historically throughout Mexico. The celebrations do vary regionally.

People today make offerings that include mixtures of both Catholic and ancient symbols. For example, on altars you will find pictures of Jesus or Mary or various saints. You will see religious candles and crosses and other Catholic iconology mixed with images of skulls and a special flower, the marigold, which in Spanish is called flor de muerto or “flower of death.” Throughout Central America and Mexico, this flower has been used for thousands of years to honour the dead, and is still found on Day of the Dead altars today. Another thing you see on altars today is an incense called copal, which is made of pine resin. This incense was also used in Mesoamerica many hundreds of years before the arrival of Christians to the Americas, as a way to communicate with the dead. The book has beautiful pictures which describe these ancient rituals and how they still happen today.

It also has very interesting interviews with people in Mexico, including those who grew up at a time where their culture was looked down on and they were told to stop doing these rituals. This holiday wasn’t always appreciated in Mexico. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when the government of Mexico was trying to modernise and westernise the country, it actually encouraged indigenous populations to stop performing what urban elites considered to be superstitious and pagan rites of making altars for the dead. These altars were made almost exclusively by indigenous peoples in rural areas of Mexico, so the people of Mexico City and other urban centres frowned on it, considering it backwards. But the book also shows how views in Mexico have changed since then. In the 1970s the government did an about-turn, and realised that they should promote their native cultures and that it was good for tourism and for national pride.

That change of heart is celebrated in the wonderful photos of your next choice, John Greenleigh and Rosalind Beimler’s The Days of the Dead.

This book has some really beautiful photos, and is less text-heavy than my first choice. It has lots of photos of contemporary Day of the Dead altars in rural villages. It also has scenes of the market place where people go to buy their items for the altar, as well as of cemeteries and of people going to church. It shows a lot more of the day-to-day activities of celebrating the holiday, and is another very good background book. It also goes through the pre-Columbian rituals and discusses the way altars are done in various regions of Mexico. I like the way it is written bilingually. Every page is half Spanish and half English.

Take me through a typical celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico.

People who celebrate this holiday are generally Catholic, so they go to a Catholic mass on November 1st and then they go to the cemeteries, decorate family graves and leave offerings for their deceased relatives. Those offerings will be things like flowers, candles, incense and special foods. They may leave tamales [a Mexican dish] or fruits, or whatever the typical food of that region might be. It could be chicken with mole sauce.

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It’s the same in other countries of Latin America. In Guatemala, for example, they prepare a dish called el fiambre – chopped and pickled meats and veggies – which is only cooked for this holiday. In the Andean region of South America they have special breads they make only for the Days of the Dead, which they leave on tombs for the deceased. Those breads are called gua guas, which in the Quechua language means “babies”. They shape these breads like babies to signify the connection between life and death. Where there is death, some people are dying but new people are being born, so there is a cycle between life and death. This is a very important philosophy among many indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Your own book looks at how the festival is celebrated in different parts of Latin America, yet most books concentrate on how it is done in Mexico – why?

Most books on the topic focus on Mexico because it has the most well-known and elaborate celebrations. The southern regions of Mexico, which have the country’s heaviest concentration of indigenous peoples, have extremely elaborate altar-making traditions that really grab you when you see them. Also, a lot of the researchers who have written on the topic are from the US and Mexico is our closest neighbour, so it makes sense to go there for research instead of all the way down to South America. And a lot of the books have been written by Mexican Americans, who naturally are most interested in Mexico’s celebrations.

How did the festival move from Mexico to the US?

In the 1970s, in the US and many other places, it was a time of social movements and activism. Here in the US, you had the black civil-rights movement, the native American-Indian movement, and also the women’s-rights movement and the anti-war movement. A lot of social change was going on. At that time, many ethnic and racial groups who had for generations lived in the United States as minorities were sick of being made to feel that they were second class citizens vis-à-vis the dominant white population. They had been told for so long to assimilate, to become “Americans”, and almost to be ashamed of being ethnic. So when their families arrived in the US, many dropped their ethnic celebrations or their native languages.

But that changed when a lot of young people in the 1970s travelled back to their ancestral countries – such as Mexico – to rediscover a lot of the rituals they may not have grown up with. The term Chicano is a self-identifying term for Mexican Americans who are politically active, and the Chicano Movement in the US had roots in the 1930s but really took off in the 1970s. It is still going on today. It emerged to fight the racism that was happening in the south west US and California, with Mexicans facing segregation in schools, housing, employment, restaurants, et cetera.

The Chicano Movement was a political movement to fight for equal rights, but it was also a cultural movement that wanted to proudly reclaim Mexican identity. Celebrating the Day of the Dead in the US was very much part of that, and my book Day of the Dead in the USA discusses this process. Many Chicanos travelled south to study the traditions of southern Mexico, such as the ancient weavings and Aztec art and dance, and they brought these back with them to California.

Which we can see in your next choice, Chicanos en Mictlan by Tere Romo, which not only looks at Californian celebrations but also at how pre-Columbian spiritual practices influenced Chicano altar-making.

Tere Romo is one of the foundational Chicano artists who were active in bringing Day of the Dead celebrations to the United States. She is an artist and a curator. In my book I interview almost a hundred different Chicano artists and activists, like Tere, who started to hold these Day of the Dead celebrations in art galleries and schools in the US.

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They first began in Latino art galleries in California and the south west. But then the celebrations became popular and spread to galleries and museums across the country. Today, Day of the Dead altars are considered a form of art. You have celebrations with music, dancing and food happening in museums like the Smithsonian or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A lot of major museums around the world have embraced this as a beautiful cultural form with artistic merit.

But it is still not as popular in the US as Halloween.

No, but I think that is because it is a relatively new festival which has only been observed in the US publicly for 40 years. It is gaining in popularity and there are many more events now than there were a few years ago. It is becoming mainstream and not just something celebrated in Latino communities. The Day of the Dead is now one of the most popular multi-cultural festivals children learn about in school and at university, where it is a way to teach about Latin American history, art, religion and culture.

Your next book is Mary J Andrade’s The Day of the Dead in Mexico: Through the Eyes of the Soul.

Mary is a wonderful photographer who spent years travelling throughout Mexico. She has a series of photography books about the Day of the Dead, each one based in a different region of Mexico. They are for people who really want to get into the photography of the celebrations, though the book has text as well.

What kinds of regional differences did she come across?

One of the differences is in the shape of the altars. Some of the altars in the Oaxaca region of Mexico, for example, have elaborate arches that are either round or square, covered with hundreds of beautiful marigold flowers. It is believed amongst the Mixtec indigenous people that these arches are a gateway to welcome the spirits home. Whereas in other parts of Mexico, like Chiapas, they don’t make such arches on the altars. Here the altars may be simpler, with less elaborate flower work. It might just be a kitchen table serving as an altar, or a three or four tiered altar built out of wood – or it might be an altar on the ground, with candles and offerings placed very humbly on the floor. Another regional difference is the type of foods placed on the altars.

Your final choice is El Corazon de le Muerte or The Heart of the Dead, which is published by the Oakland Museum of California and looks at how the celebration has changed over time in the US – which is also something you have been researching.

This is an art catalogue that starts with a description of some of the pre-Columbian ways that the Day of the Dead was observed. Then it gets into the ways it is and has been observed in California, where Chicanos first began to publicly celebrate the festival in the 1970s. The photos are gorgeous and it is written in English and Spanish, so each page allows the reader to follow in the language of their choice. The book details altar exhibitions at the Oakland Museum of California. These exhibitions show how the concept of remembering the dead remains strong among US Latinos, but the way in which they do it is often very different than in Latin America.

I have also seen this in my own research. The altar installations are no longer simply altars but can be entire rooms in honour of a certain person or a certain political cause. Altars in Latin America are made specifically for family members, but in the US, Chicanos developed more collective remembrances. You would see altars in the US honouring famous people like Che Guevara, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Celia Cruz as a way to celebrate the contributions of Latinos to the wider world – a way to honour the “collective ancestors” of all Latinos.

There are also altars that are very political, created in honour of people who die from preventable political causes like gang violence in the inner city, or pesticide poisoning of farm workers. Most US farm workers are Latinos. So Day of the Dead altars in the US often communicate political messages and try to raise consciousness. This book depicts the artistic and political ways that the altar format has evolved in the United States.

You are also interested in the Chicano Movement.

As well as focusing on the changing ways that the Day of the Dead is celebrated in the US, I wanted to find out how the Chicano movement popularised the celebration, and how it became a political and artistic celebration as well as a spiritual one. My book also explores how the Day of the Dead is going global as Mexicans move to other parts of the world, like the UK, Japan, Italy and Australia. Soon, you might find this festival happening somewhere near you.

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Regina Marchi

Regina Marchi

The Latin American holiday commemorating dead relatives is characterised by altars decorated with skulls and marigolds, explains the author of a book on how the festival has now migrated to the American mainstream

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Regina Marchi

Regina Marchi

The Latin American holiday commemorating dead relatives is characterised by altars decorated with skulls and marigolds, explains the author of a book on how the festival has now migrated to the American mainstream