Day of the Dead

Inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday and traditional Mexican folk art, “The Book of Life” is a visual feast as well as a jaunty ride. Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has crafted a distinctive look and an endearing story sure to capture the imagination of parents and children alike. While the film’s plot is less lively than the dead skeletons prancing through it, the colorful and vivid animation infused with a Latin flair breathes life into the otherwise uninspired film. 

Reflecting its Latino influences, the film is filled with Mariachi versions of popular songs, such as Radiohead’s “Creep,” Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait.” The characters’ appearances are inspired by the marionette puppets often created for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrations. 

“The Book of Life” is a film within a film. Bookending the main narrative throughout the movie are scenes of a cheery tour guide (Christina Applegate) narrating the film’s story to a group of rowdy schoolchildren on a field trip, providing comic relief and placing the Mexican traditions that inspire the film in a contemporary context for young audiences.

Unhappy with ruling the miserable Land of the Forgotten, God Xibalba (Ron Perlman) makes a wager with his lover, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), in hopes of manipulating her into exchanging her throne in the Land of the Remembered for his own desolate kingdom. Observing a love triangle that has formed between three friends — Manolo (Diego Luna), Maria (Zoe Saldana), and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) — both deities chooses a champion, and whoever wins Maria’s hand in marriage will determine the fate of the underworld. 

Indulging clichéd fantasy tropes, the narrative propels an underdeveloped, overly familiar story of a sentimental and misunderstood underdog winning the affection of his true love after undergoing a quest of self-realization. The story is complicated by the almost purposeless introduction of the down-to-earth deity Candlemaker (Ice Cube) and Chakal and his band of ruthless outlaws who are intent on overrunning and pillaging the fictional town of San Angel. Rather than becoming the epic del Toro had wanted it to, the film became a convoluted wasteland of undeveloped characters, abandoned plot lines and half-explored worlds. 

The story is underdeveloped and disorganized, but the film does impart important lessons. “The Book of Life” champions honoring the dead, advocates challenging societal roles and encourages individuals to construct their lives around their desires rather than the desires of others. The free-spirited Maria fights the traditional gender roles of women. Manolo struggles to tell his father he does not want to go in to the family business of bullfighting. And Joaquin grapples with admitting he cannot fulfill the role of legendary soldier society has forced on him.

While the film’s plot is guided by predictable conventions and convoluted by an overabundance of characters and stories, the heartfelt themes it champions and the detailed animation makes “The Book of Life” worth the cost of admission. 

Sylvia Orozco is the co-founder and curator of the Mexic-Arte museum. According to Orozco, the emotions that accompany the Day of the Dead celebration are complex because they both celebrating and grieving.

Photo Credit: Graeme Hamilton | Daily Texan Staff

In a one-story building huddled in the shadow of the Frost Bank Tower downtown is the Mexic-Arte Museum. The building is unassuming at first, but it contains years’ worth of history, and tales of the Latino people expressed through art.

The museum’s “Community Altars” exhibit, an annual installment that celebrates the Day of the Dead, is open at Mexic-Arte until Nov. 23. 

Rebecca Gomez, the museum’s curator, works to ensure that the altars complement each other in the museum’s space. 

“The altars are pieces of people’s lives as they come together to celebrate history,” Gomez said. 

Whether accented by vibrant flowers and bright colors, or simply decorated with lace, the museum’s altars are as diverse as their subjects. Some are personal or specific memories carefully chosen by family members, and others are exhibits dedicated to mothers or to leaders in the Latino community. 

No matter the subject, each altar is designed to be a celebration. This celebration is something Sylvia Orozco, executive director and co-founder of the museum and a UT alumna, witnessed over three decades ago when she travelled to Mexico and experienced the Day of the Dead for the first time.  

“My friend Pio took me to Mixquic; it’s an Aztec community,” Orozco said. “It’s very beautiful because what I loved about it was that it was an interdisciplinary and multi-generational celebration. The smells, the food — you see children, you see older people, all the family celebrating. I kind of really fell in love with it. It’s very mystical, very beautiful [and] very spiritual.” 

It was the spirit of this event that inspired Orozco to bring the feeling back to Mexic-Arte. 

The museum was co-founded by Orozco and fellow UT alumnus Sam Coronado in 1984. The two met at UT and quickly became friends. 

“I actually remember the moment we met,” Orozco said. “He was walking down the hall with a bunch of paintings, and I was walking down the hall with a box of paint, and there’s very few Latinos in the art department. so it’s kind of, like, when we see each other, we make friends.”

Coronado, who died last November, will be honored in the exhibit with an altar celebrating his life and work. 

Orozco, who assisted in the design of Coronado’s altar, began to tear up as she described the items that comprised the altar. 

“When we were putting together the altar, we wanted to make it something that was really reflective of him, and so, we thought of painting,” Orozco said. “He was always painting, [and] he was also a printmaker. Those were the instruments that he loved, and so, that is what we put in his altar.”

Gomez said that whether it’s through paintings, personal artifacts or even pieces of text intended to tell a story, the altars should remind viewers that while death is often mourned, it also signals a time to remember and celebrate the achievements and lives of those who have died. 

Candied skulls, skeletons, bright colors, mouthwatering food and dance-worthy music are a few of the things that come to mind when thinking about Dia de los Muertos. It is a celebration of life and loved ones who have passed on, not a solemn affair centered on death. 

This traditional Mexican holiday, which takes place on Nov. 2. is coming to Austin early for Central Texas’ Dia de los Muertos Festival on Oct. 19. The festival is run by Easter Seals Central Texas, an organization that provides services such as rehabilitation, early childhood intervention and employment opportunities to members of the community who have disabilities. Easter Seals plans to host the festival for the next three years and created the event to honor the lives of the people it serves as well as members of the community. 

“Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life and we just want to celebrate life,” event development manager Melissa Jimenez said. 

Located at Fiesta Gardens, the festival will feature live music, a customary parade and traditional altars honoring the deceased. 

“Normally [on Dia de los Muertos] you would build an altar for loved ones,” Jimenez said. “So what we are doing is we will have several people in the community build altars in honor of either loved ones, actors and actresses that have passed or their pets.”

Two of the people who are creating altars for the festivities are Josie Jaramillo and David Schneider. As a worker for Easter Seals, Jaramillo was excited to create an altar for the festival. Jaramillo comes from a close-knit family and decided to make an altar representative of her niece and parents from traditional Day of the Dead colors: purple, bright orange and yellow.

“I set up the altar and put out things they really enjoyed when they were alive,” Jaramillo said. 

While Jaramillo made a Dia de los Muertos altar last year for her home, Schneider had little knowledge of the celebration prior to his creation of an altar for the festival. Schneider and his team at Goldwasser Real Estate were approached by Easter Seals to present an altar at the festival. Schneider found this to be a compelling offer and agreed to participate. 

“I guess I’d heard of Dia de los Muertos, but I really had no idea the significance of it in the Hispanic community and what it really meant,” Schneider said. “Now that I’ve been immersed in it, it’s pretty powerful.”

He and his team worked together to create an altar honoring their grandmothers. Schneider’s altar celebrates the life of his grandmother, who recently passed away at the age of 94.

“She was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and one of the smartest women when it comes to people,” Schneider said. “She knew people very well and made friends very easily. She was beloved when she passed.” 

Like Jaramillo, Schneider’s team’s altar incorporates traditional Day of the Dead colors and objects representative of the various grandmothers being remembered. 

“I’m personally going to bring a stuffed animal that was my grandmother’s, and several pictures and one or two other trinkets that she had.” Schneider said. “Then others are going to bring some pictures and memorabilia from their grandmothers.” 

Schneider said he hopes others will learn more about the tradition of Dia de los Muertos and what it represents, like he has, by attending the festival.

“When you hear a term like Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, it can have almost a morbid connotation to it,” Schneider said. “But it’s anything but that. Understanding what is done in that culture, celebrating life much more than mourning death is, I think, a really positive message.”

Spirit of Austin

I wanted to write an article about the religious aspects of Halloween in Austin.

I set out expectantly, seeking pagan groups celebrating Samhain, an ancient tradition that celebrates the dead. I thought I might find examples of Austin Christian groups protesting the holiday or using it as an opportunity to evangelize.

But in a city famous for its Halloween spirit on Sixth Street and in West Campus, I found little mention of religious activity. Sure, there were dozens of Facebook events for Halloween carnivals and fundraisers at churches. But these are not by nature religious events.

Tejas Web, one of the most active Witchcraft communities in Austin, will celebrate Samhain on Tuesday at the Vortex. They’ll erect an ancestor altar, participate in a ritual trance and collect donations for SafePlace, a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“Join us as we journey to commune with our ancestors and descendants,” says the group’s website. “We restore the balance and heal ourselves and our communities.”

And the Mexic-Arte Museum held its annual Day of the Dead festival on Oct. 22, 10 days before the holiday itself.

But that was all I found. No protests, no celebrations of the traditional Oct. 31 Gaelic Harvest Festival, nothing city-wide to mark the Christian All Saints’ Day.

It seems that in Austin, the period from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 is celebrated in an almost entirely secular fashion. And this city is not unusual in that capacity. According to a Sept. 29 Time Magazine article, the National Retail Federation estimated that Americans will pour $7 billion into secular Halloween paraphernalia this year, including costumes, candy and decor.

But Time also recently reported on JesusWeen, an initiative Canadian pastor Paul Ade started in 2002. Ade told Gawker for an Oct. 7 article, “Halloween is not consistent with the Christian faith ... We think people should choose an alternative activity.”

The group uses Halloween as an opportunity to evangelize by encouraging followers to give out Bibles instead of candy.

But on nearly every article and blog I found, including ones posted on Jesusween.com, the concept was met with derision or amusement. Famed conservative Christian Pat Robertson chimed in last month, calling Halloween “Satan’s night,” and online commentors largely scoffed at him too.

In Austin and throughout North America, Halloween is almost entirely a nonreligious holiday. Festivals such as Samhain and Day of the Dead have their own celebrations divorced from Halloween, honoring ancestors while the majority of Americans dress as cats or slutty beer mugs and eat chocolate.

Enjoy your candy tonight, and store up some energy for what is to come — tomorrow begins the ultimate secular vs. religious throw down known as “holiday shopping season.”

 ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Growing up in South Texas, Kiko Torres saw the Day of the Dead as an obscure holiday celebrated in southern Mexico. Few people dared to discuss it in his small but strong Catholic, Mexican-American community.

Still, Torres said he became fascinated by Day of the Dead folk art and ceremonies he saw during his father’s research trips to Mexico. Those images of dancing skeleton figurines and the event’s spiritual messages of honoring the dead, he said, were misunderstood in the United States.

“People here thought it was something to be scared of or evil,” said Torres.

But that’s changing. In the last decade or so, this traditional Latin American holiday with indigenous roots has spread throughout the U.S. along with migration from Mexico and other countries where it is observed. Not only are U.S.-born Latinos adopting the Day of the Dead, but various underground and artistic non-Latino groups have begun to mark the Nov. 1-2 holidays through colorful celebrations, parades, exhibits and even bike rides and mixed martial arts fights.

In Houston, artists hold a “Day of the Dead Rock Stars” where they pay homage to departed singers like Joey Ramone, Johnny Cash and even “El Marvin Gaye.” Community centers in Los Angeles build altars for rapper Tupac Shakur and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
“It’s everywhere now,” said Carlos Hernandez, 49, a Houston-based artist who launched the “Day of the Dead Rock Stars” event. “You can even get Dia de los Muertos stuff at Wal-Mart.”

The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, honors departed souls of loved ones who are welcomed back for a few intimate hours. At burial sites or intricately built altars, photos of loved ones are centered on skeleton figurines, bright decorations, candles, candy and other offerings such as the favorite foods of the departed.

The holiday is celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and parts of Ecuador.

Leading up to the day, bakers make sugar skulls and sweet “bread of the dead,” and artists create elaborate paper cut-out designs that can be hung on altars. Some families keep private night-long vigils at burial sites.

The growing Latin American population in the U.S. and the increased influence of Hispanic culture here in everything from food to TV programming are obviously major factors in the growth of Day of the Dead celebrations. But the holiday’s increased popularity may also coincide with evolving attitudes toward death, including a move away from private mourning to more public ways of honoring departed loved ones, whether through online tributes or sidewalk memorials.

For some in the U.S., the Day of the Dead remains personal as they use the occasion to remember close loved ones. But for others, it’s a chance to honor late celebrities or just an opportunity to dress up as a favorite Day of the Dead character.

But as Day of the Dead grows in presence, some fear that the spiritual aspects of the holiday are being lost. Already in Oaxaca, Mexico, where Day of the Dead is one of the most important holidays of the year, the area is annually overrun by U.S. and European tourists who crowd cemeteries to take photos of villagers praying at burial sites.

Oscar Lozoya, 57, an Albuquerque-based photographer who shoots fine art photographs of La Catrina, said some newcomers to the holiday are merely using it as an excuse to party and dress up in skeleton costumes. He hopes that they eventually do their research.

“I know what it means and its importance,” said Lozoya. “So I think the more people look beyond the art and learn about it, the more people will understand its real significance.”

Printed on Thursday, October 20, 2011 as: Day of the Dead gains popularity in the U.S.