For those of you who don’t know, “guera” is pronounced “wed-a” and it means “white girl,” a common phrase I heard growing up. Now that that’s out of the way…
I figured at some point my artwork and my writing would collide and while I have more pressing and thought provoking topics in my “draft” bucket, this all needs to be said. Sooner than later.
At my arts and crafts booth a few weeks ago, I had a mix of my pallet wood signs, my painted wood signs and my acrylic sugar skulls on canvas. I noticed more than one individual would not come into my booth as my creations on the back table stared at them from the sidewalk. The only people who got up close to look at my little friends were a few young millennials, but they weren’t interested in hanging art.
At one point, I made a sweeping generalization (and a foot in mouth situation). A husband and wife stopped by my booth and the husband filled out his name and email address to win a pallet wood sign I was giving away. The wife, of Latino decent, just peered inside. I thought FOR SURE, if any of my little friends could find a home it might be with this woman. So, I politely said, “I know one of those guys in the back would love a forever home.” She very kindly, yet matter-of-factly, declined. She associated them with evil and darkness. She even said, “despite what my cultural background is, there is no way I’m allowing them into my home.”
So, it confirmed for me the suspicion that I could not have a booth mixed with scripture and uplifting Christian quotes while also celebrating the Day of the Dead. I also worry that having both displayed on my Facebook Page is sending mixed messages to those who don’t understand what Day of the Dead is. So, there needs to be some education.
What IS the Day of the Dead?
In the Catholic religion, “All Souls Day” is celebrated on November 2nd and “All Saints Day” is celebrated on November 1st. All Souls Day is a day to remember our departed. In the written religious traditional doctrine, the departed receive indulgences (days less in purgatory) if the living pray for them on this day. All Saints Day is a celebration honoring those saints and martyrs who have gone before us and is a Holy Day of obligation in the Catholic Church (meaning, Catholics are supposed to attend mass and receive the sacrament of Holy Eucharist that day). The Day of the Dead is a Mexican celebration derived from these days, including Halloween (All Hallows Eve).
In the Mexican culture, the Day of the Dead is the belief that between midnight on Halloween and midnight on November 2nd, deceased loved ones are reunited with their families. This is a very joyful time for people. Families laugh at the face of death because they overcome it, trick it even, as they reconnect with their dead. This is a celebration of people who have died, a cathartic recollection of the loved one’s lives and how they have impacted our own.
… but how are sugar skulls associated with this “holiday?”
The first documented sugar “art” in the Christian religion was in 17th century Palermo. Sugar lambs and angels were made for Easter celebrations. A century later, Mexico began making sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead ceremonies. Clay molds were created to reuse year after year for sugar skulls. These beautifully decorated skulls, sometimes with the loved one’s name inscribed across the forehead, would be placed on gravestones or on altars inside of the home. Altars were adorned with “offerings” for the deceased… things they enjoyed, foods they liked, and marigolds (traditional flowers for the dead).
Understand that this celebration of the dead goes well beyond Mexico and well beyond religious beliefs. People in China, Japan, Korea, throughout Europe, Africa, and South America have similar celebrations even outside of the Catholic religion. What this says is 1) we LOVE our people who have died before us, 2) we LONG to be with them again and 3) we believe in life after death.
My love for Mexican (Latin, really) culture goes back at least to my childhood and if we believe in DNA truly impacting our lives (and I do) it goes further. I have an Italian ancestor who immigrated to northern Italy from Portugal. While this isn’t a Spaniard it does give me something to draw from. In the 1400’s and 1500’s the Portuguese were “discovering” North America and South America and many of the islands in between. So, while I may not have found the link to Spain for myself, I have at least found a common beginning point for some other people with a Latin background – Portugal.
If I’ve lost you, and you don’t buy into, “my grandfather was a musician, his father was a musician and his grandmother was a musician so it makes sense that I have music in my DNA,” then maybe this is something that makes more sense:
Sometimes you just find JOY in a culture. For example, for you non-Italians, have you never found joy in a bowl of excellent spaghetti? Or what about you non-Mexicans… I refuse to believe that you’ve had ONE chip with salsa and turned away ALL other corn chips.
Let’s take it further. I refuse to believe that a person of non-Latin descent is incapable of finding pure joy in traditional mariachi, or salsa, or afro-cuban jazz. I know this to be true due to the craze and wild success of Zumba.
I refuse to believe that a person of non-Greek descent is incapable of finding joy in traditional greek music while dancing and breaking plates.
So, as a person who enjoys putting acrylics on canvas (notice how I sometimes still can’t call myself an artist) I find pure joy in painting sugar skulls. By my partaking of this art form I am able to use the most extraordinary and bright colors, the same exuberant colors you see throughout Latin culture. I mean, seriously. If you’ve been to Mexico, they do not spare their teals, bright yellows, deep reds and bright oranges… HOW CAN YOU NOT SMILE?!?!?! And why wouldn’t I, someone who loves paints, want to put them all over my paintings?!
And the truth is, unless I’m painting some beautiful floral arrangement, those colors fit in nowhere better than something Latin and, my favorite, sugar skulls.
Are they evil? No. Does my painting them suggest that I, in any way, believe in the idea that I’m conjuring up some dead soul back to earth? No.
Could my paintings be used for things or rituals that I don’t believe in? Most certainly. Just as much as people will steal a blessed communion bread for satanic rituals or someone will buy a candle for a seance… we cannot control what people do. I can only control what I do and how I present my creations to the world.
In addition to my beautiful girlfriends praying over my booth and all the pieces within it, I prayed privately over each piece as I made them. The sugar skulls were also prayed over individually. I know there’s a potential that someone may tie a loved one’s memory to one of these paintings. With that, all I can hope is that it brings peace, closure and happy memories. I also pray for people to understand that there’s no further price or penance to pay to get to heaven, His blood was absolutely enough.
It’s a huge blessing to be able to do this. It’s a great deal of fun too. God never said that life is supposed to be boring or lacking of life and joy. I wish I didn’t wait until I was 40 to start having this kind of fun but I’m not sure I would have been so thankful for it if I started too much sooner.
If you’re feeling inspired or up for more Latin in your life, try this on for size. I listened to it as I added some details to Hermano and I began to weep. It’s an emotional song (coincidentally, it’s also in the movie Frida which is a must see… an artistic spectacle of a movie, if you haven’t seen it).