Tuesday, November 01, 2005

DenverPost.com - Colorado Sunday Jerry Vigil Muertos Art

DenverPost.com - Colorado Sunday

My brother in Denver gets himself an article in the Sunday Denver Post. When he was younger he looked more like Tom Cruise and now he's starting to look like Sam Elliot. A bit of the text.

You oughta know: Dean of the dead
By Colleen O'Connor

Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is one of Mexico's biggest holidays. Based on traditional Aztec beliefs in the afterlife, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated each Nov. 1 and 2 with candlelight vigils in graveyards and at colorful altars at home.

To attract the souls of the departed, family members decorate these spaces with special ofrendas, or offerings. These might include photographs, flowers, toys, diplomas, favorite foods, even cigarettes and beer, if that's what the departed really loved. Particularly popular are skulls made of sugar, calaveras, and "bread of the dead," or pan de muerto.

Unfortunately, this colorful, life-affirming festival is often misinterpreted. Denver Post staff writer Colleen O'Connor talks with Jerry Vigil, a Chicano artist in Denver who specializes in muertos - or skeletons - who sheds new light on this ancient tradition.

When Dia de los Muertos crossed the border into the United States about the time in the 1970s that the Chicano movement began to grow, altars paying homage to family and friends who had passed away became more important than graveyard parties. Suddenly they became art, showcased in museums and galleries across the country. From toy coffins with pop-up skeletons to dead celebrities like Frida Kahlo serving up tacos and hot sauce, these altars blend devotion with offbeat creativity. Denver artist Jerry Vigil puts his own satirical spin on one of the holiday's most important symbols, the calavera, or skeleton, dressing them in contemporary threads and placing them in settings intended to reflect pride in Chicano culture.

Why do some people think Day of the Dead is a celebration of death? That comes from a lack of knowledge. A good way to look at Day of the Dead is like you had a gigantic family reunion with everyone in your family, from today all the way back to the origin of your family. It's a celebration and honoring of everything and everyone. People confuse it with death because the skeleton is used.

Well, the fun thing about muertos art is that it's so comical. It's full of frivolity. It's satirical and mocking, a way of lessening the power that

death holds over people in the Mexican culture. Western cultures are way more afraid of death than Mexican cultures. People die, you bury them in the ground and stay away. In Mexican culture - death is always looming over everyone, so people mock and make fun of it to lessen the power.

Why are Day of the Dead altars in Denver considered more artistic than those in Mexico? Chicano artists are curators of the culture, and it's a way to keep these traditions alive. So the altar becomes a thing of beauty, as well as functionality and purpose.

So on this day, the dead are believed to be right here with us? People believe the veil between the living and the dead is pulled aside, and the spirits walk freely past the veil. Being homebodies, they want to go home. The living realize they're coming and set up a celebration. They give them indicators how to get home and what to do.

The ancient Celts had the same tradition. Their Day of the Dead, also on Nov. 1, is called Samhain. I know, my wife is Irish. It's incredible how these things are

still alive despite all attempts to assimilate them into the greater Western culture. In the Mexican culture, death isn't an end to life but part of a cycle. Western concepts make death the end, but with indigenous cultures, it's part of the cycle of life.

- Colleen O'Connor


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