Tuesday, September 2, 2008

How to make a Day of the Dead altar

he Ofrenda (offering or tribute) is a decorated area such as an altar or shrine with offering to honor and remember departed spirits. Welcome the spirits of your loved ones by preparing an ofrenda in your home on the Day of the Dead.

Things You’ll Need:
* Treats (such as candied sugar skulls)
* Incense
* Personal items of the deceased (such as jewelry)
* Salt
* Candles
* Calaveras
* Water
* Favorite beverage of the deceased
* Papel picado

An ofrenda usually displays:

Photos and Statues

The centerpiece is usually a photo of the most recently departed family member or whoever the ofrenda is dedicated to. Photos or statues of patron saints are also on the altar. Calaveras, or skeleton figures, to symbolize the deceased as they were when they were alive. These figures often depict the special interests of the departed (such as playing the guitar or dancing) and how they physically looked. They represent the playfulness of the Dead, as they mimic the Living and frolic amongst us.

Food and Drink

The deceased's favorite food and drinks are set out. Although the spirits can not physically eat, they absorb the essence, and once full, they share with the living. The one constant food on the ofrenda is bread, or pan de muertos. It is also customary to provide water and salt for purification of the ofrendas and visiting souls.

Flowers symbolize the brevity of life. They are arranged on the ofrenda and may be sprinkled from the gravesite to the home, creating a pathway for the dead. The scent also helps the souls to find their way home. The traditional flower is the cempazuchitl (zempasuciti), a bright orange marigold.

Many candles are added to the ofrenda and are different shapes, sizes and designs.

Copal, a resin derived from a tree native to Mexico, is the incense traditionally used to help spirits find their way to this world.

Favorite Items
Favorite items of the deceased are placed on the ofrenda. Items might include clothing, cigarettes, toys for children, daily use items such as hand towels or other things that are significant.

Colorful decorations, such as papel picado (tissue paper cut in designs) and orange marigold flowers may also be used as trimming.

At the Cemetery
On a chosen day, gravestones and crosses are scrubbed and repainted, usually blue, a sacred color to deflect evil. Flowers, candles and incense are set up at the gravesites. This may be done ahead of time or during the celebration. Food may be set up at the gravesite, or there may be a communal table.

Day of the Dead, or el Dia de los Muertos, is a happy celebration in Mexico. It actually occurs over two days: November 1 and November 2, and dates back to the Aztec civilization which saw death as a portal to other existences.

The first Day of the Dead, on November 1, is usually reserved for the children, for honoring the souls of the little angelitos. The next day, the adults are remembered. You will see both young and old in the night's rituals, holding vigils in the town cemetery. Everywhere, round loaves, dusted with colored sugar, are shared with both the living and the dead.

Visit Cielito Lindo Estudio for ideas, calaveras, nichos, crosses, and more for your home ofrenda at www.cielitolindoestudio.net.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Day of the Dead traditions in art and humor

The playful and irreverent relationship of Mexicans with death is probably best represented in San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico by the work of Jose Antonio Madrazo of Cielito Lindo Estudio. Madrazo's specialty are nichos (niches) filled with tiny skeletons and impertinent refranes (Mexican proverbs) that make fun of our daily lives.

Here is just a sampling of the humorous labels:

- Dios habla por el que calla
(God speaks through those who keep silent)

- Vas al cielo por el clima y al infierno por la compania
(You go to heaven for the weather and to hell for company)

These are but some of the phrases on the brightly painted and decorated nichos. The diminutive skeletons of these curious and wonderful works also have a life of their own representing famous characters from Mexico and around the world, to include Emiliano Zapata, Frida Kahlo, Elivs Presley, Marilyn Monroe, The Village People and The Beatles.

Jose Antonio Madrazo left Mexico City 27 years ago for San Miguel, starting a new life and business. "The idea began when I had a restaurant in Salida a Celaya called Carlos n Cheves, which was decorated in a humoristic way, with comic elements everywhere," he said. "One day my partner brought some simple nichos, made by local artisans, and we decided to decorate them based on Posada's Catrina representing the dead as if they were still alive."

Madrazo was a pioneer in San Miguel in decorating nichos. "As we began to decorate and sell the nichos, we noticed that we had no competition," he recalls. "Then we saw that those most in demand were on death combined with refranes. Currently, 80 percent of my work is on death."

Madrazo's work also elaborates large, decorated clay Calavera skulls.

The winning formula for this artist is an original design that is combined with the capacities of local artisans. "I am not the only one involved in these pieces. I design them, but at least four others are involved making the nichos, the figures, painting the nichos and writing the phrases," said Madrazo. Local artisans from rural communities, mainly from Tembula and El Moral, collaborate with Madrazo to decorate the nichos and make the small clay skeletons. "I personally take the material to the communities so that the artisans do not have to spend their little money on transportation," said Madrazo.

Madrazo's work is called New Folk Art, and is known in different parts of the world. His work is exhibited in the Peabody Museum in Boston, at Harvard University, in the Mexican Art Museum in San Francisco, the Cultural Center of Contemporary Art in Mexico City. One of his most famous works is exhibited in Disney World in Florida, at Epcot Center's Mexican Pavilion. This work represents a Day of the Dead scene, said Madrazo.

Madrazo exports around the globe to Japan, Europe, Australia and South Africa. And his clients include the famous Ringo Starr has a nicho with four Beatles skeletons; Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones; actors Steve Martin and Alain Delon; Mexican singer Lucero, and the banda grupera Los Tigres del Norte (Northern Tigers) have all purchased Madrazo's fun representations of themselves.

In San Miguel, Madrazo's nichos are on sale at Restaurant El Pegaso and in Casa Maxwell, but they are also available to enjoy and purchase through the artisan's website at www.cielitolindoestudio.net.