“The word death is not pronounced in New York, Paris, or in London, because it burns the lips,” wrote Octavio Paz. “The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as that of theirs, but at least death is not hidden away; he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain, or irony.”

For the Mexican this friendly confrontation climaxes every year on November 2, All Souls’ Day, when Christians pray for the souls of the faithful departed. Spaniards brought the Christian holiday to Mexico, where it mingled with pre-Columbian Indian rites to produce a fiesta in honor of the deceased, who make a one-day visit to Earth. The combined Christian and Indian celebration is known as the Dia de los muertos (“Day of the Dead”), and is the somewhat unlikely occasion for a flurry of (often satiric) artistic exhibitions here in Chicago.

While many people in many countries go to the cemetery only on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, everyone in Mexican culture congregates there on November 2. In this case happiness, not misery, loves company, and what could be a sorrowful reunion is usually joyful. Preparations begin early. Many families create ofrendas, beautifully decorated altars or shrines in churches or homes. These altars may incorporate food, flowers, ornaments, and candles to guide each wayward soul home.

Graves, too, are decorated. Improvised stands pop up throughout Mexican towns, selling the paraphernalia that is part of the day. Some sell devotional candles in shades of white, yellow, pink, or blue. Some sell floral wreaths. Others offer pan de los muertos, anise-flavored loaves often shaped to resemble animals, men, or women.

The most popular items are alfeniques, candies so sugary that looking at them almost makes your teeth fall out, shaped into many different forms. Plums, oranges, grapes, and watermelons may surround a main course, candy enchiladas. Candy skeletons dance around a miniature coffin. Sugary skulls, each bearing the name of a dearly departed one, line the stands.

Real food, not just candy imitations, is also brought to the graves. “In little towns, they’re as poor as mice, but on this day they give everything they have for their dead–chicken, mole sauce, you name it,” one transplanted Mexican has said. Friends and relatives clean and decorate the graves, then lay out food for the hungry spirits. Candy bought at the stands and food fixed at home are placed on altars alongside other items to be enjoyed by the deceased–a bottle of favorite tequila, for example.

Often, the day is cause for silent reflection. But usually the living treat it as a social event. After first offering the food to the departed, they consume it themselves, then visit with friends, some of whom they have not seen since the last November 2. By dusk, people have left the cemeteries, but they see to it that the spirits have a safe return. Hundreds of candles flicker in the cemeteries, guiding the dead to their otherworldly home.

In recent times, the Day of the Dead has become more than a somewhat macabre picnic. Artists in many different media vie to see who can be most creative with the theme of death. Usually the figures created are happy or foolish, not frightening–yet another way of laughing at death, bringing it closer.

“Artistic fascination with the Day of the Dead first gained prominence in Mexico City at about 1868,” according to Jose Gonzalez, director of the Mi Raza Arts Consortium (MIRA). “Woodcuts containing calaveras, satirical verses and songs with a death theme, were sold on the streets. Many of these were illustrated by Jose Guadalupe Posada, who used skeletons to mock politicians and other public figures. His skeletons drank, cheated, voted, played music, laughed, and flirted–just like ordinary people.”

Other artists adopted Posada’s passion for the holiday and celebrated an unofficial Day of the Dead artistic festival in wood, oil, watercolor, papier-mache, and even metal. They created skeleton dolls, death masks, coffins, and other netherworldly memorabilia. Some stuck with the topic of death, but others followed Posada’s example by making statements on contemporary issues. Few public figures were immune from Day of the Dead satires.

Chicago’s art world first became acquainted with the November 2 tradition when a 1981 Clay Morrison exhibit featured Day of the Dead artifacts. Since then, artistic participation has mushroomed, both within the Mexican-American community and beyond. “In recent years we have found many creative people of different ethnicities who like to work in a Day of the Dead format,” notes Gonzalez. A schedule released by MIRA lists some 20 events related to the Day of the Dead.

As in Mexico, local artists have used the occasion as a forum for contemporary concerns. This year’s exhibits predominantly honor three persons: the deceased Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Mexican-American rock star Ritchie Valens.

MIRA presents “Frida y Diego–una pareja” (“Frida and Diego–A Couple”), a month of exhibits, including altar installations, that will open at the Prairie Avenue Gallery November 1, 2-6 PM (1900 S. Prairie, 842-4523), and at Artemisia Gallery November 6, 5-8 PM (341 W. Superior, 751-2016). A seminar and lectures on the artists are part of the celebration. The Museum of Broadcast Communications (800 S. Wells, 987-1500) presents an altar dedicated to Frida and Diego as part of a program that also includes South American folk ballads by Jesus Negrete and a masked dance performance by Pat Fischer Seloy and Company, November 1 from 11 AM to 2 PM.

Valens, whose life was portrayed in the film La Bamba, is the subject of an altar at Thalia Hall (1807 S. Allport, 334-4961). A procession to Thalia Hall November 2 is being organized by MIRA, in conjunction with the Randolph Street Gallery, leaving from Pro Arts (1000 W. Cullerton) at 5:30 PM. A La Bamba dance party follows at Mocambo Hall (1802 S. Racine).

Other Day of the Dead-related events include the opening of an exhibit of Mexican dance masks, October 30, 5-8 PM at Cortland-Leyten Gallery (120 N. Green, 733-2781); opening of an altar installation in homage to former teacher Luis Medina, October 30, 6-9 PM at the School of the Art Institute (Jackson and Columbus, 443-3710); opening of an altar installation by Oscar Moya and Jose David, October 31, 6-9 PM at Axe Street Gallery (2778 N. Milwaukee); and opening of an “easy rider” (“Los muertos viajan”–“the dead travel”) altar, November 1, 7-10 PM at Casa de las Americas (1579 N. Milwaukee).

A march in memory of youth who have died in gang violence will begin at 26th and Pulaski at 7:30 PM November 2, to culminate at the Little Village Boys Club (2801 S. Ridgeway, 277-1800), which will also display an altar in their honor. An altar installation by Glen Davies will open November 6, 5-8 PM, at Objects Gallery (341 W. Superior, 664-6622). And a Haymarket Martyrs altar exhibition by Henry Cisneros will open November 17, with music by Mark Giangrander and Bob St. Claire, 8 PM, Axe Street Gallery. All programs are free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland, Bruce Powell.