Día de los Muertos is a holiday rooted in the ancient past of Mesoamerica. My ancestors were in awe of the eternal cycle of life and death and believed in the need for sacrifice to assure the continuation of life. The Aztecs of past honored those who have passed on with great feasts, sacrifice, ritual, dance, and sacred art that depicted their beliefs and customs. After the trauma of the Spanish conquest, their beliefs persisted by adapting them to the holidays of the Christian calendar. Although much of the ancient indigenous religions were lost, the core aspect of the days of the dead was kept. This core consists of the altar with offerings to the dead.
Many of the symbols found on the altars of today are the result of the melding of Spanish and indigenous art and religion. The indigenous cross of the four cardinal points became the Christian cross, and the Tree of Life became the Garden of Eden. The Spanish brought elements of the Feast of Fools associated with carnival (farewell to flesh) where everything is open to ridicule, mockery, and lightheartedness. Everything is equal in death; no one escapes its inevitability. This is where the humor and whimsy associated with today’s los Días de los Muertos in all likelihood stems from.
During the latter part of the colonial period, the people began making brightly colored sugar –candy skulls and exchanging them between family and friends as tokens of affection. These became common items alongside the image of Guadalupe, flowers, water, bread, and copal. Skeleton dolls made of clay and paper maché were made depicting people in everyday activities. These dolls soon became a part of tradition. I come by this tradition honestly through the lineage of my father, King Xicotencotl of Tlaxcala and Pedro de Alvarado, the Spanish conquistador.
Pictured are some painted skulls from which I will soon be making calaveras. This is a time consuming and tedious process, so I try to make a few skulls first and then put them together in doll form. My style of making Day of the Dead dolls is unique because I combine the traditional New Orleans Voodoo art style of a base of sticks and Spanish moss for the body. I then dress them in fancy colors and I typically create skull heads with brightly colored designs.
Visit Day of the Dead Altar Art for more pictures of my Day of the Dead art.