above photo courtesy of Rick Moore, Photos in the article courtesy of Kim Welsh, and thank you Jason Berry for covering a wonderful tradition long held in this city.
New Orleans’ Carnivalesque Day of the Dead
In one of the subtler dramas of immigration, the Mexican ritual called Day of the Dead—home altars and cemetery-visits surrounding November 1, All Saints Day—has spread like a rushing river to such gringo outposts as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Tucson, and New Orleans.
Day of the Dead parades follow a cross-cultural flow, embellishing Halloween stylizations of the dancing skeleton. The calavera, or decorated skull, is an archetype of Mexican popular culture.
Mexico’s Dia de Muertos custom of decorating home altars with blossoms, candles, fruit, and photographs, like the visits of the faithful to cemeteries, scattering flowers and sharing meals among the graves, bespeak a human welcome to the beloved dead residing in the world of the spirits.
Roots of this tradition lie deep in the cultural memory of Mesoamerican Indians. Before the 16thcentury, Spanish conquest, the Aztecs saw the skull as a symbol of rebirth. They envisioned warriors lost in battle, and women who died in childbirth, as honored spirits, circling the sun like hummingbirds.
As missionary priests transplanted Christian rituals, Indians embraced the idea of purgatory, a zone of souls waiting for release, by inviting family spirits to the feast of autumn harvest. As the fusion of Indian and Spanish tradition evolved, public festivities took a commercial turn.
In the early 1900s, stores in Mexican towns and cities began selling cookie-and-sugar calaveras, or skulls. Today parents give the sweet skulls to children, and lovers share calaveras like valentines.
“We decorate our houses with death’s heads, we eat bread in the shape of bones on the Day of the Dead, we love the songs and stories in which death laughs and cracks jokes,” Octavio Paz, the Nobel laureate wrote in his famous book on Mexico, The Labyrinth of Solitude, “but all this boastful familiarity does not rid us of the question we all ask: What is death? We have not thought up a new answer.”
Claudia Gehrke, professionally known as Mardiclaw, a muralist, painter, mask-maker and whirlwind force in the New Orleans culture of second lines, brings her flavor of this in two ways…. a marriage of the secondline and spanish culture mixed with the bone gang traditions of New Orleans with a feminine element that wasn’t present before.
“We’ve taken Carnival and wrapped it around Day of the Dead,” she says.
Her group, Skin n Bonez, marched Thursday night with the Krewe de Boo parade from the Bywater neighborhood, a bohemian enclave, into the French Quarter, where escalating rents have driven out many artists.
Skinz n Bonez performed Friday night for a Halloween welcome outside Republic of New Orleans music club for the novelist Anne Rice, on a return trip for the Vampire L’Estat Coronation Ball, an event themed on her fabled character.
Rice, a New Orleans native who wrote many novels here, relocated to La Jolla, Cal. several years ago.
“When she steps out of the limo, Anne will be escorted by Wild Man John and Queen Kim of the Wild Tchoupitoulas,” said Mardiclaw, before the event, referring to a black Mardi Gras Indian tribe known for street chants and hand percussive rhythms. “We’ll all be singing.”
For all of Mardiclaw’s high-octane theatrics, her life craved a spiritual lift in 1990, when she was living in Oregon and her father died.
“I was deeply depressed and pulled myself out of it by embracing Day of the Dead,” she says. “I did an altar in my house, and got friends to bring pictures of their family members. I decorated with marigolds, which are considered the flower of the dead. I planted my garden with them and left petals leading to the door. I did a lot of research in what I was doing.”
After moving to Arizona, Mardi visited New Orleans for the winter carnival season (which climaxes on Mardi Gras) in the late ’90s, and relocated in 2001. Four years later, when Hurricane Katrina hit, 80 percent of the city went underwater, at an average level of four feet.
Living in the blue collar St. Roch neighborhood for weeks before electricity was restored, she watched workers from Mexico and Central America pour into the city to take the hard, gritty work of demolitions and stripping interiors down to wooden studs before hanging new sheetrock.
Seeing so many Latinos, Mardi says, drove her “to blend Day of the Dead images into my paintings. I did a logo of skeletons drinking beer and skeletons second-lining [parading] past broken down houses.”
“I have a deep respect for Posada’s work,” she says. “I have always looked at him as the one artist from Mexico who made the calavera style so popular. He is probably the most recognizable calavera artist in the world. I don’t think there is a calavera artist who hasn’t looked to his work for inspiration in that colorful, smiling skeleton run amok.”
But popularizing any symbol has its aesthetic hazards; the farther the symbol travels from the taproot, the more difficult it is to maintain the elemental power of its place in the moment, the culture of its time.
Posada packed his skeleton images with arresting life-like details that capture a certain horror, as the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, spread violence from the countryside to the cities.
He worked in an age before the saturation of visual media. Movies were still silent when he died in 1913 at the age of 61. He was a widower whose only son had already predeceased him. Drinking heavily and in a bad state at the end of his life, he was buried in a pauper’s tomb.
It is tempting to think that Posada would be proud of how far his calavera images have traveled. From the few photographs of him, we see a stout man with deep Indian features, a thick mustache and stoic face.
It is more tempting to picture him with a begrudging grin.
Jason Berry writes from New Orleans. His books include Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II and a novel, Last of the Red Hot Poppas.