Talk Description to Me

Episode 76 - Day of the Dead

November 06, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 3 Episode 76
Talk Description to Me
Episode 76 - Day of the Dead
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Día de Muertos is a wonderfully vibrant and joyful Mexican holiday with an extraordinary aesthetic. Family traditions with roots in Aztec rituals are at the heart of the holiday, and are practiced throughout Mexico and around the world. Celebrations continue to evolve, with the alluring visuals of big budget movies like Disney's Coco and James Bond's Spectre adding to the mystique of the holiday.  Skeletons, altars, spirit animals, and cemeteries; join us for a descriptive exploration of Mexico's Day of the Dead!  
  

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JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashed out in description rich conversations

Christine Malec:

This week we want to talk about the Mexican Day of the Dead and some of the visuals around that. And there's so much to say about that. And JJ, you've been to Mexico to around the time of day of the dead. So do you want to give us some a bit of background on it?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, I have a real fondness for Day of the Dead because like you say I was there I was in Mexico City for celebrations and 2019. We were there for the last 10 days of a three month stint traveling through Mexico. And so it was just a fantastic event. And it was amazing to be there. And so before I start, I should just say, I know I have a tendency to gush and beam when I talk about traveling.

Christine Malec:

Huck huck huck!

JJ Hunt:

And so as I talk about Day of the Dead, it might be reasonable for listeners to presume that my enthusiasm is born of some expertise. But that's really not the case. I don't want to imply that my direct knowledge of the holiday and and culture go beyond that of an excited tourists. So just a reminder, I'm a white Canadian with British mutt heritage and as will soon become very clear, I'm also not a Spanish speaker. So a lot of my descriptions are going to include some mangled Spanish so I apologize for that.

Christine Malec:

How do you say it in Spanish? I've seen that written it like English through a screen reader saying it but do you know how to say it? Muertes?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, Dia de Muertos. Dia de Muertos. Okay. Yeah, and I think there's some, in some translations, it's Dia de los Muertos. But I think that's more of a direct translation and not an actual translation. It's Dia de Muertos, I believe is, is close ish to Day of the dead. So day, the Dead is a multi day celebration that extends from the night of October 31 through November 2, and maybe even beyond, depending on the local regional traditions. It's a it's a celebration that originated in Mexico, but has expanded to other parts of the Americas. And the origins of Day of the Dead are very deeply rooted in pre Hispanic Aztec rituals. And the celebration, as it exists now combines indigenous cultural traditions with Spanish colonial traditions. For some people. This is an Indigenous Celebration that has been appropriated by the dominant culture. But for others, it really is a blended celebration, and it has become more of a distinct set of traditions in its own right. So just just a little bit of background on that my understanding of the basic idea behind Dia de Muertos is that on one night of the year, the doors of the afterlife are opened up, the spirits of your ancestors and friends are allowed to travel back to this plane of existence for one night only. And so people make altars, and they prepare specific foods, they offer gifts, all to entice their loved ones down from the heavens for a great party. And so that celebration has grown. And traditions have changed over time. Now there are costumes and characters in this puppetry, there's dancing, there are parades that are all associated with Day of the Dead. And it's, you know, a little bit macabre. But it's mostly very joyous. It's extremely colorful, and really rich in in these cultural visuals.

Christine Malec:

I'm really interested in how traditions merge. And I was reading about, of course, there's such a Mexican diaspora in the United States. And so with not a question requiring an answer, but I just like to think about that, too. How, how traditions or the visuals might be changing as the holiday sort of moves around as Mexicans move out of Mexico. So I know the altar is one of the main visuals and one of the main focuses. Can we talk about some of the visuals of that?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, the altars are known as ofrendas. These are altars that people create to honor and entice those who have passed so people have private ofrendas in houses and their apartments, but they're also public ofrendas in schools and in public squares, and you know, anywhere anywhere all around Mexico. And as you say, anywhere there's a there's a Mexican population, you're probably going to find people creating ofrendas at home and offering them might be a side table or even a large dining table that's pressed up against the wall. There are often tears to the table. So you create layers, there's some height to your to your altar to your friend, and they're very personal. But there are also common things that you're likely to find on often end is all over the place all over Mexico. First, there's a picture of the person that you're honoring, I think that's essential. So there's a framed photo that's maybe at the center a very high up on a high up tear on your friend, there probably going to be some candles, perhaps some incense. And then there are small plates or bowls or even glasses of treats for the person that you're honoring and that you're hoping will visit so these are specific to the person so you're going to put out maybe a favorite drink or a favorite kind of food of that person to entice them down to this plane of existence. You might put out actual servings of that food or drink but you can also get miniatures of all kinds of different items. There are stalls and a lot of the markets where you can get tiny intricate clay plates full of tiny clay meals that are beautifully painted. These are dollhouse size so maybe the size of a quarter or a silver dollar. You'll also find sugar skulls on the off render these are Calaveras these little sugar skulls can be again quite tiny or they can be really large like sometimes they're bigger than a softball. I've seen chocolate versions and clay versions but most of them that the standard ones are white cane sugar, and they are decorated with colorful icing so maybe sugar beads and colorful icing around the around the eyes. You know around the top of the skull did like like someone would wear makeup you put decorations on your Calaveras these little skulls. And there's a traditional bread that you put on the offender called a pan de muerto. This is bread of the dead or bread of death. I think this is a sweet bun about the size and shape of a large hamburger bun. But before it's baked, the baker puts four bone shapes made of the same dough on top of this bun all kind of pointing toward the center. Sometimes they look like they're shaped like chicken drumsticks. Sometimes they're shaped more like a cartoon shinbone with knobbly bits on both ends of a long stick. And there's often a circle in the middle, I think that circle is to represent a teardrop for the living and and then you bake it and because these added bits of dough are put on top, there's kind of it's kind of tactile like you can, you can see and feel these bone shapes that are on top of this baked bun. They're sweet and lovely. They're flavored in different ways regionally. But honestly, you can't go wrong with a serious dusting of sugar or maybe cinnamon sugar.

Christine Malec:

Mmmmm.

JJ Hunt:

Very, very tasty. And then you decorate so those are all the different elements, the specific elements you're going to put on your off render, but then you decorate them as well. So maybe there are going to be tablecloths over the various tears. I've seen solid colors like black, white, orange, red, but I've also seen people use woven textiles that are specific to their region that are part of the the tablecloths that cover the table in the tears, but also decorated with these tissue paper banners. These are strings of very delicate tissue paper panels called papel pecado. This is thin string and down from the thin string hang a row of horizontal rectangles with kind of rounded corners. And each panel features a depiction of a different scene or character or object. And the way they create these is traditionally anyway the artist would take a stack of tissue paper and punch out or cut out holes to create the designs and pictures that they wanted to create. So if you imagine like the the cut paper snowflakes that you might have made in kindergarten and you take a piece of paper, you fold it in half and you cut out shapes you unfold it. So take that idea and then toss it aside because that really doesn't even come close to the kind of really lovely intricate scenes the skeleton characters the delicate designs that get created and and they're sold in market stalls by commercial sellers or artisans. Really bright vibrant colors. So you might have a row where one panel is hot pink and the next one is blue and the next one is red or orange or green. And you string these these palpi cards All around the off render, you might string them along your around your house, but you'll also string them in, in a store or in a restaurant. They're even strung across narrow streets. So if you're walking down a pedestrian street and or a small street in a town or a village, there might be row after row of these have these really delicate tissue paper panels hanging overhead for blocks on and they're really lovely. And I should say that these strings of pep aplicado are hung year round. So you can find them themed for other holidays like Christmases and birthdays, but they also just feature representations of traditional everyday life in Mexico. So you can find some that have cacti on them or luchadores, or adobe churches, all kinds of imagery, in very delicate punched out patterns. And they're strung along you know, railings and people's houses over patios, as household decorations year round. So that's a big part of the decorating of the a friend. And then the dominant decoration for really all of Day of The dead are marigolds. Orange marigolds, tons and tons and tons of marigolds, you put them in vases, but sometimes you just take the flower heads and blanket the table and flower heads. Maybe they're strung together to make garlands sculpted into arches. My understanding is that marigolds are native to Mexico, these orange ones in particular is a golden color. And then there's this more orange, like really bright pumpkin orange color. They're really important in Aztec culture. And I've heard some explanations that marigolds pave the path that leads spirits from their realm to ours, but I think that might be a contemporary explanation of the of the flowers meaning, but regardless, right now, in Mexico, they are everywhere. And just like with the papel pecado, marigolds are not only found on off renders, but in public places, right, I've seen the sides of buildings covered in flowers, so arranged by shade of orange and yellow to create pictures, or maybe to spell out words all over the place, large public off renders. So, you know, I've been talking about household ones. There are also these large public ones as well, in maybe in a town square, maybe in the, you know, the lobby of a building. And not only are these larger, but they tend to be built around a theme. So it's not just for a specific family member, they might be for a famous person who has passed, but they might just be a themed a friend. Like it's more like an art piece than a public shrine. And these are blanketed in orange miracles, they're everywhere. These are public art pieces, you know, not just an idea of personal ritual, beautiful. We, when we were in Mexico, we created a little offender for my dad, who had passed recently, and was kind of a bit of a sponsor of our trip. And so we went around to all the markets, and we got a little bit of this food that we thought he would really like. And, you know, we found some rum because my dad was a rum drinker, not a tequila drinker. And so we put a little little shot glass of rum on the thing and, you know, it was it was a lovely way to, to spend time thinking about him and talking about him, and what were his favorite things? And what would he have loved about this, and let's gather all of these things together, and create this beautiful shrine in, you know, in our Airbnb that we could, you know, that would lead us to think about him every time we passed it, it was lovely.

Christine Malec:

I'm always interested in the the overlap and the integration of celebration and ritual. And so I'm wondering whether in a friend as you would see anything that you recognize as Christian religious imagery.

JJ Hunt:

So that's what I mean, there would be sometimes you'll have marigolds that are arranged in into a cross. So I'm about as direct as as you could find. Yeah. And then the burning of incense and, you know, the, the offering of food. I mean, when does it become Christian...

Christine Malec:

It's kind of universal. Yeah, some of that is universal, for sure. But I wondered about images of saints or crosses, as you say that's explicit. So yeah. And so I understand the image of the skeleton as prominent individuals as well. Where do you see that?

JJ Hunt:

Well, I mean, you've got like I said, those skulls that are part of your offender, and that are candies and treats that kids can eat, but dressing up as a skeleton and wearing face paint or wearing a skeleton like a skull mask. That's become a huge part of the modern celebration. I don't know how far back that tradition goes. It might be part of the Halloween influence. I honestly don't know. I know that James Bond had a very strange influence on this phenomenon. We can talk about that in a bit.

Christine Malec:

And we will because it's very peculiar.

JJ Hunt:

But in Mexico City in particular, where I could certainly say from my personal experience, there are lots of opportunities to dress up as a skeleton, that's a big deal. So, in general, you know, think Black formal clothing like late 19th century, early 20th century styles. So for Men Suits, tuxedos and top hats, or the you go the more traditional route with a black vest and pants with white embroidery that matches the embroidery around the brim of a big black sombrero. And for women long course it had gowns with layered skirts, puffy shoulders and shawls. So that's the clothing and then you wear skull makeup. So basic skull makeup uses black paint around the eyes to make the eye sockets appear sunken, you black out the nose, because the nose is cartilage, and that will disappear along with the rest of your flesh. You paint black hollows under the cheekbones, again to make it look more skull like. And then you paint white teeth with black outlines on to your lips. So the outside of your lips and around the mouth. So that really makes you look like you've got this big skeletons grin. So there are different versions of that. There's a stylized, almost cartoon version of that. So it's all that same arrangement. But you don't include any details, no shading, just stark black and white that that makes you have this kind of cartoon Skull Face. But if you want a more realistic look, you add some shading, you add fine details like thin black lines along the jawline and up over the eyes that look like very fine cracks in the bone. And so that's your skull makeup. And so men or women can do that kind of skull makeup. You can wear any kind of costume again, like a lot of the black formal wear that I've just described. But then there's there are some kind of variations on that. And one of the most interesting is this is for women is Catrina makeup. So dressing up as a Catrina, and my understanding and this is a bit loose, but my understanding is that there's a tradition Mexico of writing poems and stories called literary calaveras, so lit literally, that means literary skulls. And these are kind of light hearted poems and stories epitaphs that are dedicated to friends and family who have passed, and somewhere around 1910 There was an artist named Jose Guadalupe Posada, who created a zinc etching of a really elegant female skeleton from one of these poems or stories. And in this in this etching, she's wearing a large flop it's a skeleton is a skull face with like a skull smile. And she's wearing a large floppy hat that's adorned with flowers and feathers. She's got to tassel like decorations at her temples where barrettes might go with the skeleton had hair but it doesn't. And so this was supposed to be a parody of an upper class Mexican woman of the time. And this character was really well liked. It was just it somehow started getting incorporated into the culture passed around a bit. And then in 1947, Diego Rivera painted this character into a soon to be famous mural, and he gave her a name Catrina, and then she became very strongly associated with Dia de Muertos. Now Catrina is kind of like the unofficial icon of the celebration, and people dress up as Catrina's all the time. In fact, there's an entire parade in Mexico City and I think and others that are just for people dressed as Catrina's is an entire Catrina parade. So you start with the same makeup that I've already talked about. And then you add color, and you add different elements of costume. So the color around the skull face are often very fine rings of small flower petals painted around the eye sockets. Maybe you'll use like little stick on jewels or tiny sequins that are shaped like daisies, all around the eye sockets and maybe instead of painting the eye sockets black you'll paint them with a really vibrant color like a pink or a teal or a red color. And then maybe you'll paint colorful flowers across the forehead or twisting vines down the cheekbone stylized vines. They don't necessarily look like you know, leafy flowered vines, but they're kind of those shapes, little you know, twisty curlicues and whatnot down the cheekbones along the jawline, maybe across the chin. And then there's often a hair band of flowers, big, lush, colorful flowers that frames the face. So maybe these are going to be red or orange or purple. I've seen dead roses used in these hair bands really beautiful. And again, sometimes you pair that if you're not going to have the hair the hair band of flowers may be aware that traditional big black hat with the floppy wide brim like the original etching and then some women not only wear the makeup of a Katrina but they use the traditional dress of their region as part of their costumes so they match the color of their makeup with the colors of their dress. And like I said, some were the more formal colonial style clothing. The black clothing that I mentioned earlier Katrina's are everywhere. They're gorgeous.

Christine Malec:

Now, I love that the holiday is evolving. And so the Catrinas are sort of new. And so that brings me to James Bond and I first learned about this bizarre connection to Mexican day the dead in your James Bond Deep Dive podcast and I was just flummoxed. I just scratching my head going really? So can you can you tie this together, please? It's very strange.

JJ Hunt:

It's so strange. So in 2015, the new James Bond movie was Spectre. it came out 2015 And the opening scene was really cool. It was supposed to look like a one shot action sequence. And it was shot in Mexico City and it was supposed to take place during the day of the dead parade. People in costumes like what like I've already described right the black suits, these ones adorned with white skeleton bones. Giant puppets these marionettes and and wheeled floats up skeletons and top hats, smoking cigars, Catrina's and beautiful gowns. These Catrina's were corseted, with lots of cleavage and chokers, there were drumming bands. And all of this was surrounded by Mexico City's colonial architecture. Beautiful. People loved this scene. In fact, they started booking tickets to Mexico City so that they could be there for the next day of the dead parade. The only problem was, it didn't exist.

Christine Malec:

Ha ha ha!

JJ Hunt:

It was entirely made up for the movie. But whoever was in charge of tourism in Mexico City was no fool. They immediately called up all of the same local artists who had been hired to create the props and costumes for the Bond movie and they said, like, listen do you still have those clothes lying around?

Christine Malec:

We've got a gig for ya!

JJ Hunt:

So they created an actual parade centered around the same visuals. So the real life Dia de Muertos inspired the bond creative team to invent a Day of the Dead, prayed for the opening scene of their movie. And then that scene, in turn inspired Mexico City to create a real parade for citizens and tourists.

Christine Malec:

So that hurts my head.

JJ Hunt:

It's a crazy story. Just crazy. And I mean, hugely popular the very first year, I mean, Mexico City is massive, just the population is so huge. So the numbers can get very big very quickly, the first year, so the movie comes out 2015, the first year of the parade, 2016 250,000 people show up for the first year of the parade. By 2019. Three years later, the year that I was there, the parade route was lined by two to 3 million people. Just like the kinds of crowds that I can hardly even remember anymore. I do remember being packed in eight to 10 people deep, these solid masses of people all along the parade route. And it's I mean, so the parade does, in fact go beyond the aesthetics of the Bond movie. So the Bond movie was very sexy. This, like I said, black colonial clothing, all skeletons and smoke and you know, very, very effective. But the parade goes beyond that. The design starts there, and then it moves. So there are sections of the parade that represent the traditions of pre Hispanic cultures and, and the different regions of Mexico. But like these are big city parade costumes, and big city parade floats. So these aren't necessarily indigenous people dressing in their own traditional clothing or people from different regions sharing actual elements of their local culture. It's more like the clothing and styles of indigenous people are presented as costumes in the parade. And regional dance styles are interpreted and performed as the parade moves through the city. And there are also other really interesting elements that are brought into the parade. So Alebrijes. Do you know Alebrijes? Have you heard of these creatures?

Christine Malec:

No, no.

JJ Hunt:

Really cool. So these are wild, brightly colored spirit creatures that are mashups of different animals. So you might have a neon pink leopard, with butterfly wings and a snake tongue, or maybe a bowl with zebra stripes and purple octopus tentacles and dragon wings. They're just crazy creatures. They're traditionally created by artisans in the state of Oaxaca. They're carved out of wood or built out of paper mache and then painted in vibrant colors. And, and I don't, again, I've heard that these are the animals that will carry a person to the, you know, to to the next realm back and forth. But again, I'm not sure if this is a a more recent addition to the mythology of Day of the Dead, but they are certainly part of Oaxacan culture. They are absolutely present in the parade. So in the parade their large wheeled versions like their floats the size of like minivans. And people dress in elementary hit costumes and you know, little marching bands dress, like, you know, zebras with butterfly wings and whatnot. Very, very pretty, very playful, really. So, so colorful. So visually, the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City anyway, I think there are new ones opening, you know, that are started up in different places, but the big major parades in Mexico City. It's kind of like if you've ever been to a Santa Claus parade, it's kind of like that in terms of the quality of the floats, the kinds of bands, the kinds of dancing, but it's with a Day of the Dead theme, right?

Christine Malec:

Um hmm.

JJ Hunt:

So when I was there, we saw a huge float that was of Frida Kahlo lying in bed, like on her deathbed.

Christine Malec:

Oh my god,

JJ Hunt:

There was a marching band like a brass marching band in the skeleton makeup and they were all wearing matching like shiny blue tuxedo suit jackets. We saw luchadores pushing a wheeled ring down the street like So it's that kind of parade atmosphere. But with lots of Day of the Dead, lots of skeletons and Alebrijes, and really wild and vibrant and loud and colorful. And yeah, so much fun. So thank you, James Bond for that strangely.

Christine Malec:

Thats just so strange. On a more personal note, for people who celebrate Day of the Dead is can we say anything about the cemeteries? Because I know that a different kind of commemoration goes on there.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, absolutely. So my understanding is that the Day of the Dead celebrations go through the night in some cemeteries in Mexico. So I think the belief is that a grave must be attended all night, in case the occupant decides to accept your invitation and return to this realm. So people stay at the cemetery, they they they decorate particular graves or they'll decorate an entire cemetery. They clean it all up and make it nice for the people to return in there, I believe is some kind of there's sometimes a festive atmosphere in cemeteries all night long. We didn't go to any cemeteries while we were there. We decided that was a little bit too intrusive. We didn't want to do that without an invitation. So I'd looked up photos and there are lots of just really haunting and beautiful photos of Day of the dead cemeteries with headstones and tombs and family crypts, entire graveyards, decorated with row after row of candle and these are like thick pillar candles on the ground or maybe short stubs and glass cups that mark the edges of a grave site. And again, absolute blankets of orange marigolds, and, you know, surrounding these candles all around on top of headstones all around on the ground where someone might be buried. And with these little glass cups of candles, glowing, you know, tucked into these blankets of orange marigolds. The marigolds glow like the last light of sunset and the candle light that really atmospheric, lots of large white skulls that are placed around sometimes right on the grave sometimes on, you know, on a grave marker. And these are these are white skulls painted with the vibrant colors like the Catrina's that I described. And I think there's some understanding that the vibrant colors on the painting of a skull are to match the vibrant the vibrancy of the spirit of the dead. And yeah, people people stay there all all night, sometimes. They tidy up the gravesites, they share food, they share stories. And again, my understanding is that there's there's there can be a real party atmosphere but but like a family party, a family dinner party, not a big drunken booze fest. I think the idea is that it's about gathering with your family and sharing a meal and being there for for the person who comes down and visits from their realm.

Christine Malec:

And Day of the Dead does get represented in popular culture in a surprising way, which is a Disney movie called Coco. And I believe, JJ that you found out that it does have some good audio description?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah! It's a really, I've seen the movie. I actually saw it when we were in Mexico City, because so many people when we were traveling around and telling folks that we were going to be in Mexico for Day of the Dead, they would say, "Oh, have you seen Coco?" I'm like "No," and they'd say "Oh, you've got a Coco. It really does a great job of illustrating our culture."

Christine Malec:

Huh.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm thinking this is a Disney movie!

Christine Malec:

Like, what?

JJ Hunt:

It's a very strange thing for people to say like, our culture and our history is --

Christine Malec:

Well represented!

JJ Hunt:

-- well represented... And so sure enough it does, from a visual standpoint, it really nails just how vibrant it is the the aesthetics, the colors, the atmosphere, but I wasn't sure about the audio description I didn't watch it with ad so I went on to the audio description discussion Facebook page, which again, I can't say enough positive things about that group.

Christine Malec:

I know me too.

JJ Hunt:

So I went on and I asked I said "Has anyone you know seen this with the audio description? How do people feel about it?" And the AD gets very positive reviews from several members of the community. So we got the thumbs up from Jeff and from Martin Beth and Lee. So check it out, it is on Disney plus with audio description. So if that's something you're interested in, it's a kind of an interesting way to to get a deeper understanding surprisingly, of the holiday and the visuals and and just the overall look of Day of the Dead.

Christine Malec:

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Day of the Dead background
Ofrendas
Skeletons
Parades
Cemeteries