Honoring the dearly departed

Ann Murdy, Altar in the home of Celso and Marcelina in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca

In recent years, the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead has been swept into American Halloween festivities, a chance to extend the costumed parties and parades for an extra couple of days after October ends.

You can buy sugar-skull masks at big-box stores, watch Coco, a 2017 animated Disney movie full of skeletal characters, and even purchase Day-of-the-Dead-themed Nikes.

But the holiday that lifts the veil between this world and the afterlife isn’t really connected to Halloween. It’s an important religious and spiritual observance for Indigenous communities throughout Mexico.

Ann Murdy spent 20 years photographing Day of the Dead celebrations in Huaquechula, Puebla, Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, and the communities around Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, for On the Path of Marigolds: Living Traditions of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, (2019) a bilingual book that features nearly 100 photographs, as well as an introduction by writer Denise Chavez.

In Huaquechula they call it Todos Santos, Murdy says, and celebrate from Oct. 28 through Nov. 2. “On the 28th, they believe that’s when spirits who died a violent death come back. They believe the souls of children come back on the 31st, and on the first and second, the souls of the adults come back.”

The photos are festive but solemn, featuring brightly colored rooms illuminated by flickering candles and cemeteries glowing in moonlight. Murdy says that each community has a different name for the holiday and different ways of honoring the dead, but all construct altars in their homes.

A child is the subject of The First Tier of Gerardo Alexis’s Altar, taken in Huaquechula. A framed photo of a blue-hatted infant, illustrated by images of angels, is surrounded by toys and food, including a bottle of milk and a bowl of strawberries.

Another photo features a family gathered in a bright blue room, on either side of a white altar, the front of which is lined in candles and a path of marigold petals. Many flowers adorn Day of the Dead altars, but the especially vibrant colors and pungency of marigolds are believed to lure souls back from dead.

Murdy says she published her book in order to present a more traditional vision of the holiday as Indigenous celebrations become obscured by commercialization. She reads from Chavez’s essay and talks about Indigenous Day of the Dead celebrations from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 15, at the International Folk Art Market headquarters (620 Cerrillos Road). Books will be available for purchase at this free event.

Masks are required, per state guidelines. 505-992-7600, folkartmarket.org

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