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Celebrating Day of the Dead

Artist José Guadalupe Posada’s graphic legacy is as recognizable today as it was in turn-of-the-century Mexico, and his distinctive skeleton print calaveras have become synonymous with the traditional Day of the Dead celebration, which is November 1.

In Jesse Cordes Selbin’s article, “José Guadalupe Posada: Printmaker to the Mexican People,” learn more about the man who ushered in Mexico’s golden age of printmaking and inspired the work of fellow artists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.

Hector Dominguez-Ruvalcaba, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portugese at The University of Texas at Austin, gives an overview of the traditions behind the Day of the Dead:

There were nine levels in the Mesoamerican afterlife. Tlalocan was a paradise reserved for those who died of contagious diseases, while those who died in war walked with the sun to the zenith. The relatives of these dead would lay offerings near their bodies so they could accomplish this task. These offerings would be left for four years, until the dead transformed into hummingbirds and began to nourish themselves by drinking the nectar of local flowers. The final—and darkest—level was called Mictlan, the place of no return. To reach this place, the dead would have to journey for four years.

Relatives would place offerings of food and leave the tools for working in the same job the dead had used in their jobs in life. In this sense death was then an endless cycle of traversing, going through different dimensions of existence. Offerings were the main resource that allowed the dead to reach the next level in their journey beyond the grave. There were particular different dates in the year to honor one or another group of dead, a religious calendar that was completely altered after the Christianization of America.

These offerings survive as a result of the syncretic religions that were established during the Spanish Conquest. Today, offerings to the dead are made on All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) of the Christian calendar.

In rural areas of Mesoamerica, November 1 is dedicated to dead infants (which in pre-Columbian times was celebrated in August), while November 2 is dedicated to dead adults. In many areas leaving an offering for deceased loved ones is a dutifully fulfilled obligation. Family comes together, bringing the dead to the reunion through nostalgic conversations.

The Day of the Dead is the day of filial love, but it is also the day of celebrating the harvest in the agricultural calendar. November is the month of bountiful harvest, and generously sharing food is the most sincere expression of gratitude. The altar of the dead is then a cornucopia of fruits, flowers, candies, drinks, and the most precious objects of beloved family members. The colorful ornaments, the saints of family devotion, the elaborate cooking, and even the delicate sugar skulls make death not a terrible image, but the core of human communion.

Discovering "The Sheltering Sky"

Matt Morton, a senior in the English Honors Program, Humanities Honors Program, and Government, is working as an undergraduate intern with Ransom Center Curator of British and American Literature Molly Schwartzburg. Undergraduate interns at the Harry Ransom Center have the opportunity to gain valuable behind-the-scenes experience at a major research library and museum. Interns work in a variety of capacities, including developing exhibitions, assisting with collections cataloging, and creating unique multimedia.

Morton has been assembling materials from the Paul Bowles and other collections for an exhibition case that is now on display on the Ransom Center’s second floor through November 13. He shares his experience working on this project:

On my first day as an intern at the Ransom Center, I walked into the building feeling guilty. A lover of all things literary, I was entering my fourth year as an English and Humanities major. Nevertheless, I had ventured inside the Center only twice, both times during organized class visits.

I didn’t know quite what to expect. I had heard horror stories from fellow classmates about internships consisting of making copies and gazing out the window. I knew, of course, that an internship at the Ransom Center would provide the opportunity to do more than grunt work. Still, I was unsure of how I could make a substantial contribution.

I soon found out. I was met by my supervisor, Molly Schwartzburg, who immediately began outlining the projects we would be working on. The first of these was the creation of a single-case exhibition centered on a New York Times article commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Paul Bowles’s novel, The Sheltering Sky.

Written by Dwight Garner, the article was notable for its references to Tennessee Williams’s review of The Sheltering Sky, and Norman Mailer’s discussion of Bowles in Advertisements for Myself, two works of which the Ransom Center holds original manuscripts. Garner also referred to Virginia Spencer Carr’s Paul Bowles: A Life. Carr did extensive research at the Center while working on the biography and even inscribed a copy of the biography to the Center’s staff.

Garner’s article was the initiation of my relationship with The Sheltering Sky, which would progress over a few short weeks. While I was thrilled to be given responsibility for an exhibition, however small, I was simultaneously apprehensive. During my three years at UT, I somehow had never heard of Bowles. How could I create an exhibition focusing on one of his novels?

I soon found that the task was not as daunting as I imagined. Molly and I began by repeatedly touring the mazes of the Center’s collections. Soon I found myself sorting through the Bowles and Williams collections and Mailer’s papers, eventually having to decide which of the enticing collection materials should be included in the exhibition’s limited space. Finally, all that remained was creating the layout, an act that allowed me even more creative freedom.

After only four weeks of work, the exhibition is finished. I hope that it will introduce viewers unfamiliar with Bowles to The Sheltering Sky, as the process of its creation similarly educated me.