It may be called Day of the Dead, but Dia de los Muertos is as much about the living as it is of the dead.
It is the focus on family—both living and dead—that is the center
of this celebration, said Rebecca Berru-Davis who teaches a class on Hispanic traditions at Montana State University-Billings. She said Pixar’s 2017 animated feature Coco helped to reinforce the importance of family.
Berru-Davis spoke about this important holiday in the Chicano/Latino culture in the Northcutt-Steele Gallery on the Montana State University-Billings campus, where an exhibition on Dia de los Muertos is on display until mid-December.
Berru-Davis is from Los Angeles and helped to bring this exhibit, Dia de los Muertos: A Cultural Legacy, Past, Present and Future to the gallery.
The exhibit is on loan from Self Help Graphics & Art, a cultural and artistic center in Los Angeles that for decades has provided training for aspiring Chicano artists and furthered Chicano art.
Betty Avila, co-director of SHG, explained that Day of the Dead is a fusion of spiritual beliefs Catholicism and indigenous spiritual practices.
“Even from its origin in Mexico and Central America, it already is sort of a cultural fusion and as it evolves it becomes even more so,” she said.
The evolution of the celebration can be seen in the prints, photographs and ephemera on loan from SHG as it raised the profile of Day of the Dead over the decades from a street celebration in east LA to its national profile.
And Berru-Davis’ Hispanic Tradition’s class has added an important component to the exhiit of SHG art: an ofrenda or altar.
“Most altars are constructed on different levels,” said Berru-Davis. ”At minimum there are two levels: heaven and earth.”
The altar the class created has three levels: heaven, earth and the space in between, called purgatory in the Christian tradition.
It is heavy laden with symbols representing the four essential elements of earth, wind (or air) fire and water. And around it is an arch and photos of significant people in Latin culture.
She said the altar is all about remembering the dead.
“In this tradition there are three deaths,” Berru-Davis explained. There is the physical death, when someone dies. Then there is the burial, the second death, when someone is buried and put into the ground. And the third death is when the person is no longer remembered, when they have been forgotten. That’s considered the worst death of all.”
Dia de los Muertos: A Cultural Legacy, Past, Present and Future originated as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of The Getty.
Dia de los Muertos will be on display until Dec.13, 2018.