The Day of the Dead holiday, a staple of San Antonio culture, actually had its origins in Europe in the aftermath of the Black Plague era of the mid-14th century. And, the word “Guadalupe” is Islamic in origin.

If the above information is surprising, Centro de Artes has a revelatory exhibition for a city that prides itself on its Day of the Dead celebrations and Mexican heritage. The Day of the Dead in Art, curated by scholar Ruben Cordova and on view through Jan. 19, dives so deep into the tradition that it upends nearly all of the most common assumptions about the beloved holiday.

Cordova will give a free gallery talk Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the first-floor galleries.

“There’s always been a struggle over Day of the Dead,” Cordova said, which began as a competition between invading Spanish colonialists and indigenous Aztecs, continued through the Mexican Revolution, and exists today between the origins, traditions, and more recent commercialization of the holiday.

To tell the story of what Cordova admits is an “extremely complex” subject, he chose 100 works of art by 50 artists from Mexico, the West Coast and other areas of the U.S., Texas, and San Antonio. Each artwork reveals aspects of how the various traditions and histories have mingled, been portrayed, and have misunderstood and regarded each other.

Ruben Cordova

Mexican Francophiles

The exhibition begins not with Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada’s now classic 1913 “Catrina” image of a lady skeleton donning an ornately plumed hat, but with a print by Mexican artist Manuel Manilla depicting an Eiffel Tower made of skeletons standing on skulls.

Prior to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Cordova points out in his extensive label notes, “wealthy Mexicans spoke French, wore French clothes, ate French food, etc.” Manilla and Posada’s images satirized this Europhile taste of Mexican elites, one reason Posada was later adopted by revolutionaries as a consummate Mexican political artist.

“He was falsely thought of as a revolutionary artist, as an active political artist,” Cordova said, but “he’s really drawing on the whole ‘Dance of Death’ Catholic tradition.” Also known as Danse Macabre, images of dancing skeletons date back to a Paris church of 1425, and winged skulls and skeletons were common imagery in Catholic churches of Europe and the Americas. Such stark depictions of death arose in the wake of the sweeping plague that killed an estimated 50 million people, or 60 percent of the European population of the time.

Such memento mori (remembrance of death) images make the point that “death is inevitable, and nothing on earth matters in comparison to the eternal life of Heaven or the eternal life of Hell,” Cordova writes in the label notes.

In short, “Day of the dead is mostly Catholic. … There’s hardly anything that’s indigenous at all that survived” the savage Spanish repression of Aztec and other indigenous traditions, Cordova said.

In an influential 1957 film focused on Day of the Dead celebrations and shot in rural Mexico, noted designers and filmmakers Charles and Ray Eames framed the cultural collision in gentler terms: “These ancient things of this land were joined over the centuries with the Spanish celebration of All Souls. Together they form a universal festival of many facets and many dimensions.”

However, some enduring facets of Day of the Dead can be traced to the Aztecs, Cordova noted, in particular a reverence for the dead and close relationships with ancestors.

Aztecs buried their dead under their homes, he explained. “There was a social contract and understanding that life and death were part of the same thing, that they were deeply and closely interrelated, and that you needed help from the dead and a kind of communion with the dead to have fertile crops, to have good fortune. It was a way of paying respect all the time, not one day a year.”

Two 20-day Aztec celebrations dedicated to the dead were quashed by the Spanish, who were “determined to eradicate indigenous religions, which they regarded as Satanic,” Cordova said. Consequently, remnants of these belief systems could only survive in covert form, he said, under the cover of Spanish Catholic traditions, conventions, and observances.

The formerly nomadic Aztec tribes coalesced into a civilization in the 1300s, and flowering for a mere few decades before the colonial conquest of 1521. The subsequent violent suppression of indigenous peoples likely equaled the psychological impact of the Black Plague, Cordova said, resulting in a similar acceptance of the closeness of death – though with a much different attitude than the colonialists. 

“The idea of life and death, and two religions meeting, and how the product of these religions is presented is a really fascinating story, and a challenging one to both understand and to present to the public,” he said.

A demonstration on how to arrange and assemble an altar greets guests at Centro de Artes.

Myth-busting

Cordova selected a 1990 painting by San Antonio artist César Martínez that mashes up Aztec death goddess Coatlicue with the Virgin of Guadalupe, titled Reinvented Icon for This Time and Place. Martinez renders both religions as reprehensibly bloodthirsty and violent, quoted as saying “Sacrifice, torture, bloodletting, and persecution are the staples of Mesoamerican and Christian religions and … tools for the manipulation of its subjects, the god-fearing masses.”

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Cordova is also intent on busting other myths surrounding Posada, who he said was not political and not particularly interested in indigenous art, and any resemblance between his calaveras and Aztec skulls was incidental. Mexican muralist Diego Rivera revived the Posada Catrina in a famous painting of 1948, A Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, endowing her with indigenous characteristics.

Rivera’s Catrina is what has made her a lasting image of authentic Mexican culture, Cordova said, though rather than satirizing Europhilia as Posada intended, modern-day Catrinas celebrate its elegance and overt displays of wealth.

Day of the Dead, in all its macabre pageantry, became a natural subject for artists. Cordova included a striking 1987 monoprint portrait by California printmaker Margaret Garcia titled El Espanto (Fright or Dismay) that interposes a skull over a living face. In the mid-1980s, Garcia curated Day of the Dead exhibitions for Self Help Graphics in Los Angeles, which is credited with starting formal public Day of the Dead celebrations in the U.S.

Next to the Garcia print is a monoprint by Wayne Healy, a student of Garcia’s, that portrays a conquistador helmet-wearing skull looming over an Aztec monument in flames. Along with communicating Day of the Dead traditions, artists confronted the near-total loss of indigenous history during the colonial period, Cordova said.

Still, Self Help Graphics and artists it inspired pioneered a means for Chicano communities to publicly explore their complex heritage. Healy is also present in an exhibition on the second floor of Centro de Artes dedicated to the legacy of Self Help Graphics in inspiring Latino artists to embrace their cultural identities.

As Garcia once said, quoted on the wall label accompanying her monoprint, “[Day of the Dead] … is a contribution our people, our community, makes to American society so no one has to mourn alone.”

Concurrent exhibitions Day of the Dead in Art and Día de los Muertos: A Cultural Legacy, Past, Present & Future, presented by Self Help Graphics are on display at Centro de Artes now through Jan. 19. Both are free and open to the public.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...