November 2, 2014

Monarchs & Marigolds

In receDay of the Dead butterfly releasent years, colleges across the country have to come value the role learning communities may play in students’ education. Learning communities work across disciplines and across different courses to allow for dialogue and connections to be made that might not happen in the more narrow confines of one classroom alone.

Learning communities also focus on interactive experiences as much as traditional “book learning.” Some colleges and universities that have dormitories even organize learning communities around where students live as a way of not only encouraging better learning but also of building stronger campus spirit.

In the Fall 2014 semester, I am teaching three different Humanities courses: Humanities of the Americas, Humanities of the 20th Century and Humanities Forum (Special Topic: Medicine and the Body). Among many different topics, each of these courses includes an interdisciplinary unit centered around the cultural celebrations from Mexico and parts of Central America known as Días de Los Muertos – Days of the Dead – as way to explore intersecting concepts between all three of the above courses and to develop a shared learning community.

In addition to learning the history of this celebration and the cultural values it attempts to express, the learning community explores the following questions together:

  • How do different cultures recognize the loss of human life?
  • To what degree is that loss public or private?
  • What is the role of religious or spiritual belief(s) in how we understand and respond to death?
  • How do we respect differences in our views of death, loss and grief?
  • How have these cultural practices changed over time, particularly in light of our “modern” and/or “globalized” world today?
  • What is the responsibility of communities or local institutions to its members who are bereaved?

Any and all faith and non-faith traditions are respected and valued in this learning community. It is neither a requirement nor an expectation to believe in any of the aspects of the celebration in order to engage in shared learning. Just as we may visit a museum and see art or historical objects from different eras, cultures and belief systems, we may observe and reflect on some of the art and cultural traditions we will discover through this learning experience.

On a more personal note, this learning community is inspired by the loss of a student last semester. Through conversations with colleagues, we realized that our college does not have any active traditions, however simple or perfunctory, to recognize this kind of loss and to help support faculty, staff and other students who may be grieving. Therefore, it became important to me to offer an educational way for us all to express respectful recognition of the loss that happens in each of our lives.

Grief has its own timetable and losses that occurred even decades ago remain important to us. Sometimes it seems as though in trying to respect our differences, we end up being so private and divided about these big things in life that we miss the opportunity to share basic human experiences that we all go through and that matter to each of us, even this importance manifests in different ways.

Origins of the Days of the Dead celebrations may be traced back to Mesoamerica, a regional term that encompasses Aztec, Maya, Olmec and Toltec peoples. Shared beliefs across these cultures accepted the possibility of communication and interaction between the realms of the living and the dead. Honoring the deceased, by making an offering at their place of burial for example, was an ongoing part of Mesoamerican life and not restricted to one day.

Like many indigenous traditions, the cultural celebrations around death began to shift with the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s and became infused with visual and spiritual tropes of Catholicism. The Spanish redirected indigenous rituals for the dead to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd). This cultural intermixing continued even after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821.

The Mexican government of the early 1900s encouraged the celebration of the Days of the Dead to revitalize a sense of national identity and to encourage unity. This political gesture was met somewhat disdainfully even though the cultural practice of celebrating Days of the Dead continued. Today, the cultural expressions associated with Days of the Dead have gone through centuries of cultural evolution in spiritual as well as practical ways, including moving from a reliance on organic “folk” materials to the incorporation of pre-purchased goods and mass-produced trinkets.  However, respect for deceased family, friends (and in some cases pets) remains at the core of the celebration – and a willingness to do so artfully and joyfully.

One of the most noticeable cultural expressions associated with the Days of the Dead is the construction of ofrendas, memorial altars often adorned with white tablecloths and layered with fruit, flowers, candles, intricately-cut colored papers and other culturally, religiously or personally significant memorial objects. The scale of ofrendas varies, with many communities having common public squares filled with many ofrendas during the celebrations; ofrendas also will be created at cemeteries or on a smaller scale in family homes.

Cajitas also may be placed on an ofrenda or may serve as small ofrendas themselves inside a home. Cajitas are small boxes presenting dioramas or retablos as tributes to the deceased and function as traveling altars. Simple cajitas are small painted boxes with clear fronts that display three-dimensional tributes to the deceased, frequently represented as calaveras costumed in clothes related to his or her life and with accessories from his or her hobbies and pleasures; more complex cajitas may have wooden or metal doors that fold out to reveal a multi-paneled diorama.

The main cajita at the ofrenda created by the learning community honors the animal species of North America that have gone extinct as a result of colonization and modernization, in particular “Martha,” the last passenger pigeon who died in captivity almost exactly 100 years ago. Birds are of particular spiritual significance to me personally and the extinction of birds like the passenger pigeon that once appeared in vast numbers across the continent seems all too potent a symbol for the wider consequences of colonialism on peoples and cultures of the Americas.

By setting the landscape of the ofrenda as grounded in the natural world, this memorial altar provides an open canvas for anyone on campus to remember and celebrate particular human losses in their lives. Also at the center of our ofrenda is a mesh container holding two living monarch butterflies, a common cultural symbol associated with Days of the Dead and also a living reminder of current threats of species extinction.

In 2014 the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History opened an on-going exhibit about animal species that have gone extinct in North America called Once There Were Billions.

Perhaps the most famous extinct species from North America is the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Prior to and during the period of westward expansion, massive flocks of passenger pigeons filled the skies across the Midwest, sometimes darkening the sky due to their vast number. Sadly, passenger pigeons were over-hunted and as the turn of the 20th century neared, the species became lost to the planet.  A now infamous scene of a ruthless mass pigeon shoot is captured in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel O Pioneers. John James Audubon’s monumental Birds of America also captures a historic image of the species before its extinction. The last surviving member of the species, known as “Martha,” lived in the Cincinnati Zoo, which recently remembered the centennial anniversary of her – and her species – passing in 1914.

To commemorate this centennial, the Smithsonian launched a visitor-participation art project “Fold the Flock” to recreate the great flocks of passenger pigeons that once traversed the continent. “Fold the Flock” invites visitors to create origami passenger pigeons and submit them either in person or electronically to the website: www.foldtheflock.org. As of October 25, 2014, visitors had created over one million origami passenger pigeons, exceeding the museum’s goal of gathering one million contributions before the end of 2014.

Our ofrenda on campus also is adorned with professional papel picado samples also as well as beginners’ attempts at the craft by students. The professional papel picado was made by hand in Pueblo, Mexico by master artist Sr. Reynoso and purchased through MexicanSugarSkull.com.

Papel picado (“punctured” or “perforated” paper) is made by making cuts through dozens of layers of tissue paper stacked on top of each other with hand chisels. The small steel chisels are positioned for each cut and then hit with a hammer, cutting through the layers of tissue paper making multiple copies of the same image in different colors. This technique is traced to the 18th century when Mexico began to import paper from China; indeed, the Spanish term for tissue paper continues to be “papel china” in many regions.

Papel picado is frequently strung in banners with multiple images yet larger examples of the paper art, longer in length, also may be hung by themselves such as in a back drop to an altar or as part of a market display. For the Days of the Dead, images include La Catrina and calaveras novios (bride and groom skeletons) as well as butterflies, flowers, birds and the sun. Tissue paper remains the favored material, although metallic papers and mylar (plastic) also are used in modern papel picado. Additionally, the art form is not solely for the Days of the Dead. Various designs of papel picado are used at weddings and other major religious holidays, such as Christmas and the Virgin of Guadalupe’s birthday (celebrated on December 12th), or secular festivals, such as Cinco de Mayo. Papel picado also may be fashioned into small flags called banderitas.

The Days of the Dead coincides with the arrival of thousands of monarch butterflies to central and southern Mexico at the end of their annual migration – or at least it used to. In 2013, the natural cycles that seemed to repeat like clockwork appear to have changed.[1]  Scientists hypothesize that environmental factors such as climate change, habitat loss, the increased use of herbicides and genetically modified core crops (which are resistant to less toxic herbicides) have severely interrupted the butterflies’ migration with devastating effect.[2]

Guggenheim Fellow Sue Halpern, who wrote Four Wings and A Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly in 2002, recently followed up on the phenomenon in two August 2014 blog posts at Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish: “By all accounts, the 21st century has not been kind to monarch butterflies in North America. The orange-and-black creatures, who make a remarkable 3500 mile migration from Canada, through the United States, to the Transvolcanic Mountains of Mexico where they spend the winter, have seen a 90 percent decline in population.”

Because of the natural coincidence of the monarch butterflies arrival around the Days of the Dead, the butterflies have been associated with the spirit world. (Indeed, many creatures of flight have been in a number of cultures and butterflies in particular due to their “death” as caterpillars and emergence from chrysalises seemingly in more spiritual form.) With the color resonance with marigolds as well, incorporating monarch butterflies into the Days of the Dead displays has become an additional layer to the symbology of ofrendas and other Days of the Dead displays.

The World Wildlife Fund has established a campaign to raise awareness and to support efforts to protect the now threatened species. In August 2014, three environmental groups collaborated to formally petition the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services to recognize the monarch butterfly as an endangered species; however, this process may take several years and is not guaranteed success.

All members of the campus community may visit and contribute to the ofrenda created together by my Humanities students. Additionally, educational information about the , including art history of the famous calavera prints by José Guadalupe Posada and readings from Nobel Laureates in Literature from the Americas.

A reception will be held on Friday, October 31st where visitors may sample pan de muerto, the common bread baked for the Days of the Dead, also traditionally features a pattern of bones made from shaped or twisted dough on the top of the bread, and various agua frescas, popular fruit-flavored nonalcoholic drinks enjoyed throughout the year in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Please join us.

Photo credit: Holly Masturzo (2014)


[1] “The Year the Butterflies Didn’t Appear.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/sunday-review/the-year-the-monarch-didnt-appear.html?_r=0

[2] See “Climate Change Herbicide May Doom Monarch Butterfly Migration”

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-herbicide-may-doom-monarch-butterfly-migration/ and also, “Monarch Butterfly Numbers Drop to Lowest Levels Since Records Started”