Sunday, October 28, 2007

"Catrinas" and Skeletons: Mocking Death in Mexican Culture

By Tracy Novinger

[Double click on an image for larger view.]

There does not seem to be any culture in the world that burlesques death as does Mexico. In Mexican folk art, death is seen as the other half of life and is a common motif. In fact, representations of skulls and skeletons are so common to the artist’s and artisan’s world that they have practically become synonymous with Mexican culture.

Europeans and Americans hate to be reminded of the brevity of life. However, the perception of death is a different and complex blend of indigenous and Spanish influences in Mexico. For most Mexicans, the psychic burden of life is in its anguish—the exposure, with insufficient defense, to danger and to evil. Mexico’s Indians perceived (and must still perceive) life as suffering, where the submissive and weak are permanent victims of the strong. Torture was felt as something very personal, and the martyrdom that man inflicts on man is a profound experience in the Indian’s sentimental world. Consequently and in this context, over centuries, indigenous and mestizo artists have passionately depicted the crucified Christ’s suffering and bleeding in a thousand terrifying ways, creating a Mexican colonial Christ of specifically Mexican sensibility.* Moreover, images of skulls and skeletons are found abundantly in Mexico’s pre-Columbian indigenous artifacts.

More recently, however, since the late 19th century, motifs representing death have frequently been used in arts and crafts in a more light-hearted, mocking manner, perhaps as a way of coping with an otherwise unbearable concept. One uniquely Mexican creation to emerge has been the Catrinas. At first glance, these figures of skeletons dressed in outrageous clothing put off and shock many. The skeleton Catrinas originated with Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), who published scathingly humorous portraits of society in Mexico City; anyone was fair game. His Catrinas were dressed in elegant European finery, adorned with wide-brimmed, feathered hats. This image parodied wealthy Mexican women of the time, who overdressed amid the poverty of the majority of Mexicans. Posada’s Catrinas, in fact, depict death as the great equalizer: all persons in the end are reduced to bones, rich and poor, powerful and powerless alike. Mexico’s lighthearted depiction of death serves to remind us of the inevitable for all. The Catrinas are one of the most whimsical art forms Mexico has to offer.

*Westheim, Paul. La Calavera, fondo de Cultura Económica (Breviarios), México, 1996. En: Artes de México, Revista Libro Número 67, Primera Edición, 2003. Fundada en 1953 por Miguel Salas Anzures y Vicente Rojo. Pp 80-81 Westheim, Paul. La Calavera, fondo de Cultura Económica (Breviarios), México, 1996. En: Artes de México, Revista Libro Número 67, Primera Edición, 2003. Fundada en 1953 por Miguel Salas Anzures y Vicente Rojo, pp 80-81.

All photos were taken in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico at time of Noche de Muertos/Night of the Dead celebrations.

Artisans and Crafts on the Plaza Grande, Patzcuaro

Noche de Muertos (Night of the Dead) celebrations, Patzcuaro: In just a few days, the tianguis on the Plaza Grande of Patzcuaro has come to life. Crafts of all materials and people from everywhere will find love at first sight.

Life at La Jacaranda - Pátzcuaro

Mid-afternoon comida on the back veranda, then, in the evening, watching the flames dance in the rose cantera fireplace.
Glen Novinger and Tracy Novinger have built a few unique, colonial homes using traditional materials in the Historic Center of Patzcuaro. These homes are for sale:

Friday, October 26, 2007

In Memoriam: Pedro Berdión

Pedro Berdión of Austin, in his prime and without warning, was lost to his family and friends on October 24, 2007, and is being interred today. We will miss this warm, gracious and upstanding man so very much. Pedro, amigo querido, we hold you close in our hearts.

Altars and Offerings for Night of the Dead

In Patzcuaro, one can now see altars and offerings here and there as they are being set up for the approaching Night of the Dead (Noche de Muertos). They are often decorated with photographs of the deceased, as well as personal items, such as glasses or a hat. They may proffer the departed's favorite foods and beverages. For a person deceased in recent years, an arch is built. The arch is then taken to the cemetery and placed on the grave on Noche de Muertos. Each Purhepecha pueblo has a distinctive style for its altars, offerings and the decoration of the grave. Viewing the altars and keeping vigil graveside is certainly bitter-sweet, but the predominant mood is one of remembrance and togetherness, more than of desolation and grief.

[Double click on photos to see larger image.]

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Flowers for Noche de Muertos

A profusion of color fills the streets of Patzcuaro during the week preceding the celebration of Noche de Muertos (Night of the Dead). Flowers harvested from fields of blazing color are delivered by the truckload to sell. Stalls line Calle Serrato on the south side of Plaza de la Basílica. Here one can stroll through throngs of people and a symphony of bright colors. The brilliant yellow-orange of the zempasuchitl, a species of marigold, is the predominant note. Perfumed rivers of its pungent-sweet scent stream through the air. People buy, load and cart away their cargos of blossoms to prepare altars and cemeteries for the night when they remember and commune with their departed loved ones. In the Patzcuaro Lake region, because of Purhepecha indigenous tradition, Noche de Muertos is celebrated, in contrast to Day of the Dead celebrations in most of Mexico.

[Double click on a photo for larger view.]

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sweets for Night of the Dead

Preparations are beginning for observance of Night of the Dead (the night that dawns on November 1st), an important event in the Pátzcuaro area. Erection of the tianguis is underway on the Plaza Grande, where handcrafts of all types and materials will soon be displayed for sale. There will be contests for the best artesanías.
During the week preceding Noche de Muertos, sugar and chocolate confections of myriad shapes and colors are sold on Patzcuaro's Plaza Vasco de Quiroga. Women sit and decorate the sweets by hand. Children are regaled with their names tenderly painted across the foreheads of little candy skulls. These dulces are also offered to loved ones, recently and long deceased, by placing them on altars and on graves decorated to please and entice the departed souls to return to commune with the living.

The sweets have already arrived.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The rainy season in Pátzcuaro usually starts around mid-May and ends by mid-September. Then we typically get bright, dry, and sunny days with daytime temperatures from 70F to 80F. This year, however, the rains seem to keep coming back sporadically. For several days we have had rain on and off, plus sudden and torrential downpours. Yesterday afternoon I needed a boat to get in and out of La Jacaranda. It rained all night with lightning and thunder and this afternoon my long wool sweater feels delicious, and so does the warmth from our fireplace.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Isabel Álvarez – Singer, Composer & Pianist

Spanish-Galician singer Isabel Álvarez performed last night at the ex-Colegio Jesuita in Pátzcuaro. This diminutive artist from Vigo has a rich and melodic voice and she sang with the warmth and expressiveness of her Iberian heritage. It was a pleasure to hear this young (21 years old), classically trained musician present her own compositions. She has great stage presence and is very easy on the ears. ONCE (Spanish National Organization of the Blind) has sponsored a number of her concerts. published the following, in Gallego: “Voz melódica, versátil, prendada de frescura...interprétanos cancións orixinais ó piano abarcando unha ampla temática de cotiá actualidade capaz de deleitarnos inesperadamente e invitarnos a reflexionar, a escoltar e a disfrutar”, han dicho de ella los críticos.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

An Argentine Sean Connery on the Bandoneon in Patzcuaro

An Argentine Sean Connery graced the stage of the Teatro Caltzontzin in Patzcuaro tonight, wrapped in the persona of bandoneon player Rodolfo Mederos. With guitar and contrabass players, the trio first bathed us in arrangements of a mellow tango jazz sound. They then shot out the dramatic staccato notes of traditional tango, straightening backs and sharpening gestures into geometrical angles in the audience. The simpatico Mederos charmed spectators with stories of growing up steeped in the sounds of tango.

This performance in Patzcuaro was an extension of the 35th Festival Internacional Cervantino in Morelia, offered free to a full house, which included at least three Argentines who reside in this colonial pueblo. Last week, Patzcuaro had a week of free cinema, as an extension of Morelia’s film festival. These are some of the pleasures of living in Patzcuaro.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Waterfalls of Tzararacua, Michoacan, Mexico

We brunched at the Restaurante Mansion del Cupatitzio and drove south of Uruapan ten kms for our first visit to the waterfalls of Tzararacua.

The vegetation was beautiful as we descended on hewn stone steps from the parking lot about one km down to the waterfalls and the Rio Cupatitzio.

At the falls we found a tirolesa, so I just had to scream--figuratively, not literally--across the river on the zip line (a harness suspended from a cable).

Tzararacua is beautiful. We will go back again and take a picnic…

Restaurant La Mansion del Cupatitzio, Uruapan, Mexico

Sunday Morning

We were hungry for the bountiful Mexican buffet brunch at Restaurant La Mansion del Cupatitzio in Uruapan. So on a cool misty morning in the highlands of Michoacan, we left Patzcuaro to descend some 3,000 ft. to Uruapan, at the beginning of the hot country. Uruapan is at altitude of some 4200 ft. Half-way through the one hour drive we were in bright sunshine, admiring mountains and avocado orchards.

We brunched at an outside table in the flowered gardens of La Mansion del Cupatitzio, watching butterflies and listening to the plaintive, descending serenade of a jilguero, longing to fly from its cage.

In addition to the offerings of the buffet, one can select omelettes and taquitos made to order. I had fresh, steaming taquitos of huitlacoche--Mexican corn truffles.

After strolling through the grounds, we left for the waterfalls of Tzararacua, ten kms south of Uruapan.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Virile Apache Meat?

I saw a Patzcuaro food vendor today with a sign on his cart touting: Carne Apache Viril. So what is Apache Meat, I wondered.

Does virile meat come from a bull as opposed to a steer?

In fact, the vendor sells tacos made with lime-marinated raw chopped beef.

To build virile, macho men, no doubt. All you bold ones, step up to the plate of raw meat from a street cart.

Monday, October 8, 2007

In the Garden at La Jacaranda, Patzcuaro

Arriving at night, we are greeted by magnificent floripondios (datura) that flourish just outside our bedroom. Their scent wafts in through the window at night. This perfume is said to make one sleep more deeply...a Patzcuaro soporific.

The flowering maple is covered with hundreds of small flowers that hang like bells. The humming birds favor these blossoms over all others in our garden.

After the summer rains, wildflowers blanket the countryside. The faces of these mirasoles (cosmos) in adoration follow the sun.