Day of the Dead comes to life at Penn Museum
The Day of the Dead or “Día de los Muertos,” celebrated Oct. 31, will bring to life a celebration of Mexican tradition to the Penn Museum, including an array of altars to remember those who are no longer with us, among them Mexican painter and muralist Rufino Tamayo.
Guests will be able to walk among giant puppets of La Catrina, decorate their own sugar skulls, and sample traditional food like “pan de muerto” and spicy hot chocolate, Maya style. All while enjoying performances by the Cenzontle Cuicatl Aztec Dance Crew, the Ballet Folklorico Yaretzi, and the music of local mariachi singer Pedro Villaseñor.
Philadelphia artist and muralist Cesar Viveros will create a painting in honor of Mexican muralist Rufino Tamayo (1899 – 1991) for the centerpiece altar created by Mexican Consulate personnel, while a variety of groups will create their own altars with food and flowers offerings, and compete for the best one, and guests can bring a photo of their own to place at a communal altar.
“I wanted to honor one of the greatest Mexican artists. He is from the Zapotec region of Oaxaca, one of the biggest places where they celebrate Day of the Dead, so it made a lot of sense to dedicate this altar to him,” Viveros said. “For me it’s very personal because I believe I’ve been very influenced by his art, especially his use of colors, metaphors and indigenous motifs.”
He added that while the work of other Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco is very political — and also better known — Tamayo’s works are more personal and influenced by his indigenous roots.
“Everybody knows Diego and Frida but I wanted to honor Tamayo so people wonder who he is and we can have the opportunity to talk about his work,” said Viveros, who recently gained international acclaim for his mural for the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia. With more than 2,700 people contributing to the mural — including the pope — the piece set a Guinness World Record for most contributions to a painting by numbers.
While the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead is increasingly enjoyed in more places throughout the world, Viveros said that is is important to preserve its true meaning.
“This is a very rooted tradition that has been celebrated in Mexico for millennia so it is our job to preserve it and take it to more places,” said Viveros about the celebration that has its origins in beliefs and activities of the indigenous people of Mexico, as well as Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
According to Ana Flores, Executive Director of the Mexican Cultural Center, the Day of the Dead celebration “represents a continuum between cultural pre-Hispanic manifestations and the modern Mexico which absorbs its past and incorporates it into its present”.
“It is important for Mexican-American children to preserve their heritage by participating in these types of events and to proudly share it with the rest of the community,” she added.
According to Viveros, thanks to the the growing Mexican population in Philadelphia, the Day of the Dead celebration has become a part of the mainstream in the city. However, he warned that there is a risk of cultural appropriation, distortion and commercialization in the same way that it has occurred with Cinco de Mayo — mistakenly believed by many in the United States to be Mexico's Independence Day instead of the commemoration of the Mexican army's unlikely victory over French forces in 1862.
“It doesn't matter where you’re from; what really matters is that you understand the tradition,” Viveros said.
The Day of the Dead Celebration at the Penn Museum, organized in conjunction with the Mexican Cultural Center and the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia, will take place Saturday, Oct. 31, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.