The Day of the Dead (or Día de Los Muertos), is undoubtedly one of the better-known and best-preserved Mexican traditions, even protected by the UNESCO through its inclusion into the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. However, the tradition had not always been so ingrained in Mexican culture. Prior to the 21st century, when the Mexican government deemed it a national holiday, the sacred day had been scattered throughout the country, practiced in parts by certain indigenous groups and seen as tentatively polarizing by the Catholic church for its veneration of the dead. But the Day of the Dead is neither pagan nor particularly attached to a religion, rather, it is a commemoration of the dead and a celebration to them — a two-day festivity wherein those who have passed can return to the physical world and feast on the food, drink, and other offerings that are laid out on the altar de muertos by the spirits’ loved ones.
Inspired by rich Oaxacan traditions, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) was brought to East Los Angeles in the 1970s as a way to enrich and reclaim Chicano identity. Learn more about this sacred tradition on “Artbound.” Watch now.
For the Chicano communities of Los Angeles, celebrating the Day of the Dead means celebrating a broader culture; about merging the unique aspects of being a Latinx in California, while preserving their Mexican heritage. The preservation and cultural impact of Day of the Dead is in large part attributed to Self Help Graphics & Art, which describes itself as “an organization rooted in community; and since 1973, have been at the intersection of arts and social justice, providing a home that fosters the creativity and development of local artists.” Self Help, located in the Arts District, played a pivotal part in reinstituting the Day of the Dead in California as a “Mexican-American reclamation of indigenous identity, an important social aspect of the Chicano Movement.” For over four decades, Self Help has not only helped organize the massive celebrations that take place in Grand Park but, from August to November, they also organize community activities, where people can get together to learn and create offerings to use for their altars before the festivities take place.
Self Help has also become emblematic of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Los Angeles through their yearly commemorative limited-edition fine art serigraph that is used to promote the occasion and highlight an artist’s work. To learn more about some of the past serigraphs we talked to Betty Avila, Executive Director at Self Help Graphics & Art (and native Angeleno), who gave us some detailed insight into the work.
“La Pistolera” by Frank Romero (undated)
The tangible urgency in Frank Romero’s artwork comes from a sighting. As Avila explains, Frank’s piece was not a Día de Los Muertos print, “but was inspired by Frank attending one of our celebrations” where he spotted an attendee dressed up as a gunslinging catrina. “It is very representative of the style of dress some of our attendees take on for the event and the performative aspect of participation in our celebration.”
When asked about Chicano legacy, Romero told the Los Angeles Times, “In those days, we were “Mexican American.” White people often would call me “Spanish.” If you were more liberal, you were Mexican American. The whole idea of being Chicano was very radical.”
“Día de Los Muertos” by Leonard Castellanos (1976)
“Untitled” by John Valadez (1977)
“Untitled, Día de Los Muertos” by Linda Vallejo (1977)
“These prints are the first three from our PST:LA/LA exhibition that detailed the history of Día de Los Muertos at Self Help (they were installed chronologically),” explains Avila about Leonard Castellanos, John Valadez and Linda Vallejo’s prints. “They are evidence of the way the Chicano community of East L.A. was working through the aesthetics of this new gathering.”
These prints were created three and four years, respectively, after the first Day of the Dead Self Help celebration. All three artists are Los Angeles natives, and even though their styles are different, their identity as Chicano artists who produce work that nods to their heritage makes for an interesting grouping.
“The Castellanos print is closer to a 1970s rock concert poster than to anything we’d associate with Día de Los Muertos s,” explains Avila, making note of the stylized calavera that looks more like an image that could be found at a Grateful Dead concert (another California emblem!) than at a traditional Day of the Dead celebration. However, that is what makes this print so encapsulating, as Castellano’s take brought together different cultural iconographies to represent the modern world at the time — rock and roll, California and Mexican traditions.
Of Valadez and Vallejo’s prints, Avila explains, “The Valadez print brings in Catholic iconography and Linda’s print is exploring the indigenismo that was an important element of the Chicano identity.” Mexican culture, dually Catholic as well as Indigenous, is represented in its broad spectrum here, with Valadez’s Catholic print, while also harkening to classic tattoo culture through the integration of roses — another aspect of Chicano identity. Vallejo’s print nods more towards the classic representation of Day of the Dead, as her use of negative space elicits the idea of “papel picado.”
“The Four Seasons” by Alfredo de Batuc (1979)
Alfredo de Batuc’s print pays homage to cholx culture by representing a man and a woman drinking and embracing underneath a banner that translates into “Long live life, long live love, may death die.” The four corners have a skull for each season of the years, and they are adorned with symbols pertaining to each: flowers for spring, leaves for summer, maize for fall, and snow for winter, which represents the cycle of life and death and its never-ending loop.
“What I wanted to do was reflect some Mexican spirit into those prints,” de Batuc told Self Help, explaining the celebratory cholx calaveras that are centerfold to his print. Calavera, aside from meaning “skull,” is also the name to poems that are a big part of the Day of the Dead tradition, where the dead are celebrated and death is taunted in a respectful way — the Catrina, another emblem of the tradition (an aristocratic-looking cadaver decked out in Colonial garb), is a frequent motif in these writings. By creating calaveras that are wearing contemporary clothes, de Batuc manages to both make reference to tradition, as well as representing Chicano culture of the time.
“Day of the Dead” by Leo Limon (1981)
Leo Limon has been a close collaborator of Self Help for decades, running the print shop and coming up with curriculum ideas for the community workshops. In 1981, he was commissioned to come up with an idea for a print that would also give leeway to hosting a workshop. As Limon recalls in an interview with Self Help, “I said, ‘I know what I can do! I could print an entire skull that [has the information], and then people can print it and punch holes.’” Thus, he created a collaborative effort between his idea and those in attendance, in the communal spirit of Self Help.
10th anniversary Day of the Dead print by Gronk (1982)
For the 10th anniversary of Self Help’s Day of the Dead, Angeleno artist Gronk (real name Glugio Nicandro), decided to commemorate the women he grew up seeing around him while making death a decorative accessory. “It’s a vibrant woman,” he told Self Help, “but on her ears are two little skull heads that hark back to the Day of the Dead … but mine look more like peanuts, so … they add a sense of almost glamour to this pictorial face.”
The done-up hair and exaggerated red lips are a tribute to “the women that I grew up with, like [Chicana artist] Patssi Valdez,” Gronk explains of the woman in his print. “I was taking that image of the familiar, of the people around me, and placing them into the image.”
“Dia de Los Muertos” by Artemio Rodriguez (1996)
A veteran collaborator of Self Help, “Rodriguez primarily works in black and white and is primarily inspired by woodcuts from medieval Europe and colonial Mexico and Mexican print artists like Jose Guadalupe Posada,” Avila tells us. His distinctive style also helps reinforce magical realism, which permeates Latin artwork from art, to literature, to music and dance. Magical realism, which blends reality and the surreal into a unique world of impossible possibilities, is a major factor in understanding the Day of the Dead celebrations, as it is a tradition that blends both the material world with the transcendent without needing as much explanation as it needs acceptance. “In these times, when technology dominates the way we live and see the world, when even the printed word has become almost obsolete;” Rodriguez tells Cinco Puntos of his work, “I feel a necessity to return to the way of seeing and living through the black and white of the carved and hand printed image.”
“25 Calakas” by José Ramírez (1998)
José Ramírez’ colorful art is informed by paying homage to his heritage as well as his career as an educator, where he uses his visual work as statements to highlight representations of his community, from celebrating its people to representing relevant socio-political issues. For his collaboration with Self Help in 1998, Ramirez paid homage to the 25th anniversary of the Day of the Dead celebration by painting “25 brightly colored calacas — one for each year celebrated — of our ancestors, family members and friends who have died.”
“These all show an evolution of this group of artists who are formulating something new. You also see with all three prints that they serve the dual function of event flyer with dates, times, locations, etc.” Avila continues, “There was a utility element to these prints as much as it was about a creative message. Valadez would say of his print that it was the first time he was paid to make art which is also on par with Self Help’s mission of providing ways for Chicano artists to live off their work.”
“Dia de los Germs” by Jaime “Germs” Zacarias (2005)
South L.A. native Jaime “Germs” Zacarias’ piece for Self Help not only shows his distinctive style, but it also seems to represent cultural duality between the traditions of Day of the Dead and Chicano street art. Zacarias represents Los Angeles through his stylized clouds, but beyond representing his native city, they also help put focus on the piece’s centerfold: a skull covered in a mask reminiscent of those worn by luchadores — another nod to the rich Mexican traditions that are important to preserve. By combining elements that elicit various aspects of Mexican culture (the Mayan-inspired background, the skull and the luchador mask) and street art influence, Zacarias’ piece spins history into modernity.
“Arte es Vida” by Daniel Gonzalez (2013)
For the 40th anniversary print, Daniel Gonzalez understandably felt pressured to represent the Day of the Dead appropriately. “How do I present all the facets?” He explains wondering to Self Help. “I wanted to create different media pieces that spoke to each…facet, including the spiritual side.” While there is a public celebration and commemoration of the dead, Gonzalez is sensitive to the fact that it can also be an emotional celebration and a very private one at that — it is, after all a tradition that brings those who have left into the focal view. “I wanted to give people the space for people to memorialize their dead, like maybe the dead that they can’t be with in Mexico, maybe the dead that died in the streets. For me, it was a challenge to tread between showing artwork related to it, but also creating a respectful space for the community to come and mourn and memorialize and celebrate people’s lives.”
Gonzalez used some of the inspiration that other artists used for their prints at Self Help. Papel picado is obvious both in the print’s shape and its use of negative space, but there is also a symbiosis present of Catholic symbols like the Virgen de Guadalupe, with various representations of indigenous symbols that are of equal importance to the conglomerate that is Mexican culture, such as eagles, which carries various deep meaning in its people’s history. The way that indigenous cultures merged with what the conquistas brought to the country
created a unique culture all of its own. This balance of both ideologies to create harmony is represented in Gonzalez’s print via a yin yang symbol. But this symbol of harmony can also represent the blend of Mexican traditions with Chicanx traditions to create its own balance, as well as the ultimate balance: life and death.
“Alice Bag” by Shizu Saldamando (2016)
“Shizu’s print connects back to her own practice through which she portrays unseen or invisible subcultures — punk, queer, goth, alternative scenes,” explains Avila, which is emblematic in this portrait Saldamando made of punk musician Alice Bag. For her print, Saldamando went for a single-color format, which accurately evokes her characteristic ballpoint pen style, and decided to make a portrait of the year’s headlining performer.
Similar to the other Self Help prints, Saldamando’s work is not just meant to serve an artistic function, but also an informative one. We see the details for the celebration, as well as seeing papel picado once again, which brings a traditional angle to a print that is meant to highlight the underground of Chicano identity. “My work is an investigation into different social constructs and subcultures seen through backyard parties, dance clubs, music shows, hang-out spots, and art receptions,” reads Saldamando’s artist statement. “By exploring subculture through personal narrative and employing an eclectic mix of materials, I hope to disarm fixed hierarchical social and artistic constructs.”