Thursday, November 24, 2011




Thanks and blessing be
to the Sun and the Earth
for this bread and this wine,
----this fruit, this meat, this salt,
---------------this food;
thanks be
and blessing to them
who prepare it, who serve it;
and blessing to them
who share it
and also the absent and the dead.)
and blessing to them who bring it
--------(may they not want),
to them who plant
and tend it,
and gather it
--------(may they not want);
and blessing to them who work
and blessing to them who cannot;
may they not want — for their hunger
------sours the wine
and robs the salt of its taste.
Thanks be for the sustenance
and strength
for our dance
and the work of justice, of peace.

----------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2011

(The Montserrat Review, Issue 6, Spring 2003
[nominated for the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Award];
author’s copyrights.)


Gracias y benditos sean
el Sol y la Tierra
por este pan y este vino,
-----esta fruta, esta carne, esta sal,
----------------este alimento;
gracias y bendiciones
a quienes lo preparan, lo sirven;
gracias y bendiciones
a quienes lo comparten
(y también a los ausentes y a los difuntos.)
Gracias y bendiciones a quienes lo traen
--------(que no les falte),
a quienes lo siembran y cultivan,
lo cosechan y lo recogen
-------(que no les falte);
gracias y bendiciones a los que trabajan
-------y bendiciones a los que no puedan;
que no les falte — su hambre
-----hace agrio el vino
-----------y le roba el gusto a la sal.
Gracias por el sustento y la fuerza
para nuestro bailar y nuestra labor
--------por la justicia y la paz.

---------------© Rafael Jesús González 2011

(The Montserrat Review, no. 6, primavera 2003
[postulado para el Premio de la Poesía por la Paz Hobblestock;
derechos reservados del autor.)

--- -

Monday, November 21, 2011




El arquero apunta a Júpiter,
----planeta de tantas lunas,
cuya luz se refleja en sus ancas,
y en la punta de topacio de su saeta
brota la llama inconstante del anhelo.
------En cadena de estaño
------lleva pectoral de turquesa
------bruñida de ensueños
---------y apunta
-------------------y apunta
---------y anhela herir al cielo.

----------------© Rafael Jesús González 2011


The archer points at Jupiter,
-----planet of many moons
whose light reflects on his haunches,
& on the topaz point of his arrow
bursts the inconstant flame of his desire.
------On a chain of tin
------he wears a medallion of turquoise
------polished by dreams
---------& he points
----------------------& he points
------& desires to wound the sky.

----------------© Rafael Jesús González 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


------------- To Occupy

---------(definition & declaration)

1. We are here to seize possession of

& maintain control over

----not the Earth, but the world

not by military conquest

but peaceably, without violence.

2. We are here to fill up;

-------------take time & space

to make known our grievances,

to say that the Earth & its riches

are for us all to share

(with our brothers & sisters, our relations

the other animals, the plants, the minerals),

that greed & lust for power over others,

over the Earth, are not virtues but sins,

that the fruits of what we produce

are ours to share.

3. We are here to dwell & reside in;

be tenants of the Earth & the world,

------a world of our creation

in which, as the great teachers have taught,

love is the greatest virtue,

root & source of justice

without which there can be no peace.

4. We are here to hold & fill

our office & position as citizens,

not only of this country, this empire,

------but of the world

in union with all who hold sacred

the Earth, one another,

our relations the other animals

the trees, the brush, the grass,

the air, the fire, the water, the soil.

5. We are here to engage, to employ,

& to busy ourselves with all peaceful means

to say that we will no longer stand idle

in the face of injustice & knavery,

in the face of perpetual war,

in the face of power that is used

only for the good of the few

at the expense of the rest

& of the Earth

------Yes, we are here to occupy,

-- ----& we will not go away.

-------------© Rafael Jesús González 2011

(to be appear in OCCUPY SF - poems from the movement anthology, 2012)

Arrest of Francisco "Pancho" Ramos-Stierle,

Oakland, California, November 14, 2011

----------------A Ocupar

----------(definición y declaración)

1. Aquí estamos para tomar posesión de

& mantener control sobre

------no la Tierra sino el mundo

no por conquista militar

sino apaciblemente, sin violencia.

2. Aquí estamos para llenar;

---------tomar tiempo y espacio

para hacer saber nuestras quejas,

para decir que la Tierra y sus riquezas

son de todos nosotros para compartir

(con nuestr@s herman@s, nuestra parentela

los otros animales, las plantas, los minerales);

que la codicia y el deseo del poder sobre otros,

sobre la Tierra, no son virtudes sino pecados,

que los frutos de lo que producimos

son nuestros para compartir.

3. Aquí estamos para habitar y residir en,

ser inquilinos de la Tierra y del mundo,

------un mundo de nuestra creación

en que como han enseñado l@s grandes maestr@s

el amar es la más grande virtud,

la raíz y fuente de la justicia

sin la cual no puede haber paz.

4. Aquí estamos para tener y llenar

nuestro puesto y posición como ciudadanos,

no sólo de este país, este emperio,

---- --sino del mundo

en unión con todos que tengan por sagrada

a la Tierra, los unos a los otros,

a nuestra parentela los otros animales,

a los árboles, los arbustos, las hierbas,

al aire, al fuego, al agua, a la tierra.

5. Aquí estamos para empeñarnos, emplearnos,

y dedicarnos con todos medios pacíficos

para decir que ya no nos quedaremos quietos

ante la injusticia y la bribonada,

ante guerra perpetua,

ante el poder que se usa

solamente para el bien de los cuantos

a costo de los demás

y de la Tierra.

------Sí, aquí estamos para ocupar,

----------y no nos iremos.

-------------© Rafael Jesús González 2011

(aparecerá en OCCUPY SF - antología de poemas del movimiento, 2012)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans Day


[Precious little has changed; the U.S. of A. is still in the quagmire of illegal, immoral, untenable war. We are still in Iraq, sinking more deeply in Afghanistan, unofficially involved in Pakistan. And in these times of financial breakdown, it is hardly brought up as an issue; it lies there like the putrefying body of an elephant, ignored and stinking to the high heavens while the politicians insist that funding for health care, education, social security, healing the Earth be cut when what we waste in war could cover all those expenses with more to spare. I take hope in that "Occupy Wall Street", "Occupy Oakland", "Occupy" wherever, is an indication that we are awaking from the nightmare that the "American Dream" has so long ignored.]

-Veterans Day

When the First World War officially ended June 28, 1919, the actual fighting had already stopped the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the previous year. Armistice Day, as it was known, later became a national holiday, and in 1954 (the year I graduated from high school), the name was changed to Veterans Day to honor all U.S. veterans of all wars.

The only veteran of that war, “the war to end all wars”, I ever knew was my father’s step-father Benjamín Armijo, from New Mexico, an old man who seldom spoke and whom I would on occasion see wearing his cap of The American Legion. (He was also Republican.)

“The war to end all wars” was anything but that and when I was not much more than five, three of my uncles on my mother’s side (Roberto, Armando, Enrique) went off to fight another war, the Second World War.

I missed my uncles and remembered them by their photos on my grandmother’s home altar, very handsome in their uniforms; in the endless rosaries and litanies the women in the family regularly met to pray; and in the three blue stars that hanged in the window.

My uncle Roberto, tío Beto, did not last his second year; he came home and ulcers and los nervios, nerves, were mentioned. My uncle Armando, tío Pana, in the Infantry division or the Cavalry Division (though not one horse was ever ridden into battle in that war), served in the Pacific Theater, and Guadalcanal is a name that in some way sticks in his history. My uncle Enrique, tío Kiki, the youngest, in the Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles,” served in the European Theater and parachuted into the taking of Germany.

After that war ended, they came home, tío Pana into a hospital, sick with malaria which affected him throughout the rest of his life; tío Kiki with a malady in the soul not so easily diagnosed, hidden in his quiet humor, gentle ways. All my uncles were gentle men, in all senses of the word. And Beto, Pana, Kiki spoke not at all about their experiences of war in spite of my curiosity and questions which they diverted with a little joke or change of subject. What they had seen, felt was apparently not to be spoken and the family sensed this and respected their reticence. Neither of them joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars that I ever knew.

The Korean War “broke out”, as they say, as if it were acne, not long after. But as for me, I have never fought in any war, though I joined the U. S. Navy upon graduating from El Paso High School to become a Hospital Corpsman and obtain the G.I. Bill with which to enter Pre-Med studies upon my discharge; two of four years in the Navy I spent in the Marine Corps with the rank of Staff Sergeant. The Korean War had already ended. And though I served closely enough to it to be given the Korea Defense Service Medal and am legally a veteran and eligible to join the VFW, I never did nor do I intend to.

If I consider myself veteran of any war, it would be of the Viet-Nam War, not because I fought in it, far from it, but because I struggled against it. (I counseled conscientious objectors, picketed recruiting offices, marched in the streets.) The war veterans I have most intimately known are from that war, many, if not most, wounded and ill in body (from bullets, shrapnel, agent-orange), wounded and ill in the soul (terror, guilt, shame, hatred putrefying their dreams, tainting their loves.)

I am leery of being asked to honor veterans of almost any war, except as I honor the suffering, the being of every man or woman who ever lived. I am sick of “patriotism” behind which so many scoundrels hide. I am sick of war that has stained almost every year of my life. Especially now, in the midst of yet another unjustified, immoral, illegal, untenable, cynical, cruel war our nation wages in Iraq, in Afghanistan. I am impatient with fools who ask whether I “support our troops.”

What does it mean to “support our troops”? What is a troop but a herd, a flock, a band? What is a troop but a group of actors whose duty it is not to reason why, but to do and die? In the years I served in the Navy and Marine Corps as a medic, I never took care of a troop; I took care of men who had been wounded and hurt, who cut themselves and bled, who suffered terrible blisters on their feet from long marches, who fell ill sick with high fevers. If to support means to carry the weight of, keep from falling, slipping, or sinking, give courage, faith, help, comfort, strengthen, provide for, bear, endure, tolerate, yes, I did, and do support all men and women unfortunate enough to go to war.

Troops, I do not. If to support means to give approval to, be in favor of, subscribe to, sanction, uphold, then I do not. The decision to make war was/is not theirs to make; troops are what those who make the decisions to war use (to kill and to be killed, to be brutalized into torturers) for their own ends, not for ours, certainly not for the sake of the men and woman who constitute the “troops.”

Indeed, I find the question whether I "support our troops" offensive, cynical, hypocritical given that we care so little for our veterans: so many are homeless; find no work; have little care for their wounds, physical and psychological; little for their addictions; many are in prison; many commit suicide. This acknowledged, the "patriotism" the question pretends is hollow and blind.

I honor veterans of war the only way in which I know how to honor: with compassion; with respect; with understanding for how they were/are used, misled, indoctrinated, coerced, wasted, hurt, abandoned; with tolerance for their beliefs and justifications; with efforts to see that their wounds, of body and of soul, are treated and healed, their suffering and sacrifice compensated. I never refuse requests for donations to any veterans’ organization that seeks benefits and services for veterans. I honor veterans, men and woman; not bands, not troops.

If you look to my window on this day, the flag you will see hanging there will be the rainbow flag of peace. It hangs there in honor of every veteran of any war of any time or place. Indoors, I will light a candle and burn sage, recommit myself to the struggle for justice and for peace. Such is the only way I know in which to honor the veterans (and victims) of war, military or civilian.

Berkeley, November 11, 2007

© Rafael Jesús González 2011

Universal Peace Flag

Thursday, November 10, 2011

full moon: What Does the Moon Seek?

--------------------¿Qué busca la luna?

¿Qué busca la luna
en los rincones?
¿Alguna cuenta perdida
de jade o de cornerina,
una perla extraviada?
¿secretos de la soledad
hechos de lanilla y polvo?
Cuando se mete por la ventana
¿qué busca en los libreros?
¿algún título olvidado
que merezca leerse otra vez?
¿tal vez un verso
que aliviara al corazón
cansado con amar?
Dime, luna ¿qué buscas
en los libreros,
--------las mesas,
------------los rincones?

----------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2011

-------------------What Does the Moon Seek?

What does the moon seek
in the corners?
Some lost bead
of jade or carnelian,
a wayward pearl?
The secrets of solitude
made of lint & dust?
When it comes through the window,
what does it seek in the bookcases?
Some forgotten title
that merits reading again?
Perhaps a verse
that would sooth the heart
tired with loving?
Tell me, moon, what do you seek
in the bookcases,
--------the tables,
-------------the corners?

------------© Rafael Jesús González 2011


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Feast of All Souls (Día de Muertos)

--Consejo para el peregrino a Mictlan

------------------------(al modo Nahua)

Cruza el campo amarillo de cempoales,
baja al reino de las sombras;
es amplio, es estrecho.
Interroga a los ancianos;
son sabios, son necios:
— Señores míos, Señoras mías,
¿Qué verdad dicen sus flores, sus cantos?
¿Son verdaderamente bellas, ricas sus plumas?
¿No es el oro sólo excremento de los dioses?
Sus jades, ¿son los más finos, los más verdes?
Su legado, ¿es tinta negra, tinta roja? —

Acepta sólo lo preciso:

-----lo que te haga amplio el corazón
--------lo que te ilumine el rostro.

-----------------------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2011

-----Advice for the Pilgrim to Mictlan

------------------- (in the Nahua mode)

Cross the yellow fields of marigolds,
descend to the realm of shadows;
it is wide, it is narrow.
Question the ancients;
they are wise, they are fools:

— My Lords, My Ladies,
What truth do your flowers, your songs tell?
Are your feathers truly lovely, truly rich?
Is not gold only the excrement of the gods?
Your jades, are they the finest, the most green?
Your legacy, is it black ink, red ink? —

Accept only the necessary:

-----what will widen your heart
----what will enlighten your face.

----------------------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2014

Descent to Mictlan, The Land of the Dead

(Trance Poem in the Nahua Mode)

[Descent to Mictlan, Land of the Dead: Trance Poem in the Nahua mode (commissioned by the Oakland Museum of California while the author was Poet in Residence under a Writers on Site award by Poets & Writers, Inc. and a grant from The James Irvine Foundation in 1996) was written as a performance piece for voice, drums, didgeridoos, and movement intended to guide the audience upon an introspective journey of the imagination down into the kingdom of Death.

It is not so much entertainment as it is ritual art which, with the consent of each person in the audience to give himself or herself to their imagination, would induce the heightened perception of trance to descend into our collective and personal past to examine the legacy of our ancestors. What they have given us, we have become. It may be read by the attentive reader in the same way.

The times demand that we take stock of who we are, for our great Mother the Earth is wounded and, to heal her, we must heal ourselves, learn from the wisdom of our forebears and discard their mistakes. And in return for what each brings back from the store house of the past, each must make a commitment, in good faith, to change and to heal ourselves; and to care for and protect the Earth, all that she bears, and each other in brotherhood and sisterhood of the spirit and of the flesh. It is a gift and a blessing. Any less and we risk our own extinction on the Earth.]

Cruzad el campo amarillo de cempoales.
Cross the yellow fields of marigolds.
Bajad al reino de las sombras — es amplio, es estrecho.
Descend to the realm of shadows — it is wide, it is narrow.

We come to the mouth of the cavern of caverns,
realm of Mictlantecuhtli, Mictlancihuatl,
Señor-Señora Muerte, Our Lord, Our Lady of Death —
It is wide, it is narrow;
pasad, enter this chamber of yellow blooms,
--------the cempoalxochitl, the shield flower,
------------flor de muertos, flower of the Dead.

We step, we walk;
-----we walk the sacred;
---------every step is sacred.
We walk in the tracks of our ancestors,
we step in the tracks of the old ones,
----our grandmothers, our grandfathers,
----the ancients:
--------the people of the drum
--------the people of the canoe
--------the people of the pyramids
--------the people of the spear
--------the people of the shuttle and loom
--------the people of the sickle and plow,
------------our ancient ones, all of the clans.
They taught us to see;
they taught us not to see;
-----from them we learned to see;
-----------we learned not to see.
They taught us to dream;
------they taught us to fear;
-----------much to learn, much to unlearn.
We step in their tracks, we step on the sacred.

We walk, we step in the tracks of our ancestors,
----our relations:
---------the ocelot
---------the buffalo
---------the coyote
---------the bear
---------the salmon, the serpent, the eagle, the hawk,
---------monkey, turtle, frog,
---------the owl and the bat.
Further, further we walk:
the spider, the moth, the fly, the coral, the mite,
ameba, paramecium, germ, virus - all of the clans.
They taught us to see, to live in the now,
------to smell, to taste,
------to hear, to live in the now.
We step in their tracks,
-----we walk on the sacred —
---------all our relations, all of the clans.

We walk, we step in the tracks of our ancestors,
our relations:
-----the fern, the redwood
-----the pine, the oak
-----the cactus, the mesquite
-----the violet, the rose
-----the fig, the grape-vine, the wheat
-----the corn, the thistle, the grass
-----the mushroom, the moss, the lichen, the algae,
-----the mold — all of the clans.
They taught us to touch, to fully delight in the here,
------to find contentment on the here.
We step in their tracks,
-----we walk on the sacred —
---------all our relations, all of the clans.

We walk, we step
-----in the tracks of our ancestors, our relations:
--------the granite, the sandstone
--------the jasper, the serpentine
--------the turquoise, the flint
--------the opal, the crystal
--------the agate, the jade
--------the gold, the iron
----the silver, the lead, the copper, the tin,
----boulder, pebble, sand, dust — all of the clans.
They taught us silence, quiet;
------they taught us to stay, to be.
We step in their track,
-----we walk on the sacred —
---------all our relations, all of the clans.

------It is dark; it is light —
here the roots of the Tree of Life,
------árbol de la vida, tree of Tamoanchan.
Look: wealth, treasure, our inheritance.
Look: teocuitatl, oro, gold, shit of the gods
-------chalchihuitl, jade, jade, the green stone
-------quetzalli, plumas, feathers, the precious things
-------xochitl, flores, the roots of flowers —
gifts and burdens,
------the useful, the hindering,
----------the dark medicine, the glittering poison.
Pick and choose: empowering joys there are,
--------------------useless sorrows there are;
needs true — clear and lovely as water
desires true — ruddy and joyous as wine;
--------needs false and deadly as arsenic
--------desires false and deadly as knives;
swords of jewels, plows muddied and dulled by stones;
--------dazzling powders, herbs rich in visions.
Choose and sort — it is not much you can carry.

Our ancestors, our relations make council; listen:

Much have our mothers, our fathers
-------our grandmothers, our grandfathers
-------our ancestors left us:
-----------gifts are there for our blessing
-----------debts are there for our curse.

Interroga a los ancianos — son sabios, son necios.
Question the ancients — they are wise, they are fools.

Señores míos, Señoras mías — my Lords, my Ladies,
---------¿Qué verdad dicen sus flores, sus cantos?
---------What truth do your flowers, your songs tell?
---------¿Són verdaderamente bellas, ricas sus plumas?
---------Are your feathers truly lovely, truly rich?
---------¿No es el oro sólo excremento de los dioses?
---------Is not gold only the excrement of the gods?
---------Sus jades, ¿son los más finos, los más verdes?
---------Your jades, are they the finest, the most green?
---------Su legado, ¿es tinta negra, tinta roja?
---------Your legacy, is it black ink, red ink?

They offer gifts, they give teachings:
------precious, worthless
------healing, dangerous —

sort, choose — choose the precious, the healing;
-----------------discard the worthless, the harmful;
------there is much to learn, there is much to unlearn.
Choose - each offers gifts, our ancestors, our relations —
---------human, animal, plant, mineral —
------------------they are us, our relations.
Choose and sort, sort and choose
---------these gifts are of the Earth, la Tierra
---------these gifts celebrate and nurture her
---------these gifts blaspheme and destroy her
---------------------These gifts are of the Earth.
Sort and choose, choose and sort.
-----The ancients are wise, the ancients are fools;
----------riches they gathered, garbage they hoarded.
Acepta sólo lo preciso; accept only the necessary:
--------lo que te haga amplio el corazón
--------what will widen your heart
--------lo que te ilumine el rostro
--------what will enlighten your face.
Pick and choose —
------hush —
--------------in silence sort and choose, sort and choose.

Hush —
----------Look carefully - have we chosen well?
the way back is hard, full of dread
----and much have our ancestors left us.
---------What of their gifts is worth the sharing?
----------------Consider well —
------------------------the gold and the jeweled sword
--------------------is not more than the work-dulled plow.
Consider, test your choice —
---------------------------------hush —
Tasks await us on the Earth for our healing, for hers —
-------difficult, great.
---------------Choose well for the journey, for the work.
hush —
----------------------joy is the root of our strength,
------------- the roots that feed us come from the heart
---------the science most wise disturbs least —

-----hush — hush — hush

So, we choose what we choose.
Remember: from these gifts we make our own;
--------------we add to the hoard.
-------Do not burden the children.
Do not carry so much we cannot hold each other’s hands.
----Remember: the most precious treasure
-----------------is that which we take for the giving.

We choose what we choose —
-----make ready — take up your bundle,
-----the seeds of our making - it is light, it is heavy;
-----precious are the bones of our ancestors;
-----leaving them buried makes them no less precious;
they are of the Earth, Madre Tierra, Coatlicue,
-----------------Pachi Mama, the Earth needs them.
------ehecatl, aire, air
------tletl, fuego, fire
------atl, agua, water
------tlalli, tierra, earth.

Make ready to leave the store house, the treasure;
walk round the cavern once as the clock turns
------from the East, red and gold with knowledge
------to the South yellow and green with love
------to the West black and blue with strength
------to the North white with healing.
You are now at the threshold — it is wide, it is narrow
-----------------------------------it is dark, it is light
-----------------------------------it is steep, it is plain.
Do not look back;
leave Mictlan, reino de la muerte, realm of the dead;
-------leave the cave of the ancients,
--------------the cave of our treasure;
------------------begin the way back.
What you bring back from the land of the dead,
-------from among the bones of the ancestors,
-------------is your gift to life.
---------------------Pray the gods you choose well.

Vuelve, vuelve, return.

It is your commitment,
-----the healing of yourself and the Earth.
What will you do?
-------How will you honor the ancestors?
-------------What will you say to the children?
--------------------What will you do for justice and peace?

Vuelve, vuelve, return.
Go, vete —
------------lleva la bendición de la vida;
------------------carry the blessing of life.
------------Go, vete —
form a face, form a heart.
forma un rostro, un corazón
in ixtli, in yollotl

Go, vete, go —
que los dioses te tengan, may the gods keep you.

In whatever you do, bendice la vida,
--------------pass on the blessing of life.

Vete y bendice la vida;
-----Go and pass on the blessing of life.

Vete, ha acabado; Go, the journey is finished —

Vete y empieza un día nuevo,
-----Go and begin a new day.

-----Vete, Go.
--------------------------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2011


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Feast of All Saints (Mexico's Día de Muertos through the centuries)


Pre-Hispanic Mexico

Awed by the eternal cycle of life and death and the need of sacrifice to assure the continuation of life, ages before the Spaniards came to the Americas, the peoples of ancient Mexico, particularly the Nahuas, of which the Mexica (generally called Aztecs) formed a part, celebrated the dead in a great feast quite different from the one we know today. It began on August 8, by the European calendar, and they called it Micailhuitontli, Small Feast of the Dead, to honor their dead children. On that morning, the people went to the forest and cut down a tall, straight tree which they brought to the gates of the city. There, for twenty days, they blessed the tree and stripped it of its bark.

During those twenty days, they did ritual, sacrificed, feasted, danced, and made offerings to the dead of cempoalxochitl flowers, fire, copal, food, and drink. Then, on August 28, which they called Huey Micailhuitl (Great Feast of the Dead), in honor of their adult dead, they made a large figure of a bird perched on flowering branches out of amaranth seed dough, painted it brightly, and decorated it with colorful feathers. They fixed the dough bird to the end of the tree trunk, raised it in the courtyard of the Great Temple, and honored it with more offerings, singing, copal, dances, sacrifice, and bloodletting.

One hour before sunset, the young noblemen climbed the pole to bring down the figure of the bird. The youths who reached the top first and brought down the dough figure were much honored. They broke it up and passed it out among the people to eat; they called it “flesh of the god.” Then they brought down the pole and broke it up, and everyone tried to take a piece of it back to their homes because it was holy.

The pole and its god-bird on flowering branches must have stood for the mythical Tree of Life that grew in the earthly paradise of Tamoanchan. The blood of sacrifice nourished the Tree of Life, just as Quetzalcoatl, Plumed Serpent, God of Life, shed his blood to create humankind. The ritual of the pole and the flesh of the god honored the fact that life cannot be separated from death; we live and die, and our deaths are the price of living.

Composed of both joy and pain, life is brief and uncertain, its end a question that disquiets the heart. Many poems addressing this sad truth were composed by the Nahua poets, the most famous of whom was Nezahualcoyotl, King of Texcoco, who said:

------------------Is it true that one lives on earth?
------------------Perhaps forever on the earth?
------------------Only a brief instant here!

------------------Even the precious stones chip away,
------------------even the gold falls apart,
------------------even the precious feathers tear.
------------------Perhaps forever on the earth?
------------------Only a brief instant here!

The peoples of ancient Mexico created wonderful pieces of sacred art in which life and death are united. The greatest, perhaps, is the great Coatlicue (now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City), who was at one and the same time terrifying and life-giving, the goddess of life and death, Earth-Mother of the gods, of humankind: mother of all. They carved statues depicting Quetzalcoatl, God of Life, on one side, and on the other, Mictlantecuhtli, God of Death. They painted pictures of the gods of life and death indivisibly joined together, such as the ones in the Borgia Codex, one of the very few of their marvelous books that survive.

When someone died, a piece of green-stone was placed in his or her mouth to take the place of the heart. The people believed that most of the dead went to a gray region of shadows called Mictlan (Land of the Dead), led by a little dog through nine levels of trials. Only the warriors killed in battle, the victims of sacrifice, and the women who had died in childbirth went to the realm of the Sun. Suicides and those who drowned, or were struck by lightning, or died of certain illnesses associated with water went to the place of Tlaloc, God of the Rain. Children who died young went to the realm of Ometeotl, Lord/Lady of Duality, to be nursed by a tree in a place called Chichihualcuauhco.

Mexico under Spain

These were the beliefs and the customs of the natives when the Spaniards came to Mexico and conquered Tenochtitlan and the Mexica empire in 1521. Along with the horse, the gun, and disease, the Europeans brought a new religion, Christianity. They called the people Indians and forced them to convert.

Some of the Christian beliefs were similar to the ancient ones: the Sun had demanded bleeding hearts torn from sacrificial victims to pay for life; God the Father required the bloody sacrifice of his only Son to pay for salvation. Coatlicue had conceived the god Huitzilopochtli without intercourse with a man; the virgin Mary had also miraculously conceived Jesus. The Indians ate the “flesh of the god’’ in a piece of amaranth dough; Christians ate the flesh of Christ in a piece of unleavened bread. Indians did penance; so did the Christians.

But some of the Christian beliefs were entirely new to the natives, such as the notion of a place where the dead went as either reward or punishment for how they had lived their lives: a happy heaven, with angels, saints, and gods (as they perceived the Trinity) and a painful hell, full of demons and evildoers. The new Mother of God was not terrible, as Coatlicue was, but sweet and demure as she stood on the black obsidian moon in front of the sun and wore the starry night sky for her cloak. Tonantzin, Mother of Us All, was now called Our Lady of Guadalupe, an Arabic place-name of Moorish Spain.

In spite of their conversion, the native people kept their ancient customs as best they could by adapting them to the demands of the new religion, transferring the old celebrations to the holidays of the Christian calendar. They were forced to change the rituals of their days of the dead but kept as their core the ofrenda (the altar with offerings to the dead). And they still grew (and do to this day) the yellow cempoalxochitl, the cempoal, marigold, known popularly as flor de muerto (flower of the dead), which they used especially to honor the dead. They transferred the two Feasts of the Dead to the Christian Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. (Long before, between the eighth and eleventh centuries, the Christian Church itself had set the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls on the first and second of November, converting the ancient European Celtic feast of the harvest and of the dead, Samhain [sá-win], into a Christian holiday.)

The melding of two cultures

Spanish art offered images of death, similar to those the natives knew, in the martyred Christ and saints, and memento mori (“remember that you die”) images of skulls from the medieval tradition of the Dance of Death. The conquered people merged their old symbols with those of the conquerors. The indigenous cross of the four cardinal points became the Christian cross. The Tree of Life came to refer to the Garden of Eden as well, and eventually gave rise to the beautiful clay árboles de la vida with birds on flowering branches that we know today. The amaranth-dough offerings were replaced by the popular wheat pan de muerto (bread of the dead).

One great change in the Spanish colonial period was the evolvement of humor and whimsy that we today associate with los Día de Muertos and that make the holiday so uniquely Mexican. The Spanish may have brought these elements from the medieval tradition of the Feast of Fools (associated with Carnaval, carne vale, farewell to the flesh), where everything is equal and open to criticism, ridicule, and frivolity. “We are all equal in death and nothing is beyond mockery,” this tradition said. And humor became a part of los Día de Muertos that we know today.

In the latter part of the colonial period, the people began making sugar-candy skulls, brightly decorated with names spelled out in colored sugar, to exchange as tokens of affection among family and friends. They placed them on the Día de Muertos altars along with the image of Guadalupe, the flowers, the water, the bread, the food and drink, the candles, and the copal that the old ways demanded. They also made toys in the shape of skeletons and little skeleton dolls of clay and papier maché that made fun of people and every sort of human activity. They made playfulness part of the tradition and took from death a little of its sting.

Another thing that the Spaniards brought was the pasquín (mocking verses scrawled on walls to which passing readers added their own lines and comments). Between 1535 and 1539, the first printing press in America was established in Mexico City, and soon pasquines printed on broadsheets were being pasted on the walls of public buildings. These eventually gave rise to the funny verses called calaveras (skulls, also popularly meaning empty-headed fools), often illustrated with caricatures, through which the people freely criticized and mocked the rich and powerful who ruled their lives. The calavera became a part of the Día de Muertos.

Corridos (ballads in the oral tradition whose themes often focus on current events) had grown to be the popular form of political expression by the time Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, and by the late nineteenth century, the corrido and the calavera had almost completely replaced the pasquín. Small print shops throughout the country published the most popular corridos and calaveras on broadsides of colored paper, disseminating information and ideas against the authoritarian Porfirio Díaz regime. The best-known of these presses was that of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo in Mexico City, made famous by the witty poet Constancio S. Suárez and by José Guadalupe Posada, a talented engraver. Posada illustrated the verses written by Suárez, who succinctly put the truth which is the soul of the calavera:

--------------------It is a most sincere truth
--------------------that this adage makes us see:
--------------------only one who was never born
--------------------can never a death’s-head be.

Día de Muertos in the Twentieth Century

These are some of the elements of los Días de Muertos inherited by the twentieth century. With the Revolution of 1910, modern Mexican art exploded into its own, and the young artists repudiated not only the French orientation of the Díaz era (1877–1911) but their own Spanish heritage, idealizing their indigenous past. For the young artists of the Revolution (José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros among them), Posada was the father of modern Mexican art and quoted his images in their own work. Indeed, many of Posada’s images (such as his Calavera Catrina) took on the nature of icons that are now hard to separate from los Días de Muertos.

Rediscovering and reclaiming their Indian roots and folk arts and festivals, modern Mexican writers, musicians, dancers, and graphic artists created works that burst with images, sounds, colors of dazzling brilliance and originality. But for the Indians, Mexico was a country colonized for four hundred years, its dominant language and culture European; what the writers, musicians, and painters accomplished was to foment a new respect for, even to romanticize, indigenous custom and form, not adopt them as an integral part of their own lives. The artisans of the people continued to produce the ever popular Día de Muertos sugar skulls and toys, of course—and the artists and the new and growing educated middle class avidly collected them as arte popular (folk art.

To simply see the tradition of the Mexican los Días de Muertos as a quaint folk custom does it little justice. It has always been a religious practice alive with its own cosmology, vibrant with spiritual and emotional meaning for the people who participate in it. At its center, Día de Muertos is full of reverence, sorrow, and prayer; the levity is more peripheral, an aside. Without their core of belief, of spiritual and emotional power, Día de Muertos would hardly have survived to our day, much less inspired such art.

After the revolution, Día de Muertos lived on in Mexico among the indigenous populations close to their pre-Hispanic roots; thus it was a holiday of the poor, and most especially the rural poor. The urban middle class rarely put up Days of the Dead altars except as quaint displays of “indigenous” art. On All Souls Day, they might visit the cemetery and place flowers on the grave, perhaps attend Mass, but Día de Muertos was not modern, and the tradition was certainly more Indian than they would ever want to be. It was one thing to show off indigenous art, another to be Indian. That the urbane Frida Kahlo affected Tehuana dresses and wore strings of heavy, pre-Hispanic green-stone about her slender neck did not make her Indian.

As Mexico became more urban and more industrialized, at least in the major cities, Día de Muertos became more secularized. Were it not for the indigenous communities faithful to their traditions, Día de Muertos might have gradually become merely a colorful Indian custom, a quaint though cherished symbol of national identity.

Día de Muertos in the United States

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, there flared up a new interest from an unexpected quarter. United States intervention in Viet-Nam had flared into a full-blown war in which many citizens of Mexican descent saw the U.S. invasion of Mexico (1846-48) reflected. At the same time, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, the Farm Workers Movement led by César E. Chávez under the banner of Guadalupe went into full strike in the vineyards of California. These two events galvanized the identity of the young U.S. citizens of Mexican descent who began calling themselves Chicanos.

The quest for and formation of an identity is always a spiritual matter, a moral matter, a matter of empowerment, especially in a society which exerts such pressures to conform and assimilate. In 1970 the Chicano Moratorium against the Viet-Nam War coalesced a political and cultural movement with its own music, literature, and graphic arts, especially the mural. Walls in San Francisco, Los Ángeles, and other cities throughout the U.S. blazed into color and images that drew inspiration from the mural movement of Mexico. They extensively quoted the work of Posada, Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros, and Kahlo, and incorporated such indigenist images as Sun Stones, eagles devouring serpents, plumed snakes, Guadalupes, and Zapatista campesinos. Chicano art, rooted in Mexican culture but of the United States, was something all its own.

In the late 1960s, some teachers of Mexican descent with ties to Día de Muertos tradition began to introduce it in the classroom. Also in the early 1970s, the Galería de la Raza, the Mexican Museum of San Francisco, the Mission Cultural Center of Latino Arts, and other galleries in San Francisco began to mount Día de Muertos exhibitions, inviting artists to create ofrendas. The same occurred in Los Angeles and quickly spread to other cities, such as Chicago, that have large Chicano and Mexican immigrant populations. And in the mid 1970s, El Teatro Campesino performed satirical skits with calavera characters for the workers in the fields. The richly layered Día de Muertos customs that were traditionally practiced in that area to the south known as Mesoamerica, where the high cultures flourished, were not familiar in Aztlan (northern Mexico and what had become the U.S. Southwest), where native cultures were more nomadic. There the ofrenda was not customary, and up to this point only appeared when people who had immigrated from the south put them up. But now Día de Muertos ofrendas and exhibitions began to appear in New Mexico, Texas, and elsewhere in the Southwest.

New Expressions for Día de Muertos

Avid to reclaim their Mexican—especially Mexican Indian—roots, Chicanos took the ofrenda, the element at the core of Día de Muertos, from its original matrix and made it into a new art form. Very few of the artists participating in these exhibitions had lived Día de Muertos traditions, though some elders and recent immigrants from south-central Mexico were drawn upon to create “traditional” ofrendas. These, even if they may not have included all the elements prescribed by tradition—the image of Guadalupe, the flowers, the water, the bread, the food and drink, the candles, the sugar skulls, the copal—did include an altar bearing offerings of some sort, as well as traditional incidental decorative elements like papel picado and streamers, and, if the ofrenda honored a particular person, photographs and personal mementos.

Though “traditional” ofrendas were occasionally exhibited in Mexico in museums and public spaces, often under the auspices of FONART (the National Fund for the Encouragement of Crafts) as samples of arte popular, the ofrenda had been, up to this point, solely a sacred and private expression of devotion and memorial created for the home, sometimes for the family tomb, occasionally for the church.

The intimate and devotional family ofrenda now became a point of departure for more conscious works of art, giving way to public statements, often political in nature, incorporating the sociopolitical function of the calavera with the religious form of the ofrenda. It is true that many artists considered their work sacred art; they often created ofrendas to honor dead family, friends, or public figures, and they ritually consecrated the gallery space and the ofrenda by smudging with copal or sage. But the religious, sacred aspects became more broadly defined; the emphasis was on fine art. This was a new art form, a variation of installation art. In the context of the gallery, the term “ofrenda” is now popularly used for any installation on the theme of death. The intent of these ofrendas as works of art is often not so much to comfort as to disquiet.

This new interpretation of the traditions of Día de Muertos as art for the public very soon exerted its influence in Mexico, and ofrendas of a political nature, honoring public figures and commemorating political events, started to appear with more frequency in such public spaces as galleries, museums, libraries, community centers, and even government buildings. Furthermore, though Día de Muertos in such places as Michoacán, Morelos, Oaxaca, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz had always attracted visitors, popularization of the holiday in the U.S. tremendously increased the number of tourists to Mexico during these days so that the cemeteries were overrun with urbanites and foreigners toting cameras.

Processions were another notable development in the United States. A procession sponsored by Self-Help Graphics in Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles that started in the 1970s, and another, sponsored by Galería de la Raza in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980s, both became so popular that, with the novelty of costumes and samba bands, they were more like Halloween events or carnival parades than traditional honoring of the dead. Interestingly, in the city of Oaxaca since the seventies, comparsas, skull-masked and skeleton-costumed bands, probably influenced by the U.S. Halloween, began to gain prominence in Día de Muertos celebrations, adding an element of carnival to the feast.

* ------*------ *

In Mexico, the Days of the Dead are still observed with deep emotion and spiritual devotion by the many who are heirs to the tradition, as well as others who are taking up the practice. In the United States, whose mainstream culture lacks a holiday devoted to the dead, many are borrowing Día de Muertos traditions, respectfully adapting them to their own needs and circumstances, putting up altars every year to honor their dead in the privacy of their homes . . .

Los Día de Muertos tradition, as it is practiced in Mexico, comes down to us from the shades of our pre-European past, a vital tradition laden with historical, religious, and spiritual meaning. It will change as it continues to be popularized and as the cultures that nurture and maintain it struggle to keep their identities in the face of the demands of the twenty-first century with its push towards globalization not only of economics but of culture . . .*

* Some U.S., Canadian, and other foreign artists in such centers as San Miguel de Allende are now producing los Días de Muertos “folk art” for export to the U.S. and abroad. Stores of arts and crafts from around the world, such as Global Exchange in the San Francisco Bay Area, now sell little death-figures and glass boxes from Perú and Bolivia painted with Posada images, bamboo curtains from Viet-Nam painted with Posada images, wood stamping-blocks from Nepal with Mexican milagro images, and skull-shaped glass votive-candle holders from China. And of course more and more artifacts, calendars, and books with los Días de Muertos themes are being produced in the United States.