Archive for the ‘art’ tag
I am called to reflect, with gratitude and love, on my first experience of Day of the Dead a decade ago. I am called to share how I have seen it celebrated in Oaxaca, México, where the traditional is still very much alive, and I am called to thank those who introduced me to this tradition and those who have shared it with me in the years since.
November 1st, 2012
10 years ago today, I woke up in the small, cement floor home that my friend Cynthia Caballero Rojas shared with her mother, Serbia Rojas, in Southwest Oaxaca City, México. We made breakfast to feed ourselves and to offer fresh food and chocolate to the altar that we had spent the last two days preparing for our muertos (our dead).
I’ve always regretted not taking a photo of that altar, because in all these years it is by far the most beautiful one I have helped build. It was made tall by the two milpas (corn stalks) that Cynthia had lashed together to form an archway, and which we had then stuffed full of cempasúchil (marigold) and cresto de gallo (cock’s comb) flowers. From the apex of the arch, Cynthia hung an apple. The altar was covered in photos and candles, fruits and nuts, marshmallows–because they were her brother’s favorite food–hot chocolate, beer bottles, and tamales de mole negro that we had wrapped in banana leaves under the expert guidance of Serbia and cooked over a fire in a hug pot in the dirt floor kitchen yard. On the ground we had made a tapete (floor mosaic) of flower petals around the stone bowl in which we burned copal. Alongside Cynthia and Serbia’s loved ones I placed my wallet photo of Stevie, my high school best friend who had killed himself two years prior, and a little piece of paper on which I had written “ti voglio bene.” For the first time since his death, I had found a way to pay attention to and honor this young friend I had lost in a way that was both solemn and joyful, and that was culturally-supported and in community. I was gifted this by Cynthia and her mom, who knew I needed it, and by the people of Oaxaca who have held to their indigenous traditions and could therefore teach their children and the world to do this.
Of course, the gift was not simply the altar and my own relationship with my muerto, but seeing how this relationship with our loved ones and ancestors is celebrated on a community level. The night before, our Oaxacan friends Cynthia, Claudia, and Gil had taken me and another exchange student, Katherine, to the village of Xoxocotlán where the people spend the entire night of October 31st in their cemetery, holding vigil and sharing food and music with their muertos. The 31st, Gil explained, is the day in which the dead are called back with music and good smells, the day in which they first get the message to return. For this reason, many communities have musical events in the street on the 31st, and some, like the people of Xoxocotlán, stay up all night.
On the morning of the 1st, Cynthia explained in the morning, we welcome back the angelitos, the spirits of children who have passed away. With this in mind, Cynthia, Serbia, and I brought tamales over to the neighbor’s house and paid her angelitos a visit. Serbia was speaking animatedly to the neighbor when all of a sudden she noticed the neighbor had placed a petate (a woven grass rug) under the altar. Serbia began to cry: “Se me olvidó poner un petate bajo nuestro altar. Dónde se van a sentar los angelitos?” (“I forgot to put a petate under our altar. Where are the child angels going to sit?”) It was clear to me then how real this was. These altars and these visits to the cemetery were not simply remembrance or ritual; they were an earnest invitation to those who were gone.
Cynthia and I walked to the cemetery to visit her father’s grave, and back through neighborhoods whose streets were filled with comparsas: men dancing to brass instruments in full costume. Some were dressed as Vicente Fox or George Bush with plastic masks and suits. A good number of men wore various kinds of sexy woman outfits, replete with very tall heels (and they sure could dance in those heels). Inviting back the dead by offering them a raucous good time.
The next day, November 2nd, the primary day celebrated as día de muertos, the five of us set off to see how the day was celebrated in the neighboring pueblos of Teotitlán and Tlacolula.
After a day of bus rides, churches, copal, dirt streets, and eating fruit and tortillas bought in the markets, we made our way through the Tlacolula cemetary at dusk and then another in the dark. It was there in the crowded cemetery, its darkness illuminated by so many flickering candles, that Gil explained to us the theme across many places in the Northern hemisphere. At this time of year, the veil between life and death is thinner. As the earth dies for winter, food–life–is harvested from the earth. Life and death meet, cross paths, co-exist. It is for this reason that the pre-Christian Europeans celebrated Samhain, when spirits would come back to visit (the origin for trick or treating), that the Catholics worldwide celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, that the Aztecs have the mythology of Quetzalcoatl going into the mountain for the winter at this time of year, and why Mexicans sit at their altares to chat with their ancestors as they come back to visit. (Indeed, Gil told me a year or two later that the year after his abuelita died, he was crying as he built her altar, so she came back and scolded him for crying and told him to appreciate her visit.)
As we arrived back in Oaxaca City, we came upon a group gathered on the stone plaza outside of a church built a few centuries before. There was an altar built over the ground, and in front of it, a tapete made of beans, flowers, corn, and other plant materials in the shape of a woman. The scene was lit by candles and accompanied with a man’s soft playing of the guitar. People wrote messages into the paper laid over the stone walls of the church. Pamphlets were distributed that explained the messages and explained the woman in the tapete: this altar was dedicated to women lost to gender violence, including domestic violence homicides, human trafficking, and the hundreds of rapes and disappearances in Ciudad Juárez, near the U.S. border. The group organizing this was La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos, who would eventually become the organization on whom I based my undergraduate thesis research. They represented the somber side of this day, but did so in a way that was beautiful, congruent with the tradition, and that brought community together.
A year later, back at Mount Holyoke College, I called on my Oaxacan friends for help explaining día de muertos to my friends at school, who had agreed to bring their muertos and build an altar with me. For the first time, I was able to gift–to some small degree–what had been so kindly shared with me. I have tried every year since to celebrate by building my own altar at home (which always includes salmon, Stephen’s favorite food), and by sharing altars and celebrations with others, making a space for our muertos and our memories and our love and to be together. As a 3rd grade teacher, we had a día de muertos celebration in the classroom and parents came for a potluck and art. In grad school, as an effort of the Latina/o Social Work Coalition, we built an altar in the common area for women killed in Ciudad Juárez. Last year, Oscar and I invited friends over to eat and make art and build things for the altar. Among other things, the event served as a way to honor a baby lost from our community and lost to our friends, little Seketl’e, who you can see in our altar this year.
One of my most significant experience of día de los muertos since returning from México was in 2010, when I worked with artists Dena Drake and Melanie Lombard to create an altar at the Out North exhibit dedicated to the topic of suicide in Alaska. The altar attempted to honor those who we’ve lost and to use art and metaphor to explore the feelings that might lead someone to suicide, alerting friends and family to what they could do to help prevent suicides in their communities.
What I’ve found is that there is no way that I will have here an experience like that I had in 2002 in Oaxaca. But I can use each día de muertos, each Samhain, each time in which the veil between life and death is thinner, to reflect on and give great love to those who I have lost and to share the space so others can do that as well.
This year, we add la abuelita Betulia to our altar. This year, I honor my grandmother Pat, la abuelita Betulia, my great-grandmother Ann, my grandma Dianne, baby Seketl’e, and my friends Stevie, Anthony, Lorenzo, and Sig. (Yes, and the dogs Ruby and Nena too.)
If you are in the Anchorage area and looking for a way to celebrate, Out North is hosting the 8th Annual Día de Muertos celebration and exhibition of altars: http://www.outnorth.org/events/DiaDeMuertos.php
My husband, Oscar, and I recently combined our last names after getting married. Beyond the ordinary awkwardness of having to introduce myself by a new last name and sign with different letters, plus the burden of having to explain to confused people that, yes, my husband changed his name too, I also have to deal with my name changing colors.
My name used to be:
And now it’s:
This is a significant change. Those aren’t just the colored pencils I happened to choose. Those are the colored pencils that represent as closely as possible the colors that those names are. The names are those colors and there is nothing I can do to change that. This is because I have a condition called synestesia.
The word comes from the Greek “syn” (together) and aisthēsis (sensation or perception), referring to the crossing of multiple types of sensory information. Some people see music or smell touches, but the most common type is where people automatically assign colors to graphemes (written symbols such as letters or numbers). This is called grapheme -> color synesthesia. Some people project the colors; that is, they see them out in the world, while others just see them in their mind. I am off the latter type.
Growing up, the fact that every letter, number, and word had a color—an absolute, unchangeable color—seemed to me a useful and enjoyable fact of existence. It never occurred to me that this was unordinary or that in the medical literature I was known as a synesthete.
I loved my systems and colors so much, having learned to use them for remembering words, visualizing numbers, and even teaching concepts to my third grade students, that I never felt the need to question where this came from. It wasn’t until I was 23 and visiting my then 8-year-old cousin, Keilee, that I learned that it was not universal. I was in the backseat of my auntie’s minivan as we drove through the desert, past the deep red sandstone of Red Rocks Park outside of Las Vegas. I picked up and read the back of Keilee’s book, Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass. It described, in dramatic terms, a girl who saw colors for all numbers and words. I thought, “What’s so dramatic about that? I do that…” and then it occurred to me to ask, “Wait, does this mean not everyone does that?”
For whatever reason, I didn’t revisit the thought again until I was 27, on a Spring Break climbing trip during graduate school with some classmates. Oddly enough, we were driving through Red Rocks Park after a day on the sandstone and our friend Becca was describing her synesthesia as a crossing of multiple senses, such that she sees music and sees colors for everything. I described to her my colors and she told me, “Yeah, that’s a mild form of synesthesia.” I was so excited to have a name for this experience, or condition, or, as I like to call it half-jokingly, superpower.
My good friend Virginia Speciale, a Special Ed & bilingual ed teacher, just finished reading Mango-Shaped Space and asked me to describe my synesthesia to her. This is more or less what I told her:
“I love it. The colors are absolute, meaning I can’t just willfully go and change them. Two is blue and there’s nothing I can do about that. Virginia is green because of the V and Speciale is yellow because of the S, although the reddish dark pink of the L sort of seeps through near the end. Ginna [her nickname], however, is light orangeish brown and Gina [her other nickname] is a slightly darker brown. I think this is because the N is a lighter and more orange brown than the G, so the double N in Ginna changes the color some. Shunashee [the nickname that only I call her] is very decisively yellow.
Usually the first letter decides the color of the word but some middle letters have an influence, especially green letters like K & V. W is also green, but it’s weaker & lighter and therefore does not exert the same influence. Oki [my husband’s nickname] is green, despite the white O starting the word, while Oscar is white and yellow.
Vowels are white, except Y. But y’know, Y plays for both teams, so that probably explains it.
As for numbers, usually I see the distinct color of each digit even in multi-digit numbers, and especially in dates (today is a very gray & blue set of numbers, but, to give a more interesting example, the Fourth of July next year will be yellow/orange/blue.) However, if I am thinking of periods of years, there is a dominant digit’s color that determines the color of the entire number. The 1900s are maroon. The 1800s are brick red. The 2000s are blue.
If I am thinking of precise years, the last digits’ colors show up. The 60’s, as a decade, are all green and the 70’s are all yellow and so on. If I think of a specific year, such as 1574, it’s 3 different colors (green, yellow and orange.) 2011 is blue and silver.”
I read recently that in addition to grapheme -> color synesthesia, that there is another type that describes the way I see: number form synesthesia. This is described on the Wikipedia page as “a mental map of numbers, which automatically and involuntarily appears whenever someone who experiences number-forms thinks of numbers.” I have always had a very useful and, indeed, involuntary way of organizing numbers visually in my head.
This drawing can’t really capture it, but it at least shows that numbers under 100 are as though under a roof; they are inside. The numbers climb up towards 100, segmented by the tens, each of which has its own color. I found this enormously helpful in arithmetic, and parts of it are certainly in line with the recommendation for kids to draw number lines and segment them by the tens. This is probably because synisthesia doesn’t exist in a vacuum; our brains make via visuals and colors out of the graphemes we learn in school. I learned to think about ones, tens, and hundreds, so I imagine my mental map was derived from my early mathematical education.
Similarly, I learned to first associate colors to English words. As I learned Spanish words, I began to associate colors to them. Unlike English, though, Spanish words usually reveal more of their colors to me. For example, tener is mainly blue, but for some reason that orange/brown N stands out. Pusiste is pink, yellow, blue, and white. English words are rarely so multi-colored. I wonder if this has to do with how late in life such associations were made, or the amount of consciousness I learned to have about the endings of Spanish words in order to conjugate verbs correctly or have adjectives agree with the noun or use the right gender.
I have no idea how this association-making would change if I began to learn Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, or Cantonese. I don’t remember what it was like to begin to associate a color to a brand new letter, and so I don’t know if it would happen as I learn a new alphabet or not. Nor do I know if synestetic children growing up with character-based written language have the same process of color association.
I actually know very little about the science of synesthesia. It’s just exciting to learn that other synesthetes (it’s fun to have a new label for myself)experience what I do, but in their own way. And, of course, a minority of synesthetes experience it in much more vivid and intense ways, with colors projected in front of them for music and words. Virginia, ever a Special Ed teacher, asked me to reflect on any ways in which it has hindered me academically. Honestly, I can’t think of any, and my mom told me yesterday that the reason she never looked into it or told me that it was unusual when I was a child was because it didn’t seem to cause me any problems. However, I would be interested to hear if some forms of synesthesia can be debilitating. My experience of it is just useful and beautiful, and I hope I can pass it on to our future children.
I <3 the Anchorage arts community because…
- Sheila Wyne’s studio party was the most fun party I’ve been to in Anchorage and it raised money for rad artists Erin Pollock and Steph Kesey.
- Many of my photog friends were there and posted great photos, like Charles Tice’s pix on Flickr (look down for the comments section).
- We go to each other’s shows and promote each other.
- Enzina Marrari, an amazing performance and visual artist, always asks me to provide art for Middle Way Café, so this month I provided not only 3 of my own pieces, but 5 of Oscar Avellaneda’s. Yep, even though he is in Costa Rica doing sea turtle research before biking to Panamá and taking a boat to Colombia and meeting me there in a month (!!!!!!!), he still gets to show his work and maybe sell it. Cuz his fiancé hustles for him.
- Lots and lots of other reasons… Feel free to add your own!
Here are my pieces for the Middle Way show:
The show runs from tomorrow, 8/13/10, the big opening with food until October 6th. Only the nude is for sale, as I already sold the other two.
Oscar’s pix are from his Kids & Bikes collection plus one other. They’re all shot on black and white film and he hand-printed and framed them all.
Kids & Bikes collection: http://www.avephoto.com/kidsnbikes.php
Portraits collection: http://www.avephoto.com/portraiture.php
It is Thanksgiving and I am in Kaua’i with my family. This morning I went on a run alone through the brush, past herds of chickens, and down a steep hill to the beach. When I arrived, I did something that my family used to do a long time ago when we were children but stopped doing–either because we got older or maybe because we all got into running and other endurance sports and started to take our heart rates so seriously:
I strolled around. I used a stick to examine some small jellyfish with football-like white stitching on them that had washed up onto the beach and died. I sat down in the sand to watch the waves. I observed. I breathed in the way the waves came in diagonal sections of brown upon the shore and behind them, strips of turquoise and behind them, the steel grayish blue of rain clouds. I had brought no camera, no iPhone, no drawing supplies, and so I just watched and took the time and love to etch into my memory what I was seeing.
This doesn’t sound like much, but it has become sort of an axiom about being a Norton-Cruz that we are always running around and doing or learning, and that when we are exercising we don’t take breaks. So I am returning to an older Norton-Cruz tradition where we used to explore the tide pools of California and play in the sand. And returning to the Laura that makes art from what she loves. So this is what I made, upon returning to the house: