Mexico Life
Day of the Dead Catrina face painting in Puebla city Luis Eduardo Cuanal in full regalia for a different sort of Catrina parade this year in Puebla city, one that sought to emphasize participants' Mexica roots. Photos by Joseph Sorrentino

Puebla’s Dia de Muertos parade this year harkens to holiday’s Mexica roots

Event acknowledged Day of the Dead's start in an ancient Nahua feast period

Day of the Dead — celebrated in modern times on November 1 and 2 — is based on ancient indigenous ceremonies that, at least in the Mexica or Aztec civilization, may have lasted for as long as two months.

This year, some residents of Puebla city decided that they wanted to put on a Catrina parade that would acknowledge the holiday’s beginnings in those ceremonies.

In one of the Mexicas’ two calendars, a religious calendar called the xiuhpohualli, Miccailhuitontli was the Mexica period of “the little feast of the dead,” which was a preparation for Huey Miccaílhuitl, “the great feast of the dead.”

The celebration of Miccailhuitontli has mostly been lost in Mexico, but a group in the city of Puebla decided to bring it back.

“In pre-Hispanic cultures, Day of the Dead began in what we would consider the month of September,” Esther Cortés Rojas, the co-coordinator of the Puebla event, said.

Day of the Dead in Puebla city
Women purify the space for the opening Mexica ceremony with incense.

She and José Velázquez Guevara, the other coordinator, decided to celebrate Miccailhuitontli with workshops and a Catrina parade at the Taller Estudio de la Cura, an art school in the city.

“This is the first time we presented it,” Velázquez said. “This marks for us the beginning of Day of the Dead. We want people to understand this.”

The day began with a Mexica ritual.

“We ask for permission to have this ceremony. We perform a ritual to the four points,” Víctor Carreto Cabaños, the ritual’s leader, said.

The four points refer to both the four cardinal directions as well as the four elements that were important to the Mexica: earth, wind, fire and water.

To open the ceremony, Carreto chanted and hit a small drum while three assistants purified the space with incense. He explained that the ritual isn’t to ask permission from a god.

Day of the Dead in Puebla city
The celebration’s opening ritual faced each of the four cardinal directions.

“In [the indigenous language of] Náhuatl, there is no word for god,” he said. “We believe in energy, the energy that is the universe.”

Organizers held workshops where attendees learned about the cempasúchil (Mexican marigold — the iconic Day of the Dead flower) and the role of cacao in indigenous cultures. They also got to make skulls out of amaranth.

But the highlight of the day was the Catrina parade.

Catrina is the iconic Day of the Dead figure, based on a 1910 etching by José Guadalupe Posada, popularized by a later work of Diego Rivera.

The figure, as intended by Posada, pokes fun at Mexicans who imitated European styles during the era of President Porfirio Díaz, known as the Porfiriato. The Catrina also pokes fun at death.

It takes time and patience to transform a person into a Catrina.

Day of the Dead Catrina face painting in Puebla city
Blanca Anahí Llamas applies makeup to Luis Eduardo Cuanal.

In a small room, Blanca Anahí Llamas Torres painstakingly applied makeup to Luis Eduardo Cuanal’s face.

“We are projecting death using art, music and theater,” Cuanal said. “It is to represent the cult of death. Catrina signifies an expression of death in a feminine figure.” Cuanal’s transition into a Catrina took almost an hour.

Nearby, Alexandra Cazorla and Alexis López, whose faces were painted as skulls, waited for the parade to begin.

“This is a preamble to Day of the Dead,” Cazorla said. “It is to show death as something profound, a transcendence, [to show] that we do not completely end.”

“It is not to show fear,” added López. “It is to have a fiesta.”

Before walking around the patio, each participant was cleansed with incense before Cortés led them down a path made from cempasúchil petals. Finally, they all posed on the studio’s staircase.

Catrina parade, Puebla
Sandra Inzunza helps her daughter Valentina González with final touches.

“Day of the Dead is to remember people who have died,” said Elizabeth Damián Espinosa, who organized the parade. “It is also to say, ‘I am going to die someday, too.’”

Joseph Sorrentino, a writer, photographer and author of the book San Gregorio Atlapulco: Cosmvisiones and of Stinky Island Tales: Some Stories from an Italian-American Childhood, is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. More examples of his photographs and links to other articles may be found at www.sorrentinophotography.com  He currently lives in Chipilo, Puebla.

 

Catrina parade, Puebla
Gisela Juárez and Baraquiel Juárez dressed up for the parade.

 

Catrina face painting, Puebla
Blanca Anahí Llamas gets some help with her Catrina costume.

 

Catrina parade, Puebla
Valentina González, center, parades along a route lined with Mexican marigolds, the iconic Day of the Dead flower.

 

Day of the Dead in Puebla city
Esther Cortés Rojas grinds toasted cacao seeds.

 

Catrina face painting, Puebla
Alicia Guerra begins the process of getting her face painted.
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