Those who are remembered will never disappear. While the theme of Dia de los Muertos is death, this festival is anything but mournful. It is two days (November 1 and 2—sometimes extended to weekends) of joyful remembrance of deceased family members and friends. People erect beautiful altars—simple to elaborate–to honor their deceased. The living entices the departed with favorite foods and beverages. Some altars include incense or favorite belongings and photos from their lives. All include marigolds. Tens of thousands of Hollywood Cemetery marigolds not only enliven the Day of the Dead Celebrations, they bridge the gap between our worlds.
The Hollywood Forever Cemetery adjacent to Paramount Studios in Los Angeles has hosted Dia de los Muertos festivities for only a few years. But the Cemetery was founded in 1899 during the Victorian Era when the Language of Flowers still considered marigolds to mean “grief.” The Aztecs and other indigenous people of Latin America considered marigolds a symbol of joy—like a ray of sunshine.
Mexican marigolds are called cempaspuchitl or zempasuchitl in the Aztec language of Nahuatl. The word “cempasuchitl” means twenty-flower—for the number of the flower’s petals. Aztecs grew them and other flowers in their chinampas or floating gardens of Xochimilco. Marigolds are now native to Mexico. They bloom at the end of Mexico’s rainy season when the Day of the Dead takes place.
How did cempasúchil become such an integral part of Día de Muertos celebrations? With their color and scent, they certainly seem like the natural pick to attract the dead to the land of the living like a GPS. But some historians associate a symbolic legend with these flowers of the dead.
In the Aztec legend, childhood sweethearts Xóchitl and Huitzilin climbed a mountain and left flowers to the sun-god Tonatiuh, swearing their commitment. When Xochitl later died in battle, Huitzilin asked the sun god to reunite them on earth. He granted her wish by turning her into a golden flower and Xóchitl into a hummingbird.
The cemetery sponsors a contest for Day of the Dead altars. Some are elaborate while others are simple. The altars (ofrendas) include elements of earth, wind, water and fire—and of course, marigolds.
Aside from the marigolds, Jose Guadalupe Posada’s elegant Catrina Skull (la Calavera Catrina) with her Victorian Era hat is an icon of modern day celebrations.
Posada (February 2, 1852 – January 20, 1913) was a Mexican artist known for his socially satirical prints, engravings and drawings. His local folkloric scenes were known as calaveras, from the Spanish word for skulls. Among other issues his work satirized the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and bourgeois lifestyle of the pre-revolutionary era.
La Catrina has become one of Posada’s most iconic images. His figure of a female skull wearing an elegant broad-brimmed hat of the Victorian Era was created 1910. She was originally titled “Calavera Garbancera, a nickname for Mexican people who adopted European style.
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