Thousands of years ago, long before Cristoforo Colombo sailed across the Atlantic or the Spanish conquered the Aztec Empire, the great metropolitan expanse of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, now known as Mexico City, was already established as one of the largest populated cities in the world. At that time, the city was home to more than 40 different paper mills that manufactured the parchment from the inner bark of the Amacuahuitl, a species of fig tree native to the area. Paper was of great value in prehispanic Mesoamerica, not only used for books and manuscripts, but also played an important role in various religious rituals of Aztec culture. Priests and participants would be dressed in ornate paper costumes and masks, effigies were constructed, and even the great Aztec pyramids were covered in colorful paper, paying tribute to the elemental deities that were worshipped at the time. Designs and shapes were cut into the paper, attributing magical properties to the materials and the person wearing them. These rituals were said to bridge the gap between the living world and the spirit world, reuniting the deceased with their surviving families during the Xocotlhuetzi, (Great Feast of the Dead) celebrated in accordance with the Aztec Calendar.
Many hundreds of years later, during the Spanish colonization of the Americas, The Spaniards were commanded, by Royal decree, to convert their New World indigenous subjects to Catholicism. The many native expressions, forms, practices, and items of art could be considered idolatry and were prohibited or destroyed by Spanish missionaries, military and civilians. This included religious items, sculptures and jewelry made of gold or silver, which were melted down before shipment to Spain. The indigenous people were forced to replace thousands of years of tradition with the ceremonies and beliefs of Catholicism, thus aligning their original end-of-summer festival with “All Saint’s Day.” Though the rituals and traditions of this celebration have changed over time, we now know the holiday by the name of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Currently, Dia de los Muertos and other similar observances occur all over the world. The most recognizable symbol of Dia de los Muertos is the Calavera or skull, often made from sugar or clay and handed out as gifts to children. Though far removed from the original anthropomorphic, nature-based beliefs of the Aztecs, these new traditions, including various customs ranging from face painting to constructing and flying giant kites, have permeated into mainstream society making Dia de los Muertos nearly synonymous with Halloween.
Enter the Rescue Culture Collective. In their 32nd year of organizing and managing the largest Day of the Dead procession in the country, the San Francisco based non-profit organization led by Juan Pablo Gutierrez was formed to do exactly as their name would suggest. Upon witnessing the visible shift towards commercialization of this sacred holiday, the organization has committed to protecting the historic and cultural integrity of Dia de los Muertos by ensuring that the traditional Native American customs are honored and that the procession not become commercially based. That means no promotions, no advertising, no selling, and no vending.
Over the years, Gutierrez has seen what he calls the evolution of cultural identity, noticing that a new generation of young people are more sensitive to different cultures and he thinks that is ok. Gutierrez remarks that every culture has loved ones who have passed away, and every culture has a way to celebrate and respect those that they have lost. This year the procession saw more than 350,000 people in attendance, based on word of mouth alone. According to Gutierrez, Day of the Dead isn’t just a Mexican or Latino tradition, but open to all walks of life. However, it was never intended to be diminished or sold as a gimmick or commodity. “Our dead are not for sale,” says Gutierrez. “If you can take that concept and apply it to yourself, there is a sense of integrity that no one can violate. Certain things need to be respected, and that is what defines culture.”