11/02/2012 09:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Film Director Luis Valdez on Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead)

Luis Valdez -- film director, writer, playwright and founder of El Teatro Campesino -- will be appearing at Davies Hall in San Francisco on Saturday, November 3rd in the annual concert celebrating Día de los Muertos. Conductor Donato Cabrera will lead the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra in selections that will include José Pablo Moncayo's Huapango and Aaron Copland's El Salón México. Also featured are selections from Misa Criolla by José Agustín Ramírez and the popular Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán performing such favorites as El Son de La Negra, El Son del Gavilan, and El Pasajero. The Grammy-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus joins the festivities along with Ballet Folklórico artists Los Lupeños de San José.

DONATO CABRERA -- LUIS VALDEZ. Photos, courtesy of SFSymphony and the artist

"My narrative will stitch together the themes of Día de los Muertos," said Luis Valdez during our recent interview. "What I'm doing is sketching a trajectory that takes it historically from pre-Columbian times through the introduction of Catholicism and the Spanish influence with the Mass in which the Day of the Dead became All Souls Day and then into the 20th Century and modern times with the final piece. So I have three separate narratives that I will stitch into the program of music and dance. It's intended to give a point of focus, a narrative focus to the event which in music and in dance is celebrating all of the themes that I will be undertaking in my narrative. I'm using poetry that will be in Aztec and Spanish and then in English. It was written by Prince Nezahualcoyotl who was the ruler of Texcoco in 1582 before the coming of the Spanish. His musings on the brevity of life is really to the point. What it gives is the Aztec root in Mexico of that whole tradition of looking at death in a much more open-eyed kind of way - accepting death as part of the reality of life, not shying away from it but really looking at it. To the extent that within Aztec culture they were able to take bones and skulls and rework them as objects of art, that eventually gave shape and form to the use of the calavera or the skeleton figure in Mexican popular culture."

A walk-through Campo Santo (Cemetery) in the lobby of Davies Hall. Presented by Casa Bonampak in collaboration with Loco Bloco. Photo, S.M.

"When you delve into the religion and the concept, it really is ancient. It pre-dates the Aztecs. They adapted a lot of the ideas they got from the Mayans. The key element was that life was considered to be a natural process. So, when someone died, they became identified with the Corn God. In their perspective, life and death were like the whole natural cycle of plants - you put a seed in the ground and it re-sprouts. It becomes fruit again. Or it becomes corn, that being the essence of human flesh. Our human flesh was created by the gods from corn. So, death and re-birth were akin to planting and the cycles of life and death were like the cycles in Nature. This almost organic approach to life and death has within it, of course, the element of rebirth. You die, but you are re-born essentially, like a corn plant. You have to think of the spiritual in terms of the material as well. They didn't draw quite the stark distinction that the Christian world does. In the Christian world you are dealing with the image of the blood sacrifice. The idea of the Redeemer as the Lamb of God was attached to the idea of sacrificing animals. The idea of resurrection or rebirth is really more of a disconnected spiritual idea not necessarily connected to physicality. That's the very subtle distinction."

"Look deep into my nose!" - Artist Aiko Cuneo's big musical paper mache skull welcomes the audience in the lobby of Davies Hall. Photo, S.M.

"The Maya and the Aztec considered themselves part of the natural world and the natural cycles. Whereas in the Christian world there is the idea that the flesh is somehow inferior to the spirit. So, if resurrection comes, it occurs at the level of the soul. It's a slight twist, in the sense that in Mexican culture - which had to co-ordinate them - the conquest of Mexico was really the end of the world for the pre-Columbian peoples, but they were reborn. The Renaissance didn't just happen in Europe. It happened in Mexico. What was reborn was a kind of syncretism, the cultures blended together to create All Souls Day. That being a Catholic expression, All Souls Day dealt with the idea of the soul, but it didn't lose the grounding in the physicality of the Aztecs. The way that this became expressed in the Day of the Dead is the use of skulls as almost living figures. The calavera dances, sings, eats, and parties. You see this in images and lithographs from the 20th Century, especially those by Posada. It's a very popular expression of this notion that we're all reborn, in a sense, in life. Death itself, the very image of death, is a symbol of life. Life emerges from death, death emerges from life."

The celebration of Día de los Muertos has become increasingly popular across all cultural communities. It is a day that is resplendent with the creation of altars that are filled with photos of loved ones and lovingly packed with personal objects, foodstuffs and treats, libations of all sorts, candles, flowers (especially marigolds), skulls (the cavaleras) and costumed skeletons enjoying every aspect of life. I asked Mr. Valdez about his own participation in the celebration and the kinds of altars he has constructed and who they were for.

"My theatre company, El Teatro Campesino, has been around for forty-seven years. We actually started with Cesar Chavez on the picket lines during the grape strikes. El Teatro Campesino means "The Farmworkers Theater". For the last forty-one years we've been based in San Juan Bautista. When we came here in 1971 we began to celebrate the Day of the Dead as part of our annual cycle. We were part of what we call the Chicano Movement - the Chicano Arts Movement. It was really the renewal of a lot of Mexican traditions, but in the United States. It was a bi-lingual and even a multi-cultural celebration. It became available and open to anybody and everybody. We had been incorporating the figure of the dancing skeleton in our theatre works from the very beginning, ever since 1965. We had pieces we were touring all over the country. As we did that, we began to spark curiosity about the Day of the Dead. We became part of the wave of Chicano artists that re-invigorated and revived the Day of the Dead as a community celebration."

The Two Fridas. Images of famous artists and musicians adorn the costumes of these life-size figures created by Victoria Canby. Photo, S.M.

"Before we began to do it in the late Sixties, people were aware of it in Mexico because it never went away in Mexico. But they didn't do it here in our communities in the United States. Since then, it has taken real root in the Southwest and on to the East Coast. It involves the construction of community altars in public spaces and people are invited - either in a personal or an organizational kind of way - to set these up. We've been setting them up here in San Juan Bautista since 1971 and they're up again this year at the Teatro Campesino. We invite the community to bring their personal offerings to their dearly departed - photographs, the favorite objects, etc. We have about a dozen altars that get set up in our theater. They become objects of art. The tradition is to not just remember departed loved ones, but to also bring forth things they enjoyed - everything from cigarettes to liquor to food. The point of focus is bread - the Pan de Muertos."

As an enthusiastic baker, I found a five-star recipe for Pan de Muertos and am surprised at its versatility. The bread's dominant flavors come from whole anise seeds and orange peel and its traditional circular shape is decorated with additional dough that has been rolled and shaped into bones and then brushed with sweet glazes.

"It varies depending on the community and the region in Mexico," said Luis. "Also, the imagination of the baker. We're talking about a tradition that spans the whole of Mexico. The other tradition is the use of the sugar candy skull. They're imported here, but at this time of year in Mexico you'll find them in all the market places. The tradition is that the candy skull is bought for a loved one, someone who is still alive. It's like a birthday present, but in this case it's a death day present."

The Mariachis. A section of an altar devoted to singer Chavela Vargas created by the Community Music Center and students from the Buena-Vista Horace Mann School in San Francisco. Photo, S.M.

In 1987, the creation of the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt was a massive and ultimately creative response by the people of San Francisco to the AIDS epidemic. It was a miraculous way to channel grief, to humanize the tragedy, and to protest the lack of response and indifference by the White House and the Federal Government. Since then, the AIDS Quilt - eventually weighing-in at fifty-four tons - has become the largest piece of folk art ever created. It was inevitable that the healthy and embracing energies of Día de los Muertos would attract and hold the people of the City of Saint Francis.

"The AIDS epidemic," said Luis Valdez, "and the attitude towards so many artistic people - that whole celebration of life again, in the face of death, attained in San Francisco especially a Day of the Dead flavor. Some of the celebrations I have read about, the pictures I've seen, the coffins and presentations and the offerings that have been made - I believe approach the spirit of the Day of the Dead. It becomes Mexican in that sense. In the universal sense, it is an attempt to try to deal with unspeakable sorrow by countering with a life-giving expression. Coming from artists, that makes perfect sense. Also, embracing the tragedy of death at a young age, particularly of somebody who was creative and brilliant to begin with. All of that has been a very interesting phenomenon coming out of the AIDS epidemic. At the same time, it has planted another seed in American culture."

A Quetzalcoatl of Chiles. By Victoria Canby. A serpent made of 50 pounds of Guajillo chiles waits for you on the Second Tier. Photo, S.M