“GO TO THE TORTILLA SHOP ON the corner. You'll find a big, dark-skinned man who works there and looks like a wrestler, with many tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his arms. He knows everyone in this neighborhood.
He'll be able to help you." When you get to the tortilla shop, stagger to it along the dark, rocky road with scruffy pariah mutts growling at your heels, you will find that the shop is, of course, closed. Two pregnant women who stand chatting there tell you the tortilla shop has been closed, not just for hours, but for years.
“Cerrado ya por muchos anos,” one of them tells you with a tired laugh. Closed for many years. And she tosses the thick, long braid she’s been fussing with back over her shoulder.
She’s curious as to just why a sweaty gringo is trudging around her neighborhood on a muggy, moonless night, looking for a tortilla shop that likely was already closed when she was still a virgin.
“And the big man who looks like a wrestler?” you ask. “With many tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his arms?”
The braid-tosser squints at you through the gloom and shakes her head.
“A woman down the street,” you continue, noting that the braid-tosser’s companion has begun to eye you suspiciously, “told me he knew everyone in the neighborhood. She said he could help me find someone. I’m looking for a man who makes skeletons. I’ve been told he lives around here.”*
“Skeletons?” The braid-tosser’s eyebrows arch higher and higher on her forehead. “Esqueletos?”
“A man who makes skeletons?” echoes her suspicious companion.
The two women look at each other.
Simultaneously they shake their heads and say, “No, sehor. We’ve never heard of anything like that.”
They turn and, shoulder to shoulder, walk slowly, cautiously away.
The Colonia Rubi, the neighborhood in which you stand and, after a lengthy day of fruitless searching, watch two pregnant women desert you in front of a long-defunct tortilla shop, is one of the immense, spontaneous suburbs that have mushroomed on Tijuana’s prodigious outskirts. Colonia Rubi swells and rambles up and along steep, barren, clay-colored hills about two miles west of Boulevard Agua Caliente. In daylight, from some streets in Colonia Rubi, you can spot the tall twin towers of the swanky Hotel Fiesta Americana rising from the far-below city’s gritty haze.
Few if any tourists find their way to Colonia Rubi. Few if any members of Tijuana’s middle class find their way to Colonia Rubi. It has no department stores or duty-free perfume shops. You cannot place an off-track bet in Colonia Rubi, nor order prime rib there. It has no parks or discotheques to speak of. Colonia Rubi is, in fact, more a point of departure than a destination. The tens of thousands of people who have come to live there have come to carve, literally, for themselves a toehold to a better life. From Mexico City, from the deep interior, from the south, they’ve come to build, with scrap lumber, tarpaper, wooden crates, and discarded tires, rickety launching pads from which to attain the lower stratum of lives incorporated into Tijuana’s tenuous free-market economy. Such a hopeful trajectory is arduous, and dreams of this magnitude would seem to require a basis more stable than one constructed of scrap lumber and discarded tires. So many of the makeshift, temporary dwellings in Colonia Rubi have by now assumed a lived-in look suggesting an uneasy permanency — the only kind of permanency you could really hope to suggest on hillsides whose geologic integrity is compromised by shuffling feet, car traffic, wind and, God forbid, occasional rain.
Colonia Rubi is, then, the perfect neighborhood for your skeleton-making mystery man — the mystery man who plays, in his way, with life’s transience. After all, the notion of permanency doesn’t come to mind easily in Colonia Rubi. Its poorer stretches clutch and cling to these unstable hills. Sewage runs in rivulets down steep, rock-strewn roads. Chickens scratch dirt. Skinny dogs doze under abandoned cars. A sickly gray kitten twitches through its miniature death rattle in the shade of a small corner store, and the two girls sitting on cinder blocks beside it, sipping warm Cokes, don’t notice.
Indians live in Colonia Rubi. You see their women, las Marias as they’re referred to in slang, waiting for buses with their grimy babies strapped to their backs. These are the short, round-faced, dark-skinned women who dispatch their toddlers to pester you for change or to sell you gum when you walk down Avenida Revolucion. These are the women who sit on the pedestrian bridge over the Tijuana River and chew pumpkin seeds while their children maniacally strum toy guitars and screech love songs for the tourist’s casual dime tossed their way. These are women, often married to polygamous men, who have, all in their stubborn, indigenously defiant way, evaded the government’s every brutal program to integrate them into mainstream Mexican society. These people are Mexico’s little dark shame. And the presence of Indians in Colonia Rubi gives you a pretty good idea of just what kind of neighborhood it is.
Which is to say, not a very respectable one, although poverty has nothing to do with it. Indians are in Mexico, as they are elsewhere in the New World, the skeleton in the national historical closet. Their persistent, awkward presence in Mexico is exacerbated by the fact that most Mexicans are mestizos— they have Indian blood. This state of affairs is somewhat unique in Latin America, where some countries, like Argentina, long ago conveniently massacred their Indian populations or, as in Bolivia, observed an informal but strict system of social apartheid. Mexicans are therefore closer to their unruly, pre-Christian past. Despite attempts early this century to make much political hay of Mexico’s mestizaje, or mixed-bloodedness, the nation’s flat-nosed, non-European ancestry still remains something of a sore spot.
It’s not difficult to understand why. The dark-skinned, flat-nosed face is the face of the conquered. The Indian face is associated with deplorable things — the blankets rife with typhus handed over to the Aztecs by the conquistadors, feet held to fire to extract the whereabouts of golden treasure, Oaxacan union organizers gunned down by modern Mexico’s troops. It is the face of impotent rural poverty. The face, more bluntly put, of a loser, not a winner. The Indian face is associated with death.
The Day of the Dead, therefore, is associated with Indians. And with old women, who are, in their way, an equivalent of Indians — useless, stubborn reminders of the frequently inconvenient and painful past.
(It’s interesting to note that Malcolm Lowry, author of the famous novel Under the Volcano, whose narrative plays out in Mexico on Day of the Dead 1939, wrote the entire 375-page book while standing. As a result, Lowry developed painful varicose veins in his legs, a condition associated with old women and with others long oppressed by hard work.)
The Indian association with the Day of the Dead was inevitable. The first Christian missionaries to what was then called New Spain, three Flemish monks who arrived in 1522, had a devil of a time, as did the missionaries who came later, getting their Indian converts to make sufficiently precise distinctions between their pagan, pre-Hispanic rituals and those rituals and holidays of the Church. The Aztec religion, for one mysterious reason or another, already had many rituals that bore a strong resemblance to standard Christian practices. The Aztecs already had a ritual form of baptism, of communion, and more significantly, several grand festivals for the dead that for the missionaries shared an uncomfortable look and feel with the Church’s Feast of All Saints, a memorial festival officially incorporated into the Catholic liturgical calendar by Pope Boniface IV in the 7th Century.
So, since well before Europe became Christian, the Indians had been, in their own way, according to their own complex religious calendar, setting aside a few days a year to remember their departed loved ones. An elegant confusion with the Catholic tradition was bound to happen, as was the intermarriage of Indian and Spanish blood. Over the centuries, the problems that had so worried Mexico’s first missionaries faded into insignificance. Mexico was converted. And today nobody seems particularly concerned that the contemporary celebration of the Day of the Dead still harbors elements of a human-sacrificial pagan past.
At least not outwardly concerned. No one is particularly concerned about paganism, per se. But the Day of the Dead is yet at the center of a cultural tug of war. The relentless tugging this way and that has nothing to do with Catholicism and everything to do with the complex relations between the U.S. and Mexico, with how Mexicans and Chicanos see themselves in relation to Great White Anglo America. Day of the Dead, at the end of the 20th Century, is still caught up in stories about the oppressor and the oppressed. And how could it ever be otherwise? After all, we are all — Mexican, Chicano, and American alike — under the boot of the Great Oppressor, Death.
Victor Ochoa, an artist central to the founding and perpetuation of the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park, has used death symbols. Day of the Dead symbols, in his work for almost all his artistic life. Ochoa is a big, impressive man, whose broad face looks gentler, more Mayan than angular Aztec. (“Most of us Mexicans,” he says, “are part Indian, although a lot say, ‘Oh, my family’s European.’ My grandmother, it turns out, was a Zapotec Indian. She spoke Zapotec.”) He is soft-spoken, says he was an “introverted kid” who liked to draw. And it was a typically imperious whim of the Immigration and Naturalization Service that brought this introverted kid into a profound and prosperous involvement with the Day of the Dead. In the late ’50s, Ochoa and his family were deported from East Los Angeles to Tijuana in the vast repatriation program called Operation Wetback.
“After we were deported,” he remembers, "my family went to live with relatives in Zona Norte. At some point, one of my relatives gave me a flat of marigold seeds and told me I should start a garden. So I went out to the yard and dug out a small patch of dirt and planted my seeds, and they grew. They grew! I was so surprised. They did very well. In Mexico, marigolds are called cempasuchil — it’s an Indian word — and they are the traditional flower of Day of the Dead. But we don’t have just the yellow ones that are most common in the U.S. We have bright orange ones and many more varieties, all sorts of sizes and colors. And after I saw how well my flowers did, I grew more and more. The flower bed in our front yard just got bigger and bigger every year.
“At some point, I don’t remember when, my father suggested that I could make some money by selling my flowers during Day of the Dead. I’d never really thought much about Day of the Dead. I was just a kid, and Day of the Dead was something for old people. My maternal grandmother, for example, made a Day of the Dead altar every year. I remember this because one of the foods she put on it was M&Ms, and I really liked M&Ms.
“The altar, or ofrenda, is one of the few Day of the Dead customs my family observed. The ofrenda is pretty much found all over Mexico; in some places they’re very elaborate, with fabric, candles, marigolds, paper decorations. You leave foods on them that were the favorites of whoever was dead, like tequila or turkey in mole sauce. But it’s important to remember that people from all over Mexico come to Tijuana, and each region, each village, has its own customs. I remember being in a certain neighborhood when I was young during the Day of the Dead and seeing a big procession, with people dancing around in masks. It was their custom from wherever in Mexico they were from. It looked kinda like the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. When I’d go to the cemetery in Zona Norte, I’d see all kinds of different things. Some people were crying. Some people were happy and sang songs. Some people knelt and said rosaries in front of the graves. Some people drank, others ate carne asada. And I started going to this cemetery in Zona Norte every year during Day of the Dead to make some money.
“My dad helped me fix up a little wheelbarrow, and I put in it a whole bunch of my marigolds, and a bucket of water, and a brush, and a broom, and I’d go down to the cemetery, and for 25 cents; I’d clean off a grave, wash it, scrub the headstone, and leave fresh flowers on it. This got to be quite an industry. Within a few years I was one of the principal wage earners in my home. I was making enough money that people would come to me for loans. But I was more interested in art. In drawing. My mother said that unlike other kids, when I drew pictures of people, I never drew simple stick figures. I always made my people look like people. I’d put a hat on them or have them hold a cigarette. If I drew a picture of the city, I’d do something special, like put an airplane flying over it. My parents encouraged me. I was the very first kid in Tijuana to have a set of felt markers.”
One of the things Ochoa says he’s always liked to draw was skulls, which is not a surprising predilection for a natural artist. The skeleton is called by artists the “phantom structure” of the human form, and a formally trained artist begins his education with a careful study of how the human body is constructed, bone by bone. However, later in his life, Ochoa’s American teachers didn't find his fascination appropriate.
“When I was studying art at San Diego State in the early 1970s,” he says, “using so-called ethnic subject matter wasn’t exactly encouraged. If I tried to paint or draw anything, for example, about my relationship with my father, I was discouraged; I was told it was 'too ethnic.’ If I used Mexican elements, like, say, skulls or skeletons, I was told, 'Victor, you’re limiting yourself. You’re painting for a certain audience.’
“You have to remember that at this time, Chicano consciousness was still a relatively new phenomenon. It was. however, a very exciting time. And a very crucial time for the development of what I guess you’d call the formal recognition of the Day of the Dead.
“As far as I’ve been able to establish, in 1971 the Galeria de la Raza, a Chicano art gallery in San Francisco’s Mission District, sponsored a big Day of the Dead celebration. They had a big parade with people in costumes and had altars, flowers, music, food. Many of the people living in the Mission District were Mexican immigrants from all over rural Mexico, where Day of the Dead was traditionally a very big fiesta. By chance, the Mexican consul from Sacramento attended this Galeria de la Raza Day of the Dead celebration, and he was amazed at how successful it was, how beautiful it was.
"He also happened to be good friends with the president of Mexico at that time. So he called the president in Mexico City and told him about this fantastic celebration he’d seen, and he told the president that the government should encourage public observance of Day of the Dead as an important part of the national cultural heritage. So that is why to this day there are big public displays of ofrendas, even ofrenda contests, during Day of Dead, in public buildings and museums all over Mexico.
“It’s strange if you think about it — this back and forth, long trip of Day of the Dead. That it took a celebration in San Francisco, California, to excite the Mexican government’s official interest in the festival. Of course, there was a great deal involved in all this. You have to remember that this was the time of the United Farm Workers, Cesar Chavez, activism, performances by Teatro Campesino, Chicano rights, Indian rights. Hell, here in San Diego people even locked themselves into what’s now the Aerospace Museum with chains so they could have a place for Chicano art. We had cleaned the place up. It was just used to house a bunch of junk. The police came.
“So there was all this awareness about campesinos — rural people, the farm workers, Indians, Indian heritage — the sorts of people who traditionally celebrated Day of the Dead. Even I became interested in the Indian parts of my family. When I made this big trip back to visit all my relatives in Mexico City, in Sonora, they’d already heard about my interest and made sure to prepare ethnic food for me, like nopales, you know, cactus.
“It was a very rich time. A very rich time here in San Diego, too, where people have been uncomfortable with Day of the Dead imagery. In 1973, I remember, I was asked to give a presentation here at Sherman Elementary School on Mexican and Chicano art. I showed slides of a lot of stuff, and some of it included images, paintings that had skulls and snakes in them. I remember the white teachers got freaked out when they saw them. The skulls! They thought they were evil symbols, satanic or something. They actually walked out of the classroom. It turned into a big ordeal. All the Mexican teachers’ assistants were really upset by this behavior. This turned into a good thing, because the next year I got many phone calls to do the presentation.
“White people also got freaked out by a painting of a skeleton we had here on the side of the Centro Cultural de la Raza. It was part of the mural painted by an artist named Ernesto Paul. It was a big skeleton in front of a cauldron sticking a hypodermic into his arm — not really Day of the Dead material, but certainly within the artistic tradition. Anyway, the Navy Hospital’s administration got really freaked out about it and started calling and saying, ‘Our boys are all ill, and they have to lay over here in their hospital beds and stare all day long at that skeleton, and it frightens them. It disturbs them.’ So finally in 1980, to satisfy these people, I painted a large portrait of Geronimo over the skeleton, which was somehow less disturbing to the Navy Hospital.
“Come to think of it, this area has another odd relationship to Day of the Dead. The founder of the Galeria de la Raza in the San Francisco Mission District was born in Tijuana. He doesn’t like to admit it, but whenever we see him, we say, ‘Hey, weren’t you born in Tijuana?’ We like to razz him about it.
“The only local Mexican guy I can think of, the only one in Baja California who works principally with Day of the Dead, is this artist named Asturiano. He lives in Tijuana. Every year he does a big Day of the Dead display in this store called Interiores Los Tres Rios in Rosarito. He lives in Colonia Rubi in Tijuana. He’s kind of hard to get in touch with, because he doesn’t have a phone. But he’s very, very good. He sells his stuff, papier-mache statues of skeletons, in Rosarito and Tijuana. I don’t know how you’d find him, but I know he lives in Colonia Rubi.”
You’d find him by going house to house in Colonia Rubi, by asking one puzzled resident after the next if they knew of an artist named Asturiano who makes skeletons out of papier-mache, “You know. Day of the Dead skeletons.” And resident after puzzled resident would look at your sweaty white face as if you’d lost your mind and tell you politely that no, they’d never, ever heard of Asturiano.
Finally, on a hot afternoon, after several days of searching, by sheer serendipity you’d walk into a small comer store somewhere high in the hills of Colonia Rubi, a small store in front of which a sick gray kitten twitched through its miniature death rattle, and ask the store’s pretty young clerk, who’s anxious to leave for lunch, if she’s ever heard of a man who made skeletons.
“Oh,” she says miraculously, her eyes bright, “You mean Jose! Jose and his wife live up the hill. Follow the road, and at the top you’ll see a small path on the left. Follow the small path to a blue abandoned car, and loss’s house is to the left of it. Good luck!”
You climb the hill, you follow the path, you find the abandoned blue car, and to the left of it, down a steep slope, precariously poised on a cliff of bare earth, is the house of, reportedly, one of the most talented artists in all of Baja California, of all of northern Mexico. Many of the most respected merchants on Avenida Revolution have told you this. The house rests upon a cement shelf, beneath which yawns an immense expanse of emptiness. One misstep from the house’s front yard (there is no fence, nor guard rail), and it’s a 50-foot drop to the rocky slope below. To descend to the house’s fenceless front yard, you first have to make your way down a set of stairs made of old wooden crates. The house has no front door, but a curtain made of cloth, at which you yell, “Hey, Asturiano?”
He is a short, sturdy, scrappy fellow, like Picasso. Asturiano is Spanish. His parents were refugees to Mexico City from the Spanish Civil War. He wears a small gray cap, which he sort of doffs at you when he breezes through his cloth doorway, his 26-year-old nephew, Aaron Gonzalo, who is also his assistant, trailing behind him.
Asturiano has heard through the grapevine that you were looking for him. But he’s glad that it’s taken you so long, because he very badly wanted to have some finished Day of the Dead work to show you. It isn’t here, he says, gesturing at his house. It’s in his studio, a few yards away.
The studio, like his home, is a humble structure perched on the hillside. When he opens its door, the corner of the studio where he and Aaron work is washed with gorgeous, creamy light that bathes the whitewashed walls. Asturiano has peeled off this corner of his studio’s wooden roof and replaced it with a sheet of translucent plastic. And the pale light pours down over his papier-mache skeletons and laps against his bookcase, which houses a catalog of Norman Rockwell paintings, a history of Mexican art, and a 30-year-old book about the Bolshoi Ballet. Asturiano is, by training, a set designer, and he loves the sets done for the Bolshoi Ballet.
“I came to Tijuana 15 years ago,” Asturiano says, “to work at the cultural center, which was quite a great project, known all over Mexico. It was going to have a grand theater, many productions. It was a big opportunity for a set designer like myself. Of course, like many things in Mexico, politics played a great part in it, and eventually politics changed. I and many other people had to leave the cultural center. And so here I am, a 45-year-old artist who now works with skeletons. This is not such a surprising thing for a set designer to do. Set design is very basic. A set is the skeleton on which all the drama takes place. A set is the bare bones of a play or a ballet. So in a way, I’ve always been working with skeletons.
“Although I consider myself 100 percent Mexican, completely Mexican, for my parents, when they saw Day of the Dead celebrations, it was like they had landed on a different planet. ' They came from Spain, and although they were happy to be away from the violence and problems of the civil war, all this Indian stuff — people dancing with skull masks, with devil masks—was very unusual and frightening to them. You can imagine. The altars with the paper decorations, the flowers, the candles, the plates of food, the skulls made of sugar. This was all completely foreign to my parents.
“For me, I grew up with it. I ate skulls made of sugar. But because of my Spanish heritage, I was aware that the Mexican Day of the Dead was somehow unique. It was different. My family traveled all over Mexico, from Yucatan to Oaxaca, even far into the north. I got to see a lot of the country, and I got to see many different kinds of Day of the Dead traditions.
“By the time I got to Tijuana and my work at the cultural center had ended, I had a lot of exposure to all kinds of Day of the Dead themes. I was very prepared. I’d had extensive training in many different kinds of media when I was an art student in Mexico City. I’d studied painting, drawing, and sculpture. I’d always been a big fan of the murals by Diego Rivera, whose work is a great inspiration for some of the skeletons I’m doing now.”
Asturiano bustles about the darker corners of his studio to find a copy of Rivera’s 1947 mural Sueno de una tarde dominical en la alameda central, a worn reproduction torn from a photo spread in an old Spanish edition of Vogue.
“See," he says, pointing to the mural’s various, glorious skeletons representing Frida Kahlo and Rivera’s other contemporaries. “I’ve based many of my papier-mache statues on skeletons done by Rivera.
“You know, at one point I dreamt of doing an entire theater of skeletons. Using my set designer’s skills. I wanted to do plays using life-size skeletons. But our opportunities for theater, our space for theater, are much more limited here in Mexico, in Tijuana, than in the United States. So instead of my theater of skeletons. I’ve made these.”
In the splendid light of his studio, Asturiano holds up two of the skeletons he and Aaron have been working on. One is Pancho Villa, which wears a hat; the other is the twin to an elegant lady skeleton from Rivera’s 1947 mural.
“You’ll notice that I take care with my skeletons. I paint the entire figure with a base coat of white acrylic on the inside and out, even in the places on the figure you can’t see. These are true works of art. That’s the difference between my skeleton statues and the kind of thing you might find produced in Oaxaca. There is a big difference between an artist’s work and an artisan’s work. An artisan’s work is, naturally, handmade. It takes a certain degree of talent and taste. But an artisan produces hundreds, maybe thousands of the same thing. He may make very beautiful carved-wood chairs, for example. But they are all the same. Each of an artist’s works is, however, different. I have made many, many skeletons, maybe hundreds, but each one has been different. Each one has been a work of art. I pay attention to individual detail. No two look alike.
“I have made, for example, skeletons of Ronald Reagan. I made a skeleton of Ronald Reagan drinking a bottle of booze while he drove a great big Cadillac. That is, you know, a big Day of the Dead tradition, making skeletons of powerful people and powerful institutions. Of making weak of the strong. Because we are all weak in front of death. I’ve made skeletons of Ronald Reagan and of Mexican presidents like Lopez Portillo.
“I like to put them in cars. In beautiful cars. I am a great fan of American cars. Right now I’m working on several cars into which I’m going to put skeletons. I’m doing a '47 Chrysler, a woody, and a ’?0 Ford, and I’m doing a ’56 Cadillac. I do them all from memory. I do them because I love their form, I love their design.”
“Don’t forget,” Aaron chimes in, as he adds a few touches to Pancho Villa’s hat, “that we also did Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. And Mozart. And Paganini. But we didn’t put them in cars. We had the skeletons of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing. Mozart and Paganini playing music.”
“That’s true,” Asturiano continues. “We don’t put everyone in cars. Right now we’re also working on our big display for Interiores Los Rios, the store whose window I’ve decorated for the past five years. It’s going to have a life-size male skeleton in a casket and a life-size female skeleton standing beside it, drinking a bottle of booze. You know, to help her forget her sorrow.
“I guess it’s a very Mexican thing that other nationalities don’t understand. But they appreciate it. I’ve been told by the store owners who buy my work that my skeletons are all over the world. Europeans who’ve come to Tijuana and Rosarito have bought them. Japanese and Chinese have bought them. Mexicans, I know, have bought them. I don’t think Mexicans have a unique appreciation of death.
“What I do know is that in Mexico death isn’t the big secret it is in the United States. We speak more openly about it. There has always been an open relationship with death in Mexico. But you should remember that Day of the Dead is not a festival of death. It is a festival of memory. The memory of dead people. People who we love. We don’t want to forget them. And if you’re going to remember people who you love who have died, you’re going to have to remember death. It’s inevitable.”
Asturiano and Aaron take you outside, where you can see from the precipice on which the studio rests all of Tijuana’s smoky outline. They want to get back to work.
“Sometimes I worry,” Asturiano says before he tells you good-bye, “that the traditions of Mexico and the traditions of America are going to get all mixed up. During Day of the Dead in Tijuana, the kids get it all confused with Halloween. You see the kids wearing all kinds of masks — Batman masks, Frankenstein masks, the masks that look like the cartoon characters they see on television. I don’t think that most of them know the difference between Day of the Dead and Halloween. I think for them it’s all one big celebration. But there’s always been a Day of the Dead in Mexico. Even before the conquistadors came. Always. I think it’s important never to forget that.”