The Mexican tradition of Día de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, as we know it today is a blend of Catholic and indigenous traditions. It is the holiday's ancient origins that is of particular interest to Detroit artist Kia Arriaga. Of mixed Aztec and Spanish ancestry herself, Arriaga has been helping keep Aztec traditions alive in Detroit ever since moving here 16 years ago from Mexico. In addition to being a blacksmith and object-maker, she is a member of an Aztec dance group.
Arriaga created one of the 16 ofrendas now on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts' annual Day of the Dead exhibition. We spoke with her by phone to learn more about her work, and the Day of the Dead's ancient origins.
Metro Times: To start, can you tell us more about the pre-Catholic origins of Day of the Dead?
Kia Arriaga: It actually started with the Aztec and the Mayans. The Spaniards took the tradition — when they came, they couldn't eradicate everything. Our native people were a little bit stubborn about letting go of all of things that we believe in. So we kind of came to an agreement about keeping our way. The date was changed. The Day of the Dead ceremonies for the Aztecs were in July and late August. When the Spaniards came, they moved it to All Saints' Day, on Nov. 2.
MT: What were some of those original traditions?
Arriaga: It was originally a ceremony for the harvest — we would like to share it with the people who passed away. We believed that these souls would return and share with us some of our food and some of the things that we used to prepare for winter. The first ceremony in July was made for the kids — the little souls that passed away. There's a special name for it: "Mikailhuitontli." The second ceremony, "Huey Mikailhuitontli," was a feast for the bigger people. So they melded these two traditions later on.
For the Aztecs, the main ceremony were actually for an whole entire month — the Aztec month was 20 days. They had these gatherings. The community came and did all of these ceremonies just to thank the earth. It was a gathering to talk about what we can make, what can we do to make things better food-wise, with our resources. So it was very important. The Aztecs made these altars on the floor. They were made out of seeds and flowers. And this tradition is still going in Mexico in some regions.
MT: Did you grow up with those ancient traditions, or did you discover them later in life?
Arriaga: Actually, we practiced them at home. I'm 50 percent Aztec, so my dad was brought up with these kinds of ceremonies. He was not really sure, because it was not the norm. But times change, and people get used to seeing this more, and they don't pick on you anymore. [Laughs.] People are becoming more interested in these ways. They don't want to be "Spanish" anymore — they want to know where they come from. That's how a lot of people get into these traditions. They're investigating, and trying to research it. We learn from elders — that's how we pass the tradition on.
MT: It seems like perhaps now more than ever now there's a newfound appreciation for these cultures.
Arriaga: I think it's a really good thing to know where you're coming from. That's something that a lot of people in a group want to relate — they need a starting point. For these kinds of significant traditions, I think just knowing about it is so important, because you have that connection. It didn't come out of nowhere.
MT: Can you tell us more about your ofrenda for this year?
Arriaga: This new ofrenda has a lot of my artwork in it. I've been practicing a lot with ceramics and clay and different materials this year. The main ofrenda is inspired by Aztec motifs on the floor. The central part is the tree of life — that's something that's revered by many cultures around the world, not just the Aztecs and Mayans. So I kind of tried to bring people in it, to connect with other cultures. That's my aim — to make people aware that we're not all that different, to try to go back to that connection with the earth, and how important it is to know your roots. There are some arrows on the floor — I'm talking about people who maybe feel a little lost. Maybe they can find a common point, to be a part of something bigger.
Ofrenda Altars is on view until Sunday, Nov. 1. Arriaga will participate in an artist talk starting at 3 p.m. on Nov. 1 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org; included with general museum.