Day of Many Dead: Remembering the Tlatelolco Massacre

1968, cited by Newsweek as “the Year That Changed Everything” and reconstructed as the beginning of a renewed, global political awakening, featured landmark protests in Paris, Prague and the United States, which are often referenced and eulogized. However, renewed interest in the legacy of 1968, often focused on events in America and Europe, tends to leave out another significant historical event: the Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City. The theme of the National Mexican Museum of Art’s annual Día de los Muertos exhibition commemorates and assesses this “year that changed everything,” particularly in light of the Tlatelolco Massacre. “La Vida Sin Fin” is dedicated to the victims whose lives were claimed when on October 2, 1968, ten days prior to the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, an estimated crowd of 5000 peaceful demonstrators were fired upon indiscriminately by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz’s soldiers.

Tissue garlands cut in shapes of dancing skeletons are draped across the ceilings of the gallery at the National Museum of Mexican Art. Every October, the Día de los Muertos exhibition is shown, featuring art, Mexican artifacts, and special ofrendas assembled and curated by Mexican artists commissioned by the museum. This year the contributions vary widely, including paintings, photographs, yarn paintings, an installation of polychrome papier-mâché skulls, and an intricate set-up of marionette skeletons constructed out of wood. Among all these things, however, the main feature of the exhibition is the ofrenda, an altar prepared by friends and neighbors following the death of a member of the community. The altar offers traditional food, beer, flowers, cigarettes, and memorabilia that memorializes the individual’s life. It is an ancient belief that the first two days of November are when it is easiest for deceased children and adults, respectively, to communicate with the living. Erected in the main living room of the home, the ofrenda is left up all night and transported to the gravesite in the morning. It is often accompanied by shooting fireworks while consuming alcoholic drinks and traditional foods, and followed by a nightlong vigil.

In this exhibit, artists designed ofrendas in honor of a professor, the entire side of his father’s family, a namesake, the earth itself, and more. “Prayer for the Earth,” by self-described “artist, naturalist and environmentalist” Linda Vallejo, takes up an approximately 6 x 6 foot space in the corner, surrounded by an egg yolk yellow shade of paint, contrasting the spicy purple coating the gallery’s remaining wall space. Unlike most of the other ofrendas, “Prayer for the Earth” is laid on the floor, a plot of crushed coral frame photographs that surrounds a blue marble mandala. Vallejo–who stood by her installation and offered explanations as patrons passed at the opening reception last Friday–described the mandala as a circular design used by “various spiritual traditions–Buddhist, Tibetan…” among others. An interpretation unlike the other ofrendas in the exhibit, her piece honors what’s been lost other than humans: “melting icecaps, deforestation, depletion of species–the tigers are practically gone,” Vallejo said.

The final two rooms of the exhibit contain the “installation in honor of the more than three hundred unarmed protestors who lost their lives at the Tlatelolco Plaza.” Current students and faculty at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) created it at the Museum’s invitation. A plaster wall stands in the center of the first room, covered in a collage of various photos, the logo from the ’68 Olympics, news clippings and other images from the period, as well as drawings and audiovisual pieces. Simple white columns with poems in Spanish verse stand as the only part of the exhibit that provides no English translation. Inspiration is drawn from both the Tlatelolco Massacre itself and concurrent popular art of the day: manipulated pop art such as a protruding faux-Warholian Cambell’s soup can mimics the original font and reads, vertically: “Tlatelolco–Mexico–Massacre–Soup,” and has the image of the Olympic rings in the center, along with Rosenquist pieces, Beatles album covers and more. Elena Poniatowska, the pioneering Polish-Mexican journalist and author of “The Night of Tlatelolco,” will speak and read from her book at the museum on October 4. National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th Street. Through December 14. Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm.