La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead

Institute History

  • 1989 Sundance Film Festival


“The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and most steadfast love.” —Octavio Paz

Each November first the dead come to visit. They are received and given offerings (ofrendas) of food, flowers, art and mementos of their presence on earth—either at the cemetery or on an altar at home. A custom of the Chicano-Mexican culture practiced since ancient times, this occasion is anything but solemn or serious. It is one of the most intimate, friendly family festivals of the year—a time of reunion of the living with the dead.

The makers of Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo take a nontraditional look at this tradition in a film saturated with color and life. Stunning to the eye, this exploration of a true phenomenon evokes the loving, sometimes-humorous nature of Mexican attitudes toward death. Within the framework of the narrator’s personal journey—a Chicana’s quest to understand her culture, Mexico, and the Day of the Dead—La Ofrenda reflects on the pre-Hispanic roots of el Dia de los Muertos, and then looks at the present-day celebration in Oaxaca and its permutations in the United States. While the practice may be waning in major urban centers, or being subsumed in the U. S. by Halloween, it continues to flourish as part of the cultural renaissance in Chicano communities in the Southwest and California.

Interviews with the people of Oaxaca, as well as Mexican American scholars, psychologists and artists (who create both the altars and the fantastically decorated skeletons, or calaveras) illuminate the social dimensions of death and their complex cultural underpinnings.; In recent years a remarkably diverse group of participants has been drawn to these celebrations: people of all ages and religions who represent widely varying ethnic backgrounds. The motives that bring them are also diverse: some come to mourn for lost friends or relatives, others to commemorate whole groups of people, the casualties of war and AIDS. Many use the holiday to confront in a public setting their private assumptions and feeling about mortality. La Ofrenda offers the viewer a similar opportunity: to confront and contemplate one’s own mortality while immersing oneself in a candlelit and sun-drenched film redolent with sensuousness joy.

— Robert Hawk

Screening Details

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