Juan Carlos Martin Trejo is a young man with multiple talents. He has been involved with HoLa Hora Latina for the last two years. He and Hector Saldivar were the inspiration for the Day of the Dead altar contest.
He is originally from the Mezquital Valley in the Mexican state of Hidalgo. For generations, his family’s occupation has been agriculture and handcrafts made of ixtle, the fiber of the maguey cactus, a very strong fiber. Women harvest and make thread out of the ixtle fiber that is later knitted into loofas, mittens, soap pouches, and larger bags.29 “It is hard to commercialize”, says Juan Carlos. A mitten could take a week to make!
Despite his young age, Juan Carlos can show us so many things! He makes his crafts just for fun, but he also wants others to learn. He knows how to play guitar, harmonica, and he taught himself violin (see video). He plays and sings at his Catholic church. He also paints, mainly paintings with symbols. “Before there was written language, people drew symbols that told a story,” he says.
Juan Carlos is knowledgeable in herbal medicine as well. “There are different herbs, whether it is for a physical or a spiritual pain.” He knows which herb to use to calm a headache. He might use a Temascal bath to heal one’s soul, a remedy for the blues; to make someone happy.
When asked about most common ingredients he pronounces various native names: "gasnodo"… "nyai"… "yahuada"… "cashuada"… "datua"… "ehu"… "jedabra jine". He learned those in his native language, "Hñahñu" (it means “a man who speaks through his nose"). Commonly called "Otomí," Hñahñu belongs to the Otomanguean language family of central Mexico, the most diverse and geographically widespread indigenous language family in Mesoamerica.30 He learned the language orally from his parents and grandparents.
Juan Carlos is a wood crafter as well. He made a torito (little bull),31 an ornate wooden and paper mache structure, to exhibit at HoLa Festival. “I learned to make them by watching one made at a fair.” In Mexico, toritos are festive symbols used at every fair. They have fireworks and sometimes they are used for amateur bullfightersto practice their moves. Juan Carlos also built a marionette theater and even wired a skeleton marionette.
Juan Carlos also paints, mainly to express dreams or thoughts, or images like Our Lady of Guadalupe. Last October he created a large mural with 20 16"x20" pieces, depicting la Calavera Garbancera image—also known as La Catrina—originally created by Jose Guadalupe Posada. It was shown at Casa HoLa throughout the fall.
One of his fondest childhood memories is learning observance of the many holidays and traditions, such as Day of the Dead, Las Posadas, December holidays, and local fairs. At school and at home he learned to make paper crafts like balloons and papel picado decorations.32 Men, women, and children participate in all those activities. That is how children learn.
Juan Carlos says, “We wish people would be interested and have a desire to learn more about our roots so that they can know more about Mexico. There are different parts or pieces, to be united. Those who come after us, our children, [I wish] they would learn.”
Juan Carlos set up a beautiful traditional altar in honor of his deceased grandmother. He included a picture of her and many of the things she enjoyed in life. His cousin and he carefully decorated the table for over two hours. The beautiful pictures barely capture the magical moment.
The room's air is heavy with the sweet smells of flowers and bread.
Juan Carlos explains some of the elements we can see in his altar. “My grandmother was an artisan. She would work ixtle to make items for sale. That is how everyone survived.” He has brought long maguey cactus leaves that serve now as large containers for fresh, dried fruit and many other items.
Every altar has a flower of strong aroma. “It is the cempaxúchitl,” similar, but larger than a marigold. “The smell is mixed with the food, and that is a call to the deceased to come join us.”
Juan Carlos speaks in short sentences, carefully choosing Spanish words that might match his Hñahñu thoughts. “The water. A glass of water with bread on top is for those who are not remembered.” He points to a round large bread, his grandma’s favorite. “[The altar] is missing the arch. The arch could be round or square. If it is round, it is for the moon. If it is square, it is for the sun.” So much symbolism in Juan Carlos’ altar. “I didn’t put an arch, but here is the sun.” A large black canvas with an intricate figure he painted. “The sun is like a father or god. The moon is like a mother.” The candles are placed exactly North, South, East, and West.
Close to the altar, different smells can be perceived. “The incense is copal.” It has been burned since Prehispanic times for communication between the living and dead. Juan Carlos points out that every culture from the Olmecs to the Mayas to the Aztecs to modern Mexicans believed in the afterlife and that souls can cross and visit the physical Earth. His family sets altars at home, but they also visit the graves.
Fresh fruits include oranges, pears, tunas (nopal cactus fruit), and many varieties of candied fruit, such as citron and pumpkin. Almonds, flavored sunflower seeds, and cakes made of seeds and honey. Sugar cane, and corn. “All these were her favorite things to eat.” Sometimes there is other food like chicharrón (pork rinds), a favorite snack food in Mexico. Traditional cooking utensils, clay pots, tortilla press, and a molcajete—a pestle and mortar that children use to learn to make salsa—are included on the altar. Most of these items he brought from Mexico. Bread is shaped in different ways—a bun with a cross, a person, or even a pig—and it is a sweet dough recipe cooked especially for Day of the Dead.
He points to the papel picado, cut paper decorations around the table. “Paper is used to represent wind.” Juan Carlos could not find the right type of paper, but he used colored tissue paper to cut geometrical shapes into papel picado rectangles.
“Every altar must have corn. We believe we come from corn.” It is a Prehispanic belief. After the contest is over some of the food will be consumed, in "communion" with those honored. Taking the altar down is ceremonial as well. The long maguey leaves and rests of fruit and flowers will be buried, the way tradition calls.
A minute of silence to take it all in… Mexican culture is a full five-sense experience. Or maybe six.
Watch Video 78: Juan Carlos Martin Trejo describes his Day of the Dead altar. Video by Coral Getino.
Watch Video 79: Juan Carlos Martin Trejo plays guerrilla song at violin, 2012. Video by Rafael Casco.
Photo 74: Juan Carlos Martin Trejo poses next to his Day of the Dead altar, in honor of his grandmother, November 2011. Photo by Rafael Casco.
Photo 75: Torito made by Juan Carlos Martin Trejo, exhibited at HoLa Festival 2010. Photo by Dana Evers-Boehm.
Photo 76: Itxle fiber crafts handmade by Juan Carlos Martin Trejo’s relatives. On the upper left section shows spindle with itxle fiber thread. Photo by Rafael Casco.
Photo 77: Juan Carlos Martin Trejo next to a mural he made of La Catrina. Photo by Coral Getino.
Quintana Pali,Miguel. Xcaret Expresiones Únicas de México.
Mexico: Xcalet, year unknown.