The U.S. Postal Service was canny about how they announced their fabulous new stamps: “Lively Day of the Dead Stamps Available Soon.” Lively, because in this country, death is not. Death scares us. But these stamps are “colorful”—that adjective is at the top of the news release. They do not have the pallor of a White-dominated culture in which morticians drain all the spirit from the corpse and powder up what is left. They bring us into a world where you can celebrate death, make it part of life, use it to remind yourself of everyone you have loved.
The stamps do not lie: Their colors pop out of a solemn black background, and the skulls evoke grief, death, and decomposition as surely as poor Yorick’s skull did for Hamlet. But there is no sense of alas, no horror or repulsion. These are sugar skulls, delightful to take into ourselves.
The stamps’ designer, Luis Fitch, knew a single stamp would never do; family is what anchors Mexican culture. So he drew the skulls of a mustached father wearing a hat; a mother with hair flip-curled; a girl, hair bow clinging to her cranium; and a boy. Flowers are strewn around them, the bright orange marigolds thought to guide the souls of the dead toward the offerings.
The First Day of Issue Dedication Ceremony will be held at the El Paso Museum of Art on September 30. It will not, one hopes, be stiff or boring. That would cancel the stamps’ message.
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Luis Fitch grew up in Tijuana, where he taught himself to draw and paint as a kid. His parents and neighbors saved envelopes for him, and he carefully steamed off the stamps, miniature posters full of history. In junior high, a teacher hosted a stamp club every Saturday, and his interest deepened as he saw how quickly a stamp could tell a story.
At fifteen, his boyhood hobby seemed suddenly uncool, so he set it aside. When life in Tijuana roughened, he came with his family to San Diego, learned English, and studied graphic design. One of his teachers at the ArtCenter College of Design in L.A. was Mexican, “and guess what our first project was,” Fitch says. “Designing a stamp! One concept, four variations.”
Soon after, he went into a post office and got a brochure detailing a long and complicated process with millions of stamp designs submitted every year. The first criterion: You had to have your own style. His had not yet evolved, but he sent a design in anyway; never heard back.
Years later, Fitch founded UNO Branding, a crosscultural agency. On the side, he helps Mexican-American businesses whenever he can, staying flexible about payment for the start-ups. (When he did an award-winning rebranding for a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, he took his compensation in burritos.) His posters have been exhibited at several museums, and his work draws on Mexican iconography, culture, and street art with—now he has it—a distinct, stylized, playful style.
Every year, the day before his birthday, he writes a list of things he wants to achieve, asking the universe. In October 2018, he remembered his old dream, designing a stamp, and made it number one, the slot for his most difficult and unrealistic goal.
The next day, the director of the stamp design program called.
He had seen the single poster Fitch wheat-pasted—on a whim, while waiting for his son—near the train exit for the National Mexican Art Museum in Chicago. And then he had gone to the museum, where twelve of Fitch’s posters were included in an exhibition on the Day of the Dead. This was just the style he was looking for, he said.
“You’re fucking kidding me,” Fitch blurted.
From the way the director laughed, Fitch could tell this was not a prank. He sent six different concepts. The director warned that the approval process could be delayed, given the political shifts (the president at the time was more interested in walls than windows). But (another miracle) the design was approved.
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Fitch knows the Day of the Dead is trendy here; he thinks that might be okay. People in the States need the Dia de Muertos to give us a better understanding of Mexican culture—and of death itself. We. We have Halloween, its spooky pagan rituals destroyed by fear, so that now kids trick or treat in the Baptist church’s parking lot. November 1 is All Saints Day; November 2 is All Souls Day, and all we know to do is recite the names of our dead.
In Mexico, the idea is to enjoy them. En-joy, fill with joy at their memory, lucky just to have known them, happy to remember who they were. The sugar is deliberate—this is a sweet time—and it is joined by bread in the shape of bones. You make the favorite foods of the loved ones who are returning from the dead. You decorate a path to your front door to guide them to you.
“When you are five years old and your fish dies, your parents just disappear and buy you a new one, and that’s bad,” Fitch says. “By the time they die, you’re just freaking out, because you have never experienced death.” The attitude in Mexico? “We laugh about it. It comes down to that. We are not mocking it. We are so happy that there is this time we can commemorate, we can remember. If your uncle died, and he was a cool uncle, you bring the type of music he liked.”
“And you eat his favorite foods, right?” I ask, proud that I know.
“No, he will eat his favorite foods. You do not eat his food. You eat with him.” Revealing, my mistake. Our culture is invariably self-indulgent. “You bring water,” Fitch continues, “because his trip from the other world has left him thirsty. You hang little banners that wave in the wind; you use fire to light candles and corn to seed the earth.”
In the U.S., he says, “death is just sad. Here, we are all about staying positive, even if it’s fake, and looking at the-future-and-don’t-look-back. But there are things that are bigger that we can’t control, and one of them is death.” He pauses. “I think when you think about death, you live better.”
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Will we think of all this when we stick those stamps on a utility bill or a birthday card? I hope so. All the remonstration about cultural appropriation has been useful, has sensitized us. But it can go too far, leaving us terrified to learn about other cultures and immerse ourselves in their rituals, their ways of seeing the world. Why bother being alive if we are not to share?
Fitch was asked back to Mexico as one of the artists carrying its cultural heritage outside the borders. He told the cultural authorities, “I’m doing a stamp over there. Can we do one with the same design for Mexico, and it’ll be the first time in history?” He didn’t have enough connections, enough pull, he says. The idea died. But at least the stamp will be in the States, where its message will be not just trendy but powerful and necessary.
“The drawing is nothing; anybody could do it,” Fitch says of his design. “It’s just simple and clean. The point is its meaning.” Which has doubled since he drew it.
“When I started, we didn’t have this pandemic,” he explains. Now, people are dying, and those dying fastest are Black and Latinx. “More than ever, we need these stamps.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.