Figurines from Mexico watch over Lea Ramsdell’s office.
Lea Ramsdell is so well traveled in Spanish-speaking Latin America that it’s easier for her to list the countries she hasn’t yet visited: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela. Ramsdell is a professor of Spanish with an intense wanderlust, and the bookshelves in her office are filled with musical instruments (she teaches a class on Latino cultural identity through music) and cultural keepsakes that she buys on her adventures. She picked up these figurines at a market in Mexico City in 2005, when she led a TU Study Abroad trip there. Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that’s celebrated on November 1 and 2, when art like this is displayed on altars and in windows throughout the country. “It’s a time to remember the dead, but it’s also a time to realize your mortality and not be afraid of it,” Ramsdell says. “It’s also a time to make social commentary. In a way they’re making fun of people in high society. They’re very dressed up and elegant, but they’re skeletons. She looks like she thinks she’s really something, but she’s still mortal after all.” The design of the female skeleton’s dress conjures nationalistic images, Ramsdell says. Both the Mexican flag and the dress feature a green, white and red color scheme and include an image of a cactus with an eagle perched atop it eating a serpent. “That was the signal for the Aztecs, who were a nomadic tribe at one point,” she says. “They were to search for this cactus with an eagle on top of it eating a serpent and build their homeland there.” The figures are made of papier-mâché, so they’re extremely light. Ramsdell thinks she bought them for $15 or $20—pricey by Mexican standards at the time. “I find it fascinating to go to different cultures and see the kinds of things that are important to the people there,” she says. “Popular culture appeals to me. I studied literature and civilization, and I love that, but something about the common person and what they find important, I’m really drawn to that. That’s exactly what this is about. These are an expression of the common person, not necessarily a trained professional artist. This wouldn’t be considered high art, but that’s exactly why I like it.”