Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Practice in Ethnography: Día de los Muertos 2007

At 6:04pm on 2 November 2007, I arrived at the Buddy Holly Center, located in Lubbock Texas, in order to observe and participate in the local “Procesión and Celebración” of the Día de los Muertos. I have never attended any celebrations of the Day of the Dead and my exposure to this holiday was limited to Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead by Stanley Brandes. Before reading this book, my understanding of the Day of the Dead was that it constituted a blending of Catholicism and Mesoamerican practices to honor the ancestral dead. I assumed that the Hispanic population brought the celebration of the Day of the Dead to Lubbock as they migrated to the area.

As I first entered the building, it seemed to me that this section of the procession focused on artistic impressions of the traditions surrounding the Day of the Dead. Marigolds and candles served as decorations that lined the windows along the hallway to the exhibition hall while the art itself expressed variations of skulls and skeletons so closely associated with the Day of the Dead. Only one altar, dedicated to Buddy Holly, had been erected and it was located in the main gallery. Later, outside on the patio (or perhaps more appropriately the stoa) a performance by Ixaclli in Manantzin, a traditional Aztec dance troupe from Taos, New Mexico, was showcased for those that attended the festivities.

I had expected to meet more Hispanic people at this event and I was somewhat surprised by the diverse audience that attended. Over the next four hours I was privileged to speak with twelve different people including a Jamaican student, one of the artists whose work was showcased at the gallery, a family of three from Lubbock, and one of the ladies that prepared the food for the buffet table. All of the people I spoke with had different ideas concerning what the Day of the Dead meant to them and to the people of Lubbock but these views had little in common with what Brandes discovered in his inquiries. Overall, what I discovered can be summarized by three statements: (1) Honoring Those Who Have Gone Before Us, (2) Sweets are for Halloween, and (3) Americans Appropriate Everything.

Honoring Those Who Have Gone Before Us

I made a point to ask each person that I talked with this question: “What does the Day of the Dead mean to you?” Of the twelve people I talked with, ten responded with this exact phrase: “To honor those who have gone before us.” All of the people I talked with responded with this idea but ten of the twelve responded with the exact same phrase; I found this fascinating! It is as if these people were coached. When I asked how they honored those who went before and who they were, the responses were varied and demonstrated no cohesive collective idea. Although everyone I talked with began with a common idea that they should “honor those who have gone before us,” each had different ways to do so and different ideas of who they are (or were).

Future Akins is an artist living in Texas whose work “In My Heart Still” was on display that night. For her, the Day of the Dead provided a way for her to honor her first husband who died over twenty years earlier by “focusing her grief into art.” Her artwork is black and at the center is a heart composed of many small pieces that she indicated demonstrated how her heart was fractured when he died. This somber expression contrasts sharply with the bright marigold petals often found in the home altars[1, p. 73] or the arco, an elaborately decorated latticework structure associated with ofrendas (or offerings), found as a feature of the Night of the Dead in Tzintzuntzan [1, p. 74].

For Charles, a Unitarian minister from Lubbock who was attending with his wife Jo and daughter Shannon, the Day of the Dead afforded him the opportunity to remember “Buddy Holly and the other artists displayed here.” He enjoyed the works of art displayed at the gallery and their interpretations of the Day of the dead because “what’s art if you don’t have an observer?” Neither he nor his wife ever alluded to their families as part of this day of reflection. Later, when I asked him if he had any ways that he personally celebrated the Day of the Dead, he responded that he was “doing it vicariously” by attending the “art walk.” His wife, Jo, added, “we are doing it the way we want it done.” This sharply contrasts with events surrounding the Day of the Dead and the belief that deceased relatives are spiritually present [1, p. 20]. For Charles and Jo, dead relatives are irrelevant and all the altars and works of art are spectacles to be observed and enjoyed by the living.

Although others responded differently, all seem to interpret the Day of the Dead to be generally for the living and for them specifically. Most, like Shannon, believe that the Day of the Dead to be “a time for us to remember that we will die someday.” Kiesha, a Jamaican student at Texas Tech, noted that in her culture “we have nine days to celebrate the passing of a family member.” These nine days are passed in “eating lots of food and drinking lots of rum.” I asked her if it was common to joke or laugh about the deceased and she said yes because it made the dead happy to see that everyone is having a good time. Of all my discussions at this event, this one with Kiesha reminded me most of what Brandes discovered in his time at Tzintzuntzan: “The Night of the Dead was primarily a family fiesta” [1, p. 76]. Still, I had to introduce the deceased into the conversation before she acknowledged them in the process.

Sweets are for Halloween

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Brandes’ book for me is the role of sugar in the development of the Day of the Dead so I also made it a point to ask everyone I talked with this question: “Why do people eat sweets while celebrating the Day of the Dead?” Judy, a middle-aged hairdresser from Lubbock, looked confused when I asked her this and answered, “Why do you ask me that? Sweets are for Halloween!” I was surprised at this response but as I looked around the event I noticed that sweets were conspicuously absent from the festivities. The buffet table offered nacho corn chips, deep-fat fried ‘tacoitos’ filled with beef and chicken (I had no idea what these were until I asked but I found them quite tasty), a seven-layered dip with cheese, sour cream, and guacamole, and baked jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped with bacon (also quite tasty). The only sweets I found for people to enjoy was a little pumpkin torte, some kind of small cookie called a “pecan sandie with icing,” and a bowl of lollypops that were strangely reminiscent of something one would find next to the door of a home on Halloween.

Although I had expected to see a many calaveras, or skulls made of sugar and decorated with icing [1, p. 43], I only found four small examples resting as an ofrenda on this altar in the main art gallery. Other sweets, also on this altar, include a partial bag of Peanut M&Ms, an orange, and an apple.

Other people that I talked with also minimized the roll of sweets in the celebration of the Day of the Dead. Many thought of cookies or candy bars when I asked them why people eat sweets during the Day of the Dead. Interestingly, most thought only of their favorite sweets but not what these sweets may signify. Charles and Jo actually entered a discussion as to whether they enjoy cookies or chocolate covered strawberries more. Tom, a student from Texas Tech, told me about how he always hoped for “the big candy bars” during Halloween and how he would try to “go back again and again to houses that gave out the good candy.” Only the artist Future Akins equated the sweets of the Day of the Dead with “the sweetness of life,” although she did tell me how much she enjoyed Baby Ruth candy bars even though she no longer can eat them.

Americans Appropriate Everything

On a final note, I was surprised by how many of the people I talked with perceived why Americans celebrate any aspect of the Day of the Dead. Tom, the Texas Tech student, told me that Americans should incorporate “Native American traditions like this” into “modern-day holidays.” Future Akins told me how “Anglos co-opted many Mexican traditions such as the accordion and the cowboy.” Jo said that the Day of the Dead is “a fun way to celebrate the Spanish and have fun.” Shannon, the thirty-something daughter of Charles and Jo and aspiring artist, thought that although the “art was not so good,” she had seen Ixaclli in Manantzin dance in Santa Fe, New Mexico and could not wait to see them again.

Although the total of my field experience dealing with the Day of the Dead is limited to this one evening and is in no way definitive, I found the prevailing attitude of the people I talked with to be that Americans were appropriating customs of the Day of the Dead into mainline culture. This perception sharply contrasts to what Brandes describes in Mexico: “Halloween has become a symbol of gringo imperialism” [1, p. 128]. Although the people of Mexico may see Halloween as a threat to their celebration of the Day of the Dead, the few people I talked with see the traditions of the Day of the Dead as being incorporated into the American culture. In fact, some people in Lubbock may see the Day of the Dead as having American roots passed down through the traditions of Native Americans!

Perhaps the most poignant example of this appropriation occurred just before the Ixaclli in Manantzin dance troupe began. I was talking with Shannon when her mother, Jo, walked up to the table and declared (with a certain detached whimsy) “Honey, I accidentally spilt lemonade on Buddy Holly’s altar! See ya [sic.] later!” What could be a more American expression of the Day of the Dead than this: a tourist ‘accidentally’ spilling lemonade on Buddy Holly’s altar during an art walk in Lubbock Texas?

-Safari Bob

[1] Brandes, S. (2007). Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-4051-5248-8

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