Thank Mexican Culture for Day of the Dead
My Regular Pagan Holiday Post
Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, has become one of my favorite holidays. Credit should go to the influence of Mexican culture.
I couldn’t remember when I first started celebrating Day of the Dead, at this time of the year when the veil between the lands of the living and the dead thins and we celebrate the lives of our ancestors and others who have died. I asked friends and family when we first learned of this holiday. No one could really remember. It just seeped into American culture when we weren’t looking.
Now the holiday is a cross-cultural experience. Though it originated in Mexico, it is commonly celebrated worldwide, especially throughout Latin America. Day of the Dead is a joyful celebration of life and death that originated thousands of years ago among Aztec, Toltec and other Nahua people. They believed that death is a cyclical part of life and that when someone died, they would go to the Land of the Dead. This tradition differs vastly from Halloween in its life-affirming tone and its rejection of death as a finality. In a modern culture whose chief way of responding to death is denial, the addition of this celebration to American life seems much needed.
I was lucky to live in San Francisco where Rene Yanez and Ralph Maradiaga had launched our local version of the celebration in 1972. Day of the Dead evolved into a gigantic procession up 24th Street, the Latinx district, on November 2. The Mission Cultural Center would sponsor events and we gathered to erect altars, or ofrendas. My Old Lesbians group one year made a beautiful altar for our friend Tita Caldwell, who had been active in our Occupy Bernal organization in 2012. San Franciscans gather at Garfield Square Park (perhaps we should rename it Frida Kahlo Park) to walk through the park and view the altars. Rene describes the history here: https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Day_of_the_Dead. In the interview Rene refers to Posada (Jose Guadelupe Posada Aguilar), the Mexican artist who created illustrations of la calavera catrina that have become ubiquitous symbols of this holiday.
Now I live in Sonoma County where we have many options for celebrating Day of the Dead. Our Sonoma County Museum and our art district have exhibits. The town of Petaluma sponsors events all month, ending with a candlelight procession at the fairgrounds that has been going for 19 years. This year the town of Windsor is sponsoring its 6th annual event. Every town now has one. These events are led by Mexican and Latinx people, who make up the largest ethnic group in Santa Rosa at around 30 percent of the population.
October is Latinx Heritage Month. This month we also remember the murder by a deputy sheriff of 13-year-old Andy Lopez October 22, 2013. Andy was walking in his neighborhood when sheriffs spotted him carrying a toy gun. Erick Gelhaus fired eight shots that killed the boy. No charges were filed against the shooter, he returned to work and was later promoted before retiring. A civil suit filed by Andy’s parents resulted in a $3 million settlement.
Sadly, Andy’s murder has defined the relationship between the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department and its citizens, especially the Latinx population. In the seven years since the shooting, people have staged multiple protests, organized to build a park at the site of the shooting and pressured the county for more police accountability. This year we met at Andy’s Unity Park in the Latinx neighborhood of Roseland to remember Andy.
Holly and I celebrate this season by making clay catrina sculptures for our ofrenda on the fireplace mantle and telling stories about our friends and family who have died. I like to walk by our altar and commune with the figure of my mother who is sitting in an armchair reading Esquire (from a 1940s picture). Holly’s dad sits in a recliner nearby and her dog Mattie lies at his feet.
What do I say to Mom? She was a news junkie who kept a close watch on world events. She liked to imagine what the world would be like in 50 years. I tell her if she were alive she absolutely would not believe it.
Sending big virtual hugs to all.