A month or so prior to Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead— I was asked by Martha and Enrique to help set up a photo booth for a local celebration they were organizing at Yaquina View Elementary. They are a fantastic couple and I have the highest regard for them on so many levels. As the experience emerged – planning, set up, event documenting and editing – I’ve been contemplating many things cultural and spiritual.
Dia de los Muertos is most strongly associated with Mexico, where the tradition originated. In North America it is growing in interest. Martha, Miguel and community partners pulled together many resources. Family, friends, local businesses, and the community converged at Yaquina View Elementary for a splendid evening on November 2nd, 2019.
My past knowledge of Dia de los Muertos was very limited. We went to the theater and watched Cocoa in 2017. The movie was a stunning visual feast and very much a hero’s journey. Practically, this was all I was going on. Reflecting on it now, I have much more appreciation for the event, the effort to put the evening together and what it would end up meaning for me.
I have been reminded that recognizing our loved one’s who have passed is a good exercise. It’s a little embarrassing and I feel a hit of shame: I currently have no pictures of my grandparents, uncles, and father on display in our home. They are still sitting in a box. Why is our home so sanitized of visual symbols of these important characters in our life’s story? I certainly think of them. I have some work to do here. I need to create a home alter or at least hang some pictures for my beloved that have departed.
As the evening unfolded, we were given a spectacular event. It was a packed house. I’ll let the video do most of the work in regard to the participants and the performances. I’ve got follow up plans to talk to Miguel Medrano, Leon Valdivia and Martha de Valdivia. How does Day of the Dead fit into their belief systems? Is this more of a symbolic gesture to loved ones who have passed, or do they feel a deeper and intrinsic connection that their loved ones are somehow conscious of their recognition. Are our physical and spiritual planes crossing in this time?
As I began researching the celebration in preparation of writing a couple of links have been insightful.
National Geographic has a very basic overview. (https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/dia-de-los-muertos/)
Georgetown University, Berkley Center for Religion. Peace and World Affairs has an article titled “Day of the Dead in Latin America and the United States” (https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/posts/day-of-the-dead-in-latin-america-and-the-united-states). It’s a fascinating overview.
Placing Day of the Dead in our modern context the author notes “we need to be careful about drawing direct lines of ancestry between ancient and modern Day of the Dead celebrations because when we do this, we erase complicated histories of cultural loss and struggle, decontextualizing the tradition from the effects of five centuries of colonization and the resulting alienation from and later re-appropriation of indigenous practices.”
It’s fascinating how we build our personal history from our experiences and the written and oral communications of others. Finding an inner path that brings peace and meaning is sometimes difficult to separate from the cultural narratives. Belief systems are not a one size fits all situation. Dia de los Muertos has reminded me of death’s beauty and intimacy. But, we should never force anyone into such things. This a personal journey.
The author closed with “Most of today’s public Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and the United States are largely invented traditions that, like all cultural practices, grow and change with the times.”
I feel like every day is a renewed personal invention. My narrative is sometimes the same and yet it shifts. What seems critical to me is that we have the freedom to explore and allow that freedom to others. I recently listened to an interview with “Elif Shafak on the Urgent Power of Storytelling”. At some point she noted that we don’t seek to understand how and what God means in our modern age. I’m not really sure that is true. But, it feels this way to me, sometimes. I’m speaking broadly here. Why are we here? What do we do with this existence? And, isn’t it fascinating that we have the ability to “contemplate” non-existence?!
Day of the Dead got me thinking… and recognizing that I didn’t make it this far alone. That’s good reminder, for me, and possible others too. Thanks to all who made this evening incredible! My hope is that next year it’s bigger and more inclusive. My homework: hang some photos and create more time to recognize the passing from this plane into the next.