Archive for the ‘community’ tag
I am called to reflect, with gratitude and love, on my first experience of Day of the Dead a decade ago. I am called to share how I have seen it celebrated in Oaxaca, México, where the traditional is still very much alive, and I am called to thank those who introduced me to this tradition and those who have shared it with me in the years since.
November 1st, 2012
10 years ago today, I woke up in the small, cement floor home that my friend Cynthia Caballero Rojas shared with her mother, Serbia Rojas, in Southwest Oaxaca City, México. We made breakfast to feed ourselves and to offer fresh food and chocolate to the altar that we had spent the last two days preparing for our muertos (our dead).
I’ve always regretted not taking a photo of that altar, because in all these years it is by far the most beautiful one I have helped build. It was made tall by the two milpas (corn stalks) that Cynthia had lashed together to form an archway, and which we had then stuffed full of cempasúchil (marigold) and cresto de gallo (cock’s comb) flowers. From the apex of the arch, Cynthia hung an apple. The altar was covered in photos and candles, fruits and nuts, marshmallows–because they were her brother’s favorite food–hot chocolate, beer bottles, and tamales de mole negro that we had wrapped in banana leaves under the expert guidance of Serbia and cooked over a fire in a hug pot in the dirt floor kitchen yard. On the ground we had made a tapete (floor mosaic) of flower petals around the stone bowl in which we burned copal. Alongside Cynthia and Serbia’s loved ones I placed my wallet photo of Stevie, my high school best friend who had killed himself two years prior, and a little piece of paper on which I had written “ti voglio bene.” For the first time since his death, I had found a way to pay attention to and honor this young friend I had lost in a way that was both solemn and joyful, and that was culturally-supported and in community. I was gifted this by Cynthia and her mom, who knew I needed it, and by the people of Oaxaca who have held to their indigenous traditions and could therefore teach their children and the world to do this.
Of course, the gift was not simply the altar and my own relationship with my muerto, but seeing how this relationship with our loved ones and ancestors is celebrated on a community level. The night before, our Oaxacan friends Cynthia, Claudia, and Gil had taken me and another exchange student, Katherine, to the village of Xoxocotlán where the people spend the entire night of October 31st in their cemetery, holding vigil and sharing food and music with their muertos. The 31st, Gil explained, is the day in which the dead are called back with music and good smells, the day in which they first get the message to return. For this reason, many communities have musical events in the street on the 31st, and some, like the people of Xoxocotlán, stay up all night.
On the morning of the 1st, Cynthia explained in the morning, we welcome back the angelitos, the spirits of children who have passed away. With this in mind, Cynthia, Serbia, and I brought tamales over to the neighbor’s house and paid her angelitos a visit. Serbia was speaking animatedly to the neighbor when all of a sudden she noticed the neighbor had placed a petate (a woven grass rug) under the altar. Serbia began to cry: “Se me olvidó poner un petate bajo nuestro altar. Dónde se van a sentar los angelitos?” (“I forgot to put a petate under our altar. Where are the child angels going to sit?”) It was clear to me then how real this was. These altars and these visits to the cemetery were not simply remembrance or ritual; they were an earnest invitation to those who were gone.
Cynthia and I walked to the cemetery to visit her father’s grave, and back through neighborhoods whose streets were filled with comparsas: men dancing to brass instruments in full costume. Some were dressed as Vicente Fox or George Bush with plastic masks and suits. A good number of men wore various kinds of sexy woman outfits, replete with very tall heels (and they sure could dance in those heels). Inviting back the dead by offering them a raucous good time.
The next day, November 2nd, the primary day celebrated as día de muertos, the five of us set off to see how the day was celebrated in the neighboring pueblos of Teotitlán and Tlacolula.
After a day of bus rides, churches, copal, dirt streets, and eating fruit and tortillas bought in the markets, we made our way through the Tlacolula cemetary at dusk and then another in the dark. It was there in the crowded cemetery, its darkness illuminated by so many flickering candles, that Gil explained to us the theme across many places in the Northern hemisphere. At this time of year, the veil between life and death is thinner. As the earth dies for winter, food–life–is harvested from the earth. Life and death meet, cross paths, co-exist. It is for this reason that the pre-Christian Europeans celebrated Samhain, when spirits would come back to visit (the origin for trick or treating), that the Catholics worldwide celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, that the Aztecs have the mythology of Quetzalcoatl going into the mountain for the winter at this time of year, and why Mexicans sit at their altares to chat with their ancestors as they come back to visit. (Indeed, Gil told me a year or two later that the year after his abuelita died, he was crying as he built her altar, so she came back and scolded him for crying and told him to appreciate her visit.)
As we arrived back in Oaxaca City, we came upon a group gathered on the stone plaza outside of a church built a few centuries before. There was an altar built over the ground, and in front of it, a tapete made of beans, flowers, corn, and other plant materials in the shape of a woman. The scene was lit by candles and accompanied with a man’s soft playing of the guitar. People wrote messages into the paper laid over the stone walls of the church. Pamphlets were distributed that explained the messages and explained the woman in the tapete: this altar was dedicated to women lost to gender violence, including domestic violence homicides, human trafficking, and the hundreds of rapes and disappearances in Ciudad Juárez, near the U.S. border. The group organizing this was La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos, who would eventually become the organization on whom I based my undergraduate thesis research. They represented the somber side of this day, but did so in a way that was beautiful, congruent with the tradition, and that brought community together.
A year later, back at Mount Holyoke College, I called on my Oaxacan friends for help explaining día de muertos to my friends at school, who had agreed to bring their muertos and build an altar with me. For the first time, I was able to gift–to some small degree–what had been so kindly shared with me. I have tried every year since to celebrate by building my own altar at home (which always includes salmon, Stephen’s favorite food), and by sharing altars and celebrations with others, making a space for our muertos and our memories and our love and to be together. As a 3rd grade teacher, we had a día de muertos celebration in the classroom and parents came for a potluck and art. In grad school, as an effort of the Latina/o Social Work Coalition, we built an altar in the common area for women killed in Ciudad Juárez. Last year, Oscar and I invited friends over to eat and make art and build things for the altar. Among other things, the event served as a way to honor a baby lost from our community and lost to our friends, little Seketl’e, who you can see in our altar this year.
One of my most significant experience of día de los muertos since returning from México was in 2010, when I worked with artists Dena Drake and Melanie Lombard to create an altar at the Out North exhibit dedicated to the topic of suicide in Alaska. The altar attempted to honor those who we’ve lost and to use art and metaphor to explore the feelings that might lead someone to suicide, alerting friends and family to what they could do to help prevent suicides in their communities.
What I’ve found is that there is no way that I will have here an experience like that I had in 2002 in Oaxaca. But I can use each día de muertos, each Samhain, each time in which the veil between life and death is thinner, to reflect on and give great love to those who I have lost and to share the space so others can do that as well.
This year, we add la abuelita Betulia to our altar. This year, I honor my grandmother Pat, la abuelita Betulia, my great-grandmother Ann, my grandma Dianne, baby Seketl’e, and my friends Stevie, Anthony, Lorenzo, and Sig. (Yes, and the dogs Ruby and Nena too.)
If you are in the Anchorage area and looking for a way to celebrate, Out North is hosting the 8th Annual Día de Muertos celebration and exhibition of altars: http://www.outnorth.org/events/DiaDeMuertos.php
I <3 the Anchorage arts community because…
- Sheila Wyne’s studio party was the most fun party I’ve been to in Anchorage and it raised money for rad artists Erin Pollock and Steph Kesey.
- Many of my photog friends were there and posted great photos, like Charles Tice’s pix on Flickr (look down for the comments section).
- We go to each other’s shows and promote each other.
- Enzina Marrari, an amazing performance and visual artist, always asks me to provide art for Middle Way Café, so this month I provided not only 3 of my own pieces, but 5 of Oscar Avellaneda’s. Yep, even though he is in Costa Rica doing sea turtle research before biking to Panamá and taking a boat to Colombia and meeting me there in a month (!!!!!!!), he still gets to show his work and maybe sell it. Cuz his fiancé hustles for him.
- Lots and lots of other reasons… Feel free to add your own!
Here are my pieces for the Middle Way show:
The show runs from tomorrow, 8/13/10, the big opening with food until October 6th. Only the nude is for sale, as I already sold the other two.
Oscar’s pix are from his Kids & Bikes collection plus one other. They’re all shot on black and white film and he hand-printed and framed them all.
Kids & Bikes collection: http://www.avephoto.com/kidsnbikes.php
Portraits collection: http://www.avephoto.com/portraiture.php