Laurita Dianita

Reflections and art on the topics of public health, social justice, and love

Archive for the ‘México’ tag

Día de muertos

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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.

Cynthia outside the Mercado Central de Abastos as we buy food and altar ingredients

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.

Claudia, Feyley Gildardo, Katherine, Cynthia, and me in Teotitlán when we were all about 20 - 21 years old. These are the friends to whom I will be eternally grateful for sharing the tradition of día de los muertos, and for sharing so deeply about culture, art, politics, language, and so much more.

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.)

Cemetary in the village of Tlacolula. Families clean graves; adorn them with cempasúchil, cresto de gallo, alcatraz, and other flowers; and provide fresh water, nuts, fruits, candles, and other nice things.

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.


Me in front of my home altar in 2004. Unfortunately, Bush got re-elected the night of Nov 2nd that year, so it ruined the día de muertos environment.

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.

Minimalist home altar this year, due to being sick and busy. We are missing a few departed dear ones and many of the decorations, and I believe it's the first time I've included dogs in an altar (Oscar's idea). But it is our little altar, and it feels sacred nonetheless.

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.

Día de los muertos 2010: Suicide in Alaska altarback of día de muertos altar

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:

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November 2nd, 2012 at 9:51 am

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Toward Global Justice: La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos and Transcultural Feminist Dialogue

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I took this photo in 2002 in the market of Juchitan, Oaxaca.

I took this photo in 2002 in the Zócalo of Oaxaca City. I spent a lot of time with these sisters who sold scarves in the streets and didn't attend school.

I was reminded recently of why I should share my undergraduate thesis. Janie, the intern at the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center, where I work, found online a Master’s Thesis about the very little researched topic of Iñupiaq women’s pregnancy and birthing beliefs and experience. This was very useful for the work we were doing. I felt  grateful that this young student researcher shared his work publicly online. I told Janie about my student research and thesis, and she suggested I share it too. So here it is.

Despite having written this thesis 8 years ago and it containing some errors, and perhaps there being moments of naïeveté in my theory, I decided I should make it available because it is useful. It is original research that has not been published anywhere else, as far as I know. It brings together original research with feminists in Oaxaca and global human rights theory to make an argument about the need for dialogue about justice and gender justice across cultures. It makes an argument that I still stand strongly by and practice in my daily life and work, in ways beyond what I would have imagined when I wrote this as a 21-year-old.

This is my honor’s thesis from my senior year of college at Mount Holyoke College (2004), based on interviews I had conducted in the summer of 2003 in Oaxaca, México and a lot of immersion in history, feminist theory, sociology, political discourse, etc. Unfortunately, I have lost the cover page, which had a wood block print I made of downtown Oaxaca City, and I’ve lost the table of contents.

So, to give you a brief preview:

The introduction explains how I came to this topic and why it matters, and the theories behind it. It introduces why I think we need transcultural feminist dialogue in order to arrive at globally-valid concepts of justice and human rights.

The 1st chapter provides a history of feminism in México and its ties to other social justice movements there.

The 2nd chapter covers what I learned from the feminists at La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos, a feminist organization based in Oaxaca City. (Oaxaca City is the capital city of the state in México that has more ethnic diversity, in terms of indigenous groups, than any other state in the country.) This chapter discusses the organization’s work, how each woman became a feminist, how each woman conceives of the concept of justice,  and how that translates into the feminist work she does.

The 3rd chapter uses the themes about feminism, gender justice, and justice that the women from La Casa de la Mujer brought up to make the argument that feminism arises organically out of everywhere. Because feminism arises out of different environments, it is necessarily different across cultures, countries, etc. At the same time, there is an “hilo conductor,” that is, a wire that connects all feminisms everywhere. This hilo conductor is the idea that we should be able to live lives with dignity and free of violence. Because feminism is both universal and grounded in the local, we need democratic, equitable, transcultural feminist dialogue in order to establish what about gender justice–and justice in general–is universal and what isn’t. That way, we can create human rights standards that people all over can buy into and feel a part of.

I sent this thesis to La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos in 2004. When I visited in 2005, they were almost done translating it into Spanish, so I got to assist with some of the translation.  I have not returned to Oaxaca since, but when I do, I hope to find that is has been useful. And I hope that is is useful for you. If you do use it, here is a suggested citation (although when I wrote it, my last name was Norton-Cruz…):

Avellaneda-Cruz, Laura. (2004). Toward Global Justice: La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos and Transcultural Feminist Dialogue. Undergraduate Thesis, Mount Holyoke College. Retrieved online at author’s website:

Thesis_Global_Feminism_Oaxaca_2004_L. Avellaneda-Cruz_p

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June 3rd, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Recently-Killed Chicken: Reflections on De-centering

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pig skins! pig skins!


Today I had of those moments of de-centering that comes from travel, maybe you know the type, the type that confronts you with how very non-universal are your views. Third World countries are famous for offering such experiences to First Worlders, and First Worlders are famous for trying to avoid or otherwise ignore the value of such moments.  I can see why; sometimes they’re really hard. But today’s was a gleeful decentering, easier to absorb.

I biked down to the busy intersection by the train tracks to get groceries for the next few days and to take a photo of three pig skins that I had seen hanging in front of a carnicería the day before. I locked up my bike on a pole next to the pig skin store while eyeing the chickens at a butcher shop nearby. The yellow meat laid out in the hot, exhaust-filled air by the intersection and the train tracks, and I could not bring myself to buy it. My fiancé, Oscar, and I have been eating almost entirely vegetarian here in Jalisco, México, in part due to the heat in which the meat hangs all day in the markets. But tonight he wanted to make me roasted chicken with achiote, and so I was on the hunt for chicken breast.

After taking my photo, squeezed up against a truck on the other side of the busy street and trying to make myself small as buses went by, I bought my naranjas and chayote and ejote, and asked the man helping me where I could buy chicken “que no está afuera en el calor todo el día” (“that’s not out in the heat all day”). I was thinking, in my imagination filled with grocery stores that have entire sections so refrigerated you can feel your skin stick up, in my imagination filled with chicken breasts wrapped in plastic packaging that fly from Montana to Alaska, that there may be a little store nearby with some sort of refrigeration. The man turned to the woman who seemed to be in charge and asked, “¿Dónde puede comprar pollo recién matado?” (“Where can she buy recently-killed chicken?”) They pointed me to a place just around the corner, where I found the same bright yellow chicken legs, feet and breasts out in the heat being sliced and sold by a woman with an apron. freshly killed chickenRight behind, however, was a young, short-haired woman grabbing a white chicken as it squawked, steadily bringing a blade across its throat and bleeding it, with great calm and equanimity, into a large steel drum. The old, peeling metal was lined with the feathered and bloody remnants of the chickens that came before it–the same ones sitting on the table for me to buy, I suppose. A telenovela played quietly behind on an old television set, and the Virgen de Guadalupe watched over the proceedings from the wall with that same accepting calm.

In the U.S., watching a chicken being slaughtered by a young woman who stands, smiling, right behind the sales counter might be considered an offensive business practice. Here, however, this was not only a convenient use of a small space but also a way of signaling to the buyer that the meat is fresh and safe, a way of assuaging worries over salmonella. freshly killed chickenRefrigeration, the solution I had been pulling on in my mind without fully realizing,  was translated by the imaginations of the fruit and chicken vendors; translated by the brutal functionality required by these hot, loud streets; translated by a place that lacks the infrastructure for keeping meat cold.

It is as though the language, the streets, the infrastructure of our lives shape the little spaces in our brain where our imaginations are continuously born. We are built this way, I think–built to make sense of the world through our experiences, adding bits and pieces to the schemas we create as children, and then creating new schemas when something proves ours inadequate. I suppose we universalize our own thinking and expectations by design; maybe there’s not space enough in our imaginations to fit all of the things we have not seen, the religions and traditions and ways of eating. It seems that the best we can do is to take moments like this for what they offer: humility, the chance to reflect on how big the world is and how little we still know, the inspiration to ask more open-ended questions like, “What measures do people take to have safer food and how can I look for those?” rather than working only from within the schema we bring with us and judging on, say, the storage temperature alone. It is a reminder for me as a researcher of why research must be careful to not just hand out surveys, but first to draw out, in people’s own words and schemas, what they do or what they believe in, so that questions are fit to the contexts of the people, interacting truthfully with their worlds. And of course, it is a reminder that when we step outside of our normal lives, and even as we walk within them, we should always expect to be surprised.

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June 15th, 2010 at 9:26 am