Public Display of Dia de los Muertos


Public Display of Dia de los Muertos

My family and I are dwellers of the in between spaces. We live Southern California which, in a lot of ways, is the space in between Mexico and the United States. As a family we live our lives in the space between the traditional and  nontraditional. We are nontraditional in the sense that we do not adhere to the traditional heteropatriarchal order, in fact Tita, my great-grandmother, is the boss of our family. Our family does not expect boys and men to adhere to all the rules of hyper masculinity, nor do we expect the women and girls to be docile. We are traditional though, in the sense that family is of utmost importance. The family is always a top priority and as a family we grow and struggle together. One way we honor our family is by keeping all of our family in our hearts, even those who have passed away. We honor our dead family members through the tradition of building altars for Dia de los Muertos. To celebrate Dia de los Muertos this year my family and I decided to build an altar out on our front porch. We purposefully chose this place because we wanted to proudly honor our dead in a very public place. Now more than ever, I can appreciate the importance of this choice because it serves as an expression of national pride. Although at the time we did not know who would ultimately win the election, we decided to build our altar on our porch to display our desire to keep our cultural identity. Taking that into consideration, we opted for using the altar as a way to remind people of important figures in our culture. Our purpose was to honor many important cultural figures and remind our neighborhood of important contributions to society. To name a few we chose: Juan Gabriel, Maria Felix, Mario Moreno, Celia Cruz, and Pedro Infante. We decided to put some of the most iconic figures of our culture in our altar because we hoped that those who saw it would be able to appreciate our cultural contributions. We thought this would help the our community feel pride in our contributions to cinema, music and overall artistry. As a family we decided to do this because it is all too common to undermine and completely ignore the contributions of the minority culture, especially within current anti-immigrant rhetoric. Although our altar honored many important national figures my paper will focus on Selena. Selena is an iconic figure that dwells in the space between the traditional and the nontraditional just like my family does.

As a women Selena exuded talent and confidence which are not normally associated with women in the Chicano culture. She was extremely confident with her body which is a stark contrast to what the culture teaches its young women. As a girl in the Chicana culture, I was definitely told that modesty is golden. My parents, but especially my mom, would very closely police what I wore and how I displayed my body. One important thing that stands out in my mind was the fact that my mom would police me more than my father would. It is the opposite of what a father should do, for the most part men are expected to govern the wives and children yet my father did not police me. The thing that stands out about my mother policing me is the way she would present the whole situation, when she would talk about girls who dress provocatively as Selena did, it was not in a tone of anger but rather a tone of pity. This reminds me of how the pubelo of Tome would speak of Caridad in “So Far from God”, my mother would lament the girls who felt they needed to expose themselves to find love. She would warn me that it would not be appropriate for me to wear some of the revealing outfits that Selena was known for wearing on stage. As a young lady, it was not so much her outfits that stood out in my mind, rather it was the way she exuded confidence in those outfits that impacted me the most. I am of the belief that women who own their body and exude confidence are different from women who wear revealing outfits in the hope to get mens attention. When you closely examine the pictures and videos of Selena you can see just how comfortable she is with her body. If there is anything I work on a daily basis it is being comfortable in my skin and exuding confidence regardless of the clothes I am wearing. This is something that goes directly against the belief that women are supposed to be humble, soft spoken and passive and ever faithful and loyal wives.

Selena as an artist is an important figure because she had a large platform and a large fan base. In her career Selena was the star of the show which is in direct contrast to the idea that men are in charge. Growing up in a Chicana/o family I was never lead to believe that I was in charge. There was a definite chain of command starting with my father and eventually reaching it’s way down to me. Basically, I was down at the bottom of the totem pole, if I outranked anyone it would have been the pets at best. This is why Selena stands out in my mind, she was the head, she was in charge yet she never lost her femininity. In the books “Next of Kin” and “So Far from God” the argument is made that women can too be in charge yet, they are not to lose their femininity. In this sense Selena embodies that in between space of traditional and nontraditional. Another key thing to take into consideration is, women are allowed to be in charge only in the absence of men. This is reason why Selena is nontraditional, there were many men in her life yet she refused to leave herself at their will. I remember looking at how my mom had to ask my dad for permission and thinking to myself, is that what my life is going to be like? I remember feeling a sense of dread thinking that for the first half of my life I had to ask my dad for permission to do everything and when I get married I would have to ask my husband for permission to do everything. At that time, this way of living was all I could envision. Now, as an adult and as a mother, I can pinpoint the ways my mom quietly resisted heteropatriarchy without ever speaking the word feminism. Seeing Selena heading her life and career gave me the smallest glimpse into other possibilities in my life. In this sense, iconic figures like Selena help broaden the views of not only others outside the Chicano community, but also those within the Chicano community.

At this point, it is also important to speak about celebrating and mourning the dead. In this sense I believe that Selena is a perfect example of a combination of mourning and celebrating death. Although this may sound like a contradiction, it is important to note that we Chicanos as a community are a contradiction. My family contradicts itself by living in the space between the traditional and nontraditional, in the space between Mexico and the United Staes. I myself am a contradiction, I am child of immigrants, born and raised in Compton, mother of two, who managed to transfer out of a community college with a 12% transfer rate, in a university with a 30% graduation rate in route to graduate school. I live and breathe those contradictions. I, like many others mourned the loss of Selena. Although I did not know her personally, I could sympathize with her family. At that time, I remember bursting into tears thinking of how it would feel if I lost one of my family members. The contradiction is, that I celebrated her by continuing to play her music while mourning her loss. To this day, many around the world continue to mourn and celebrate her, and that is exactly what my family did this year for Dia de Los Muertos by adding her to our altar.    

On our altar the decorations were meant to be indicative of the fact that Dia de los Muertos is about celebrating and honoring our dead. I don’t know how exactly to explain it, however, I think it is symbolic of the Chicano community to use many bright and festive colors. I had a Chicano Studies professor jokingly say something along the lines of: what color would our class rooms be if our mothers came in to decorate? I can now appreciate what she meant by that, it is part of our culture to use bright and festive colors. As a family we felt that a hot pink background would be the best way to carry this message of celebrating. Another cornerstone of celebrations is tequila. In our family, it is customary to take a small shot of tequila in honor of the occasion we are celebrating. To continue to bring in the theme of celebrating our dead, we decided to add a small bottle of tequila, you cannot have a celebration in our family without having at least one shot of tequila. Also, in our family, we consider ourselves fiesteros and escandalosos. Often times, when the occasion is really special we hire a mariachi to mark the event with glorious live music. During funerals, it is customary to honor the dead by hiring a mariachi, it is the equivalent of given the dead a proper send off like they do in New Orleans. This aspect of honor the dead was also incorporated into our altar, we added mariachi figures, but not just any mariachi figures we added day of the dead mariachi figures. This once again symbolizes just how much of a celebration Dia de los Muertos really is, reminding us of how we have mariachi in only the biggest celebrations. For my family the idea of honoring our dead is a great responsibility, it is important to celebrate our dead as a way of keeping our family ties. Dia de los Muertos is also about remembering to celebrate their lives and their accomplishments, sure we can cry for our dead but it is equally important to remember the joy our dead brought to others. This is why this year we wanted to celebrate our Chicano pride in a public space. Now, post elections, I can appreciate how this public display of our altar is a reminder of how we as Chicanos and Chicanas continue to resist oblivion. In the midst of such hatred, it is important to circumvent the broken US nationalist agenda and create safe spaces within our communities. Just as Chicano Nationalism aimed to unite Chicanos and preserve Chicano identity, we, as the marginalized and disenfranchised, need to organize at a grassroot level to forge ahead in the fight against racism. Although being true to our roots has always been important, now, in a very real sense, our communities need to embrace our identity, celebrate our cultural practices, practice self love, and organize in order to continue to exist within the United States.

More than a mere celebration, Dia de los Muertos is about helping our dead reach eternity.In my family it is believed that dead are wondering between eternity and earth, it is because they are sad to see us crying for them that they refuse to leave. Traditionally, it is also believed that our loved one’s spirits follow us as a form of protection. One of the biggest responsibilities we, the living have, is to show the dead that we have made peace with their passing so that they can continue on their way to the otherside. In order to do that we celebrate them on Dia de los Muertos and provide them key items they need in order to make it to the end of their journey. We added flores de muerto because they are supposed to provide a guiding light to the deceased on their way to eternity. It is believed that the dead need the light from the flores de muerto to guide their way because the journey to eternity is long, dark and frightening. We also added pan de muerto and un baso de agua, the idea is that if the dead are on a journey we want to help them get through the journey so we provide water and bread so they can make to the end of their journey safely. Whereas pan provides subsistence water is hydration. In my family, Tita, my grandmother says that the pan is also a reference to Catholicism. Although, my whole family may not be Catholic, or religious for that matter, it is important to note that bread in general is an important symbol within the Church, it is a symbol of Jesus’s body which he sacrificed for humanity. Tita also says that water is symbolic of the Catholic church. Within the Catholic church it is said that water has the power to cleanse people of their sins. The Catholic church is deeply embedded within the Chicano culture, that it would be an injustice to neglect the effects the church as on Dia de Los Muertos. Celebrating the Dia de Los Muertos, goes hand in hand with Catholicism’s all saints day and all souls day. Once again, addressing the issue of living in between the space of traditional and nontraditional, my family is divided on the issue of Catholicism, and religion in general. While some in the family are devout Catholics, others are on a wide spectrum from agnostics to buddhist. Although the discussions on this topic get heated amongst most of the family, and there is a general atmosphere of acceptance, we all adhere to the will of Tita. My grandmother, is a devout Catholic and none of us dare to contradecir our 92 year-old Tita. This very much reminds me of  how in the book “So Far from God” Domingo refused to provoke the wrath of Sofia is often left to stick is tail in between his leg and avoid an argument. In this sense, although we may not all willing give consent to adhere to Catholic belief and practices, we all stick our tails in between our legs when Tita is around. This is yet again another example of how my family lives between the traditional and the nontraditional.

My family and I decided to work on the altar together this year, and I believe that it worked so well that it will become a new tradition. Although is is traditional for us to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos and honor our loved ones, we stirred things up this year by collaborating and creating a shared altar on our porch. We decided to celebrate important public figures in our culture in a very public place. This was unintentionally a beautiful act of resistance based on our desire to announce our Chicano pride. It brought a sense of pride to find artist who contributed to society through music, cinema, and artistry. My family and I hope to draw more attention to our cultural contributions as Chicana/os during the difficult times that are on the horizon as we begin to combat anti-immigrant agendas and blatant racism.

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