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Day of the Dead in the USA

Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon

Regina M. Marchi
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Day of the Dead in the USA
    Book Description:

    Honoring relatives by tending graves, building altars, and cooking festive meals has been an honored tradition among Latin Americans for centuries. The tribute, "el Dia de los Muertos," has enjoyed renewed popularity since the 1970s when Latino activists and artists in the United States began expanding "Day of the Dead" north of the border with celebrations of performance art, Aztec danza, art exhibits, and other public expressions.

    Focusing on the power of ritual to serve as a communication medium, Regina M. Marchi combines a mix of ethnography, historical research, oral history, and critical cultural analysis to explore the manifold and unexpected transformations that occur when the tradition is embraced by the mainstream. A testament to the complex nature of ethnic identity, Day of the Dead in the USA provides insight into the power of ritual to create community, transmit oppositional messages, and advance educational, political, and economic goals.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4857-9
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: A Transborder Communication Phenomenon
    (pp. 1-8)

    How do populations with limited access to official channels of power make themselves heard in the public sphere? How do they create the sense of shared knowledge and solidarity necessary to address issues of socioeconomic injustice? These are questions that anyone interested in democratic participation must ask, given the disproportionate influence of affluent and politically powerful stakeholders on the production and circulation of ideas in the public square. This book is about the power of cultural ritual to serve as a medium of political communication, and about the role of cultural hybridity in reconciling feelings of social and cultural displacement,...

  6. Chapter 1 An Ancient and Modern Festival
    (pp. 9-20)

    It is the annual celebration of the Days of the Dead. Billowy, white smoke meanders through the air, pungent with the musky-sweet scent of copal incense made of crystallized pine resin, used for centuries by the Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica to communicate with the spirit world. The area is illuminated with countless candles and marigolds—their dazzling orange color and penetrating aroma said to lure heavenly souls to earth. With a trail of rose petals arranged on the ground as a pathway leading to it, a spectacular altar stands laden with flowers, grains, beans, corn, fruits, and other harvest gifts...

  7. Chapter 2 Mexico’s Special Relationship with Day of the Dead
    (pp. 21-33)

    As mentioned earlier, Mexico is known internationally for El Día de los Muertos. But, why do people immediately associate Mexico with Day of the Dead? In an internationally lauded essay published inThe Labyrinth of Solitude(and republished in numerous editions and languages since its first appearance in 1961), Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz offers an answer. He proclaims that Mexicans, more than any other people, have a “special relationship with death.” According to Paz, Mexicans “caress” death, “sleep” with it, “celebrate” it, and consider it their “most steadfast love.” He states that “Death enters into everything we...

  8. Chapter 3 Day of the Dead in the United States
    (pp. 34-55)

    Since at least the 1890s, Mexican American families in south Texas and the Southwest have visited local cemeteries on November 1 and 2 to clean and decorate grave sites (Gosnell and Gott 1989; Turner and Jasper 1994; West 1989).¹ These customs resembled the grave decorating customs of other Catholic ethnic groups and did not include Indigenous practices of southern Mexico, such as making harvest-laden ofrendas or burning copal incense.² Nor were pan de muerto or sugar skulls part of Mexican American traditions. Before the 1970s, most Mexican Americans did not identify with (or know much about) Mexico’s Indigenous cultures, and...

  9. Chapter 4 Ritual Communication and Community Building
    (pp. 56-69)

    During its annual celebration of El Día de los Muertos, the Sherman Heights Community Center in San Diego is bustling with activities that neighborhood residents have planned for months. On the front lawn, dozens of children line up to have fast-setting plaster tape smoothed over their faces for Day of the Dead masks. Sitting at nearby tables, youth and adults decorate sugar skulls with colored icing and cut intricate crepe paper adornments called papel picado. In the kitchen, a standing-room-only crowd learns how to bake pan de muerto as the bread’s aroma swirls through the building. Today, the center is...

  10. Chapter 5 U.S. Day of the Dead as Political Communication: A Moral Economy
    (pp. 70-82)

    At the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA), the largest Latino cultural center in San Francisco, a foreboding chain-link fence, symbolizing the wall between Mexico and the United States, partitions the main gallery entrance. Along the fence are blinking red and blue police lights and life-sized, cardboard-mounted photos of armed border patrol agents, positioned in wooden stands as if ready to apprehend visitors entering the exhibit. Printed on the gallery wall is text about the border patrol program, Operation Gatekeeper, along with a graph illustrating a sharp rise in immigrant deaths since the program’s onset.¹ The walls are lined...

  11. Chapter 6 Day of the Dead in the U.S. Media: The Celebration Goes Mainstream
    (pp. 83-96)

    “Ten years ago,” says an elderly native of San Diego, “I saw just one article, one tiny little mention in the paper saying, ‘Come see Day of the Dead.’ Now you see feature articles in the newspapers, which ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago, you never saw. Nothing was ever done to honor the Latino culture anywhere here in San Diego County, which is staggering, if you think about it, because we have lots of Latinos here and we’re kissing the border.”¹

    If the growth of Day of the Dead celebrations and their coverage in mainstream media is news to...

  12. Chapter 7 The Expanding Hybridity of an Already Hybrid Tradition
    (pp. 97-114)

    Day of the Dead was adopted by Chicano artists as an expression of pride and politics. Yet, studies of Latinidad should not be confined to analyses of how Latinos create and fortify cultural ties in response to the dominant U.S. society. They should also examine how phenomena considered Latino enter different cultural spaces and change the dominant culture (Valdivia 2003, 415). The celebration of Day of the Dead in the United States is not limited to Latinos, but is also enthusiastically engaged in by non-Latinos, who can make up as many as half (or more) of the participants at exhibits,...

  13. Chapter 8 The Commoditization of a Death Ritual
    (pp. 115-136)

    As Day of the Dead has grown more popular in the United States, its material culture and rituals have become increasingly commoditized—a process in which everyday objects or resources that were traditionally not considered “commodities” are transformed into objects exchangeable in the market for monetary or other advantage. This has provoked consternation among those who feel that commoditization jeopardizes the celebration’s authenticity. A look at the marketing of Day of the Dead events and products provides us with an opportunity to consider differing perspectives regarding the commoditization of culture—a phenomenon that is alternately praised or lamented by observers....

  14. Conclusion: What We Can Learn from U.S. Day of the Dead Celebrations
    (pp. 137-140)

    Examining Day of the Dead as a way to critically analyze issues of power, this book has related a complex story about the communicative capacity of cultural ritual in identity construction, education, and political protest. It is a story about the agency of a historically stereotyped and subordinated population with relatively little economic capital and abundant cultural capital to challenge racist, mass-produced discourses of themselves—narratives that have historically reinforced and attempted to legitimize the economic, social, and political subordination of Latinos. The phenomenon of Day of the Dead in the United States encourages a rethinking of what is typically...

  15. Methodological Appendix
    (pp. 141-148)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 149-166)
  17. Glossary
    (pp. 167-170)
  18. References
    (pp. 171-184)
  19. Index
    (pp. 185-192)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 193-194)