By Rae Hodge–
With growing refugee and immigrant populations from around the world, U of L and Louisville are host to a large numer of people from Mexico and Central America. Dia de los Muertos is a Latin American and Mexican celebration of the dead that occurs near Nov. 2. In his interview with The Louisville Cardinal, author Alberto Ruy Sanchez described the key cultural concepts that don’t easily translate to those who are removed from this tradition.
“The main thing is that they do Dia de los Muertos differently in every place in Mexico. Working as an editor of a magazine that makes monographies, thematic issues on subjects, we make a lot of research on each one of the issues. We spend between 2 – 6 years on each issue. When we were dealing with the idea of making something about the Day of the Dead, the first thing that we discovered is the common idea that everything is linked to the idea of Mexicans laughing at death. It’s not really true but for like 15 percent of the population in Mexico. Things happen really differently in different parts of Mexico, so we dedicate several different issues to this.”
With the vast differences in rituals across the region, Sanchez sought to describe the commonalities in practice. What he discovered were the ideological roots of all celebration in the region.
“We can only understand (the rituals) if we understand what is a baroque society. Baroque in our contemporary modern life is always like an adjective that means to talk badly about something because it’s too complex or too much with an excess of something. But in reality baroque is a project of civilization that was aborted at the end of the eighteenth century. It’s a project of civilization based in another idea of the economic of the everyday life of people and communities.”
Sanchez says that this project is still living in Latin America, and that it revolves around an idea that anthropologists call “potlatch” which describes an economy based on excessive ritual spending.
“You can call it parties or festivals. The effect of this expending too much creates a duty of reciprocity. The modern economy is based on fulfilling your needs. For the baroque world, that is absolutely weird. You need to expend much more than you need because that is useful to re-do the social network.”
To explain his point, Sanchez relayed a story about the death of a woman in a small town in Mexico, who owned the local pharmacy.
“She was the richest and so she had a lot of trouble with people, and they sued each and it was complicated. But she died. All the people in town needed to come two nights before the Day of the Dead and bring presents to her memory. And even if they are enemies, they go with an offering to put in the altar and dedicate to her. At this time, the family serves a little food. Then the next day the family brings breakfast to the people who came the night before. There were 700 people,” said Sanchez, “So that is excessive!”
The baroque-style investment of excess, Sanchez argued, also imbues the mundane social fabric with qualities of otherworldly connectedness.
“For (my goddaughter), for example, she wants to be a doctor. The medicine books are the most expensive, so she maybe couldn’t afford through five years of her basic studies. I bought all her books because I am the godfather, and every time I’m a little bit sick she’s always with her eyes over me, trying to see that I’m ok.”
Celebrating heritage during Dia de los Muertos takes on another meaning for Sanchez, who describes the difficulty in identifying indigenous lineage.
“The thing that is important is not only where you come from but what you are doing. We pay less attention to roots because roots exist anyway, but more attention to flowers. So flowers are something that you are expending in order to have a flourishing present. So it’s not only to pay homage to your past…because you don’t really know.
“Mestizo is a word whose meaning is significantly different in Spanish. It’s not only mixing races, it’s more than mixing races, it’s really mixing and mixing and mixing.”
Sanchez believes rituals of excess also repair the social fabric in small communities when tragedy occurs. He argued that irreparable damage to this complex social fabric happens when Mexican and Latin American societies attempt to distance themselves from these rituals.
“When you forget that (these rituals) exist you have things like what happened in Ciudad Juarez. There is the killing of hundreds of women mainly. They think it’s a serial killer or that it’s evil, but the fact is that the all these people that come from little villages where they have all these rituals, all these social fabric that is ‘tissued’, with these parties and these extended families. And they are taking out from there, and putting into a place where there are factories. You know, it’s so cruel.”
Ciudad Juarez is a Mexican border city that struggles with resource scarcity and overpopulation problems, having risen quickly from 500,000 to five million inhabitants. Its low labor costs have also attracted a number of factories from both the U.S. and the U.K.
“I visited one. There were 12,000 workers in one factory. Can you imagine that? Sometimes the workers arrive, and they rent a room for 8 hours, only to go there and sleep and they have to leave. And there’s other people using the same bed. There is a social decomposition that’s really like if you take the social tissue and you tear it – one thread here and then the other and the other—and you put everything together so it doesn’t make sense…
“There was a pool a plastic pool with condoms, like thousands. And I asked why? It’s not that they are very open-minded. They said it was because when women arrive to work here it takes like 4 months before they get pregnant. So you can imagine the harassment.”
As much as they are about the dead, Sanchez says, Day of the Dead celebrations are also about reconnecting people in times of hardship. Sanchez says that this is why they are more important now than ever.
“At the end, it’s like erasing the differences and beginning again. There’s been a lot of legal trouble that happened that began to be solved because of the Day of Dead. Thanks to the festivals, and thanks to the special days out of every day life, we have this remaking of the social tissue.”
Photos by Rae Hodge/The Louisville Cardinal