El Día de los Muertos as Cultural/Social/Spiritual Bridge-Building Between Communities by Francisco J. Garcia Jr.

The Rev. Francisco J. García, Jr. received his Master of Divinity degree from the Bloy House/CST joint program in May of 2013.  In 2016 he was called to be rector in charge of Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood, California. 

While celebration of the Day of the Dead goes back several hundred years in Mexico, its arrival in the United States is much more recent, a late twentieth century phenomenon with increased cultural and economic globalization and contact.  Whereas in Mexico, the traditional Day of the Dead ceremonies align closely with Catholic observation of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and had explicit spiritual and religious meaning, in the U.S., the Day of the Dead celebrations have emerged largely through the Chicana/o artistic movement—out of a cultural, ethnic and political identification with the celebrations.  Nonetheless, both forms of the tradition are deeply embedded rituals and have sacred meaning for those who take part in the traditions.  There is power in both forms, and I would argue that an even greater potentiality for trans-formation can be achieved if the artistic, cultural, and religious rituals are more closely integrated.  This paper will examine the Day of the Dead in both of its Mexican and Mexican-American forms, seeing them as different but related forms of Latino/a popular Catholicism—a Catholicism rooted in the experiences and faith practices of the Latino/a people.  After examining the historical roots of the Day of the Dead in Mexico in the context of Latino popular Catholicism, and its arrival and expression in the United States, I will conclude with thoughts for application in a parish and community context.

The Personal is Political…and Spiritual! My Own Connections to the Day of the Dead

Growing up in a Mexican immigrant household in the decades following the Chicano/a movement, I was raised in multiple cultural worlds.  At home, I was introduced and raised in the Christian faith in the Roman Catholic tradition by my mother and grandmother.  While I was not raised with the Day of the Dead observances, I was otherwise raised with many elements of popular Catholic devotions in the Mexican-Latino/a tradition: crucifixes, candles, and images of Jesus and the Virgen de Guadalupe, and rosaries.  My grandmother kept an elaborate home altar with the Santo Niño de Atocha (The Holy Child of Atocha) as her centerpiece.[1]  In high school, I was introduced to the United Farm Workers, the Chicano Movement, Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo through books that I found at my local library.  This was where I first learned of the Day of the Dead, and it instantly resonated powerfully for me.  My first direct and practical experience with the Day of the Dead came later as a college student activist, where I helped organize a series of now annual Day of the Dead events that highlighted the migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border due to the U.S. government policy.[2]  We made altars for the migrant deaths, adorned with all the appropriate fixings, and places crosses with the names of the deceased on campus.

Years later, as a relatively new Episcopalian, I was privileged to take part in organizing the first Day of the Dead service at my home parish of All Saints Pasadena.  At this service, which is now also celebrated annually, we created a large altar where all in attendance were invited to bring images and mementos of their departed loved ones.  In lieu of a homily, members are invited to share a brief memory of their loved one.  Thus I have experienced the power of this ritual that I have culturally identified with for many years, in both cultural-political and spiritual-religious contexts—both outside and within the church.  As I will discuss in greater detail, the Day of the Dead celebrations in the United States are hybrids of an already hybrid phenomena, and as such operate in a multiplicity of spaces and contain many elements: from private, personal devotions at home and public/corporate worship, to different sacred spaces, both “secular” and “religious.”  All are rich with multiple layers of cultural, political, economic, and spiritual meaning.  This, as I have experienced and have also seen affirmed in my research, is the power of the Day of the Dead—in that it contains a number of elements and crosses spiritual, social, cultural, and political boundaries.  For this reason, I argue, it has the potential to serve as a bridge across these various spaces—secular and religious, cultural and linguistic, and others—and serve as a powerful form of ritual communication for community transformation.

Liturgical and Ritual Context

In addition to the personal context and commitment that I expressed above, I am also motivated by key sources and ideas within the ritual and liturgical studies literature, which provides a language with which to make sense of the Day of the Dead celebrations in an analytical and theological frame.  From liturgical scholar Byron Stuhlman, I see great relevance in his description of the Occasional Offices of the Episcopal Church as “occasions of grace.”  Stuhlman explains that Christians as individuals and in community have their own rhythms of life that find their personal and collective meaning in the story of Jesus, namely his death and resurrection.  He asserts that “If we lose sight of the occasions which punctuate the rhythms of these personal and communal dimensions of Christian existence, we fail to relate the mystery of salvation to persons and local communities whose lives are to be transformed by that mystery.”[3]  I support the notion that ministers of the church need to be acutely aware of the cycles of life that parishioners and communities go through—from birth to death, and everything in-between.  These cycles of the Christian’s life and of their local communities become the “occasions of grace” as they are graced by the crucified and risen Christ at key junctures and passageways of their lives.  As a death and remembrance ritual, I would maintain that the Day of the Dead celebrations fit nicely into Stuhlman’s notion of occasions of grace.

From a ritual studies perspective, theologian Tom Driver speaks about societal transformation and the role of the sacraments, in a Christian context, to aid in this transformative action.  Highlighting the struggles against apartheid in South Africa as well as the Civil Rights movement in the Southern United States, Driver asserts that “rational political methods alone cannot bring about transformation of society from a less to a more just condition, because they cannot fuse the visionary with the actual (the absent with the present) as rituals do, thus profoundly affecting the moral life.”[4]  Driver gives several telling examples from these struggles, and notably in the South African example, the moment when activists place their own names on a cross as a sign of their direct commitment to suffer and struggle for freedom, even if it meant losing their lives.  In this way, Driver sees Christian rituals and the notion of the sacraments broadly as “an action of God together with the people of God, ritually performed to celebrate freedom and to hasten the liberation of the whole world.”[5]  In reading this, and understanding sacramental action broadly, I see a tremendous potential correlation between the Day of the Dead celebrations and the power that they can have to build community leading to transformation.

Day of the Dead in the Context of Latino Popular Catholicism

Before getting into the details of the Day of the Dead celebrations, it is important to understand the origins of Latino/a popular religiosity or Popular Catholicism, broadly understood.  The origins of the Day of the Dead lie in a clash of cultures over centuries.  Latino Theologian Orlando Espín mentions that Latino popular Catholicism has its roots in three continents and traditions: Christianity from pre-Tridentine, medieval Spain, a type of Christianity that was established well before the any Protestant or Roman Catholic Reformations; from the indigenous communities of the Americas; and from African slaves that were brought to the Americas.  Through this, Espín asserts that “Latinos inherited the cultural prisms through which they filtered and understood Spanish Catholicism.”[6]  As Espín implies, the colonization of the Americas brought with it a unique form of Catholicism that was as of yet not influenced by any of the trends of the Reformation, including Roman Catholic.  As such, this is the Catholicism that took root in indigenous, African communities, and the Spanish, as well as in future generations of mixed ancestries.

As Espín continues, in addition to the type of Catholicism, the mode of transmission has also been significant.  This means that Latino/as have also inherited a common experience of victimization by virtue of violent conquest and subjugation.  He stresses that “the proclamation of the Christian gospel was made possible only because the evangelized had first been conquered, their lands and freedom take from them, and their cultures invaded.”[7]  Based on this, Espín concludes that this experience of vanquishment is the “constituting context” of “popular” Catholicism, of the Christianity that was transmitted and understood by the people—and that all other elements of popular Catholicism (doctrinal, ethical, symbolic) rely and emerge from this one primary factor.  This being said, Espín highlights in general Latino popular Catholicism in terms of its emphasis on things such as crucifixion scenes with graphic portrayals of Jesus in bleeding and suffering form; various devotions to the cross and to crucifixions; the prominence of Holy Week and Good Friday services that highlight the passion of Jesus; and attention and prominence placed to Mary and her woes.[8]  This focus on vanquishment and suffering will later be reflected in the Day of the Dead ceremonies.

In addition to this common experience of conquest and vanquishment, there was another element that made it distinct from traditional European Christianity and led to the development of a popular religion.  Priests and liturgists Mark Francis and Arturo Perez-Rodriguez argue that “Hispanic popular religion can be distinguished from its European counterpart by the fact that it was neither dominated not exclusively promoted by the clergy…Hispanic popular religion served to root Christianity in the lives of the new Christians in ways that the official liturgy could not.”[9]  Thus, in the experience of forced conversion, but little priestly presence or spiritual formation, the people were largely left to make sense of their newfound Christianity, and how it fit in with their indigenous religious practices, for themselves.  Institutional religious practices, in the form of Mass, would remain, but alternative and complementary expressions, such as the Day of the Dead, would always coexist alongside the institutional church.

The Emergence of El Día de Los Muertos in Colonial Mexico

As mentioned above, the Day of the Dead in Mexico was, as anthropologist Stanley Brandes suggests, “born of the colonial encounter, the 16th-century meeting between Europe and America.”[10]  The Day of the Dead as it is commonly seen today arrived at this form only after this clash and contact of various cultures.  As Brandes continues, the religious and cultural changes that began once the Spanish conquistadors set foot on the coast of present-day Veracruz were massive and unprecedented.  While it is assumed that many elements of the practices began much earlier, as funerary rites and their association with food have long been established in most cultures, the earliest references and descriptions of “the Day of the Dead” ceremonies around All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days in Mexico can be traced to Spanish documents in the mid-18th century.  One such account comes from Francisco de Ajofrín, a Capuchin friar that mentions the Day of the Dead and the making of animal figures made from sugar paste, and a colorful fair where small figures of the dead, coffins, tombs, clerics and monks are made and distributed.[11]  After extensive review of funeral rites and the use of food in both the indigenous groups and in the Spanish Medieval context, Brandes concludes that the Mexican Day of the Dead has a “prominent, though not exclusive, Spanish origin,” while acknowledging the complex and hybrid nature of the celebrations as a result of centuries of contact.[12]

Along the same lines of Orlando Espín’s assessment of the conditions of vanquishment under which evangelization took place, Brandes concludes that the Day of the Dead celebrations also have their roots and spiritual significance in this suffering.  As he sees it, “it seems realistic to posit that the Day of the Dead became ritualistically elaborate in Mexico as a consequence of the enormous loss of life during the 16th and the 17th centuries. Not only did people die in staggering numbers in this period, but also they were also uprooted and forcibly resettled in unfamiliar territory.”[13]  The amount of suffering and death due to forced relocation and servitude, direct violence inflicted, and the spread of disease was undeniable, making Espín and Brandes’ analysis seem fitting.  The Day of the Dead likely developed organically as a way of spiritual lamentation and coping for the massive loss of life and destruction that indigenous communities faced in their new subjugated reality and constant contact with the Spanish.  While Espín does not address the Day of the Dead explicitly, I would argue that it fits in with his description of the Latino popular Catholicism that developed from a mixture of medieval Spanish Catholicism and indigenous spirituality.  It is “popular,” as Espín notes, in that it comes from and belongs to the spiritual and social yearnings of the people, and not from the political and religious empire or their institutions.

The earliest accounts of the Day of the Dead in Mexico, from the mid-1700s, already point to core elements of these celebrations as subversive, grassroots expressions that unsettled the political and religious elites.  Brandes references Juan Viqueira, a historian that describes the nighttime visits of village families, including children, to the local cemeteries, and the celebrations that took place there with food and drink.  As Viqueira notes, “this fiesta, which drew boundaries between the living and the dead and partially inverted their roles, showed up the presence of death in the midst of life in an era in which the elite of New Spain…tried to forget its existence (Viqueira 1984:13).”[14]  Based on the collision of cultures, languages, and imposed religion, but with little day-to-day religious instruction, the atrocities of conquest and colonization gave way to a unique form of popular cultural, religious, and social adaptation in confronting death, leading to the Day of the Dead.  This observance, over centuries, has maintained an essentially festive, spiritual ethos that was related to the liturgical seasons of the church but not entirely a part of the church structure itself.  As Brandes notes, even today, “ironically…[the] Mass is the least salient part of the holiday.”[15]

Hybrid of a Hybrid: Day of the Dead in U.S. Context

Given its long history and trajectory in Mexico, the Day of the Dead celebrations in the United States are in their infancy.  According to ritual communications scholar Regina Marchi, who has observed and researched the Day of the Dead scene in the U.S., the first officially recorded Day of the Dead celebrations in the United States took place in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1972, through the initiation of the Chicano/a artistic and activist community.  In East Los Angeles, Marchi notes that this effort was led by Self-Help Graphics, a community arts center, which “hosted a lively Day of the Dead procession in which people dressed as skeletons and walked to a nearby cemetery.”[16]  Through Self-Help Graphics, numerous Chicano/a artists learned the practice of Mexican folk art traditions, such as the use of calavera (skull) images, and the making/preparing of ofrendas (offering) in the indigenous Mexican tradition.  In addition to the strong cultural and spiritual identification that Chicano/a artists and the greater  Latino/a community felt for the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, Marchi also notes that “Chicanos who initiated U.S. celebrations did so out of a felt moral obligation to counter racism and promote sociopolitical change.”[17]  Given the subtle, albeit subversive nature of Day of the Dead origins in Mexico, the more explicit political and social justice-oriented nature of Day of the Dead expressions in the U.S. Latino/a context, especially given the rise of the Chicano/a movement, seems fitting.

Over time, Marchi notes that this celebration in Los Angeles grew in size and scope, later including “music, Aztec danza, giant calavera puppets, sculptures, banners, “low rider” cars, decorated floats, and more.”[18]  There are now hundreds of Day of the Dead celebrations all over the country, and they are true public, social, cultural, and political events, with embedded spiritual meaning.  The San Francisco celebration, being the largest, draws over 10,000 people on a weekend.[19]  As modeled by the Day of the Dead pioneers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Day of the Dead events have been inclusive events—intergenerational, family-oriented, and educational.  Because the focus has been cultural and not explicitly religious, groups like Self-Help Graphics have been able to work with their local elementary schools, libraries, and museums in the weeks leading up to the Day(s) of the Dead, to hold educational workshops for children and adults, where people learn how to make sugar skulls, skeleton masks made out of plaster, papel picado (the colorful hanging banners with cut-out designs), offerings for the altars, and thus become invested in the processions and events that take place on November 1 and 2.[20]

Practical Implications for Engaging in the Day of the Dead Ritual

There are naturally distinctions to be made between the Day of the Dead in its original Mexican context, and in its more recent manifestations among Chicano/as and Latino/as in the U.S.  In Mexico, these ceremonies emerged out of a more explicitly religious context due to the experience of conquest, colonization, and the subsequent spiritual desire and need to make sense of suffering and death.  As such, Marchi notes, in Mexico most of the people that celebrate the Day of the Dead engage in such ritual “because of a sense of religious or moral obligation (to the dead, to the saints, to God, etc.),” whereas “most people in the United States, whether Latino or not, participate as an optional activity, or as what anthropologist Victor Turner calls “leisure rituals.”[21]  However, even as leisure rituals (which I don’t believe is entirely accurate for all Day of the Dead participation in the U.S.), as Marchi continues on Turner’s path, such rituals “are potentially capable of releasing creative powers, individual and communal, either to criticize or prop up dominant social structural values.”[22]  In this respect, while I do not expect or hope for the Episcopal Church, the Roman Catholic Church, or any other faith community to attempt  to integrate or appropriate the Day of the Dead celebrations institutionally, I do hope for them (us as I include myself) to understand, respect, and be open to the possibility of greater collaboration and participation with the Chicano/Mexican/Latino/a community, especially in Los Angeles, but increasingly in other places as well where demographics landscapes are quickly changing.  For many Latino/as that don’t frequent church too often, and even for those that do, in addition to cultural pride and a sense of community, many of us often find deep sacred and spiritual meaning in honoring one’s loved ones that have died, as well as acknowledging our collective dead ancestors and unnamed dead who have suffered and died for reasons of injustice.  For many that don’t attend church, these events are the “occasions of grace” that Stuhlman speaks of.  Such intercultural and ritual openness on the part of the faith community could be an important bridge that could lead to Latino/as feeling a greater sense of inclusion—countering the feeling of marginalization in mainstream society—and, I believe, will ultimately lead to a positive form of spreading the good news, rooted in justice and love for all people.

[2] At this time the key policy was Operation Gatekeeper as implemented by President Bill Clinton.
[3] Byron David Stuhlman, Occasions of Grace: An Historical and Theological Study of the Pastoral Offices and Episcopal Service (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1995), 5.
[4] Tom F. Driver, The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives & Our Communities (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 184.
[5] Driver, 207.
[6] Orlando O. Espín, The Faith of the People: Theological Reflections on Popular Catholicism (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 21.
[7] Espín, 22.
[8] Espín, 22-23.
[9] Mark R. Francis and Arturo J. Pérez-Rodríguez, Primero Dios: Hispanic Liturgical Resource (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1997), 7.
[10] Stanley Brandes, Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), Kindle Edition, Locations 229-232.
[11] Brandes, Location 794.
[12] Brandes, Location 502.
[13] Brandes, Locations 547-549.
[14] Brandes, Locations 630-631.
[15] Brandes, Locations 152-55.
[16] Regina M. Marchi, Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009), Kindle Edition, 47-48.
[17] Marchi, 60-61.
[18] Marchi, 60-61.
[19] Marchi, 159.
[20] Marchi, 47.
[21] Marchi, 60-61.
[22] Marchi citing Victor Turner (1977b, 42), 60-61.

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