Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Days of the Dead

Before I moved to Texas, my end-of-October celebratory experience was limited to Halloween, which lost its fascination quickly after I started getting serious about health and environmental issues, and after my kids had outgrown (I thought) dressing up like Han Solo and fairy princesses. I am, of course, completely wrong about that, since I'm pretty sure they both gleefully dress up as video game characters or Sex in the City types on a regular basis. But I've gone a bit bah-humbug on the candy-giving/costuming mania over the past few years. We've handed out treats only once since we moved to this neighborhood; mostly we keep the porch light off and hunker down to watch a movie with the curtains drawn.

I still do like the idea of celebrating the dead, but I'm not sure that scoring pounds of candy is the most poetic way of doing it. The last time I "dressed up" I wore a white Victorian nightgown and pasty white makeup and drifted about the trails of the Heard Museum, a nearby nature center, to frighten paying guests. But that was over twenty years ago. More recently, I've grown fond of local Day of the Dead festivities, and of the lovely sugar skulls and crepe-paper colors, and the music that floats down the street when folks from our local barrio drive by on their way to the highway.

My grandmother was a great one for remembering those who'd gone before, but her ceremonies (which included gathering up every stray flower in the yard into a couple of buckets of water) focused on the family plot in Big Pine, on Memorial Day. Once or twice we drove up on Veterans Day to put flowers on my grandfather's grave, but Day of the Dead wasn't in our vocabulary then, despite the fact that the Valley was home to a fairly large population of second- and third- (and probably more than a few fourth-) generation Mexican immigrants.

Outside my hometown lies an old, mostly-forgotten graveyard with only a few headstones left, some engraved in Spanish, some in Russian. I've never pursued the sources of the graves, but maybe this would be a good time to do so. Sometimes we'd visit the site when I took the kids to see Grandma, and we'd go out and walk among the graves on a hot summer evening. The setting sun always made the scene a bit eerie, and once (about twenty five years ago) I took the picture here--of my daughter in her nightie next to one of the headstones that had fallen over (or had been pushed) and then cracked.

An aside: Following my own instructions (issued to my students only yesterday) to follow any question that arises with research, I conducted a quick search on Owens Valley graves and found this through Google Books (it refers to the very gravestone beside which my daughter is standing in the photo):

Josefa de Alday's tombstone reads, 'Your children wish to remember the proof of the great love they had for you.' In 1880, Josefa was 40 years old and living in Inyo County wth two children. The D. E. P. at the bottom of her stone means 'rest in peace.'

From Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra, p. 119
by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Now, in exile far from familiar graves and family bones, I've taken to enjoying what goes on locally. This year, at least one of my Visual Anthropology group projects will involve Día de los Muertos celebrations in town. The last time I taught the class was during the fall quarter a year ago, and one team visited a street party in Fort Worth to record Cowtown's version of the Day of the Dead. Because it involves community and tradition, it's a natural subject for anthropology in the first place, and an especially good topic if the focus is on recording it on film. These two guys took lovely pictures of the festivities and exhibits. This picture that opens this post is from those taken for the project.

Holidays like All Saints' and All Souls' days have roots in far more ancient traditions than the Christian beliefs that finally embraced them. Celebrating Los Días de los Muertos is itself a hybrid of Aztec and Christian views of the dead and of the afterlife, just as Halloween marries Christian and pagan rituals. I'm not sure why I now enjoy the Day of the Dead idea so much more than Halloween, except that the focus on remembrance (rather than on greed?) reassures me that when my remains have been scattered in the Sierras, or buried under a tree in an eco-cemetery somewhere, somebody might build a little altar in my honor, with pictures of things I loved and a little sugar skull. At least I'll know that nobody will be posing their daughter next to my tombstone!

Photo credit: Thanks to Alex Antonio and Drew Simon for the great picture and for inspiring the direction of the post.


Martin said...

I love the way your daughter blinked when you took the photograph. Or perhaps you instructed her to close her eyes. An eerie image.

Unknown said...

I love the surreal space you managed to create, like a castle of gathered thoughts on the top of our busy souls, here in the mountains of ourselves we do not hear the noise of everyday life and air is pure...
I wish I had enough tranquillity in my life as a globetrotter to create such a peaceful world in my blog, too....
come and visit me if you want :-)