I have visited countless cemeteries that dot the American landscape like placid, solemn pastures of remembrance and quietude, including the hallowed grounds of Civil War battlefields with white crosses marking where bayonets and cannon-fire chewed up grass and men; dust-caked pioneer plots disheveled by earthquakes or the encroachment of suburbs; and the moss-covered stone crypts of New Orleans betwixt looming magnolia trees and ghosts of trolley cars. To understand my roots, I visited my own grandparents buried in Chicago’s outer limits, where a regal pond shimmers nearby former Nobel Prize winners, vice-Presidents, and mayors. I’ve touched the graves of my great-great grandparents who rest in a rural, fecund stretch of central Wisconsin, not far from their homestead, now farmed by the Amish.
None of these, though, prepared me for my return to Houston, Texas, a metropolis hemmed in by superhighways, where Mexican-Americans maintain colorful graveside memorials, honoring the dead in distinct contrast to Anglo sensibilities. To critics, these places may seem no more than an unruly landscape of trinkets and junk. To Mexican-Americans, they represent well-maintained spiritual environments, perhaps “sites of memory,” to quote Pierre Nora (“Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.” Representations, 1989), that offset what folklorist Holly Everett describes as the banality and neglect for the sacred in huge, modern cities (Roadside Crosses in Contemporary Memorial Culture, 2002).
Such Mexican traditions survive wholeheartedly in places like Hollywood Cemetery on Houston’s north side, nestled between the Interstate 45 on-ramp and flood prone Little White Oak Bayou, which borders the property. Established in 1895, it contains 22,000 graves, including the Confederate spy and circus founder Mollie Bailey (“Circus Queen of the Southwest”), the Japanese immigrant who introduced rice cultivation to Southeast Texas in the early 1900s, and the city’s first librarian.
Like a few other cemeteries bordering bayous in town, parts of the acreage are elevated, even hilly. Though the majority of the Anglo and Asian cemetery stones rest 15 meters above water level in rows of sun-speckled geometric granite alongside various decorated Hispanics graves (typically flowers and ceramics), the Hispanic sites that appear most vividly vernacular —featuring homemade crosses, clusters of synthetic and natural foliage, and inexpensive pop culture mementos sometimes placed into muddy plots— reside below in their own not-so-private world, like sharp reminders of “difference” in a city yet to integrate fluidly and openly. In a city where many Hispanics endure toilsome manual labor, low wage service industry jobs, and the constant threat of deportation, this is the barrio of the dead.
Death is a sad but regular occurrence for poor people from rural regions, explains Barbara Younoszai, Professor of Spanish at Hamline University (St. Paul, Minnesota). Rituals surrounding death demonstrate their understanding of life as a cycle. Malnutrition, poor health care, and menial and physical job risks put them in continuous jeopardy; therefore, death is not foreign, death is a constant factor. They are familiar with it. As famed Mexican writer Octavio Paz once stressed, the Mexican “...chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.” This fact does not diminish their sense of loss but equips them with survival skills, including a sense of perseverance, persistence, and hope.
Their religiosity leads them to accept life as a transitional phase. It may be bountiful and rewarding, or short and painful, but it is temporary and a path to heaven. Since death is natural and inevitable, “Death is all in the scheme of things, ” suggests Younoszai (“Mexican American Perspectives Relating to Death.” Ethnic Variations in Dying, Death, and Grief. Diversity in Universality, 1993). Moreover, current Mexican and Mexican-Americans emphasize the continuity between the living and the dead, expressed through rituals and items that blur the boundaries between the sacred and secular.
Teeming with fruit, soda cans, ceramic figurines, plastic tassels, stuffed animals, even hanging shirts, the “barrio” section of Hollywood Cemetery abounds with vivid, converging, and often holiday-specific ornamentation. Peaking in quantity and color during early winter, one may catch glimpses of Halloween, Day of the Dead, Thanksgiving, and Christmas trinkets converging closely at each grave. Meanwhile, the Anglo sections maintain a kind of ubiquitous gray – the hue of somberness, solemnity, and stoicism – that appears to emphasize a sense of decorum, placidity, and restraint. Some might readily link this to Protestant traditionalism. The sites are mostly “clean” and free of vernacular decoration beyond flowers and an occasional item like a vase or small ceramic figurine.
The year-round adornment of Mexican graves feel akin to roadside shrines described by folklorist Daniel Wojcik. At Pre’s Rock, a commemorative site in honor of local runner and Olympian Steve Prefontaine in Eugene, Oregon, visitors pay tribute to a folk hero by leaving special objects behind. Although some neighbors may regard the informal site (marked by one stone made by nearby state penitentiary prisoners) as messy—filled with items ranging from shoes, lucky socks, and bracelets to graffiti, water and sports drink bottles, award ribbons and medallions, and photographs – those who flock to the rocky outcrop in the shady curve of road experience a “a tangible place… to commune with the deceased” (“Pre’s Rock: Pilgrammage, Ritual, and Runners’ Traditions at the
Roadside Shrine for Steve Prefontaine.” Shrines and Pilgrimage in Contemporary
Society: New Itineraries into the Sacred, 2008). The objects signify a sense of inspiration, protection, guidance, and gratitude. Simple mass-marketed commodities, and the knowledge that Prefontaine has become posthumously branded as an important commercial pop icon for Nike, do not taint the sacredness of the place.
Wojcik reminds us that even makeshift memorial environments are heartfelt and culturally significant since they express “underlying principles” and “common themes” (2008). Pilgrimage sites also invite participation and foster folk events. Gravesite traditions embody similar traits. “Our mom passed away three years ago,” the Lopez sisters told me. “We go to her gravesite every holiday, like Valentine’s day. We lay cards. My niece will write her a letter, take her a stuffed animal. We put a wind chime for her. It connects us to them more. We feel sad knowing that we are celebrating a holiday and they’re not with us, so we bring the event to them. It’s a way to cope. They’re still part of the family.”
The survivals of such pilgrimage or burial traditions might link the current Mexican-American practices to an era predating the Spanish conquest of Mexico itself. Converted Catholics integrated some Aztec and pre-Columbian rituals, including placing food for the dead on gravesites during Day of the Dead day of rituals, some dating back 3,000 years, in which Mexicans participate in longstanding customs—building family alters in their homes—and mock death with sugar skulls (symbols of both death and rebirth) and skull masks known as calacas. These traditions have flourished in America as well, though unlike in Mexico, few schools are likely to provide awards to schoolchildren for decorating imaginary gravesites, as they did for my student Magda Herrera, from Monterrey, who once created her own version of Frieda Kahlo’s grave.