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A Sacred Part of the Sites

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Day of the Dead iconography has also migrated or been appropriated into American popular culture, as well. Cactus Records in Houston, Texas, celebrated Day of the Dead in 2009 by selling prints of “Day of the Dead Rock Stars” by Carlos Hernandez, including paintings evoking Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain. These convergence culture items are an expression of Mexican folkways “translated” in the American marketplace. Thus, to modify a description of roadside memorials by Holly Everett, such work might be understood as embodying the complex interplay of store policy, cultural indices, market forces, and belief systems.

At some Mexican-American gravesites, the memorials become hybrid zones where mass-marketed, inexpensive, and ‘throwaway’ goods produced in places like China become an intimate, meaningful, and sacred part of the sites. Whereas Anglos might consider gluing a Diet Coke can or a placing plastic Santa faces on an entire gravestone to be gauche and improper, these families find no shame in populating sacred spaces with such commodities.

“It’s a way to cope. It’s a big part of the healing process.” Ramirez confers: “You want them to remain a part of your life, even though they are not here physically.”

Ironically, many Americans live in an age defined by hyper-consumption, in which consumer goods often become a way to self-medicate (“shopping at Target is therapeutic”) and obtain status at the same time (“keeping up with the Joneses”). Our bodies even contain manufactured goods, such as pace makers and steel joints and rods.  Yet, most Anglos do not adorn gravesites with commodities. In life, we are what we own, but after death, we purify the sacred space, keep commodities at bay. Mexican memorials deploy a very different approach.

One pre-Columbian tradition was to adorn graves with yellow-orange flowers, marigolds (known as flor de muerto), which were associated with the Toltec goddess Xochiquetzal (soh-chee-ket-sahl). Folklorists have often studied the dissemination, migration, and dynamism of these traditions into the southwestern territory of America. Terry Jordan has described the variety of flowers—paper, natural, and plastic—that frequent the graves of Mexican-Americans in Texas and New Mexico, indicating an “Amerindian desire for harmony with nature” ( Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy, 1982).  The profusion of elaborate plastic flowers do not readily appear in other ethnic groups, he notes, describing this tradition as a possible “survival” not only from indigenous American Indian practices but from practices found in Mediterranean cultures as well. Other scholars like Warren E. Roberts, however, dispute this hypothesis.

In the ‘barrio’ section of the Hollywood cemetery, a vibrant convergence between the secular and sacred is maintained. Traditional signs of faith, like ceramic figurines of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Lourdes, Saint Jude, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, are often accompanied by abundant pop culture items, such as Santa Claus sundries and generic cherubs—what Anglos might deride as dime store mementos. The gravesites also feature small lawn art: cat cut-outs, plaster penguins and bullfrogs, snowmen and candy canes, and ghosts and scarecrows.  This is typical fare. My Mexican-American students have left similar items as well, including balloons, wind chimes, cowboy boots, Western hats, tennis shoes, footballs, lipstick, and homemade tequila.

In the case of child graves, myriad toys reveal a loving affection for the deceased, including toy cars, bathtub ducks, and representations of familiar American television cartoon icons like Tweety Bird and Tony the Tiger. The child does not lack objects of affection, even in death. While many Mexican-American graves traditionally feature candles, even lanterns, a plastic, gel-based glow stick was visible on one grave, while another family installed solar powered lights on a child’s grave. Many mourners believe graves should never be unlit. As Celeste Ramirez informed me, “You try to keep them on, day and night, as long as you can, to keep the spirit alive.” If such customs signify the shoring up of ethnic identification, or what Richard Meyer calls the “resurgence of positive … ethnic pride” that co-exists with “limited acculturation,” (Ethnicity and the American Cemetery, 1993) these sites and acts reflect an American immigrant urge to maintain traditional practices.

In the animist religion of Santeria found in places like Cuba and New Orleans, consumer-grade objects are often integrated into the sacred space of altars and shrines. This is the ‘normalform’.  George Brandon notes that these altars are an “accessible … and controllable visage” of the religion, allowing adherents and practitioners to experience a kind of “collective memory”. People self-manage their cultural resources, plus maintain continuity with traditions. This can occur despite migrations, “breakdowns in the transmission process,” and changes to the cultural resources, which means no “pristine, frozen” sense of folk ritual occurs (Santeria from Africa to The New World: The Dead Sell Memories, 1997). Adaptation is steady and natural.

Although he refers to beliefs and philosophy, I argue that the same can been said for memorial environments. As folklorists Ysamur Flores-Pena and Roberta Evanchuk have described, syncretic Santeria altars feature “carved statues, seed pods, fruit, flowers, urns, beads, feathers, cauldrons, miniature farming implements, fans and mirrors” (Santeria Garments and Altars, 1994). Likewise, Afro-American gravesite objects, referred to as “offerings,” John Michael Vlach notes, include a dizzying variety, including: “clocks, salt and pepper shakers, medicine bottles, spoons, pitchers, oyster shells, conch shells, white pebbles, toys, dolls’ heads, bric-a-brac statues, light bulbs, tureens, flashlights, soap dishes, false teeth, syrup jugs, spectacles, cigar boxes, piggy banks, gun locks, razors, knives, tomato cans, flower pots, marbles, bits of plaster, [and] toilet tanks” (The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, 1990).

Observing Mexican gravesites in San Antonio, Marta Leticia Salazar posits that ceramics and incense holders may follow the traditions from Teotihuacan, while shells may also be linked to Mayan, Spanish, and African practices. She also recognizes that changes within such practices originate many times from institutional pressure—cemetery administrations who may attempt to hinder colorful displays, including fencing, foodstuffs, and material maligned or misunderstood as un-Christian or unbefitting Anglo cemetery norms. Therefore, cemeteries become contested spaces embodying “diversity and negotiation” but mirroring “religious hegemony” as well.

Some cemetery staff willingly ignore rules and/or some families remain reluctant to acquiesce, even defiant. When staff throw away objects left at American cemeteries, mourners express dismay. “We’re not doing it to make clutter. It’s a way to respect the dead,” Celeste Ramirez argues. “For them to come and throw it away is disrespectful.” Those same students continue to leave objects, regardless of policies. At such times, cultural heritage maintains precedence and power over institutional rules and ordinances (Life and Death: Mexican American Grave Decorating and Funerary Rituals, 2009). In the case of Hollywood Cemetery, this may hold true, as well.

Like myself, Salazar argues that the incorporation of “holiday icons”, including ghosts, Disney figures, or snowmen, should not be equated with signs of “assimilation” but instead reflect and embody “culture change and transformation”, for her subjects neither felt particularly Americanized nor disconnected from their Hispanic heritage. Her fieldwork documented a number of sports-related items at gravesites too, including “sports mascots, colors… and sports logos”. She concludes that such syncretism and hybridity does not bastardize the forms, but (to quote Chad Richardson) creates a unique Tex-Mex tradition. Such cemetery sections may “feel” like a barrio, but that should not be considered a pejorative term: such sites offer familiarity, comfort, and vibrancy to people negotiating American culture from a distinctly Hispanic vantage point.

Even sacred spaces inundated with pop iconography from nearby dollar stores allow for continuity, dissemination, and preservation of long-held practices. Handmade objects, religious ceramics, and items culled from nature, such as fruit, shells, and foliage may merge with Pepsi cans, Disney-branded toys, and “Santa Stop Here” signs. Although the latter are neither handmade nor vernacular, they represent a common entry point into folk traditions and maintain community pride, healing, and empowerment. People celebrating the rituals of grave memorials concern themselves primarily with the event, not the object, the context, not the text. As the Lopez sisters argue, “It’s a way to cope. It’s a big part of the healing process.” Ramirez confers: “You want them to remain a part of your life, even though they are not here physically.” 

Additional reading:

Margry, Peter Jan, and Christina Sanchez-Carretero (2007). Memorializing Traumatic Death. Anthropology Today 23, no 3: 1-2.

Miller, Carlos. “Day of the Dead History.”  The Arizona Republic. Online. Accessed 20 February 2010.

West, John. Mexican-American Folklore: legends, songs, festivals, proverbs, crafts, tales of saints, of revolutionaries, and more. Little Rock: August House, 1988.

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