Dollar Store Sundries and Sacred Spaces: Mexican-American Graves in a Modern Metropolis

All photos by David Ensminger

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.

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.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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