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

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.

A Sacred Part of the Sites

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.