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Dia de los Muertos: Against Forgetting and Cultural Imperialism
November 1, 2012
This Day of the Dead season in Santa Monica brings some usual challenges. The recent deaths of two Santa Monica youth clouds the celebratory day in tragedy and loss. A procession called by the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC) on Saturday November 3 at 5:30 pm beginning at St. Annes Church (20th & Colorado) will address this concern.
It also reminds us that the event was not widely celebrated prior to the momentous 1998 November 2nd “Vigil for Peace.” As in 1998, Santa Monica’s Day of the Dead this year requires a community’s reflection and coming together for collective solutions.
Day of the Dead resists commercialization and continues to represent an ancient hemispheric tradition of honoring loved ones and heroes that have gone on to the spirit world.
The Day of the Dead, a Mesoamerican ceremonial holiday going back several centuries across numerous civilizations, traditionally constitutes a deep collective mediation on the cyclical nature of death, departed ones, family and community. It is also rich in irony, mimicry and celebration.
The Aztecs actually dedicated several months to the ceremonies. When Spaniards violently colonized central Mexico they assigned a single day to the holiday and conflated it with the Catholic All Saints Day. Spaniards demonized Aztec spirituality as satanic, and this demonization served to justify military conquest and genocidal anti-Indian policies. Spain, however, couldn’t wipe out all Aztec culture (that’s why we have chocolate, guacamole, gum, piñatas, tamales, etc.). Like the unstoppable spiritual pilgrimages to sacred sites of Guadalupe/Tonantzin, Mesoamericans continued to practice their spiritual beliefs.
As much as the Castilian priests wanted Aztecs to forget, they could not halt the soulful procession of bodies to the altars of their dearly deceased loved ones.
In Santa Monica, Day of the Dead celebrations have a unique resurgence, and not without our own version of colonialist invasions, hijackings and historical erasures.
One need only take a look at the impressive large black flier circulating throughout the city and notice that the one organization that initiated city-wide celebrations 14 years ago, the PYFC, is missing. For the first time the City appears to be investing major dollars in Chicano culture.
Ironically, it has been a year that has seen the City, particularly City Manager Rod Gould, go after PYFC by threatening to pull city dollars. Even though the PYFC was recently granted a generous contribution by a philanthropist, the center continues to be the only successful youth center created by community members who grew up in the Pico Neighborhood. It provides valuable public service. The PYFC’s advocacy of Pico residents and students of color is critical, but is ironically seen as a threat to police and city leaders.
City officials politically attack the PYFC, then ironically claim the Day of Dead Tradition as their making.
It’s kind of like an old Paul Rodriguez joke: “they love Mexican culture, Mexican food, Mexican holidays, Mexican music… there’s only one thing they don’t like: the Mexicans!” Ones that speak up are “bad Mexicans.”
Teachers like Samohi’s Jose Lopez, Tania Fischer and teachers at Edison Elementary have for years taught lessons to their students around this special day. Edison will host another elaborate festival this Saturday afternoon. But starting in 1998, a truly collective and community tradition around Day of the Dead sprouted in the predominantly Latino and African American Pico Neighborhood.
PYFC founding members along with Josefina Santiago at Virginia Park and SMC MEChA students came together to celebrate the holiday. When gang violence erupted in mid-October that year, organizers transformed the event into a “Vigil for Peace.” The LA Times reported 1,000 people marching through the neighborhood calling for peace and social programs. Organizers and students turned to building the Pico Youth and Family Center. Day of the Dead celebrations were held every year thereafter and have even been recognized regionally by the LA Times entertainment pages.
Indeed, the Day of the Dead tradition on the Westside has evolved in elaborate ways. The major event to check out is Paulina and Monica Sahagun’s procession and performance Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon at Highways 18th Street Arts Center. The procession on Saturday 11am to Woodlawn Cemetery recalls the Indigenous and Mexican Californio roots of Santa Monica. The PYFC first innaugurated this procession from Saint Annes’s Pavilion in 1998, and in 2000 we marched up 20th Street to the South West sector of the cemetery where most of the Californio ancestors are buried. Standing among the tombstones, 17th Street native Sal Galvan gave a lecture on the “hidden history” of Mexican Santa Monica, research from his UCLA Masters degree in Urban Planning.
One ancient concern of Dia de los Muertos was countering trauma by introducing the concept of death to the very young ones. For this reason the ceremonies involve humor, playfulness, celebration, and sweets. Elaborate skull art comically depicts living beings in skeletal portrait. Skull masks mix with music, candles and candy. Poems called “Calaveras” taunt death, ridicule political figures, and make fun of friends and even heroic figures. The tone of the day is merriment and irony.
On Thursday, November 2, the Santa Monica High School Art Department will co-host, along with the PYFC, student and community altars. This event is the most engaged educational aspect of the local celebrations. Local cultural activists traditionally make classroom presentations explaining objects, aspects and meanings behind the event. The Association of Mexican American Educators has long been part of this Ethnic Studies aspect. This year, Fischer worked with Grant school first graders whose masks will be exhibited at Thursday evening’s event.
The Samo Art Show features a prominent artist, surrounded by altars and figures designed by local students. Past artists have included Culver City’s Danny Flores, local muralist Danny Alonzo, and Adan Avalos. In 2001 the art show featured rare original prints of Mexican master woodcut artist Jose Guadalupe Posada.
Ironically, for the first time in 14 years, nothing is scheduled at the Pico Youth and Family Center. City officials discouraged staff from organizing “cultural and political activities.” A trip to Arizona earlier in the year in solidarity with Ethnic Studies students and teachers resulted in a beaurocratic backlash from city officials, which led to the increased policing of the center.
City, school and police officials too commonly equate the Center with its director, Oscar de la Torre, but as a city we need to recognize that the PYFC is a community-built institution. Oscar de la Torre should long ago have been commended for his tremendous leadership in making the center a dynamic place for youth to be productive, for his skills in keeping the center alive for over 12 years (Some wish he were instead a “good Mexican” that doesn’t speak up to social injustice). But the center is more than its director. It represents a community and a movement for social justice with a fantastic track record.
Like the Day of the Dead holiday, Pico residents need to take more ownership. We should see the PYFC as an institution created by its own residents, people who grew up along Virginia Street, or 19th, or playing at Memorial Park (el parquet de la catorce), or Silva Field, or riding bikes along the beautiful Michigan Street corridor.
We have not forgotten ceremonies 1,000 years old. We should not forget institutions we built twelve years ago.
PYFC procession Saturday, Nov. 3rd convenes at St. Anne’s at 5:30pm ending at 16th & Delaware at 7:15pm with tamales, champurrado, community speak out. Open to all humans and spirits.
Serna is a Film/Business professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, member of AMAE Santa Monica/West LA Chapter, finishing an English PhD at UC Riverside. He is a graduate of St. Annes and the Mayor of Virginia Park.
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