Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Dia de los Muertos" - O HERALDO: The Transient (Goa - 29 October 2011)

Sugar Skulls

All Hallows or All Saints’ Day is preceded by Hallowe’en and followed by All Souls’ Day. In Mexico, the November dates are commemorated with sugar skulls and remembrances of the dead, fusing Catholic traditions with indigenous ones that predate colonization. American celebrations of 31st October are synonymous with costumed children trick-or-treating and cinematic horror. The neighbouring countries share a fraught history in which borders, labour, and cultural influence have been hotly debated. Against this backdrop, Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, in Mexico and its diaspora, captures issues of colonization and discrimination. 

Like Goa, Mexico too had Iberian colonizers, Portugal and Spain respectively. Catholicism was the common imprint. However, despite conversion, the cultures in the two regions were not completely translated. What emerged instead were localized traditions that refused to abandon the past.  Anthropologist Robert Newman refers to this as the “synthesis and co-existence of cultural elements of different origins.” This may appear to imply allowances made by the colonizer. Rather, the syncretization of Iberian Catholic traditions in the colonies entails resistance and a reconsideration of mortality.


The commonality between Hallowe’en and Dia de los Muertos is a recall of death, but where the celebrations differ is in how the finality of life is regarded. American commercialized festivities lend themselves to the macabre – death is equated with horror. In contrast, Mexican community merriment around the transience of life makes light of it. As influenced most notably by Aztec culture, the inevitable is caricatured in flower-bedecked skeletons. Death is embraced as part of life and not simply its end. The revelry departs from the sombreness of European Catholicism where even triumphant events such as the Resurrection relegate rebirth to the arena of the miraculous. Death, in the meantime, is associated with infernal terror. Arguably, fear was a useful quality in colonial projects in which religion played its part. The melding of native and colonial traditions stands testament to how colonial authority was challenged and subverted. 
Olvera Street Altar to Casualties of the Iraq War

Dia de los Muertos continues in popularity echoing the lasting signs of resistance against empire. If in Mexico such cultural opposition was in response to the Spanish empire, then in the diaspora artistic efforts that reclaim indigenous Mexican traditions speak out against other empires. A 2004 Dia de los Muertos style altar to Iraq War casualties in Los Angeles’ Olvera Street, the city’s original Spanish settlement, brings to mind the deathly efforts of neo-imperialism, the U. S. Army’s opportunistic enlistment of soldiers of colour, and renewed coloniality.

Hector Silva's Art
Syncretism’s Lessons

Mexico’s syncretic traditions offer lessons to Goa in the religio-colonial similarities the two share, primarily in the possibility of recovering community. Newman refers to the Little Tradition – persistent kinships and beliefs across Goa’s cultures despite colonization. This urges recognition of the subaltern indigeneity which is the basis of Goan culture. In this there exists the opportunity for communal liveliness and, moreover, an acknowledgment of All Souls.

 A version initially appeared here.

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