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.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

"Cracking Columbus" - O HERALDO: The Transient (Goa - 1 October 2011)

San Antonio, Ibiza
Chickens and Eggs

Following his discovery of the New World, Christopher Columbus was invited to dine with some Spanish aristocrats. Naturally, discussion centred on the Genovese mariner’s feat, which had been patronized by the Spanish crown. The noblemen demeaned Columbus’ accomplishment, arguing that one of their own countrymen would have done the same if given the opportunity.  

Columbus listened to his detractors and then asked for an egg. He enquired of the others if they could make the egg stand on its end with no external aid. No one could. The explorer tapped the egg on the table, so as to crush one end, thus balancing the egg upright. Once something is accomplished, he wished to demonstrate, it is easy to claim it is simple. 

This account is apocryphal at best. However, I find it interesting that I learned the story at school in India, a postcolonial state. The anecdote was dispensed with nothing said of the Age of Discovery, colonialism, or the decimation of Native Americans. If anything, our young minds were being offered the exploits of a hero whom we should seek to emulate. No doubt, this tale is taught globally, the Americas included.

Between Two Indies

In October 1992, indigenous American tribes protested national celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. Among other events, plans to sail a replica of Columbus’ boat in San Francisco were halted. Similarly, it was only last year that the Portuguese ship Sagres circumnavigated the globe. Its arrival in Mormugao harbour coincided with the quincentennial anniversary of Goa’s capture by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510. The ship’s visit was described as being one of goodwill by Goa’s former colonizer, a naval stopover devoid of political intent. Several Goan freedom fighters saw the incident differently and famously protested. 

NRP Sagres
The Iberian-sponsored “discoveries” of the Americas and the Indies are connected as we know. Columbus was in search of the latter, which is why there are now two parts of the world whose natives bear the “Indian” moniker. Eighteen years apart, celebrations and protests highlighted the 500th anniversaries of European incursions into those areas. How might these legacies be reconnected? Certainly not by focusing on the colonizer alone.

Decolonizing Education 

What makes the tale of Columbus’ Egg particularly apocryphal is its lack of recognition of the navigator’s failure in finding the Indies. The hero only became one because of a mistake. Regardless, colonization still found its way across the globe. Furthermore, the story casts the sailor as an underdog in the land of his benefactors. He is othered by his lack of privilege in comparison to the aristocrats who mock him. Meanwhile, the recipients of colonization recede into the backdrop. It is Columbus, instead, who serves as the repository of otherness. The narrative and real effacement of the natives in their own homelands make room for new identities, such as Columbus’ – the underprivileged seafarer with a dream. Empty Continents thereby become Lands of the Free and stories of the colonized go unheard. 

Despite indigenous protests, Columbus Day continues to be celebrated in the United States.

Previously published here.