Monday, November 03, 2003

I didnt know that san francisco has one of the largest Day of the Dead celebrations in the US. About 10,000 people showed up tonight (sunday) for a march to Garfield park which had been transformed into a site for altars and candles and offerings.

It has been adopted here by artists of course and so in some ways the event had more of the feel of a Burning Man or some other spontaneous excuse for creative expression. A band of skeletal musicians played and danced on a street corner. The street was full of people with whitened faces and blackened teeth. Men are doing drag versions of Posada's Catrina. I saw more than a few gothic dead, people that looked as if they had emerged from an Edward Gorey fantasy.

My first instinct about this is to question how authentic such a thing can be. I had noticed, for example, one of the altar artists explaining the significance of mirrors in the altar. The truth is there is no significance except to the artist herself. But this was not adequately explained to the curious onlookers who, to my mind, had been subtley deceived into thinking mirrors played some role in the mexican tradition. (Insert all sorts of questions here about performance and authenticity)

The area in Mexico where I grew up is not too far from the island of Janitzio, an epicenter for Day of the Dead in Mexico. I went to a few celebrations as a child but my memory is fuzzy and so I talked to my mother about this. Her memories are of large offerings in the graveyard, a festival atmosphere in which mariachi bands sometimes played among the tombstones. Children would laugh and play and make jokes about death - she remembers the equivalent of 'kick me' signs you would slap on the backs of others, except that instead the signs said 'Bury me, Im dead' or 'I have such bad breath, I must be dead." The more creative ones would also rhyme.

These things seem strange to us here where a graveyard is a solemn place. But a Day of the Dead is a party with the Dead. It fits in suprisingly well with what Octavio Paz described in his book, The Labyrinth of Solitude, as that Mexican sense of fatalism and comradery with death:

The Mexican . . . is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away (. . .) Death [in the poetry of Gorostiza and Villaurrutia can be seen] as nostalgia, rather than as the fruition or end of life, [it] is death as origin. The ancient, original source is the grave, not a womb.

My mother is relying on her memory because the truth is that up until recently Day of the Dead has been a dying tradition in Mexico. It is still practiced but it is not catholic-approved and so it is the rite of a dying generation. The rites in Janitzio are authentic but so many Westerners are enchanted by these rituals that the small little island is unfortunately over-run by tourists and thus by the threat of being suffocated into extinction.

But it also may be the beauty of these rituals which may rescue it yet. My mother notes that there is a returning fascination in Mexico and that which was almost forgotten is now being re-learned. The aesthetic enchantment of the Day of the Dead, its dancing skeletons, its beautiful candlelit processions, its attempt to unite two worlds is appealing also to non-mexicans and so my mother tells me, I should not be so judgemental. She doesnt see it as a corruption but looks forward to seeing San Francisco's rendition of this old pagan tradition.

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