[Written to accompany the catalogue for the “Dia de los Muertos” show by the Cesar Chavez Guey art collective.]
First off, it’s Dia de los Muertos, and not, en ingles, the Day of the Dead, and this is not merely due to the dominant cultural associations attached. Very simply, it sounds better: an elongated phrase with a ready plural as opposed to two flat atonal thuds, those extra syllables traded in for a bland bit of ambiguity – let’s leave that name to the news anchors and zombies.
As with most of the better holidays, it’s built upon an absolute – Cupid’s arrow may never strike true, but death, like the solstices and Lincoln’s birthday, can’t be avoided. Barring the transcendence of our earthly selves into the digital Elysian Fields of the Singularity, it’s coming for us all; the cigarette I just smoked tells me that if most are sauntering down the sidewalk of existence, I’m inclined to the occasional hopscotch. It’s the day (or rather three) when, like those damn zombies, the dead come back; where our dead differ though, is that when we greet them, they’re always sure to wear a smile. You know the image – the joyful skeletons, at the center of the festivities, completely at ease in the setting. And why wouldn’t they smile? Rarely are they welcomed back so eagerly.
More typically, the dead’s presence will elicit some trepidation. I mean, what if they’re actually and bluntly present, Ouija board-style? Spooky. Not too long ago, I was coffeeing it up with some friends and the topic arose – the unexpected encounter, the hairs raised at the back of the neck. Someone ventured a tale and, as with many “this really happened” tales of the beyond, it was a game of telephone involving a sibling, a friend of a friend, a foreign land, and a location of some significance – a hotel in Germany that had seen catastrophe in World War II, and had since known unusual happenings, complaints by the guests, and so on.
Most ghost stories are like this and every time I encounter one, I get irritated. From a God’s eye view, one death is no different from another – a stillborn child and my mother’s mother and the soul(s) who may or may not haunt that hotel and FDR are all equally dead; maybe they do, at times, come back, but I refuse to believe they are privileged or damned, however you want to read it, to return according to a ready framework of myth or melodrama, a battle or some full-blown turmoil or a murder, much less the greatest war of the last century. All moments are fair game, even the smaller ones that few know – it’s hubris to claim the dead deem as relevant the same values we do. Not when there are so many more of them than there are of us.
Death probably made itself known not too far from where you’re reading this, history’s chalk outline so extensive as to possibly blot out all the inhabitable areas of the earth. And that’s only taking space into account – consider the seven people who died in the time it took you to read this sentence. All one’s powers of ignorance can’t discount it. The dead – they’re everywhere.
Right now it’s probably accessible on a television screen near you: death as a designated rupture in reality, there to be amended. The status quo is interrupted and the culprit is there to be captured, sentenced, or repaid in kind –Law And Order may be your drug of choice, though you’ve got plenty of options. Or else it’s a battlefield, and the theater of war is an actual theater, with one man, one battalion, placed in its spotlight; death, which in this domain is not a disturbance but a daily statistic, gains value by virtue of our having witnessed it. And numerous other genres, with their own careworn scenarios and specific harbingers of doom: the aliens intent upon conquest and genocide, the serial killer racking up a kill count dictated by his own private logic, et cetera…
All those made-to-order victims stand in stark contrast to the far greater likelihood awaiting we, the contentedly industrialized – the dominant point-of-view from an adjustable bed, all the actions in your last weeks or months dictated by a hospital schedule of necessary routines and pre-planned visits and the coup de grace, the winding down rhythm of EKG beeps to regulate your final moment. That may be the point: entertainment not only as escapism, but consolation. If the end must come, than let’s imagine it writ large, an absence from the world which must be remedied, or at least acknowledged, rather than a quiet fade.
From this point of view, Dia de los Muertos is a brief respite from our instincts: we, the living, greet the dead not through a mandated veil of mourning, nor as specters bent upon regaining their moment past or as reflections of our limited selves, the desired culmination and climax to the story we unknowingly repeat to ourselves every day – who we are and who we want to be. No, we get to put those aside on this day and we build our own place for that absence.
From the outside it may look like a stern-faced repetition of Halloween, with a creepy crawly trope or two gussied up in formal wear and pushed from night to day; a self-serious sequel, with sugar skulls in lieu of inedible candy corn. If you wish to draw a relationship, consider them counterparts: freedom and fate, hand in hand. If Halloween is given to masquerade and the mutability of identity, becoming who we wish to be by mere virtue of saying so, then Dia de los Muertos declares that everything is what it is, but even more so; the past is there, in the form of the homage we pay to those whom we remember fondly and will only ever know us as we were, and so is the future, as we don the guise of what we will become, the face we’ll wear when we reach the absolute boundary of ourselves and may move no further – you can’t call it pretending if it’s true.
We define those extremes and, with little fuss, we collapse them into now. Death is revealed not as the ultimate Other – always where we are not, but for the grace of god – but where it always was: at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So we’ll make the dead their favorite food, give toys to unseen children, and share beers with friends and relatives, past and present. We’ll make them at home inside or we’ll go out and visit them at the cemetery, turning it into a picnic, a playground, all the while acclimating ourselves to where we’ll spend eternity. The dead don’t respond, they don’t give thanks, but that’s okay – they don’t need to.
Not when they’re so eager to smile.