Today was a national holiday in Nicaragua. Day of the Deceased – Día de los Difuntos. It is the same holiday celebrated in Mexico with the stylistic skulls and the candles, but the traditions down here in Nicaragua are different.
Halloween is not heavily celebrated in Nicaragua. Some clubs have parties, but that’s about it. There is not much dressing up or any trick or treating whatsoever. Nicaraguans save their trick or treating for the Gritería. Some Peace Corps Volunteers celebrate, but I was getting over a stomach infection, so I didn’t go out. However, on Sunday I saw tons of photos on Facebook, plus Larry posted an interesting article. I disagreed with most of its points, but it was stimulating nonetheless. You bet I am going to critique it now!
The title of the article is, “Dear White People/Queridos Gringos: You Want Our Culture But You Don’t Want Us – Stop Colonizing The Day Of The Dead.” Let’s start there. I’m pretty tired of the “Dear White People” memish title. I understand why authors use it. They want to emphasize that despite what many White people think we are not in a post-racial society. Many White people remain racist without even realizing it. We tacitly perpetuate oppression. But the fact of the matter is, not all White people are the same, just as not all Black people are the same, not all Latinos are the same, and in any given racial or ethnic group there is a lot of diversity in ideas, living situations, and appearance. And not all White people are colonizing Day of the Dead. And all the same, by starting the title of an article with “Dear White People” the author is taking an authoritative position for all Mexicans (the author is of Puerto Rican descent, but certainly has an appreciation for Mexican culture and pan-Latinism). But I doubt that all Mexicans feel how the author feels.
That’s all semantics. The actual article sets up a difference between Mexican and American (“gringo”) attitudes towards death. And the author believes that slasher horror films and other aspects of gringo culture expose an inferior attitude among American towards death than among Mexicans and other Latino cultures. First of all, slasher horror flicks are but a small portion of the horror and suspense genre. There are thousands of films, Hollywood and independent, that forego mindless bloodshed and emphasize actual art and storytelling, even if death and the supernatural is involved. I have very little respect for Hollywood in general, and I am not a fan of scary movies much at all. However, they are popular in Latin America as well as in the United States.
And even more so, one of the most famous Mexican film makers, Guillermo del Toro, is a horror director. His latest English language film, Crimson Peak, is about how ghosts aren’t always there to get you. They are marks left over of love and can be there to help and heal.
Secondly, Mexico, and Latin America in general, is more religious than the United States. More people believe in life-after-death and an actual spiritual connection between the living and the dead. Furthermore, the larger, but shrinking, Catholic community in Latin America emphasizes the strength of this connection every November 2. The United States is less Catholic and less religious. However, religious motifs have a way of sticking around in next-generation societies (Christmas in Christianity, indigenous ancestor veneration as Mexican Day of the Dead, etc.). As a result, Halloween is now a completely secularized holiday in America. I’ll spare everyone my thoughts on religion and religious belief, but in no way does this secularization expose a weakness of American culture or an inferiority in our attitudes towards death.
The author’s main criticism is that Day of the Dead in the United States has been “colonized” by Americans. In Oakland, CA the Day of the Dead events were gringo organized and the performers were all gringo. I don’t see why this is a criticism of the gringos. Short of the Oakland gringo community overtly blocking Latino organized events, why didn’t the Latino community organize events or participate in the gringo events? And there is every reason to assume that Mexican culture has evolved over hundreds of years and no longer purely considers DotD a day of familial-spiritual connections. On Facebook yesterday I found two photos from my Mexican friend Fernando at a Mexican (as in the country) DotD party:
From that criticism the article morphs into an attack on immigration reform, the rhetoric coming from the election, and mainstream disregard for Latino culture. And this is where I disagree with the article the most. This is where the Whitewashed title of the article betrays the author. Not all White people hate Latinos. Not all White people want Latinos deported and kept out. Not all White people want to keep them from voting and speaking their native languages. Many White people themselves learn Spanish, appreciate Latino neighbors, fight alongside them for rights and equality, and grow up seeing Latinos as equals in their local communities and the world. In fact, I would presume that the gringos enjoying micro-brews, face painting, and music at the DotD festivities in Oakland and around the United States are mostly sympathizers who appreciate Latino culture, want to celebrate it, and want to find a place in the United States of America for all nationalities. Just because they infuse the festivities with some of their culture, such as micro-brewing and chicken dancing, does not mean that they have a disrespect or a tendency for colonization of Latino culture.
Furthermore, I feel that gringo impulsed Day of the Dead events demonstrates a respect and appreciation for Latino communities. There are probably many other minority groups in the United States that would welcome more White collaboration in their cultural events and lament the lack of participation from White people.
At the end of the article the author includes the obligatory fine print that all White people may not be cultural colonizers, and calls on them to boycott gringo-led events and patronize Latino DotD activities. However, she fails to realize that the very White people she is trying to speak to are the same ones she had been complaining about in the paragraphs. She also circles back to the cultural bankruptcy of Halloween. Halloween has certainly taken on some negative aspects of American culture, such as racism and the exaltation of excess consumption. However, it also celebrates creativity, families, communities, safe public spaces, art, and the outdoors.
And it just so happens that I went to the author’s main blog site right after finish that little diatribe. Turns out that her article is from 2014 (I suppose I wasn’t sick of the “Dear White People” meme quite yet), and many people posted similar opinions to mine in the comments of the original article. Read the author’s response, written a year later.
So with that off my chest and a free day here in Nicaragua, I went down to the largest cemetary in León to see what was going on. Don’t worry, it was a Latino organized event.
The first thing I noticed was lots and lots of young men with machetes. But that is not a play on Halloween. People clean grave sites on Day of the Deceased, and there are young men waiting-for-hire at the cemetery with machetes and shovels.
Generally, I found a normal Nicaraguan environment. There were people walking around, kids running around, and vendors everywhere. Lots of people had placed flowers and wreaths on graves and tombs, but there weren’t many candles, and none of the traditional Mexican skull motifs. Outside of the gate to the cementary there was a stage set up that said “Feria de los Flores” – Festival of the Flowers. I’m not sure why they had that name, but it was fairly fitting.
There were also lots and lots of buñuelos and paco vendors. They are the two traditional food of Day of the Deceased down here. Buñuelos are kind of like Nicaraguan doughnut holes. They are fried fritters doused in syrup, made out of yucca, corn, or eggs. And pacos are a sweet tortilla stuffed with a little bit of Nicaraguan cottage cheese. I got one and had it for dinner. It was pretty good.