Dia de los Muertos
Tradition, Theology, and Bad Poetry
(Photo credit to the Lion and the Cardinal Blog)
You had to expect this post from me, so here it is. Many of you may be tired of me putting references to my Mexican heritage on my blog, but it is something I really can't help. I am pretty white-washed and have my "coconut" moments (I go to an Anglican Church for crying out loud!), but the Mexican comes out sooner or later.
In that vein, I went to the event that the Latino student community here in Berkeley put on last night, and I have to say I felt pretty alienated. Sure, it was good to be in a room where brown people were the majority; I haven't felt that too often since I left Hollister last August. I soon realized, however, that I had waltzed into the "Chicano nationalist" world of petit-bourgeois stereotypes and mythologies. The vast majority of those who read this blog will have no idea what I am talking about, so let me summarize the issues at hand concisely. With the rise of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in this country in 1960's, many Mexican Americans also began to articulate their own vision of what it means to be a racial minority in this country. What they came up with was the term "Chicano", which often exalted the indigenous roots of Mexican peoples over our Hispanic heritage. In this way, many leftist activists began to embrace pre-Columbian spiritualities and culture, trying to envison the struggles of Mexican Americans in the broader context of the struggles of people of color all over the world.
So when I got to the large room where this event was being held, they had already set up altars for the dead that are traditional for a Mexican All-Souls' Day celebration. While some of the displays were indeed touching, other altars featured home-made votive candles with the images of Che Guevara and Tupac Shakur on them. (Don't get me wrong, I think Tupac could flow tight, but that is another post....) In other words, these aspiring members of the Latino petit-bourgeoisie had stripped the holiday of any reference to the Catholic holy day, aside from, of course, the occasional image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Finally a young woman was introduced to read some poetry. Now, this is where I am really going to show my reactionary colors.... SPANGLISH IS NOT A LANGUAGE!!!! True, my mother speaks fluent "Spanglish" but that is just because we get the poor woman so flustered that she gets confused sometimes. Nevertheless, Mexican-American kids in academia seem to think that speaking a mixture of Spanish and English somehow makes them more Mexican-than-thou. But my "barrio credentials" are solid, so I do not feel the need to speak bad English in order to know who I am, but I digress....
This young woman then proceeded to read a few of her poems, of which the best were passable, and some needed a lot of work. Mira, preciosa, (lapsing into Spanglish, my bad), you don't have to make poetry into an exercise in Maoist propaganda. Just let the poem be. And when you raise your voice in indignation like that, you look cute, but I am not going to take you seriously. Here in Berkeley it is proven over and over again that bad art makes bad politics, and good art is usually not political at all.
While she was reading, a few spaced-out frat-boys went around with an incense wand "blessing the altars". This demonstrated that Mexicans make very bad pagans, so they either should go back to Mass or give up religion all together. The poor poetess up front tried to explain the significance of the spirits coming back to altars with theology that would make a class of pre-schoolers giggle. It reminded me of the Chesterton saying that when people start believing in nothing, they will believe in anything at all. If this is the future of our people in the Mexican diaspora, I don't want it. It is the apex of idiocy and an excuse to celebrate an illusion that we have long ago left.
Nevertheless, once the ordeal was over, I went over to one of the more presentable altars and mumbled the "De Profundis" in Latin, making a prominent Sign of the Cross before and after. I then realized that maybe the Reformers were right in a sense. Here were many things that once were Catholic but finally stripped of Christ they had become pure paganism again. (And even worse, paganism without taste!) In the past year, I have had to gauge what is important and what is not in my life as a Christian, and I have had to discard so many things that I once thought I would die for. Many of the trappings of Roman Catholicism have become solely cultural for me. The whole idea of an "incarnational religion" can become idolatry on so many levels, not just on the obvious ones like these neo-pagan altars. When we take externals too seriously on the account that the "Word became flesh", we often end up deifying sinful men, dividing the Church by over-valuing trifles, and in the worse case scenario, keeping the smells-and-bells but throwing out Christ. What then is imporant? I am still trying to find out.
In any event, I see no harm in participating in things like a traditional Day of the Dead if we keep our priorities straight. I don't believe in plenary indulgences, temporal punishments due to sin, and purgatory strictly speaking. They may be true, but I will never treat them as Gospel truth. At best, they are stabs in the dark at a mystery that we will never understand, and I respect them as opinions held by my ancestors. If we accept them as such, perhaps we can keep this sacred sense of life and death, of the mystical bond between heaven and earth that nothing can destroy. In this way, I think it is possible to have our cake and eat it too, to have Christ and traditions, and by them show the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection on a more personal and familiar level. We just cannot lose sight of what is really important.