Joe Barrera: Los Dias de los Muertos/The Days of the Dead

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Artist: Jose Guadalupe Posada

The season of death and dying is here. Autumn brings the end of the year, the end of living things, the end of growth in the cold of winter. October 31, All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween, albeit much altered from its original intent, is a celebration of the end of the harvest but also a recognition of the presence of the dead on earth. Originally, Halloween was the time when ghosts of the dead, along with unholy spirits, were given free rein to roam the earth before they were again confined in Purgatory or in Hell. They had to be confined in anticipation of November 1, the Day of All Hallows, the Holy Ones, the saints in heaven. All Saints is followed by All Souls on November 2, during which we honor the Souls in Purgatory, suffering purification before entry to heaven in the Catholic belief that was once universal in Europe. The season is the last vestige in modern culture of the reality that life and death are two sides of the same coin, that where there is life there must also be death, that the same Creator who created life also created death. The season tells us that we should not ignore death, nor fear it, because it is part of our existence and we cannot avoid it. In our culture, which deludes us into believing that youth and physical beauty are eternal, we don’t pay much heed to this kind of thing anymore.

Our Halloween customs derive from northern Europe, but traditions known as The Days of the Dead, usually the last days of October and first days of November, have come in from lands to the south. These influences are often mistakenly considered to be “Mexican Halloween,” but Halloween and The Days of the Dead are very different celebrations. In Mexico, death is traditionally honored in a much more open fashion than it is here. Death is held in high esteem, in a reverential sense, not in the spooky, haunted sense of Halloween.

Awareness of the dead is typical of a culture that looks to the past, as in Mexico, not of a future-oriented culture as in the U.S. In Mexico, which is strongly mindful of the past, the amalgamation of Iberian Catholicism, full of ancient Greek and Roman roots, with the indigenous religions of the Aztecs, has given rise to a rich tradition known as los Dias de los Muertos, or The Days of the Dead. We enjoy the celebration here in spite of the cultural differences. A manifestation of this in U.S. culture is the creation of “altares,” altars in remembrance of deceased friends or relatives. These are  commonly found in art galleries, where they are seen as opportunities for artistic license. In Mexico, altars to the dead are found in many homes. They are sincere tributes to loved ones, not art installations. Portraits of the departed are displayed, and their favorite food, drink, cigarettes, personal items, etc. are laid out in anticipation of their earthly visitations. The intent is to honor the deceased out of love and affection but also from a profound sense of the very thin veil that separates this life from the other life. In some ways, The Days of the Dead resemble American Memorial Day. Families in Mexico go to cemeteries to visit and adorn the tombs and to share meals with the dead. This is something which we should respect.

The veil separating life and death is indeed flimsy. We must realize that we will all soon be dead. What happens then? The Mexican artist, Jose Guadalupe Posada, is famous for his depictions of skeletons behaving as if they were still alive, enjoying all the pleasures of human life–food, drink, fancy clothes, parties, dancing, even sex. Posada’s skulls and bones in the midst of carnal pleasures symbolize the union of life and death. They also warn us of the illusory nature of pleasure. His art has been appropriated by the dominant U.S. culture and is now found everywhere. But his ideas have not. We see the dancing, drunken, fornicating skeletons as just funny art, missing the point of the illusion of human existence and the much more real intimacy of life and death.

The Days of the Dead celebration in U.S. culture is an example of cultural blending, something which always happens when distinct cultures rub against each other, as is the case in this part of the country. This can be good because cross-fertilization like this saves U.S. culture from stagnation. It goes the other way, too. Mexican culture is influenced by American culture. However, the popularity of The Days of the Dead is an appropriation by the American dominant culture of an element from the subordinate Mexican culture. As such, the meaning of the celebration has been altered. Things get changed when cultural elements are removed from their original context. They diverge from their original meanings. They may be  trivialized, stripped of serious meaning, made into “kitsch,” becoming pretentious, shallow and gaudy. This is what has happened to The Days of the Dead in the U.S. The sacred meaning of Los Dias de los Muertos has been lost.  This sacredness can be understood to be an escape from human rationalism, a journey into a space of intense, passionate, personal religion, a religion not about obeying God but more about one’s relationship with the physical world and simultaneously with the spiritual world. This is a religion of beauty, and definitely not one of fear of death and punishment for sins, but one of love in a space where loved ones await living human beings, who are the soon-to-be dead.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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Why We Write: 1

The question reminds me of Nabokov, who having written Lolita, experienced the relentless question, “Why did you write that book,” or, “What is it about?” Of course, audiences and critics had their own ideas.

Nabokov tired of other people telling him what the story was about–explaining that he wrote Lolita simply to “participate in the ecstatic.” When we discuss relationships between a creative work and an individual, we describe the relationship in many ways: perhaps joy, or offense, a profoundly spiritual feeling…or simply fun! Maybe a creative work goes unregistered. Ah! The unrequited…

But for those who are creative…painters, sculptors, musicians, writers! We understand Nabokov’s words–Ecstasy, experienced during the act of creation. Over the years, I can’t recall a Creative at work who wore the face of serenity. Rather, to me, it always looks like an expression of concentration sourced through meaning. One is precisely where they ought to be during the act.

Christopher Hitchens once advised an audience about this very notion. According to him, a writer writes not because he wants to, but because he has to. For writers, this is obvious. There is something inside us, and it must come out. To hold it inside is to take a vow of celibacy. Writers who don’t write, (painters who don’t paint, musicians who won’t play, etc.), are living a celibate lifestyle.

Back to Nabokov. Anyone who has spent time involved in artistic creation knows the feeling. Ecstasy. I find over the years that writing becomes no less arduous. In fact, it seems to become harder. Words are more carefully chosen, phrases more measured, plotting instincts subjected to increased scrutiny.

But the magic happens. With the blessing of the “muse,” we roll into another region of the mind. The turbid, whirling mass behind the wall of conscious and conscientious manners, of deliberate and logical thinking, becomes accessible. It’s quite extraordinary. Powerful. And, it is the bringer of fervent artistic creation along with its accompanying devils: doubt, fear, self-abuse. We must deal with these in the aftermath. In the tempest, however, is the ecstasy Nabokov refers to where what had seemed impossible becomes more than that…it becomes inevitable. The universe of a novel or painting or album pulls together of its own volition, because the mass and inertia is too large for one person to do it deliberately. But somehow it happens–the universe briefly organizes, the impossible has become inevitable–and only because the artist has become the medium for that volition.

Afterwards…we beg off for awhile, collect ourselves, and begin again the process of inviting the muse.

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Janice Gould Presents at Colorado College

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The Almagre Review’s first literary salon, April 6, at Colorado College. Janice Gould and the audience read and discuss feminist author, Kate Chopin, and her fiction piece, “The Story of an Hour.”

A Profound Thank You to Our Veterans

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Joe and I would like extend our thanks and gratitude to the men and women who have defended our country.

I have been privileged to share in this venture, our humble publication, with Joe, who served in Vietnam. I think of him as a dear, and unlikely friend, for the fact that we came together over this project from different backgrounds and different generations. It has been an honor to hear some of his stories, and to be exposed to new insights and thoughts that only a veteran can share. I think of Joe as part of the family… and he has joined my family at the dinner table many times.

When we set out to build The Almagre Review, one of the things we wrote into the ethos of our journal is that, “we consider ourselves a friendly home to veterans.”

There are publications out there which are dedicated to soldiers and their tales. There are also mainstream literary journals, and one will occasionally encounter soldiers’ tales in them. At our journal, we’d like to somewhat dissolve those borders, and be a publication for the mainstream public where one commonly finds words penned by America’s military women and men.

And… about those dinners with Joe. Certainly, we talk about literature, about politics, about art. We talk about our journal, our writing. But mostly, he sees to it to talk about my family, the kids, my wife, and to remind me how special they are. This is where we always end up. And it’s the least I can do for him… share a place at the table, with my family, for whom he feels great affection.

It’s an honor, that we at The Almagre Review, can offer our pages to veterans as if it is the family dinner table. We welcome writers of all backgrounds, but we pay particular attention to the words of those who have served.

Again, a profound thank you to our veterans
~The Almagre Staff

Issue 2, December, Promises Special Contributors

When Joe and I started The Almagre Review/La Revista Almagre, we wanted to build a journal that promotes local and regional talent. Often, the most important voices are the ones yet to be discovered. Our goal is to be a stepping stone in helping these authors along their journey toward literary success.

It’s with pleasure we share that two very special contributors will appear in our next issue; Clay Jenkinson and Mike Callicrate. Mr. Jenkinson is the creator of The Thomas Jefferson Hour heard every week on NPR, and Mike Callicrate is the owner of Ranch Foods Direct. As pleased as we are that both of them join us in conversation, it’s the up-and-coming authors that form the spirit of our publication.

The Staff at The Almagre are dedicated to building issues where new talent can appear beside established voices. We do this as a way of saying, no matter where you are in your literary trajectory, our pages welcome people of all backgrounds. We might buy an issue because someone we love to read is in there, but one of the chief delights is discovering a new favorite author who enriches our future reading experience.

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Veterans Community Dialogue: Last Saturday

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This…was an experience well worth witnessing.  As Joe speaks about the healing process, these dialogues make it apparent to anyone who comes.

To be a civilian means I don’t get to look through this door very often.  It’s always a privilege when I do.  These are a wonderful opportunity for family and friends to listen, and to participate.  The treasure in these events is the very fact that Joe works to include the voice of spouses, even the children.  Last Saturday was informal, intimate… a comfortable setting.

There were difficult things to hear.  There were moments of great laughter.  The honesty shared by the attendees felt heavy, arresting, illuminating, and courageous.  When asked the question, “which is harder, adjusting to war, or adjusting to coming home?” the veterans unanimously chuckled and said, “adjusting to home.”

What more can be said to emphasize the value of all those at home to engage in and be a part of the healing process for their loved ones?

The Almagre Review thanks all our veterans for their service, and for the honor of attending the Military Veteran’s Community Dialogue.

~John Lewis,
Artist/Editor