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

jose posada dancing skeletons
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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Los Dias de los Muertos – The Days of the Dead

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We are in the autumn of the year. Another year falling down to die in December. We roll past All Saints and All Souls, remembering Heaven and Purgatory, the days of the dead, los Dias de los Muertos, as we say in Spanish.

Autumn is like that, bringing remembrances of the dead. But memory is strange. Instead of dying, memories come to life, more real than the people and events from which they spring. My memories are of the Vietnam War, rapidly receding into the distant past, and of the soldiers who populate those memories. Soldiers appear, stand and speak. They come to petition, to ask for my favor.

Sometimes I cannot answer them. They are too insistent, wanting to hold me accountable lest I forget them. The dead of the Vietnam War, like the dead of all wars, wish only to be remembered. But the Vietnam dead have a special poignancy about them. They do not want to be consigned to the gray world of shameful memories, even if their war is often perceived that way.

So I am patient with them. And I am patient with myself. Before I had Vietnam memories, I had other memories, the World War II stories that I heard growing up. I came home from the Vietnam War in 1968, in the autumn of the year. I came home to south Texas. I was a combat veteran, home from the war, but yet not home, unable to return to the civilian world, as combat veterans often cannot.

But it was a good homecoming. My uncle was there to greet me. He was an old soldier. He had landed with the Second Infantry Division on D+1, June 7, 1944. Reynaldo V. Zuniga, that was my uncle’s name. When I think of my war I always think of him. I remember the stories he would tell.

My uncle would sit with his cronies, among them another combat veteran named Ray Hernandez, who had been with the 36th Division, the Texas National Guard outfit savagely mauled by the Germans at the Gari river in Italy and finally at Monte Cassino. There was another man, a small, quiet, dark-skinned man. This man’s name was Jose Lopez. He would come to visit relatives in Brownsville, then stop to visit my uncle before returning to San Antonio. They had been in the same regiment during the war, Jose Lopez in M Company.

In December 1944 he killed 132 Germans in and around the Belgian village of Krinkeldt. He shot them down with his .30 caliber machine gun. He was alone. His comrades had fled in the face of the German onslaught. For that action during the Battle of the Bulge Jose Lopez won the Medal of Honor.

The stories would usually start on D-Day. That was my uncle’s glory. He jumped off the ramp of the LCI, into water that nearly covered his head. “I held up the man next to me,” he would say. “I’m six feet-two, so I saved him from drowning. And the Germans were still shooting at us.”

He was seventeen when he ran away from home in 1940 together with his best friend, Ernesto Vela. The boys hitchhiked to San Antonio and joined the Army’s Second Infantry Division, the famous Indian Head division. The profile of the stoical Indian warrior is the proud insignia of the Second Division, a fitting symbol for the many south Texas Mexican Americans who fought, bled and died in that combat division in World War II.

Ernesto was killed in Normandy. He lies in the American cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, overlooking Bloody Omaha, the beach where so many men died. My uncle still talked about him many years later, and I would listen, listen so much that I felt that I knew Ernesto, that he was my comrade, too.

He was rapidly promoted and was very soon an NCO, the platoon sergeant, even if he was a hard drinker and a hard brawler, ready with his fists and even more ready with his sarcasm. But he had leadership qualities. I remember that he was a natural leader and I certainly wanted to follow him.

My uncle lasted three months in combat. He was wounded three times. The last wound was almost fatal. It was in September, 1944. The U.S. Second Infantry Division was now part of Patton’s newly activated Third Army, tasked with clearing the Germans out of the Brittany peninsula and liberating the port city of Brest.

Reynaldo Zuniga was a platoon sergeant in I Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. He led from the front, always from the front. He was that kind of man. He ran out in front of his men, and I can hear him shout, “follow me!” It was at the siege of Brest.

Then he was shot. A German soldier hiding behind a wall shot him with a K98 Mauser rifle, the 7.92 mm  slug shattering his pelvis. He lay on the ground, “and the blood was pouring out of me like water from a faucet,” he would say. The platoon medic ran out, oblivious to danger, slapped a pressure bandage on him and pulled him to safety. “The Germans were so close that I could hear them talking, but they didn’t shoot the medic and they didn’t shoot me again.” I can still hear him say that, paying a grudging compliment to the enemy who had nearly killed him but then chose to spare him.

On Veterans’ Day I drank a toast to him. I went to my war because I wanted to be like him. But of course I never could ascend to that lofty height. We old soldiers continue to fight our wars. It’s a type of relief to tell stories, especially among the bands of brothers found in every VFW and American Legion post across the land.  I have done that, and gone on pilgrimages looking for solace.

When I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington – The Wall – I tried to put mine to rest. I touched the names of comrades engraved there. It’s a powerful experience and it’s no accident that the Memorial to the Vietnam War dead is a wall – we, the survivors – are still trying to go through our own wall. We want to finish our war and reunite with our comrades. It’s tragic that so many Vietnam veterans cannot do that.

When I went to the Wall I think that I succeeded, at least to a small degree, in putting my war to rest. Touching their names gave me a fleeting connection to those long-dead comrades.

But there was another bond that I found there. It made me feel another strong emotion. The Wall has one unique feature that I immediately noticed. No where else, on no other American monument, civilian or military, are there so many Spanish surnames. On every panel there are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American names. Thousands of them.

The Vietnam War Memorial is an ironic testament to affirmative action. That Roll of Honor is the only place where our country gives Latinos the recognition we so richly deserve – because it was paid for in blood.

~Joe Barrera,
Publisher/Editor
The Almagre Review

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