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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Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

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I have been watching The Vietnam War on PBS, the nation’s largest TV network. The program is billed as one of the best film documentaries about our misadventure in Southeast Asia. I agree that it’s a good one, but I have my reservations. It seems that I always find things that are wrong, or at least not accurate, about the Ken Burns effort and others like it. When I read books or news stories about Vietnam, watch old TV news clips, or see contemporary documentaries and movies, I cannot help but feel that we are not told the honest truth. Vietnam was never truthfully explained when Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were in the White House. This is still the case even if the latest offering is good history, exposing the lies and miscalculations on the political and military levels that got us into Vietnam. The documentary does a good job of that. We see the duplicity of our government, the bloody tragedy that resulted and the bitter wounds of division, not yet healed, that the war and the betrayal by our government, caused at home. Many are now saying, “I didn’t know the history.” But I am concerned about other things.

I am a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. I did my duty as a soldier. But my experience puts me in a small category of Vietnam veterans. I did not want it, but I am numbered among the few who actually fought. This affects my vision. Once an infantryman, always an infantryman. This means that I am unforgiving when civilians attempt to explain my war. This is common among combat veterans. We love our wars. Yes, in our hearts we love them, for most of us an embarrassing secret, hard to explain. We are sensitive about this and sincerely try to tell our fellow citizens that we and our wars have been distorted by well-intentioned people. But it never seems to make a difference. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick do not understand my war and this love. In spite of their interviews with combat veterans, they manage to distort the Vietnam combat experience. Since this film started I have been telling people that it is distorted. All I get is doubtful looks and pitying stares.

Almost every U.S. veteran war story told in the documentary is a tragic one: Ambushes and human wave attacks. Platoons, companies, battalions overrun. Horrendous casualties. The story of innocent young men like Mogie Crocker, KIA in 1966, woven throughout the entire series, told by his mother and sister who can barely contain their grief fifty-one-years later. The starving POWs, reduced to killing and eating cats. John McCain, with two broken arms and a broken leg, tortured by his captors. The 7th Cavalry, decimated in the Ia Drang Valley. The 173rd Airborne Brigade and the arrogance of their commander, who let three companies suffer near annihilation on Hill 875. Only the Marine, Karl Marlantes, tells a heroic story of taking a hill and killing the North Vietnamese. But there was much glory for us, if you can accept that  there is glory in war. I wish the story of my battalion, 1/8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, had been told. In May of 1968 we fought and destroyed two regiments of NVA five klicks (kilometers) from the Laotian border during “Mini-Tet. What about the barrage of 152 millimeter Russian artillery that we endured for weeks during that battle? Now, there’s a story.

Losses happened. Many firefights ended inconclusively. The enemy was brave, just as brave or braver than we were. It was a war of attrition. But the fighting men never lost a battle. We lost the war, but that was no fault of ours. In their eagerness to tell the pathos of the war, accented by the maudlin lyrics and whine of Bob Dylan, Burns and Novick paint a picture of U.S. victims of the war. They make us out to be victims. It is true that the draftees didn’t want to be in “the Nam,” but the conscripts fought as bravely as soldiers in any other war. This is said by some of those interviewed but it is lost in the general narrative.

In contrast, the VC and NVA narratives ring with righteousness and heroism. Our men don’t smile for the camera. We see more than one stereotypical GI weeping veteran. The VC and NVA veterans look happy. Of course, they won, so they should look happy. U.S. film footage that Burns and Novick show is all real–we see bloodied American corpses. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) footage is obviously Communist propaganda, staged scenes of the victorious People’s Army of Vietnam, the PAVN, as they called themselves. No dead NVA in their films. That is the first thing that seized me when I saw the first episode. I asked myself, “don’t Burns and Novick realize that they are showing Communist propaganda?” They interview an NVA cadre in his dress uniform. The man looks much too young to be a veteran of a war fifty-years ago. No Americans are interviewed in dress uniforms and they are all old men.

There is one more bone to pick. Burns and Novick almost completely ignore the presence of Hispanic soldiers. Only Everett Alvarez, the longest-held POW in Hanoi, is interviewed. If not for that dubious distinction I feel that Alvarez would not appear in the documentary. It’s a pattern. Burns was forced to add an episode about Hispanic soldiers to his WWII documentary after the American GI Forum, a Hispanic veterans’ organization, threatened a boycott in 2007. He had completely left out the role of 500,000 Hispanic soldiers in WWII.  Burns should take another look at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It is the only public monument in which Hispanic valor is faithfully honored. Thousands of Spanish names are engraved on that Wall, written and paid for in blood.

Joe Barrera,
Publisher
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About Issue 1

THE ALMAGRE REVIEW

Issue Number One 

Summer 2016

Coming Home

by Joe Barrera, publisher

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We would like to inaugurate our new literary journal, The Almagre Review/La Revista Almagre, with the theme of “Coming Home.” The theme of coming home is not uncommon in literature. “Home” always provokes nostalgia, a return to roots and a sense of security which no other human experience can duplicate. In our case, “coming home” suggests itself in the name of our magazine, which we are publishing on the banks of Fountain Creek in El Paso County, Colorado, in the city of Colorado Springs, home to myself and our Editor, John Lewis. We are conscious of the history of this part of the Front Range of the Rockies, and as such would like to “come home” to this history.

The “home” or context in which we want to publish The Almagre Review is what we hope will give it a unique character. That context is embodied in the history of the Pikes Peak region. The name “Almagre” dates back to the Spanish and Mexican presence. Fountain Creek, as the stream which flows down Ute Pass through Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs is now called, was known to the New Mexicans who traveled this region long before the arrival of Anglo Americans. The Spanish military officers and their New Mexican soldiers called the placid stream, which could be a raging torrent in flood stage, by several names. The best known name was el río Almagre, or the River of the Red Ocher. Undoubtedly, these early explorers, military commanders, soldiers, priests, shepherds and buffalo hunters found deposits of red ocher along the banks of the stream, and must have noted its use by the Utes, Cheyennes and Arapahos who frequented the area. The Spanish cartographer, don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, who accompanied don Juan Bautista de Anza on his famous expedition of 1779 to this part of Colorado, drew on his map a mountain range he called la Sierra de Almagre. Perhaps this was an attempt to lure settlers to the area, because it was a common belief at the time that deposits of red ocher indicated the presence of gold ore. To the east of these mountains he drew a tributary of el río Napestle, as the Arkansas River was called, which he labeled el río del Sacramento, or River of the Sacrament. It seems that a previous Spanish expedition had come upon the stream on the feast of Corpus Christi, and so piously named it in honor of the Eucharist. This tributary we now call Fountain Creek, after the French name, Fontaine qui Bouille. French fur-trappers and traders from St. Louis, men whom John C. Fremont called voyageurs and who were his guides on the expedition of 1842 to the country lying between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains, had visited the bubbling springs at the foot of Pikes Peak and given the colorful name to the creek, “the fountain that boils.” Apparently, the voyageurs believed that the springs were the source of the creek.

The original Spanish name for Fountain Creek did not long endure. Miera y Pacheco made his map soon after Anza’s victory over the Comanche chief, Cuerno Verde, in 1779. By the year 1810, however, el río del Sacramento was called el río Almagre in official New Mexican colonial documents, a name which was known to Irving Howbert, who records it in his Memories of a Lifetime in the Pikes Peak Region, published in 1925. This change happened probably because la Sierra de Almagre, or the Almagre Mountains, was the better known geographic feature to the New Mexican frontiersmen who frequently traversed the region. A memory of the Spanish name for the southern Front Range of Colorado survives in the designation of Almagre Mountain, to the south of Pikes Peak, which was conferred on this summit by the Colorado Mountain Club, who wanted a more distinctive name for it than Mount Baldy.

When we envisioned the creation of The Almagre Review, which we also call La Revista Almagre in order to provide it with a genealogy rooted in history, we wanted the first issue to remind us and our readers that everyone at some time comes home. Coming home is a natural thing. We all travel, depart from familiar places to wander in new and strange ones. In those travels we experience adventures, face challenges and overcome obstacles, learn lessons through both sorrow and joy. We hope to return home wiser and more mature than we were when we left. But wiser or not, in the end we all want to come home.

When we come home we want to tell those who have remained at home about our adventures. We want loved ones and friends and neighbors to know what risks we took, what we have lost or gained. We also want to tell them how we feel when we come home, what it is like to return, the joys or disappointments we may face upon our return. We hope that they will understand our feelings and our desires now that we are safely back home.

We all return home eventually and we all tell our stories of coming home. This is my coming home story. In 1968, I came home from the Vietnam War. First, I returned to my original home in south Texas, in the region now called the Rio Grande Valley, but which at one time was part of the province of Nuevo Santander, on the northern borders of New Spain, as Mexico was then known. The province of Nuevo Santander, or New Santander, was settled in the 1740’s by Spanish Mexican pobladores or settlers led by don José de Escandón, a Spanish nobleman from the province of Cantabria and the city of Santander, in the north of Spain. Don José was a Spaniard, as were almost all the high-ranking colonial officials, but the settlers he brought were from the older settled parts of Mexico, hence the term “Spanish Mexicans.” My family line goes back to those first settlers, people who came in the 1740’s and 1750’s with Escandón and settled along the Gulf coast on both sides of el río Grande, the Rio Grande, which is now the international boundary. This means something very significant in terms of identity. The significance is that when the United States invaded and occupied that territory in 1846-1848 my ancestors did not come to the U.S. The U.S. came to them, to us, to me. As their descendant I am heir to that legacy of imperial incorporation into the United States. I am conscious of this, but reconciled to it, even if at the same time still caught in an in-between space culturally. This history is important to me because I have always felt that in order to live a meaningful life one has to know the truth about his or her origins. You can’t go forward unless you know where you come from.

So, in 1968, I came home from Vietnam, from a war for which I had volunteered. I soon left south Texas and came north to Colorado Springs, where I was stationed at Fort Carson, named for that intrepid Anglo American, Kit Carson, who came west as a boy in the 1820’s, took up residence in Taos, married a beautiful New Mexican girl named Josefa Jaramillo and quickly became thoroughly Mexicanized. He learned Spanish and was so completely assimilated into New Mexican culture and society that he became a Mexican citizen. He never went home again, but he never forgot his origins and thus was able to serve as a mediator between Anglos and Mexicans on the frontier. Like Kit Carson, I also came west and have not returned home to south Texas. Home is here now, and when I tell my coming home story it is about coming home to Colorado Springs. This is my story of coming home and I wish very much that all who pick up this modest publication, The Almagre Review/La Revista Almagre, and read my story will feel inspired to draw upon their own deep reservoirs of reminiscence and begin to tell their own stories of coming home.

March 17, 2016. To Be Continued…