A traditional Day of the Dead altar, memorializing the life of a dead relative. Her picture is at the center, surrounded by flowers and food. (Credit: Regina Marchi)

RUTGERS (US)—The Day of the Dead, a well known ritual in many parts of Latin America, is gaining popularity in the United States. New fieldwork suggests the ceremony has become a forum for political statement.

Regina Marchi, assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, reviewed historical and anthropological accounts of Day of the Dead celebrations, as well as media coverage of the ritual in North and South America over a period of time dating from the year 2000.

“I observed the Day of the Dead celebrations every year in homes, in churches, and in cemeteries throughout Central America,” she says. “I got a deep sense of the cultural attitudes and values that people in this part of the world had regarding death and the afterlife.”

Her fieldwork involved observing and participating in Day of the Dead celebrations in southern California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Mexico.

People in southern Mexico, Central America and the Andean regions in South America usually mark the Day of the Dead with the Catholic rituals of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, combining them with pre-Columbian rituals for honoring ancestors, Marchi says.

But the traditions vary from country to country and from place to place within countries. In Latin America, the day is marked by attending church services, building altars to honor dead loved ones at home or in cemeteries, cleaning or decorating graves and headstones, and preparing special food and drink.

In southern Mexico, the Day of the Dead is part of the indigenous culture, and until recently, didn’t travel well, particularly to the United States.

“In the 1960s and 1970s the movement for Chicano (people of Mexican ancestry born in the United States) rights happened, and young Chicanos started to reach back across the border to reclaim and celebrate their culture,” Marchi says.

There was some irony in this, since most of those young people had roots in northern Mexico’s mestizo culture, and not in the indigenous cultures of southern Mexico.

They also transformed the Day of the Dead rituals from a remembrance and celebration of close friends and relatives into political statements: building altars for immigrants who died trying to cross the border, altars to protest the war in Iraq, or even for social and educational programs “killed” by state budget cuts in California.

Marchi’s research also documents what she calls the “commoditization” of the Day of the Dead in the United States and Mexico. The Mexican government, which once ignored or discouraged the celebration as being backward or superstitious, began to promote it in the 1970s as a way to increase national and international tourism.

In the United States, from the Mexican border to Alaska, Americans can now take classes in how to prepare Day of the Dead altars or prepare the traditional foods that go with it. And all this, Marchi says, is just another way of communicating—of delivering message and meaning between and within cultures.

Marchi’s research is published in a new book, Day of the Dead in the USA: the Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon.

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