I never celebrated Día de Los Muertos growing up. I knew of it: 1987, the last time I went to my parents’ ranchos as a child, I remember sugar skulls and a visit to el panteón, but that was it.
So I’ve seen the holiday explode here in el Norte with bemusement.
It cracks me up to see armchair Aztecs froth about the commercialization of a “tradition” that’s a relative baby in the annals of Mexican American Catholicism. Commercialization, unfortunately, it’s what keeps alive ethnicity in the United States – and if you don’t believe me, go ask Saint Patrick, and try to find St. Lucia outside of Minnesota and North Dakota.
It cracks me up to see gabachos embrace Day of the Dead iconography so eagerly – y’all can’t be Oingo Boingo and/or Social D fans, so why so calavera about it?
Dia de los Muertos has turned into performative pendejadas—it’s so bad in Whittier, that a profe pal calls it “Dia de los Lowriders.”
Easy to hate, right? But try this exercise: see past everyone in face paint, or women in their Frida best, and notice the altars.
I did. I originally considered them little more than quien-es-más-macho contests to see who was more adept with marigolds and flowers.
Then I paid attention.
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Today is Noche de Altares, the annual celebration of Día de Los Muertos held by the SanTana-based Centro Cultural de México. It spreads out over downtown SanTana with at least 100 altars, entertainment, vendors, and people. Oh, the people: 50,000 visitors annually, by their estimate – and I say more.
I also dare say it’s the best event Orange County offers (slag off, pretentious-ass Pageant of the Masters). You get the baby boomer art types, the kids from South County there to earn extra credit. Families of the pocho and paisa persuasions. Politicians. Hipsters. Homeless. Activists.
For a night, everyone is Mexican. And proud of it.
At Noche de Altares, you’ll see altars devoted to veterans. To victims of sexual violence. To boxers. Poets. Artists. It’s people wanting to educate others about something close to them.
My favorites are those by Chicano families. A lot of them don’t even speak Spanish anymore, but it’s a beautiful thing to see them so lovingly showcase their family’s life to the public.
You see the evolution of technology and American life through their generations. Bubbleframe etched photos of campesinos on their wedding day give way to black-and-white portraits of pachucos, to washed-out Sears large frames of families and razor sharp images of cousins who have left too soon.
Dia de los Muertos seems more about symbolic ethnicity than anything holy at this point—but that ethnicity matters to altar builders so much that they’re willing to spend an entire day out in the baking sun and cold night, just so strangers can gawk at them.
Just a couple of people, exemplifying representation and reclamation at its finest.
Just a couple of people, trying to reach out to strangers about something or someone that they love.
This year, we dedicated it to food legends, two of which I’ve composed cantos to this year, Jonathan Gold and Ernest Miller. People have enjoyed each altar immensely, and it’s a tradition we’ll continue.
Dia de los Muertos will never be a favorite holiday of mine (Halloween is actually my favorite, because entrusting our children to strangers remains the type of America I want to belong). Maybe I’m just old-school Catholic like that (our big family tradition was building a Nativity scene).
So why build an altar? I eventually realized that at its best, Dia de los Muertos in the United States is not about showing off mexicanidad. It’s not even about remembering the faithful departed.
It’s not about you, definitely.
It’s all about trying to reach one person. If just one stranger can forever associate Ernest Miller with food gods like Julia Child and Anthony Bourdain, then Dia de los Muertos is a success.
If just one stranger can appreciate the labor it took for a family to build an altar, then Dia de los Muertos is a success.
If just one kid saw Coco and thought Mexicans aren’t as evil as their grandparents make them out to be, then Dia de los Muertos is a success.
Let’s reach just one righteous person in a sea of sinners, and everything else is worth it. Kinda Abraham’s argument to Yahweh about Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah, you know?
Others will follow. Keep the faith.
Enough ranting. This was the semana that was:
LISTENING: “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” The Supremes. I went down a Supremes hole on the drive back from Ventura earlier this week. People always try to lessen the cleaned-up Motown Sound over raw-and-real Stax, but those people are dumb. Diana’s voice. Holland-Dozier-Holland’s lyrics. The Funk Brothers. Sorry, Beyoncé: Diana remains the GOAT.
NOV. 7: GUSTAVO AND BURRITOS LA PALMA!
I return to my alma mater, Chapman University, this time to talk about tacos. But who cares about me: Burritos La Palma will cater! The event starts at 6:30 p.m., I believe, but I’ll have more info as my talk approaches..and I do. Argyros Forum Somewhere.
NOV. 8: GUSTAVO IN CLAREMONT!
I’ll be at the Claremont Colleges Library, 800 N Dartmouth Ave. Claremont, as part of their exhibit “Love’s Labour’s Lost: The hidden cost of bringing paradise to America’s kitchen table.” Specifically, I’ll be on a panel about Southern Caifornia’s citrus industry—THAT will be fun. Panel starts at 4:15 p.m.
NOV. 9: GUSTAVO KNOWS THE WAY TO SAN JOSE
Interview with a Mexican debuts this day at the awesome MACLA community space in downtown San Jose. It’s so far away that they don’t even have tickets for sale yet, so just save the date for the meanwhile.
Gustavo in the News
“Trump Goes There: It’s Willie Horton 2.0 For the Final Week of the Campaign” and “Democrats and Latinos: A Followup”: Famed Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum goes after my assertion that NAFTA destroyed the Mexican economy. He’s cool, but needs to get out of Irvine more often…
“Arrests of white power leaders are a reminder of Huntington Beach’s painful past”: I get to enjoy one of my favorite OC pastimes: Ridicule HB racists!
“Brrr, all the cold weather foods to eat when Tucson gets chilly”: I get a shoutout for my love of Sonoran-style caldo de queso!
“Democrats, don’t assume Latinos will turn out to vote. And don’t count on them supporting you if they do”: My latest California columna for the Los Angeles Times talks about why Latinos don’t blindly go Dem, whether liberal or conservative. KEY QUOTE: “Hear that, Latinos? Time to ditch the siestas. And Dems, you need to build a better burro if you want us to ride with y’all for the long haul.”
You made it this far down? Gracias! Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram while you’re down here. Buy me a Paypal taco here. Venmo: @gustavo-arellano-oc. And don’t forget to forward this newsletter to your compadres y comadres!