Monday, November 10, 2008
Day of the Dead Observances along the U.S.-Mexico Border
By Kent Paterson
year-old Mesoamerican cultural tradition continues to gain force in the US-Mexico borderlands and beyond. Declared an important
world cultural heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Day of the Dead is a
popular harvest season holiday rooted in an indigenous celebration that honors the memory of departed souls.
Paso, Texas, and many other US communities where the Day of the Dead is becoming a big celebration, Spanish Catholic and other
influences are readily visible in the altars that are painstakingly constructed to commemorate loved ones. Political, social,
spiritual and personal themes accompany festivities that get bigger with each passing year.
El Paso resident Frank
Barela learned about the Day of the Dead from his grandmother. "It was something we were brought up with," Barela recalled.
Now delivering workshops and lectures on altar construction, Barela noted the surge in popularity of an old but evolving tradition.
"More and more people are getting aware of what it means," he said.
In El Paso, an estimated 3,000-4,000 people turned
out November 1 for a Yucatan-style Day of the Dead event held at Centro Mayapan, a community center founded by former garment
industry workers and activists affiliated with La Mujer Obrera. Food, music, dances and artistic exhibitions kept many people
busy, while others strolled by altars honoring the legendary journalist Ruben Salazar, killed by Los Angeles police in 1970,
and other Chicano movement activists of the 1960s and 1970s. A sign plastered on a center wall proclaimed, "Displace NAFTA,
Seated next to a striking metal sculpture, El Paso-Ciudad Juarez artist "Conce" answered questions about
a work that she assembled from scissors, forks and other kitchen utensils in honor the femicide victims of northern Mexico.
touches our hearts that so many innocent women have died," the border artist declared.
At one end of the sprawling
Centro Mayapan, a large exhibit relived the history of the braceros, Mexican guest workers who labored on US farms and railroads
from 1942 to 1964. Sponsored by El Paso's Bracero Project, the exhibit included a short film, huge historical photos of the
braceros, old employment contracts, and a model home that resembled the cramped quarters many braceros were housed in during
their US work contracts. An altar was dedicated to a young Chihuahua City bracero who died while working in El Norte.
Perez, a staff member of the Border Agricultural Workers Center, said many youths went through the exhibit amazed to find
out that braceros once earned fifty cents an hour.
"They realize the injustices, and they ask about the current conditions
of the farm workers," Perez said. "Unfortunately, the situation hasn't improved very much because agricultural workers continue
being the lowest paid ones in this country."
Honoring migrant workers and celebrating the Day of the Dead are crucial
matters for Mexicans residing in the US, Perez contended. "It's very important for us to not lose the culture to which we
belong, and which motivates us to keep living," the labor activist added.
In addition to the large event at Centro
Mayapan, El Pasoans celebrated the first weekend of November with Day of the Dead parties, poetry readings and, of course,
numerous altars. The local Mexican consulate dedicated an altar in remembrance of Carlos Marin and Arturo Herrera, the US
and Mexican commissioners, respectively, of the International Boundary and Water Commission who were killed in a plane crash
near Presidio-Ojinaga this year.
According to the Ciudad Juarez daily Norte, nearly 1,000 people attended an outdoor
mass November 2 at the border fence between Anapra, Mexico, and Sunland Park, New Mexico. Held every year for the Day of the
Dead, the mass remembers the more than 4,000 migrants who have perished attempting to cross the border during the last 15
Other regional activities included altar installations and a procession in the historic town of Mesilla, New
Mexico, just outside Las Cruces.
Day of the Dead celebrations have moved north from Mexico to the borderlands and to
points beyond in recent years. Activities now occur throughout the United States. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, for instance,
more than 2,000 people participated in the Duke City's 16th annual Marigold Parade and Fiesta, according to organizers.
by floats carrying political and social messages, celebrants dressed or painted like skeletons danced through Albuquerque's
South Valley November 2 before arriving at a community center for musical presentations, food, and arts and crafts displays
with Day of the Dead images.
Organized by the Cambio and La Raza Unida Party activist groups, this year's Marigold
Parade was dubbed "The Recession Procession" in recognition of the economic crisis, said event organizer Vicente Quevedo.
A flyer distributed by sponsoring groups proclaimed "Death to the Corporations" and called for a community-based economy as
an alternative to the "corporate gluttony that has privatized war, water and air, and threatens to devour us all." Jangling
to the incessant beat of drums and the insistent notes of a saxophone, one "skeleton" hoisted a sign that simply read, "Bail
out the Dead."
Quevedo said organizers realize the growing mass appeal of their event, but are determined to keep the
Marigold Parade a community-based, grassroots celebration that eschews outside appropriation or commercialism.
something we talk about on a regular basis, (which) is who controls the planning of the event," Quevedo said, "because if
that goes away it will look like a very different event."
The 2008 Marigold Parade and Fiesta received coverage in
New Mexico's largest daily, but the Albuquerque Journal did not mention the sassy anti-corporate tone of the festivity.
the Day of Dead originated in Mexico and Central America, celebrations on the US side of the border are steadily attracting
participants from many different ethnic groups. El Paso native Esteban Estrada, who helped his mother Griselda Flores staff
an altar at Centro Mayapan, moved back to the Paso del Norte three years ago after a long stint in Los Angeles. While residing
in the City of the Angels, Estrada watched the Day of the Dead become a big deal.
In Estrada's view, the Day of the
Dead helps fill spiritual and scientific voids that afflict contemporary society. "For some reason, we are going back to our
ancient roots and reaching for something more than this Western society has given us," Estrada mused.
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur. Reprinted with authorization from Frontera NorteSur,
a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source.