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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Understanding Día de los Muertos traditions through the eyes of Mexico-born UA student Mariana Manriquez

Luisroj96 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Altar dedicated to Dolores Olmedo at Dolores Olmedo Museum on Oct. 28, 2012.

For those that have had the benefit of growing up in a homogenous culture their entire lives, celebrating the same holidays and traditions every year tends to be a given. For UA graduate student Mariana Manriquez, though, the farther away she traveled from home, the more her traditions began to disappear.

Manriquez, who studies sociology, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, but moved around various cities throughout the country before relocating to Nogales, Arizona, for high school. She moved to Tucson to attend the UA.

RELATED: Try out these Día de los Muertos recipes

Manriquez has vivid memories of Día de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico—traditions that were ubiquitous in her home country and fostered a similar sense of community, no matter what city her family lived in.

“In Mexico, ever since I was a kid for Día de los Muertos, in my house my mom used to do an altar,” Manriquez said. “You do an altar for the people in your family that have died. So my mom always made one to her mom because she died when she was very young.”

Creating an altar for lost loved ones is a significant part of the holiday which pays respect to the individual who has passed with various elements.

“You put things that the person used to like, and other symbolic things like food because it symbolizes that they’re gonna need food when they’re in their past,” Manriquez said. “Or salt, too, that helps. And candles because that represents the light.”

Manriquez remembers helping her mom make the altar with her brother, but she was able to create art of her own at her elementary school’s celebration of the holiday.

“In school, they make you do altars,” she said. “Each classroom would do an altar, and they could be funny ones, too. Like, you could make it to artists like Amy Winehouse. And we’d have all the grades’ altars [in the gym]. It was a whole thing.”

Along with creating altars, Manriquez said the teachers would make sugar skulls for all the students.

“They would put our names on [the skulls], which means you’re dead, but it was like a funny thing,” Manriquez said.

Although Día de los Muertos centers around death and honoring those who have passed away, Manriquez said that integrating a sense of humor and lightheartedness is essential to celebrating the holiday in its true fashion.

“It’s a tradition where you can still have fun,” Manriquez said. “When you go to the cemetery it becomes more serious, but it’s celebrating the dead so it’s not mourning—it’s more like celebrating.”

RELATED: Garden feast to celebrate Día de los Muertos

She said students also write humorous poems called Calaveras where you can jokingly reference La Muerte, the Mexican equivalent of the Grim Reaper, coming and taking you away.

“Do you know Billy and Mandy?” Manriquez asked while attempting to explain the concept of La Muerte to me. I instantly recognized the children’s TV show and realized she was referring to the Grim Reaper—a telling sign of how pop culture can serve as a cross-cultural bridge.

But the power of popular culture can have an invasive side, as well.

“This year, they released a movie about Día de los Muertos in Guanajato,” Manriquez said. “And now in Mexico City they’re doing a parade, but they’re doing it based on the movie. It’s not really the traditional way because Día de los Muertos goes back to pre-Spain, so it’s like an indigenous tradition. It’s interesting now to see these mixtures of things.”

If American-produced culture, like the most recent James Bond film, has the power to affect centuries-old traditions in other countries, where do we draw the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation?

According to Manriquez, appropriation is all about intention.

“If you appropriate it to profit, to commodify it, that’s when I think there can be a negative side to cultural appropriation,” she said. “But if it’s that it’s adopting that celebration in order to bring the community together, I see that in a positive light, even if it’s making its own thing out of it cause it’s in another place.”

Geography plays a major part in maintaining the authenticity of cultural holidays and traditions.

For Manriquez, being away from her home country caused her to abandon her own traditions, mostly because the the celebration of Día de los Muertos is virtually absent here in the U.S.

“It’s very difficult to continue doing it when you’re apart from your home country for two reasons,” Manriquez said. “No one around you is going to be celebrating, so you’re left alone to celebrate it … And because it’s a very family thing, like making bread and making the altar—I wouldn’t do that on my own.”

Despite being just 70 miles from the Mexican border, the closest thing Tucson has to a communal celebration similar to Día de los Muertos is our All Soul’s Procession.

And though the parade draws on themes and aspects of the Mexican holiday, it shouldn’t be mistaken as our own version of Día de los Muertos.

Manriquez said that there are many differences between the Mexican holiday and the painting faces and marching together in a procession we do here in Tucson for All Souls Day.

Like most cultural holidays, celebrating Día de los Muertos every year shaped the way that Manriquez and her peers understood and perceived aspects of the human experience—in this case, death.

“I know that U.S. culture lacks that relationship with death. … So I think by adopting that in its own way, you can say that’s kind of appropriation, but at the same time, it’s positive by adopting a culture and transforming the existing perspective,” Manriquez said.

Rather than other-izing and Americanizing our own celebration as an adopted version of Día de los Muertos, perhaps learning from Tucson’s Mexican community can serve as a way to properly integrate its legitimate traditions into our country.

The U.S. is still such a relatively new country and because of that, non-ethnic Americans can often lack a sense of deep-rooted cultural belonging. But living in a city so close to Mexico provides an opportunity to learn from the culture that once dominated our region, and we can start to redefine our own cultural understandings through learning and meaningful participation.

“Because we have a Mexican community in Tucson, and we’re doing another thing and it’s inviting people who are not Mexican and bringing them together, I see that in a positive light because it’s just a community event and we’re united,” Manriquez said.

Tucson has an eclectic mix of races and ethnicities, and events like the All Souls Procession allow for all these different cultural upbringings to come together as a united community. Like Manriquez said, unity is the ultimate goal of community events, but this unity shouldn’t be limited to one day a year.

So whether you’re from Tucson or not, anyone can celebrate the All Souls Procession as a Tucsonan—that’s the point of the annual event.

But the other 364 days of the year, think about how you can learn from the cultures and traditions that have shaped Tucson into the diverse community it is today.

Follow Sean Orth on Twitter.

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