Monday, November 4, 2013

Rituals that Travel Well

Last weekend we celebrated Halloween and Day of the Dead in Madrid, participating in two traditions transported and recreated by globalization and transnational migration. The full enjoyment of these festivities is facilitated in Spain by a three-day weekend, since November 1st is a national holiday in observance of All Saints Day. Halloween, of course, is a newly imported tradition from the United States, but one that has caught on like wildfire. As early as the first week of October I was surprised to see shops decked out with pumpkins and spider webs, and the Chinese bazaars in my neighborhood filling up with costumes. My daughter and her classmates were instructed to come to school wearing costumes on Halloween. And at 6:00 in the evening (or afternoon in Spanish time) in Malasaña, the sidewalks were filled with bands of trick-or-treaters carrying pumpkins, shepherded along by one or two adults. Except for the fact that they were trick-or-treating at storefronts instead of houses, it looked just like Halloween in my neighborhood back home. But whenever I remarked to adults on my amazement or surprise to see such rituals here, my Spanish interlocutors responded with equal amazement that “This is new!”; that such things would have been unheard of even a few years ago. I had these conversations with an educator at the after-school program where I work, a college intern at the same program, and with several parents at a friend’s Halloween party in the Madrid suburb of Pozuelo. While the children rifled through their trick-or-treating loot, the parents wondered about the cultural change that was happening before their eyes, trying to figure out exactly when it all started.

It’s easy to be skeptical of or disgusted by the United States’ exportation of commercial holidays, and I have felt this repulsion strongly in other places I have seen Halloween transposed—for example, El Salvador. But the celebrations I saw in Madrid did not have the feeling of hegemonic cultural mimicry or commercial excess. Nor did anyone I spoke to express any resentment or contempt for this American export. They were more likely to argue that there is something universal about children’s love for candy and costumes that makes this a holiday that travels well. That may be, but from my vantage point, the explosion of Halloween in Spain reflects something more than the love of candy. When I think about what I most love about Halloween back home, it is the way it gets people out of their homes and into the streets, socializing with neighbors and friends. Halloween sanctions the kind of rubbing shoulders with strangers that Americans otherwise don’t get, and in some way are starved for. During the trick-or-treating ritual, every friend is a stranger and every stranger a friend. For Spaniards, for whom consorting with friends and strangers in public space is a favorite pastime, this is not a novelty (See last week’s blog post). The trick-or-treating scene in Malasaña might have looked like the West End of Hartford on Halloween, but it looked like Malasaña any other day of the year, plus costumes. Halloween becomes one of many rituals through which children are socialized into life in the street.

The day after Halloween we celebrated el Día de los Muertos with Guatemalan friends in La Latina, another central city neighborhood in Madrid. It was my first time eating fiambre, the traditional dish that is eaten across Guatemala on the Day of the Dead.  Fiambre is a salad made of a variety of pickled vegetables, including beets, carrots, cauliflower and peas, along with garbanzo beans, pickles, cheese, boiled eggs, shrimp, and sliced cold meats: basically it can include anything, our host said. The vegetables would normally marinate for several days. In Guatemala, families would bring a plate of fiambre to the cemetery to leave at their loved one’s grave, before going home and eating the festive meal with their families. Of course, since this was Spain, the fiambre was accompanied by several bottles of good red wine, and hours of talking and laughing around the table.

With the assembled company from Guatemala, Italy, Peru, Spain and the U.S., we talked about the tradition of going to the cemetery to honor the dead, which the Spanish also observe (although they do not bring food). I shared that the Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos in the United States is one of the imported rituals I most appreciate there. In general, Americans (North Americans) do not like talking about death: we find it morbid and grotesque, depressing, or simply an unwanted reminder of our own mortality. I say ‘we’ because I am a member of this culture, even as I observe it from the outside, as someone who participates in the rituals of various transnational Latino communities. Grave-side rituals at my family’s plot in the cemetery in San José, Costa Rica shaped my upbringing, where I learned that remembering and honoring our dead is about learning who we are. It is about affirming our familial, cultural, and spiritual identities. By remembering and honoring my Abuelita, in particular, I could not only better understand my mother, who missed her so much it was palpable, but I could better apprehend and affirm my own aspirations in the world. So I appreciated the Mexican tradition of building altars for the Day of the Dead, which I came to know in California. In graduate school in Berkeley, I participated in the building of a class altar, and I remember the moving exchange of memories and tributes by classmates as one of my most powerful learning experiences. And this year, I loved the colorful photos that dotted my Facebook newsfeed of altars built by Mexican-American friends around the United States. In the end, these are rituals that remind us what it means to be human. To reflect on their meaning together with friends who are also uprooted by migration and cultural change was a gift.

The lessons to me from this weekend’s festivities were simple: Speak to your neighbors. Remember your ancestors. Talk about these customs as often as you can, to recognize the many different ways we have of celebrating the human spirit!

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