Días de Los Muertos an Exercise of Resistance
In the previous few centuries there has probably been no group of peoples that has faced more violent oppression and cultural erasure than the indigenous populations of the Americas, specifically those once held by the Spanish empire. These Spanish colonizers barbarically slaughtered, pillaged, and raped the natives en masse; forcing them to abandon their beliefs and to instead convert to their skewed understanding of Catholicism, whose supposed deity sanctioned these atrocities. In response to this oppression many forms of resistance have arisen, of which the most peculiar is Mesoamerican and Chicano communing with the dead.
For a people who were stripped of their way of life, their languages, beliefs, and living with a constant threat of the sword, not much could be done in form of resistance, but what could be done is remembrance, remembrance of their departed loved ones. If practicing the ways of the ancestors was forbidden, then the simple act of remembrance of those very same ancestors would be an act of defiance. This is precisely what the Mesoamerican and Chicano populations have sought and achieved in their public rituals of Días de Los Muertos.
During the holiday, artistic renditions of the calavera (human skeleton) decorate homes and city centers, while paraders march through the streets chanting “vivan los muertos” (long live the dead!), all which allude to the enduring presence of the dead; that their memories live on. In order to appease Catholic sensibilities, ofrendas (altars) are made centered around Christian imagery, such as iconography of Mother Mary or our Lady of Guadalupe. These Catholic elements share space upon the ofrendas with indigenous symbols, herbs, earth, water, fire, symbols of the mother Coatlicue. This convergence allows for suppressed and relegated practices to survive under the garb of colonially-imposed religion, thus allowing for indigenous traditions to pass on through the generations.
However the most telling are the poems and songs dedicated to Días de Los Muertos, an example of which is that of the popular Southern Californian Chicana poetry group En Lak Ech (Mayan: You are my other me). A prayer that this group composed to be a ritualized recitation on the given day, perfectly conveys the inherent message of Días de Los Muertos:
“We would like to offer you all, in a good way, in a humble way, a prayer song.
We would like to honor all those who have passed on, all our ancestors, our grandmothers, and our grandfathers.
We want to pray for those who are yet to come and those that are here present with us today. We, En Lak Ech mujeres, pray to the women and mujeres who have died through violence or through life and struggle.
We offer this prayer for you.”
The celebration of Días de Los Muertos is firstly a form of healing for this marginalized community, for those who historically have suffered from brutal violence, and then it is a grand statement that although many have died upon the struggle, many new are willing to continue the fight into the future.
Now, many might be wondering what all of this has to do with the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) and why it is being shared on the ahlulbaytblog.com, but the reality is for a community that partakes in ‘Azā this is very relevant. The ritualized mourning of ‘Azā, like the Mesoamerican and Chicano communion with the dead, is centered around two objectives, firstly the remembrance of the oppressed who were brutally martyred, specifically the descendants of the Prophet (s) [and their loyalists], and secondly to continue their mission of reformation, of social justice.
Two socio-religious entities, possessing totally unrelated genealogies, retaining similar goals and methods, tells us that humankind innately is drawn towards the same values of goodness and righteousness. One group might resist by celebrating Días de Los Muertos, the other might resist in the mourning of ‘Azā; fundamentally however, both present themselves as a crushing slap in the face of oppression.
Understanding similarities such as these is crucial for the struggle, for it is these similarities which allow us to build upon our movement, these similarities that grant us allyship; allyship which grants us lasting victory.
Written by: Agha Shabbir Abbas