Fuckin' All-Saints' Day, Halloween and Día de Muertos

I'm exhuming and adapting into English this little essay I wrote a year back, because a couple of days ago I came across an unnerving piece by an American journalist with some Mexican ancestors. She claims to "defend" what she understands as "Mexican culture" by stating that Día de Muertos (she mistakenly calls it "Día de los Muertos") makeup is "not a costume" but rather it is "culture" which should be studied, understood, revered, exalted and honored before even thinking about painting your face with a garish skull with flowers.

Bullshit. It's a costume.

It's a Mexicanized version of American Halloween costumes. No one painted their faces like sugar skulls in Mexico in Día de Muertos, no one, until about a decade ago, when it became a fucking fashion. It is as "traditional" as Whatsapp and graphene. The lady has no idea what the hell she's talking about, but she picks up bits and pieces of post-modern, cultural-identity mindless American academia and throws them upon something she herself has no knowledge of (but claims the right to dictate to others what to do in the zany belief that her surname -her heritage, she claims- somehow endows her with magical knowledge of all things Mexican).

Yesterday the horrendously corrupt and populist Mexican government decided to host a "Día de Muertos Parade" which they copied from the James Bond film (let us be clear here: there has never ever ever ever been any "Día de Muertos Parade" until yesterday, it's not a fucking tradition nor a stalwart of "Mexican culture", it's just something someone found funny and nice and picked it up from a bloody movie, and a bad one at that). I hope Lizzy will not come over next year and sell another piece claiming "respect" for the fabulous and centennial tradition of the "Día de Muertos Parade". Things change. And you notice if you go wild and spend some neurotransmitters.

So here it is: "Fuckin' All-Saint's Day, Halloween and Día de Muertos" and may identity-politics die of bloody hemorrhoids.

(Imagen Copyleft vía Wikimedia Commons)
Last year, on Halloween (the Scottish short form of Allhallow-even... that is, the Night of All Saints - "even" for "evening", "hallow" from the Old English "halga", "holy", and "all", well... "all"), I wrote a playful and provocative publication on my Facebook wall:
You use Facebook and Twitter, and the Internet, and you do everything from your computer.
You wear jeans, you listen to rock and blues, and see movies and TV shows from abroad.
You drink Coke, you like Cheetos and consider yourself a gourmet burgerwise. You’re proud of your Ray Bans and your Nikon camera, you want a Harley Davidson and you buy your furniture from Ikea.
You stand against Halloween because it is foreign and contrary to your roots and your identity.
You are an asshole.
It was just one more joke in the wake of the tsunami of the cultural Puritans who, at least in Spain and Latin America (and also in France, as I hear), consider themselves to be the sole judges of valid cultural syncretism and believe they are empowered, almost preternaturally, to judge which elements from other cultures, other places, other ethnic groups or people who have the gall to be born under another flag must be accepted and incorporated into the collective heritage and which are despicable, loathsome, colonizing, promoters of consumerism (the medieval demon, anti-capitalist version), destroyers of the sacred national identity (anthems sound, torches are waved, a tear is cried for the vaterland and our genuineness, so ours) and, in short, subjected to an annual bitch rant which is more boring than chewing three-day old gum.

But some, including people who, to be clear, I love and respect both in Mexico and in Spain, even if I have abysmal differences with them (the statement is not idle in this context, it implies precisely the element of tolerance to the different that is underlying this piece), they found objections to my joke. I summarize:
  1. Rituals (which serve to congregate) are not the same than consumption patterns (which often disintegrate).
  2. Rituals have an identitary meaning that defines us more than the drift of the latter.
  3. The rejection of Halloween is a protest against the desecration of the Day of the Dead in the face of an adopted celebration which lacks a recognizable and comprehensible system of symbols that the majority can understand, nos spaces defined for affection and a sense of transcendence.
I answered hastily, but the topic remained in my mind, so I elaborated.

Just as not long ago I spoke about the imbecility of false indigenism and the idiotic presentism on fucking October 12th, which I suffer as the grandson of Spanish and Mexican ancestors (I won’t include the Russian and Polish grandparents, the mess would become monumental), the charge of purists against Halloween bothers me no less... but let’s be clear: I don’t care about the little celebration; at most, I’m amused by some costumes and the only thing that really excites me are the horror movie marathons... none of which, to top it off, is Mexican, Spanish, Bolivian, Argentinian, Chilean, Venezuelan, Cuban or French, simply because of historical issues and not implying any condemnation nor celebration regarding the submission to the empire of our times, nor the blind acceptance of the actions of this empire nor all the items that make up the rap sheet against anyone who doesn’t buy the whole package of a certain ideology which, on the other hand, is quite short on ideas, in the fringe of politics and society. And how sad it is that we have to clear this up preventively, vaccination against easy prejudices and herd thinking (where “thinking” is, of course, only a figure of speech).

The problem I see is not the loss of identity, consumerism, submission to the designs of the empire (Celtic, in this case, I think) but the tribal easy  devotion to easy solutions, which by way of explanation or justification eludes with elegance any investment in neurotransmitters. To sum it up: if you dance with the group, you avoid thinking.

Rituals create identities, but only after they are implanted from power until they are uncritically assumed as if they were our own. They don’t "come from a people’s gathering", far from it; they are elements that are recycled again and again in order to achieve specific effects, not always with luck. The "Day of the Dead" for example is no celebration, "of ours" as opposed to "of them" because we are not indians nor did we freely choose the syncretism that occurred when masters changed in various territories. Priests (let’s talk about ancient Mexico, of which I have more data) imposed upon people rituals such as wholesale human sacrifices, mortification of the flesh, (causing pain by piercing oneself with maguey thorns or stingray stingers in one’s tongue or, yes, foreskin), to fast and keep vigils, smearing chili on one's mucous membranes and eyes ... utter brutal barbarity. Then came the other priests that exchanged these for other rituals that included burning heretics (never Indians, by the way), iron branding, slavery, sexual abuse and a regime of poverty and hard work that benefitted... them... utter brutal barbarity.

I’m sorry, but, which is mine? None of them. My identity? It is neither the Aztec’s nor the conqueror’s, both brutal, both product of their time and context, not mine. I would not feel comfortable around any of their soldiers. I am a 21st century progressive man with nothing in common with those people.

Everything, absolutely everything we have as cultural baggage is imported (and therefore adopted, brought in, distorted, enriched or as you wish to see it) by a never-ending process of cultural intermarriage, by migratory flows of people, ideas and goods.

Even, as some studies now establish, current Ethiopians who are today living where the human species first appeared, are actually immigrants... descended from others who left the cradle and returned thousands and thousands of years later. The only ones we could actually call native to the human geographical and cultural identity birthplace, the first humans to Olduvai, are gone. We are all immigrants and aliens. And mestizos.

Fuente de la China Poblana en Puebla, México.
(Imagen C.C. de Russ Bowling via Wikimedia Commons)
Europe was not an airtight fortress, in fact, the encounter with America occurs precisely because it was not, and it demanded products and handcrafts from faraway places. Silks and peppers and cloves and cinnamon. And the crossbreeding currents deepened not only through trade (so hated by those who can consume, curiously enough the affluent middle class in need of Judeo-Christian guilt) but through ideas and people. And, in Mexico, a heroical "La China Poblana" (The Chinese Woman from Puebla) was invented, and she became the symbol of Mexican women in the imagination of the 1940's and 1950's and has been recovered today by a left-wing that seems to flounder. The story: an alleged princess from India (or thereabouts, but she was considered a "Chinese" through that generalization by which people believe that Asia is China and Africa is a country) was brought to Mexico by the Nao of the Philippines and sold as a slave under the name of Catarina San Juan, and whose claim to represent the essence of "Mexican-ness" includes her sewing clothes similar to those of her Eastern cultural origins, refusing to consummate their marriage with a Chinese slave (Domingo Suarez) and becoming a nun when she became a free woman. A slave, a seamstress, a virgin and a devout Catholic.

Why is she, more legend than history, epitomize the Mexican woman? Because of the same reason that Halloween becomes the emotional property of people: not through reason. Because it touched certain buttons and was good for certain interests. Because it evoked emotions and identities regardless of her origin. Rationalizations come later. (And I could rationalize the hatred against Malinche, who defended her people against the empire -the Aztec empire- siding with those -the invaders- she did not know weren't virtuous either, but we'll leave it for another day.)

Today, in the twenty-first century, these currents of intermarriage (some call globalization as if they had discovered the Mediterranean) are so broad that an enormously interesting global culture is taking form, but that collides with the advocates of tribalism. The usual suspects, Captain Renault would say in Casablanca: paved-over indigenists, neoprimitivists on cars, puritans who feel all the more dignified if they write from a Paris cafe, well-fed protest singers with electric guitar slung over his neck and similar characters.

Mexican Chinese New Year in February 2016. (Photo MXCity)
Is the Chinese New Year is a valid celebration? Puritans seem to say that it is valid only if you can prove that your DNA (that's called racism, to say the least) contains some acceptable amount (some day they'll measure it) of material that comes from China. Even if your family has been in Mexico since 1870, when your great-great-grandfather from Guandong finished building the US transcontinental railroad from Iowa to San Francisco and then moved to Sinaloa fleeing from Yankee racism. If I, without proving my ethno-racial credentials (oh, the sound of the Himmler), dare to celebrate the Chinese New Year, I become despicable because I assume an identity significance (oh, the sound of sociology) that does not belong to me according to a basically imprecise definition imposed upon me by people who have no right to define my identity.

(Yes, my Mexican friends with the Chinese great-great grandfather celebrated the Chinese New Year... with all of us who had great-great grandfathers from Italy, Poland, Syria, Germany, Russia, Spain and dozens of Mexican ethnic groups... but when we celebrated the thing, it was not "theirs", it was "our Chinese New Year", it was part of "my identity" if such thing exists. Why should that be weird?)

Rituals, like the Day of the Dead, congregate maybe, but they do so spuriously and surrounding the needs or intrerests of other people –churches, priests, those who ruled, rule and are intent to keep on ruling not because we elect them, or because they seduce us with their products and services (which is not always anathema), but because they say they speak to the deity and the deity answers. No ritual, absolutely none, has any value by itself. Just like any squiggle is not a letter unless there is agreement upon an alphabet and its meaning, the symbol is an empty vessel that will accept any content. That is how religions are interpreted and re-interpreted in order to serve the convenience and desires of power by the current leaders. You can use the same Bible to create the Inquisition or to proclaim tolerance. With the same Q'uran you can speak about the religion of peace or proclaim the Caliphate.

But there is an additional problem, and it is secular life as opposed to the religious.

Hanami or "looking at flowers" festival in Japan. (Imagen DP vía Wikimedia Commons)

Do you "congregate" when you imbue the civil, secular and universal culture not only with civil rituals (which are already repugnant since they often extol nationalism) but with religious rituals that exclude people and celebrates difference. It is doubtful. Unless you manage to dispossess these rituals of their share of service to a dominant group, what you do is to disgregate and rule. This is proven in the "them" and "us" mentality which is produced trying to achieve as much rationality as in a classic football match: "Halloween against All Saints Day, place your bet on the Internet. Gambling has never been easier... "

As a secularist, not only do I care nothing if the Day of the Dead is demystified, nor if the same happens to many other celebrations, especially the other three solar feasts (solstices and equinoxes, upon which the main festivities of all cultures are created, surprise!), rather, it seems to me an urgent task to demystify them and turn them into parties and secuilar jubilant celebrations with no supernatural overtones.

My culture is not Catholic even though I was born in the Mexican religious fanatical horror, nor because I was educated in it, just as "my culture" is not the homophobia in which I was raised with equal passion and with the same religious foundations, nor it is the humiliation of women and the exaltation of their submission, which are also strong Christian values that were a significant part of my education, not to mention the idea that the poor are poor because they want or that to protest against injustice is getting needlessly in trouble when you should better look away.

Rejecting those "identitary" elements of a culture in which I was born and lived most of my life seems good and right, moral and reasonable ... there is no reason to adopt them only because they have been declared "mine" because of the geographic and chronological accident of my birth. Is it more horrible and despicable to reject the Day of the Dead or All Saints Day, which is the affirmation of the basic dogmas of eternal life of the Catholic Church? On what basisor why? I don't even believe in saints, all or in groups, or one by one, I don't believe in life after death nor do I accept all the other dogmas of their religion... and do I have to celebrate the Day of the Dead because it is "mine"? I don't believe either in the spirits of the Celtic Samhain which gave rise to the scenery of Halloween (as people repeat as an unnecessary justification): the Jack-O-Lanterns and the costumes and similar elements... which Protestantism adopted as his own where it could and the Catholic church persecuted where it, in turn, could, as in Spain.

Must I accept or reject these items as being told by the column-writer-in-residence? I don't think so.

What about my identity? I build my own identity, in any case along the people who surround me. For all of us, it includes the blues and Bach, Leonardo and Lorca, the secular New Year and my blue jeans, which you can call rituals or consumerism patterns. It includes a taste for the Chinese Feast of the Lanterns but without the religious elements, Celtic folk, Queen and The Beatles, space travel and the discoveries of science, almost none of these has been born in "my" countries, those that demand me to be nationalistic and xenophobic in a carefully targeted way... I am, we are, here and now, an amazing product of an amazing and enriching diversity, we are inexplicable without this diversity.

But beware (I add after a few hours and in the heat of the continuing debate): personal identity is inevitably integrated, it is true, in "collective identities" but they should not rely on enforced symbolisms, religious backgrounds, capricious tribalism and obligations of a ethno-linguistic origin, implying that "my culture" that has to be mine because I am told it is, a sort of inescapable social inevitability.

That is precisely the problem with "identity" politics (and this debate is framed in them): they take as crucial and essential not what one is, what one thinks, what one plans, but rather what one is, how one feels, what one perceives. "Collective identities" based on what one is (or is supposed to be: Mexican, chubby, descended from Indians, black, Catholic, homosexual) are stressful and deeply (very deeply) moronic... and fascist.

Desirable, productive collective identities, which achieve objectives and actually build the future are those founded upon social and human projects that, precisely, care not about "what one is" and reject the idea that such is the defining point of any individual. Isn't a much more solid identity one that is built upon the struggle for real social justice or the emancipation of women or education for all, or worker's rights than that based on nationality, gender, appearance, skin color, sexual preferences, preternatural beliefs, height, disability or the sharing of a geographical birthplace?

Posturing in the matter of identities, where national-religious extremisms bloom, is our enemy, not lour ally. Joint projects are another thing. And culture is a whole human project. How can you say that the Toccata and Fugue in D minor or the Goldberg Variations are only for Germans or just for Lutherans, or only for men or only for heterosexuals... how would you take it away from the world, how can you become so impoverished without weeping, when you do not need too much theory to know they belong to all of us?

Bach in 1746, only for Germand? (Portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann,
PD image via Wikimedia Commons) 

Symbols, we said, have no more value than that which I attribute to them, but if we accept that, then we must find unacceptable the idea that a certain tribalism should enforce the recognition and meaning of certain symbols and the rejection of others (instead of, I don't know, rejecting moral misery, injustice, violence, we fall over the symbol... you will not will draw the national seal or you will become a criminal, because a piece of cloth called a flag is worth more than a dead child... and I know that drill from the elementary school flag ceremonies we had every Monday of patriotic exaltation in Mexico, something that worried me as a child and as an adult fills me with nausea; I concede to flags, as symbols, a limited value and certainly devoid of any xenophobia or contempt for human suffering). Is that symbolic tribal imposition defensible from any social, human or rational point of view? It is doubtful.

Finally, emotional spaces are not created by the episodic and theatrical, they are individual, human and personal. As is the sense of transcendence. Therefore, any cultural phenomenon in the world and through history (consumable or not, that is a fallacious distraction) is potentially the property of each of us, at our whim and taste ... it is as legitimate play the koto in Asturias as it is for a Japanese to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto in Yokohama ... yours is the electric bass, the bagpipes and the tlalpanhuehuetl, then... yours is the content of the Louvre and the stones of Angkor Wat... yours are Tiziano and Cartier-Bresson... yours are (if you want so) reggaeton and Guillaume de Machaut... Every human cultural and emotional product that can move you or amuse you or interest you, and you can take any of them as a part of your own experience without feeling you are betraying another part of your humanity because of your choice. And without opportunistic moralists that presume to dictate which part of that universal cultural experience is evil for you and which is not, what part must you accept and what part to reject according to their convenience, and who have the gall to demand from others the compulsory compliance of their dictates. Those moralists and their attitude are undoubtedly fools even in the most precise sense of the word, i.e. not only "high-level stupid", but "devoid of reason".

And a further example highlights this idiocy: when in any "foreign land"– that mythical site from which we always want to come home from when we are there, but to which we want to go when we are not – we find some features of "our" culture (whatever "our" is in this case,  subjectivity rules) have been adopted, we are great, we achieved "the appreciation of our values, our art, our traditions, our folklore and whatnot". Fabada in New York, let's party!, we're important, "compango" in the Big Apple. But, hot dogs in Malaga? No ... no, wait, colonialism, rejection of our identity, who do you think you are?, boycott and brain-dead editorials in newspapers. Tribalism and an easy and tiny "them" versus "us".

Tribalism, a phenomenon that includes, among other horrors, nationalism and religions, distances us from a highly desirable universal identity and a human culture that would allow us the general appropriation of art, science and ways to spend our time, which are also valuable ... not the accidental identity of the neighborhood, the town, the region, the province, the country, the language, the continent ... which locks us into the fortress of our limitations. Is that sensible? It seems at least relevant to doubt it.

The foreign as the source of all evil, that which is scandalously "not mine" as a cause for rejection, belong to the worst in our history. It is not a noble task to reiterate and strengthen that easy xenophobia, that cultural nationalism... it is to fight against them.

And all this rant, which is somehow summarized in my little opening Facebook joke, would be unnecessary if we knew realized, first, that we are confronting another phenomenon of inconsistency and posturing fron arrogant urban-dwellers who dream of imposing upon others behavior patterns belonging more to their static and pastoral imagination that to a dynamic reality, more to a non-existent past than an indispensable future.

¿Legalizar las drogas?

Democracia en Si menor


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