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El Dia de los Muertos American-style: Communicating with the Living
Unformatted Document Text:  5 While Day of the Dead in Latin America is a time specifically to honor the deceased, the holiday takes on different purposes and meanings in the United States. 13 From a family-oriented celebration focusing on the ritual preparation of homes and graves in honor of departed relatives, the holiday is transformed in the US into an advertised cultural “event” celebrated in community centers, schools, libraries, museums and parks. The period of celebration - usually lasting two days in Latin America - often lasts 1-2 months in the US. 14 Promoted in newspapers and on the Internet, US Day of the Dead altar exhibits, processions and vigils are performed self-consciously for audiences no longer comprised of people from the same town, region or country, but for Latinos and non-Latinos of diverse ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds. Rather than morally-binding obligations to the deceased, US celebrations are re-inventions of traditions that become methods for honoring cultural heritage. Alicia Gaspar de Alba refers to this as the conversion of ancient devotional expressions into “ceremonial art whose main function [is] the ritual celebration and preservation of cultural memory.” 15 Anthropologist Victor Turner notes that rituals in tribal or non-industrial contexts are observed because of “obligation, not optation,” while those celebrated in modern, industrial contexts are the result of individual optation rather than social obligation. 16 These optional rituals, he asserts, are forms of “leisure activity” rather than “work,” and allow participants to escape the “should” and “must” character of ritual performed in the original context. Participants are thus free to “play with ideas” and release their creativity in ways capable of either supporting 13 Olivia Cadavál discusses this phenomenon in “The Taking of the Renwick: The Celebration of the Day of the Dead and the Latino Community in Washington DC” in Western Folklore, May-June 1985, p. 179. 14 In San Diego, the 2002 Day of the Dead activities began on September 28 and continued until November 30, including art, altar and photography exhibits, altar “house tours,” weekend workshops in sugar skull-making, masks, pan de muerto and papel picado, film screenings, community altar constructions, poetry readings, dance and music performances, vigils and masses. This elongated time frame is common in cities across the US. 15 Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Chicano Art: Inside/Outside the Masters House, p. 76. 16 Victor Turner in Secular Ritual, eds. Sally F. Moore and Barbara Myerhoff, p. 39.

Authors: Marchi, Regina Miriam.
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5
While Day of the Dead in Latin America is a time specifically to honor the deceased, the
holiday takes on different purposes and meanings in the United States.
13
From a family-oriented
celebration focusing on the ritual preparation of homes and graves in honor of departed relatives,
the holiday is transformed in the US into an advertised cultural “event” celebrated in community
centers, schools, libraries, museums and parks. The period of celebration - usually lasting two
days in Latin America - often lasts 1-2 months in the US.
14
Promoted in newspapers and on the
Internet, US Day of the Dead altar exhibits, processions and vigils are performed self-consciously
for audiences no longer comprised of people from the same town, region or country, but for
Latinos and non-Latinos of diverse ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds. Rather than
morally-binding obligations to the deceased, US celebrations are re-inventions of traditions that
become methods for honoring cultural heritage. Alicia Gaspar de Alba refers to this as the
conversion of ancient devotional expressions into “ceremonial art whose main function [is] the
ritual celebration and preservation of cultural memory.”
15
Anthropologist Victor Turner notes that rituals in tribal or non-industrial contexts are
observed because of “obligation, not optation,” while those celebrated in modern, industrial
contexts are the result of individual optation rather than social obligation.
16
These optional
rituals, he asserts, are forms of “leisure activity” rather than “work,” and allow participants to
escape the “should” and “must” character of ritual performed in the original context. Participants
are thus free to “play with ideas” and release their creativity in ways capable of either supporting
13
Olivia Cadavál discusses this phenomenon in “The Taking of the Renwick: The Celebration of the Day of the
Dead and the Latino Community in Washington DC” in Western Folklore, May-June 1985, p. 179.
14
In San Diego, the 2002 Day of the Dead activities began on September 28 and continued until November 30,
including art, altar and photography exhibits, altar “house tours,” weekend workshops in sugar skull-making, masks,
pan de muerto and papel picado, film screenings, community altar constructions, poetry readings, dance and music
performances, vigils and masses. This elongated time frame is common in cities across the US.
15
Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Chicano Art: Inside/Outside the Masters House, p. 76.
16
Victor Turner in Secular Ritual, eds. Sally F. Moore and Barbara Myerhoff, p. 39.


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