: a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time
: the stories, beliefs, etc., that have been part of the culture of a group of people for a long time
This definition (from Merriam Webster online) hits the basics. It identifies tradition as a source of cultural identity and something focused on the past, something that people have done “for a long time.” While not incorrect, it is a very sterile and static definition devoid of the reasons as to why people maintain traditions in the first place.
For many people around the world, tradition is a living stream of inherited spiritual wisdom that inspires and drives culture. It is expressed through histories, symbols, holidays, and ritual; and connects a people with their ancestors and to the spirits of their cosmology. To remain “living”, the tradition must be passed down and remain relevant to future generations.
Dia de los Muertos is one of these living traditions that has been celebrated in the Americas since pre-Colombian times. The modern holiday is a mixture of the native ancestor cult with colonial Catholicism. There are several indigenous manifestations of the holiday across the Americas; the most widely known is the Mexican celebration of the Aztec festival of Mictecacihuatl, queen of the underworld, and Lady of the Dead. Upon adoption of the Catholic calendar, the holiday came to be observed on All Saints Day and All Souls Day (November 1-2). These dates were also celebrated in local Spanish folklore with indigenous ancestor rituals; undoubtedly aiding in the syncretism of the celebrations.
The Los Angeles Day of the Dead is obviously too modern, too public, too “Hollywood” for us to even consider it a real celebration of the tradition. Let’s face it, this is what we are all thinking. Nonetheless, it has gained a tremendous amount of popularity over the past sixteen years. Reportedly over 30,000 celebrants attended this past Saturday! The event is held in the beautiful Hollywood Forever cemetery amongst the final resting place of many of Hollywood’s elite.
At first glance everything seems wrong – perhaps, even offensive; ofrendas that are more art installations than shrines are built over unrelated tombs, people are walking over gravestones and sitting on mausoleum steps, and portable toilets and beer tents line the perimeter walkways. There is an uncomfortable tension brewing between the living and the dead as the boundaries between their space and ours is blurred.
The rhythms of Cumbia, Mexican folk music, and tribal Aztec beats fill the air together with the scents of cooked meats, copal incense and sage. It is a carnival of sensations. Colors, smells, and sounds explode from celebrations that resemble a mix between a music festival, a theme park, and a public pagan ritual. And, wow, there are a lot of people. In fact, this is the largest Dia de los Muertos celebration held outside of Mexico. Yet, it is not traditional, it cannot be; for this year it occurred on October 24th, not even the “correct” date for the holiday.
But sometimes it is our own experience that proves our preconceived notions to be false; it rises unexpectedly, bites us in the ass, and shatters our biased opinions.
Naturally, being in a cemetery our minds turn towards the mysteries of the unknown and towards remembering those loved oneswho have come and gone before us. It is a visceral and inescapable response of being in the presence of the dead. One that we could see in the somber eyes of those who allowed their minds to wander while gazing over the ofrendas and monumental tombs. And, one that we could hear in the voice of a child as he asked his mother, “is abuela here”; and in her response as she smiled holding back tears, “of course she is, mijo, of course she is.”
Yet, these are not feelings of mourning and despair; no, the colors, the sounds, and the festive ambiance do not permit such sadness to enter our hearts. Instead, it is an overwhelming sensation of love, of connection, of communion and community, and of remembering the gift of life together with each other and our dead. Yes, amongst all the tinsel and showmanship as only Hollywood can produce, there was something real, something almost tangible that resonated deep and true within those who gave in to the experience.
Somewhere between the beats of the music, in the silence steeling moments amidst the cacophony of the sounds of the living, if you listened – not with your ears but with your heart, you could hear the dead respond. They were with us and they had come in force. For this day and even more so in the night to come, the cemetery was invigorated, alit with color and sound, and abundant with life.
As the sun set, more and more people began to pour in and slither through the cemetery avenues observing the graves and altars, chatting with friends, family, and strangers, and remembering their own beloved dead in their own ways. The cemetery buzzed with energy and excitement. Woven between the food venders, the artisans, and the overly produced Huichol shamanic ceremonies, the presence of the dead was palpable. Everywhere we looked we were met with the hypnotic gaze of calaca painted faces glowing in the moonlight. One couldn’t help but wonder if these were the faces of the living masquerading as the dead, or the dead masquerading as the living. For on this night, the veil between the worlds was indeed very thin.
It was beautiful, it was emotional and it was incredibly true to TRADITION…this is how the festivals of the dead are intended to be celebrated. Literally, side by side with them in their tombs and atop their graves. On this day taboos are broken, we dine and drink, walk and sit, dance and sing together with the dead, we are their guests in their home. We dig our toes into their earth, pass our hands over their grass and breathe their air. Lovers run off together into the darkness of the cemetery, old friends and family are reconnected over shared memories, and new relationships are forged. Life does not just continue in the presence of the dead, it flourishes; social bonds are strengthened and a sense of community and belonging is rekindled for all in attendance. We may not have Mexican or Aztec ancestry, but tonight we are all part of one tradition, one human family, brought together under the Los Angeles sky by the great equalizer of death and a common celebration of life.
On this night, this iconic cemetery became a temple dedicated to the celebration of the dead. A sacred monument in the heart of Los Angeles where an ancient tradition is very much alive for tens of thousands of celebrants.