A fine line 

Questioning Missoula's Day of the Dead parade

It's almost Halloween, and that means it's time for one of Missoula's best-loved fall traditions: the Festival of the Dead. Wednesday, Nov. 2 will mark the 24th annual Day of the Dead parade, which the Zootown Arts Community Center describes as an "all-inclusive multicultural event that honors life and death through community involvement in the arts."

By "all-inclusive," they mean everybody: children, adolescents, toddlers, babies, tweens, Spanish teachers—everybody. By "multicultural," they mean white.

Virtually everyone involved in the Day of the Dead parade is white. This is what happens when you celebrate a Mexican holiday in Missoula, whose Mexican population remains, uh, uncounted. We know it's enough to sustain at least two Mexican restaurants, but not enough to make them serve tripa. As a result, the Festival of the Dead has become an example of cultural appropriation. White people put on death-mask makeup and march down the street holding skeleton prints, laughing and cavorting with no regard for the holiday's real meaning: to appease Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death.

Missoula's culturally ignorant Day of the Dead festivities barely mention Mictecacihuatl. The parade claims to honor recently deceased members of our community, but you never see anyone marching with their skulls. And don't even get me started on ziggurats. When was the last time this so-called "multicultural" event built a step pyramid, much less a full-on ziggurat dedicated to ritual sacrifice?

When it comes to appropriating other people's cultures, Missoula's Day of the Dead is almost as bad as the Mexican one. From an authenticity standpoint, the Mexican Day of the Dead does not represent cultural appropriation so much as cultural eradication.

In the 16th century, when Spanish explorers reached what is now Mexico, they found the indigenous people of Mesoamerica honoring Mictecacihuatl and their ancestors every year in late August. The conquistadores moved the festival to the end of October—they had gone ahead and replaced the Aztec calendar, too—so it would coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Since these holy days happened at the same time, the Aztecs participating in their festival of the dead might as well honor Catholic saints, too. Or they could, you know, die.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

This practice is called syncretism: adapting one culture to another by merging them. It's the same approach the church used with the pagan tribes of Europe, incorporating local religious observances into Catholic holidays to give us traditions like Christmas trees, the Easter Bunny and St. Valentine's Day, which was not originally about sex. Syncretism at the point of the sword was a practice for which modern people justly condemn the medieval church. But with or without the violence, it is the mechanism that has given us pretty much every culture that exists today.

Unless you are above the Arctic Circle or in the Amazon River Basin, whatever culture you encounter is the product of syncretism. The "authentic" Day of the Dead celebrations we find in Mexico are syncretic combinations of Catholic and Mesoamerican traditions. The Tex-Mex dishes of "authentic" Mexican restaurants are Taco Time compared to traditional foods of the Yucatán. And the indigenous people who worshipped Mictecacihuatl before Cortez showed up probably came to her through an Aztec empire that aggressively replaced local cultures with its own state-sponsored religion.

When something like that happens over 20 years, it's cultural appropriation. When it happens over 2,000 years, it's cultural change. The question for Missoula is whether our Festival of the Dead is organic syncretism or just a bunch of white people dressing up as Mexicans for Halloween II.

It sure looks like the second. If I had friends from Mexico visiting on Nov. 2, I might avoid downtown. But the Festival of the Dead is not a parody of Mexican culture or even a well-meaning excursion into it. It is an event that has been going on for a generation, and generations of Missoulians seem to love it in their own way. Yes, it makes Mexican culture a lot more white. But it also makes Missoulian culture a little more Mexican.

Would you take that parade away because the people marching in it aren't brown enough? It's a fine line between resisting appropriation within cultures and segregating them. It would be nice if the Day of the Dead were not just multicultural but multiethnic. Until that day, though, I think we should suspect the idea of authenticity. It's a specter, and when it rises up to lecture us about the past, it tends to forget its own ancestors.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and waking from the dream of life to walk with Mictecacihuatl at combatblog.net.

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