The duality of life and death in Mexico, of injustice and resistance, is a balance struck, many times, in the favor of death, injustice, and oblivion.
In Día de los Muertes, a ritual born out of indigenous sentires and saberes, is celebrated all over Mexico, and is especially a strong tradition in the states of Michoacán and Oaxaca. I traveled to Oaxaca de Juarez a week ago, the capital of the southern Mexican State to participate and witness the rituals and devotion to both life and death. It was during my eight hour bus ride south that, suddenly surprised at my own devotion, I realized it would be my third year in a row traveling to Oaxaca during that time of year.
It is in Oaxaca where I have learned to value the devotion and compassion people exert in their celebration of death that strengthens their connection to life. As I walked the city’s streets and the walkways of illuminated cemeteries I suddenly realized that as we celebrated the culture and ritual of death, we perhaps neglected to see how we rub shoulders with it every day: the alcoholism of our rural compxs, the poverty of vendors, the hunger of those who musicalize our ritual. Even within our devotion of día de los muertos there exists olvidadxs, disappearances and the ignored presence of the starving, suffering and agonizing. As a tradition that is now celebrated globally, thanks to the Mexican and Mexican-American diaspora, people have become attracted and even entranced by the sublime relationship Mexicans have forged with death. Yet as tourists flock to cemeteries, their desire to celebrate their lives, to enjoy and consume a fascination with death, makes it easier to forget and better ignore the indigenous and poor vendors and workers who cater to enhance the lives of others in order for they themselves to survive.
Yet in Mexico, this unfair relationship between life and death is perpetuated and made complex through the disappearances, the absences and the repression of students, of activists, of mujeres, of the rural, the poor and those whose death is almost justifiable collateral for the lives and comforts of those who wield more power. Just three months ago, 43 students from Ayotzinapa, a teacher training college in the state of Guerrero, southwest Mexico, were ambushed and disappeared on the night of 26 September. Ayotinzapa has historically been a bastion of resistance and its students have taken up activist roles that have often challenged the Mexican state, demanding a rural and community based approach to education and social justice. Since the 26 of September, a series of mass graves have been discovered just outside Iguala, though it’s as yet unconfirmed whether they contain the bodies of the students. In light of Ayotinzapa, we celebrate death from Oaxaca to Mexico City and in East Los Angeles. In our communities, death and olvido, inform collective existence in the same measure as life and celebration. But how do we celebrate death when we are denied a collective right to life? How can our rituals become resistance, to demand the right to exist as we are, or as we hope to be?
During my time in Oaxaca I was able to visit a special exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a poem by David Huerta dedicated to Ayotzinapa:
“Who reads this should also know
That despite it all
The dead are not gone
Nor have they made them disappear
That the magic of the dead
Is in the dawn and the ladle
On foot and in the cornfields
In the drawings and in the river..”
It was a beautiful exhibition and ode that inspires anyone who reads it to love and fight ardently for life, to remember why it is important, to realize that in the context of so much death, to recuperate life among the destruction and violence.
Coming back to Mexico City, I attended a vigil at el Zocalo this past Tuesday, where people gathered around candles, one for each of the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa, in an act of collective remembrance and resistance. Upon taking in the beautiful scene, the candles and the small group of people, I took in the panorama of the daunting and even violent looking government palace that loomed over us. And to our right and immediate surrounding was an even larger group of federal police officers, armed with their plastic shields and uniformed and looking slightly dreary. Suddenly struck by this scene, by the contrast between hope and defiance, and violence and compliance, I become more intimately conscious that this duality exists in subtle violence all over the country. Ultimately underneath the garb of police uniform and shields, of our protest posters and t-shirts that exclaim justice for Ayotzinapa, we all face the violence of indifference and corruption.
Yet the symbolism of this contrast, of those who seek justice and those who are paid to suppress it, isn’t a new scene to Mexico. I’ve witnessed it even within our celebrations of death in Oaxaca, in our celebration of life in Mexico City, and in the silences and absences of the thousands who have disappeared, whose absences have gone unnoticed with the exception of their families and those who once knew them: the 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa, femicides in Juarez and el Estado de México, pobreza, olvido, soledad e injusticia. Yet truly transcending death and celebrating life is a matter of tipping the scales in favor of life, of every person’s right to exist. The growing solidarity with the missing students in Ayotzinapa is proof that Mexico in general is capable of shifting the imbalance between life and death. Here in Mexico, as in our greater communities, this is a possibility, only if we demand this right not only from any state, but by working continuously to ensure that we promote life in everything we do, demanding our collective right to exist, our right to life, where death is not an imposition but a natural extension of a dignified life.