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Día de los Muertos Is Political

Some deaths aren’t considered grievable because they were never considered lives worthy of protection in the first place.

Over 10,000 people have died since the 1990s trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border as a result of inhumane and unjust government policies. Police brutality and violence claims the lives of Black people in this country every day. Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria death toll continues to rise. We may never know how many people state apathy killed, as the bodies of hurricane victims are being burned.

For immigrants and Latinx people viewed as disposable in the eyes of the state, Día de los Muertos — a traditional Mexican holiday that’s underway this week — is deeply political. The parades and parties, calaveras (skulls) and calacas (skeletons), altars and art that make up this holiday serve as a communion with the dead, a celebration of life, and an expression of cultural memory.

Most Mexican communities in the United States didn’t celebrate Día de los Muertos until the Chicano Movement of the 1970s revived the tradition in order to generate cultural awareness and ethnic pride. Reclaiming the holiday wasn’t just a way for Mexican Americans to reconnect with their indigenous past but also to call attention to the ways that state policies and practices trap people of color in an indefinite state of suspension between life and death — to recognize that the state decides both when and how we die and also how we live.

Gender scholar Judith Butler writes that “certain names of the dead are not utterable [and] certain losses are not avowed as losses.” Día de los Muertos challenges these forms of dehumanization, disappearance, and disposability by honoring the dead and fighting for justice for the living. 

In recent years, artivists on the border have used this holiday to denounce unjust border militarization policies. Immigrant rights groups have hosted funeral processions to ICE headquarters to bring awareness to numerous deaths in immigrant detention centers. This year, Mexico’s Day of the Dead parade is honoring earthquake victims. As you celebrate Día de los Muertos, remember this is an important day not only for Mexicans and Latinx in this country, but also for U.S. political history as a whole. 

Header image via The New York Times.

Durham, NC

Barbara is a PhD student at The University of North Carolina. She writes about immigration, migrant activism and organizing, & intersectional feminism.

Barbara is a PhD student at The University of North Carolina. She writes about immigration, migrant activism and organizing, & intersectional feminism.

Read more about Barbara

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