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Muertos

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Day of the Dead's come and gone, one more year on its march toward becoming this country's newest holiday.

That's what Rutgers University professor Regina Marchi argues in her new book. You can find Dia de los Muertos/Day of the Dead celebrations across the U.S. because there are now significant populations of Latin American immigrants in most states. And the celebrations are attracting non-Latinos, who are picking up the tradition as their own.

We need to go back to the Chicano civil rights movement, 40 years ago, to trace the current growth of the observance. Mostly U.S.-born Mexican American artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s started these celebrations in California cultural centers after trips to Mexico, where it was purposefully forgotten in large cities.

In the 1950s and 60s, Marchi said in an interview, Mexico's ruling class saw Dia de los Muertos as a backward tradition that had no place in large cities undergoing post-World War Two modernization. That changed in the 1970s when Day of the Dead was folded into national tourism campaigns, becoming one of many stops on an extensive cultural tourism trail carved out by the Mexican government.

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It was the artists at Chicano cultural centers who showed that Day of the Dead can build community among unrelated people as it does a nuclear family. Thematic altars dedicated to deceased civil rights leaders and to victims of foreign wars became popular. The technique has remained the same: marigold flowers and petals cover tiered steps, the favorite food and drink of the deceased is placed prominently, surrounded by sugar skulls.

Long established Chicano art galleries in California such as the Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego, Self Help Graphics in East L.A. and Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco, have staged Day of the Dead altar making workshops, public altar viewings and parades for decades.

The decade-old Dia de Los Muertos festival at the Hollywood Forever cemetery attracted several thousand people, about half of them non-Latinos, said Adela Marquez, a native of Mexico who's lived in the U.S. most of her life. Marquez and her younger, U.S. born sister began the celebration, - which now includes Latin alternative bands, Aztec dancers and lots of thematic altars - to make sure their heritage didn't die out. "We started it because we wanted to bring the old traditions to the new generations here in the United States that have not had the opportunity to experience this incredible ceremonies that happen in Mexico and Latin America."

The holiday's growth and subsequent commercialization - Marchi includes in her book a picture of Starbucks Day of the Dead product shelves - doesn't signal a demise. Think about it, just because Christmas is the most commercialized holiday in the world doesn't mean there aren't people who don't observe it as a deeply transformative event.

This transformation makes me think of the first and second line funeral processions in New Orleans. They're somber and festive celebrations of the dead that take place in the city's public spaces. They've become part of the cultural patrimony of all New Orleans residents.

Some Chicanos are upset about the migration of Day of the Dead to communities outside the traditionally Latino neighborhoods. In conducting research for her book, Marchi said she interviewed Chicanos who have seen their worst nightmare come true: Day of the Dead Happy Hours. Non-Latinos are grateful, she said, that Chicano artists a generation ago began making altars at cultural centers. "It was a gift that they gave to the larger U.S. society in terms of offering a forum that people could adopt and identify with as a way to remember their loved ones and connect with their past and their histories in a very public way and in a very joyous, positive way."

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