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Joy in Spite of Death: The Philadelphia Day of the Dead Parade

Miguel Jimenez November 16, 2018

Today, unlike other time periods in history, we have more of an opportunity to expose ourselves to cultures foreign to us. We no longer interact solely with people who practice a similar lifestyle or who hold the same beliefs. Thanks to globalization, we are more aware of how people on the other side of the planet are living. This openness to information as well as the ever-increasing movement of people is showing us a world different than ours.

In this exposure to foreign cultures, we are also introduced to festivities celebrated abroad. I have noticed that each year Day of the Dead gains more popularity in the United States. While media is one of the main driving forces behind the diffusion of this Mexican festivity, the number of Mexicans who have moved to the U.S. and wish to continue their ancestors’ tradition is perhaps the most common cause of the growing awareness for the celebration.

Near and during the days of November 1st and 2nd, various cities throughout the United States host festivals andmemorial events featuring “ofrendas” (temporary shrines to the dead) to honor lost loved ones according to Mexican tradition. In 2018, Philadelphia hosted at least two main celebrations at different cultural venues and one major official ceremony at the Mexican Consulate that commemorated Day of the Dead. My friends and I had the opportunity to be part of this year’s Día de Muertos Procession in South Philadelphia, and it was a blast!

The event is organized by the Fleisher Art Memorial, a nonprofit community art school that has hosted similar celebrations for the past six years. In addition to the procession, Fleisher also holds a series of folkloric festivities. Our experience parading on the streets of South Philadelphia was a memorable one.

The procession started at 4 PM on October 28 at corner of corner of Mifflin and 9th Streets. When my friends and I arrived at the site, Cesar Viveros, a Philadelphia-based Mexican artist and organizer of the event, shared a few words of thankfulness, and with his speech the procession started. Traditional Mexican music harmoniously performed by over ten guitars soon accompanied in our walk, and I could recognize and sing essentially all the songs they were playing. Eventually, what started being a 30-person parade turned into a celebration with over 80 people! Many of them joined as we made our journey throughout South Philadelphia, and often entire families dressed in folkloric Mexican clothes and wearing traditional makeup made me feel as if I was back at home in Mexico.

Yet parades like these are not traditional of Day of the Dead. A typical celebration usually only involves folkloric dances and a visit to homes and institutions that welcome people to see their “ofrendas”. The event that took place at Fleisher Art Memorial after my friends and I left did stay close to such Mexican customs, but the procession itself is not a traditional part of Day of the Dead. However, after the the James Bond movie Spectre, which starts in a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, parades have become more popular during the holiday.

Another distinction of traditional from modern festivities that is not unique to the parade in South Philadelphia is that the original values on which the holiday was established no longer seem to be remembered. Today’s Day of the Dead celebrations are mainly a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, and not no longer occasions to remember those who passed away. Part of this trend involves taking out the holiday’s religious aspects, which are crucial and need to be acknowledged; without them, there would not have been a common ground in which Amerindian and European cultures would merge in the sixteenth century to create Day of the Dead.

Nonetheless, at the Philadelphia procession there seemed to be a closer connection to the holiday’s Pre-Columbian roots. While in Mexico, a typical Day of the Dead celebration usually includes some type of religious service and cultural events more closely based on European heritage that was not truly the case here; there were more people dressed in “Aztec” clothing and playing more Amerindian instruments than what I have encountered in Mexico, but these Pre-Columbian elements merged well with the more European practices of the celebration such as the guitars and the long dresses. It should not be a surprise to witness such contrasts during Day of the Dead, for its origins are a mixture of both worlds. However, a more Amerindian approach to many Mexican celebrations seems to be  becoming more common in the United States. Perhaps, this decision is a deliberate one, a choice taken by the Mexican communities to appeal to to their Pre-Columbian roots and distinguish themselves from other cultures present in this country.

Be that as it may, an important but constructive difference that I saw at the parade in South Philly was diversity. Honestly, in Mexico Day of Dead is celebrated primarily by those who have a faith background and by a more grown-up population. Yet here people of all ages and backgrounds participated in the festivity. There certainly were Mexicans at the procession, and all of us walked around the street proud of our culture, but I also noticed people from Asian and European backgrounds partaking in the celebration. I believe that Day of the Dead has not had such a diverse appeal since its conception during Mexico’s colonial time period.  

My hope is to continue to see Day of the Dead grow as a celebration of Hispanic heritage and as an opportunity to foster diversity. I invite everyone to go to events like the procession to get a taste of what Mexico is truly made: color, joy, and acceptance of other cultures.