On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
A folklorist from the National Museum of the American Indian explains the rich history and traditions behind the Day of the Dead. And we hear how one Washingtonian is honoring her ancestors amid the pandemic.
Produced by Inés Rénique and Julie Depenbrock
- Cynthia Vidaurri Folklorist, National Museum of the American Indian
- Chivonnie Gius Founder, Cultivation Cafe
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast you may be too young to vote, but you're not too young to understand how democracy works. It's the Kojo For Kids election show, but first the Day of the Dead looks very different in 2020. So what does Día de los Muertos mean in a year, when so many in our Latinx community have been lost to COVID-19? And how are Washingtonians honoring their ancestors amidst the pandemic? Joining us now is Cynthia Vidaurri, a Folklorist at the National Museum of the American Indian. Cynthia Vidaurri, thank you very much for joining us.
CYNTHIA VIDAURRIThank you for having me, Kojo. It's a pleasure.
NNAMDIAs a folklorist, you study culture. How long have you studied Día de los Muertos?
VIDAURRIOh, my goodness, you're going to embarrass me right off the bat. I've probably been doing this for about 30 years now.
NNAMDIYeah. Wow. How did you get involved in this? How did you decide to start studying it?
VIDAURRIWell, it really goes back to when I was in graduate school and I started doing research on religious folk-art traditions. And it grew from that after starting to travel extensively into Mexico and then started documenting it there and then started observing how it was happening here in the United States. So it's kind of been a long road to travel, but I think we're at a very interesting moment at this point.
NNAMDIWell, you're the perfect person to ask. How have the Day of the Dead celebrations changed over time?
VIDAURRIWell, that's actually a really great question, because we think the Day of the Dead has been around forever in the United States, but it actually comes into the States during the civil rights movement where you had Chicanos mostly out in California actually organize not only for political purposes, but also this was a moment for cultural recovery. And for so many years Mexican Americans I should or Chicanos had denied or been forced to deny their indigenous roots.
VIDAURRISo this was a time to go back and recover all sorts of traditions. So you had many young Chicano artists and scholars going back and forth to Mexico and learning about these traditions bringing it into the United States. And in relatively short order it becomes accepted by the larger American body. And now it's part of our ritual cycle. It's part of our celebration cycles.
NNAMDICynthia, contrary to what some may think, the Day of the Dead is not the Mexican version of Halloween. What are the differences and what are the similarities?
VIDAURRIWell, that's an ongoing debate. There are some similar connections that date back to when the Europeans arrived into the Americas. The Spanish settlers brought in Roman Catholic ideas that already had a tradition for observing the Day of the Dead. Their own variety, and that in itself was an amalgamation of many other traditions from Europe that were taken and reincorporated into the church, but it happens in the fall. The Day of the Dead as it was traditionally observed and I'm looking at Mexico specifically was actually a month long celebration, a month long event. And that has been modified quite dramatically over the years. But they do have that one little line of connection, but in Mexico, the tradition is deeply indigenous.
NNAMDIJoining us now is my friend Chivonnie Gius, Founder of the Cultivation Cafe, a space for courageous conversation. She lost her uncle, Larry Gius, to COVID-19 earlier this year. Chivonnie, welcome.
CHIVONNIE GIUSGood afternoon, Kojo. It's an honor to be here with you.
NNAMDIChivonnie, how do you celebrate Día de los Muertos?
GIUSIn quite few different way, but traditionally what I have been celebrating is the joy of food and dance and music. Being able to share with the ancestors, if you will, beautiful created feasts. My mom and I will prepare tamales and beans, Spanish rice, coffee, tequila, Corona for the adults, of course. And we would lay pan dulces, candy and toys at the altar for the kiddos. So we've created these altars in our homes -- small little altars. We would go to the Mexican cultural institute in D.C., but most importantly we would hold each other a little closer and celebrate those that are still alive as well.
NNAMDIAnd your mom, I should mention Nancy Gius works for WAMU. And I have visited with you and seen one of those altars, but what new meaning has the day taken on this year?
GIUSWell, you know, in an age where so many are unable to participate in the ritual of in-person funerals, we're unable to hold our loved ones and cry and celebrate together, this is a new meaning for me. An opportunity, I think, for a national, perhaps a global day of mourning for all humans no matter their ethnicity so we can honor and remember those who have gone before them.
NNAMDIChivonnie, why is the return to rituals so important for you?
GIUSOh, that's such a great question, Kojo. You know, as much as Día de los Muertos, which is as Ms. Cynthia had mentioned is more than just a day. It is a week-long celebration as we've observed mostly in the United States now. It's just as important to celebrate the departed as it is to celebrate those who are living I've mentioned before. So enrooting ourselves with the importance and the power of our breath and celebrating life and legacy is part of why I believe this return to ritual is so important, because death is not the end, rather it's just a transition and oftentimes we see death as something to fear or the unknown. So in having this ritual and this rich tradition, it's a framework or a lens for us to see and understand that transition is part of life and it's natural.
NNAMDIChivonnie, you lost your uncle, Larry Gius, to COVID-19. How did you honor him this year on the Day of the Dead?
GIUSI did, and I also recently learned I lost a cousin, Lorrie-Ann Castillo, as well. I honored them both by dancing. I got to dance. I spent Friday and Saturday in production for a dance that was choreographed by a dear sister from another mister to Demi Lovato's Commander in Chief. I've also been able to honor him by launching this dream deferred of the Cultivation Café.
GIUSWhen I think of, you know, the graveyards being filled with unsung songs and unrealized potential, Kojo, I'm filled with a great sense of urgency to nourish this vision as a space to really have those courageous conversations around personal transformation, community healing, reconciliation. And being able to activate tools, rituals, whatever they may be to transcend the traumas that we are all collectively experiencing now as a result of this COVID affecting every corner of the globe.
NNAMDIBut prior to COVID, Chivonnie, how does this holiday help with the mourning process after you have lost someone? In 2008, when I was in Denver for the Democratic National Convention, I met your grandfather and he has also since passed. How does this holiday help with mourning for him and all the other relatives and friends that you've mourned?
GIUSIt has -- for me personally it has provided an opportunity to feel a deeper connection to them. And it gives me great pleasure as a Chicana, as Blackxican rather, to celebrate both sides. And to, again, sit with my mother and other family relatives and share the stories and to feel that connection to their spirit, right? As we lay the marigolds and we bring that steaming food to the altar and place the water and so lovingly prepare the cigars and the hats and the things my grandfather loved that is an offering. That is my way of not only remembering him to ensure that his legacy continues, but it has helped in the mourning process. So that I do not forget and those memories are kept fresh and safe.
NNAMDIAnd your grandfather was a fascinating and spiritual man who I still remember very, very clearly. Here is Diego in Washington D.C. Diego, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIEGOThank you, Kojo. It's an honor to be on your show. I am Mexican. I was born in Mexico City, but as an adult, as a man in his late 40s, I have learned more about my culture. And I have come to the conclusion that my family is actually very much Native American, but we were forced to lose our culture, our traditions, our religion. And for me, growing up as a Jehovah's Witness and for the first time in my life actually placing an altar in my home, it's my way to reclaim my culture, my traditions, my roots, my Native American roots. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Cynthia Vidaurri, how do people like our caller Diego integrate if you will their religion with these cultural traditions?
VIDAURRIDay of the Dead gives us an opportunity that goes beyond the parameters of any religion. Fundamentally it's an act of remembrance. It's a time to celebrate the lives of our loved ones. So it's not necessarily a disconnect from one orthodoxy and switching over to another religion. You're just incorporating a ritual as Chivonnie mentioned that helps us remember folks and helps us connect to them.
NNAMDICynthia, what does this celebration look like in indigenous communities across Mexico and the rest of the Americas?
VIDAURRIWell, it looks quite different from what we see in the United States. But that is changing over time, because it's being impacted by things that happen in large urban areas, things that are happening in the United States. But mostly the activities take place in the cemetery where your loved one is interred. People will go and clean the cemeteries, light candles and take food. And the other most significant portion of the tradition is to erect the ofrenda or the offering as sometimes called the altar. And that, of course, depends on somebody's financial capacity to do so. But this is a time where you bring out everything that you could possibly provide for your loved one that indulges them.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Cynthia Vidaurri, a Folklorist at the National Museum of the American Indian and Chivonnie Gius, Founder of the Cultivation Café, a space for courageous conversations. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What special meaning does this holiday, this commemoration, this observation Día de los Muertos have for you? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the celebration of Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead with Cynthia Vidaurri and Chivonnie Gius. I'm taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What special meaning does this holiday have for you? We'd love to hear from you 800-433-8850. Cynthia, although the Day of the Dead is a Mexican celebration, many indigenous communities across the Americas commemorate the holiday in their own way. I remember being in Costa Rica and seeing the celebration being commemorated. Is that right?
VIDAURRIThat's absolutely correct. You'll find that this tradition was held by native peoples all over the Americas in what is now Latin America and the Caribbean. But the tradition as we know it now in the United States is really heavily based on the expression as we see it coming out of Mexico.
NNAMDIWhat are some of the key terminologies we need to know when discussing the Day of the Dead?
VIDAURRIWell, probably the things that go on the ofrenda or the altar. And I love the term ofrenda, because it really reflects the idea that it is a gift. You're offering something to your loved ones. So on the ofrenda you would have things like cempasuchil or Mexican marigold and that's really important because the color and the scent help the spirit of your loved one transverse between the land of the living and the land of the dead. So that's really, really critical.
VIDAURRIAnother really important tradition are pan de muertos and that's a bread for Day of the Dead. And depending on the region that you come from it has some type of representation of skull imagery or a skeleton or a face on there and that is extremely diverse tradition throughout Mexico, and there's many, many different varieties of that. You would also have copal, which is a tree resin that is also very critical, because of its scent to help guide the spirits across.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned ofrendas, because Ari in Hyattsville asked, with social distancing and ofrendas happening virtually this year, is the holiday now changed forever? Will people ever want to go back to what it was before? What do you say, Cynthia?
VIDAURRIWell, we're not quite sure what's going to happen in the future. Obviously we're having to deal with this sort of celebration in digital form, because of our current circumstances. And I think digital is definitely here to stay in some form or fashion. Many museums and cultural centers are creating spaces where you can add your loved ones image to that. But the core essence of Día de los Muertos is really to be with your loved ones while you're doing that. So I think that part will never completely go away.
NNAMDIWell, this seems like a beautiful way to commemorate loved ones. But is it, Cynthia, cultural appropriation to partake in this holiday if you are not an indigenous person yourself?
VIDAURRIWell, like all aspects of culture it has its ebbs and its flows and it changes over time and works only when it serves a human need. If it no longer serves a human need it goes away. So I've seen so many cases of people who are not indigenous, not Latino in any variety actually commemorate Day of the Dead as a way to remember their loved ones. Then that becomes a debate at what point it becomes a commercial endeavor, when you're saying is selling Day of the Dead costumes or your having Day of the Dead beer crawls, at that point it seizes to be a particularly -- an appropriate adaptation of the tradition.
VIDAURRISo I think it would really come down to intent when one takes this on. I personally am not offended is somebody uses this as a way to deal with the passing of their loved ones regardless of them being part of this ethnic community or not.
NNAMDII'd like Chivonnie to weigh in here, because, Chivonnie, you are a product of several traditions, Native American, Latinx, African American. I'd like you to weigh in on this one.
GIUSAbsolutely. I completely agree with Ms. Cynthia. As long as the intent remains sacred, I don't feel offense. I don't see it as cultural appropriation. And it is a very fine line and all the more reason why it is critical for us in this digital space as our ofrendas are shifting and we're able to share online that we continue and make sure that the roots and the tradition is learned by the little ones as well as those, who may not be of the Latinx community.
NNAMDIChivonnie, celebrations obviously look very different this year. How did you celebrate?
GIUSInstead of just a small ofrenda like we have in years past, my mom and I decided to dedicate the entire room to creating an ofrenda. And this is the largest we've ever built partly to make room for those lost to COVID, police brutality and a variety of injustices that we're all facing at this time. Also danced around the house while streaming KUVO Cancion Mexican and listening to the music that my uncle, who was a talented vocalist and guitarist loved so very much.
NNAMDIChivonnie never stops dancing. Here is Christopher in Washington D.C. Christopher, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISTOPHERHi, good afternoon. Thanks for having me. How are you all?
CHRISTOPHERWonderful. Well, we've just celebrated Halloween, of course and Día de los Muertos. And my question is if you're thinking that -- my grandson just turned four years old and I'm Mexican American from Texas and did Día de los Muertos and ofrendas. And what we did this year was we took an altar with our loved ones that has passed away. Had our offerings and did the marigolds and did the paper mache and so and so forth.
CHRISTOPHERBut do you think like movies like "Coco" and books that are being offered to kids will enhance the cultural distinct between a Mexican American? And also going into a family that is more like white in culture or Christian in culture than like a Mexican American? Do you think that's a good idea like have more movies and more books and such so kids can understand where we come from?
NNAMDIWell, you know, I watched the movie "Coco" yesterday for the first time and it certainly seemed to enhance my understanding. But let me allow Cynthia Vidaurri to respond.
VIDAURRII saw "Coco" to be quite charming. And I think that for a piece of filmmaking this was done very well, very respectfully. And it's not my place to go and tell other native communities whether they should or should not be offended by it. But I thought it was delightful when in some of the premieres they actually had communities from Oaxaca come into the theater in their traditional clothing, and you see them smiling while they're watching the movie. You see them actually breaking out in laughter. And I felt like they felt that their aspect of, you know, their story, their culture was being portrayed in places where it historically has not been portrayed accurately or with respect.
VIDAURRISo I think, again, going back to the idea if it is treated as a sacred experience even though you make it accessible to people, if you treat it as a sacred experience and if it's done with respect, I think the more we learn about each other's culture the better off we'll be as a society.
NNAMDIChivonnie, what are your thoughts about the movie "Coco"?
GIUSI agree completely. I think it was a beautiful piece of art and a wonderful place to begin. There were a few moments that didn't feel as -- I'll leave it at that. I enjoyed the film and I think it was a wonderful place to begin. And absolutely we definitely need to continue having these cross cultural conversations. So that we can celebrate each other's differences and come together as one human race.
NNAMDIChivonnie, why is dance so important when it comes to Day of the Dead celebrations?
GIUSWell, it's an opportunity for us to -- I like to say shake our sorrows. As we know, grief has a physical manifestation. And if we don't have somewhere to place our grief, it can easily show up as dis-ease. So when we have that shaking in the dance form, that's an opportunity for us to release those traumas and to navigate a new space internally so that we can then show up again as our best potentialed self with deep breaths and celebration and joy.
NNAMDICynthia, Mattel has released a Día de los Muertos Barbie, which some say is guilty of cultural appropriation. What are your thoughts when you see the commercialization of the holiday?
VIDAURRIWell, that particular product is really quite problematic. On one hand, from what I understand there have been Mexican nationals that have been designing the Day of the Dead Barbie, but on the other hand, I'm concerned that no benefits go back to the communities from which Day of the Dead really emerges. Is this a product that is going to kind of take culture and use it and make money off of it, but without providing any kind of cultural context or history? And will the original communities receive any benefit from this commercialization? So it's difficult to take all aspects of commercializing Day of the Dead in one lump sum. They vary according to each case.
NNAMDICynthia Vidaurri, Chivonnie Gius, thank you both for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, you may be too young to vote, but you're not too young to understand how democracy works. It's the Kojo For Kids election show. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.