• Aztecan ritual in Los Angeles at Día de los Muertos festival on Olvera Street.
  • Fet Gede 2019 in New York City's Socrates Park. Photo credit: Haitian Times
  • Women in Port-au-Prince go to altar of Baron Samedi
  • Marie Leveau's tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
  • Ancestral altar for Día de los Muertos

Post-Halloween, Indigenous cultures show how they retained traditions to honor the dead

5 mins read

This weekend, three distinct cultures celebrate the life by paying homage to those who came before them. In Los Angeles, Louisiana and New York City, indigenous cultures that have survived colonialism, conquistadors, and slavery are still standing, even though they had to practice of form of syncretism, or blending to keep their spirituality

Beautifully painted faces of ghostly corpses are normal on Olvera Street during this time of the year. For the past three decades, in the historical downtown corridor cited as the first street in Los Angeles, Olvera Street businesses and residents have led the city’s celebration of El Día de los Muertos.

Traditionally occurring on November 1 and 2, on Olvera Street, it is a 9-day celebration running from October 25 to November 2. On one hand, El Día de los Muertos along Olvera presents an annual boom in the local Latino economy. For the week, city-goers and tourists flock to a street that is just over a half-mile, to immerse themselves in Mexican and now, even Central and South American food, music, parades, and visual and performance art.

From another perspective, it keeps Latin American tradition and Mexican resistance as a significant part of US history. Translated to, “the day of the dead,” in English, El Día de los Muertos is a festival from southern Mexico that migrated with its diaspora. Along with mariachi bands and parades are public rituals taken from pre-Columbian, Aztec culture that recognized the afterlife for 40 days of elaborate ceremonies that also acknowledged a pantheon of gods, which included a goddess of death and the underworld named Mictecacihuatl

Cathedral in Mexico City celebrates El Día de los Muertos.

Along the Olvera thoroughfare are altars of those who have died. From political prisoners to prisoners of war, to belated family members and activists or artists. Described as a “more recent festivity for Mexicans” in the US by media scholar Regina Marchi who researchers El Día de los Muertos, she writes in her book, Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon, that it:

“comprise[s] a syncretic ix of both Latin American Indigenous practices and Roman Catholic spiritual traditions that have been reconfigured by Chicanos and other Latinos to transmit messages of culture, identity and political expression.” What was once a holiday politicized in the 1970s during the Chicano movement, now El Día is a favorite local holiday with expanding popularity.”

When the saints go marching in

NOLA Painted Tombstone in St. Louis cemetery.

Before the rise of El Día de los Muertos, the holiday of La Toussant carries folk traditions in St. Martinville, located in the southwestern town of Louisiana. La Toussant, also known as The Solemnity of the Saints. Like El Día, it takes place on November 1 and 2, aligning itself with the Catholic holiday, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but it performs customs and rites of local Blacks, known as Creoles and the latter group, Cajuns, who are whites that migrated to the area from French Canada in 1785.

“The day after Halloween . . . is more important in south Louisiana than any other area of the country both as a Catholic holy day of obligation and as a family of unity,” writes Jane Vidrine in her article on traditions and folk life in Louisiana.

For ceremony, “families would gather all day to whitewash the graves” of those departed tells Vidine. In Louisiana, due to the low-lying lands and flooding, most graves sit in tombs on top of the ground. Traditionally, family members cared for burial sites, and specifically for Blacks most cemeteries were located at churches, small plots for African Americans due to segregation and plots on family land.

“On October 31st, me and [my friend] would go the cemetery at midnight to paint the graves. We’d drink beer and smoke cigarettes,” recounted Leona Washington before she passed in 2016 at the age of 97. She grew up in St. Martinville, but lived most of her life in Lafayette, Louisiana.

While Washington saw her yearly custom as a guilty pleasure from her demanding life as a mother, wife and domestic worker for a local white family, it resembles an African ritual of ancestral veneration that uses liquor and smoke as a way to appease spirits. In the cemetery, where Washington is buried on some tombstones are dolls, Mardi Gras beads and even empty bottles of alcohol. 

Included in La Toussant is farming culture. In this region of the country, people largely lived agrarian lives, so much of their existence flowed around the harvesting periods. Around this time of the year, pigs were fattened before the annual boucherie, or slaughtering of the pig during the winter holidays. As well, the canning of vegetables and fruits such as okra, beans, tomatoes, figs and berries start around this time of the year. As a result, in tandem with celebrating the saints of the Catholic church, and for the souls of ancestors to go to heaven, the region prepared for the winter months.

Because of the close-knit communalism, an older ceremony included a local priest blessing the gravesite of each departed with their living relatives kneeling and praying. Vidrine says that a man in her study described it as a procession or “parade.” However, much of the “old ways” as Washington calls it, are fading away.

Sak Pasé?

Grand Cemetery in Haiti where Fet Gede starts.

1,500 miles north of Port-au-Prince in New York City, members of the Haitian diaspora who practice Voudou, a home country religion, are now at the beginning of an annual, month-long celebration of Fet Gede or Fête Guédé. Starting November 1, Fet Gede dedicates 30 days to ancestral veneration.

Fet Gede, meaning festival of the sacred ancestors, honors ancestors those seen as elevated or strong so that “their protection is gained for the coming year,” explains Hatian Americna blogger, Wanda Tima, who created L’Union Suite as a way to find out more about Haitian culture and identity

“It is one of the most important celebrations of the Voudou religious calendar,” Tima explains.

Fet Gede at Socrates Park shows how Voudou practitioners celebrate the Haitian festival.

Added to honoring the ancestors is recognizing the lwa or loa, spirits, whether of human or of divine origin they are believed to be created by God to assist humans in daily living experiences. Similar to the Aztecan pantheon of female and male gods, and the list of ordained Catholic saints, the Lwa are a collective of gods.

In Haiti, the largest procession is at the Grand Cimetière, or Grand Cemetery where burial sites are adorned by descendants and rituals are performed. In New York, Voudouisans took their celebration to a Socrates Park rather than perform public rituals at burial sites

While Voudou has received ongoing negative narratives from the West, it is the only fully maintained West African religion to survive slavery. “Vodou is widely held to be a primary source of strength that enabled the African slaves in Haiti to revolt, and eventually become the first Black republic in the world,” says photographer Christopher L. Mitchell wrote about his experience in Haiti during Fet Gede in his series, Kreyol Chronicles in Large Up

“At Fet Gede in Gonaïves, you get to see this really old practice still being relevant, and that’s a beautiful thing to be able to document,” Mitchell explains.

Kaia Niambi Shivers covers news, diaspora and oversees the Ark Weekender.

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