Pandemic Death Narratives of Mexico and the United States
By Rafael LuévanoMarch 11, 2021
Waves of European disease plagued Mexico for the next 20 years. Measles arrived in the 1530s, followed by scourges of other foreign diseases. Susceptible indigenous people never stood a chance. Although accurate numbers are almost impossible to come by, as Mexican American feminist Gloria Anzaldúa estimates, of the 25 million who were thriving prior to the Spaniards’ arrival, only 1.5 million pure-blooded indigenous people remained a century later. All told, scholars estimate that between 37 and 56 million indigenous people died in North, Central, and South America during what came to be known as “the Great Dying.”
The suffering cried for tangible expression. And indigenous peoples’ death rituals — which have evolved into what we know today as día de los muertos (Day of the Dead) — proved a worthy and enduring celebration. Europeans brought the Dance of Death, a jocular and pagan response to the Black Plague outbreaks, and All Souls’ Day, a Catholic solemnity that offers supplication for the faithful departed. Missionaries who were zealous for converts mingled the three into a colorful pageant of skeletons.
As the current coronavirus pandemic took hold, the Mexican government was torn between saving lives and salvaging its economy, which was already in recession. Consequently, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) dragged his feet, hesitant to enact lockdown measures on the large informal sector (an estimated 60 percent of the economy), made up of fragile businesses, street venders, food stands, and open markets. In the first six months of 2020, the Mexican economy declined by 10.5 percent with an estimated job loss of 922,000 — jobs not expected to return — wiping out a decade of economic growth. Still, AMLO has stubbornly refused to consider any economic stimulus to private sectors.
The Mexican government has also thwarted accurate information. In early December 2020, the contagion reached critical levels in Mexico City. Yet government officials misinformed the public about this danger, and a lockdown was not implemented until the third week of December. Such mismanagement further eroded public trust in the government. COVID-19 cases have overwhelmed the Mexican health-care system, which was predicted to collapse from strain in January 2021. As of this writing in mid-December, there had been at least 1,313,600 confirmed coronavirus cases in Mexico with a death toll of 117,876, though it is understood that hundreds and more likely thousands of additional cases and deaths remain unreported.
In 2020, the COVID-19 victims joined the spirits of those millions who died in the 16th-century pandemics on día de los muertos, though public celebrations could not be held. Whether or not public celebration can resume this year, the next Mexican ceremonial season of death will begin on October 26, 2021, and end on All Souls’ Day on November 2. Then residents will construct colorful altars dedicated to their beloved dead. These altars traditionally feature images of the departed, their favorite foods and libations, ornamented sugar skulls, “dead bread,” trinkets and mementos, and a multitude of candles, along with blankets of marigolds. In some regions, such as Oaxaca, nightly parades blast with trumpets, and locals perform regional cultural dances. Revelers coat their faces with greasepaint death caricatures to jest mortality. Tequila and tears loosen the mourning passion, the lyricism of tributes, and the fervor of the faithful’s prayers. In these celebratory narratives, Mexicans encounter meaning and acceptance, transcendence over life’s suffering, and perhaps even some relief from the fear of death’s future sting, and in this way día de los muertos becomes a rehearsal for death. These ritualized narrative celebrations also help participants recall, understand, and endure past and present anguish.
Día de los muertos is also a way to keep the dead alive because, for Mexicans, one is never really dead until they are forgotten. And this helps to fuel one of Mexico’s most gut obsessions: the preservation of its past. Darkness and tragedy are not so much to be neglected but rather indulged with tequila and mariachi choruses, vehicles that link Mexico’s past epic death events with present-day death laments — from the thousands who have died from narco-related violence to the many more who have either succumbed to poverty in Mexico or perished on their migrant journey north.
Death culture evolved in the Mexican consciousness long before COVID-19, and its representations are everywhere. José Guadalupe Posada created sardonic lithographs of Mexican skeleton characters lampooning Mexican politics in the 19th century, and Diego Rivera’s paintings thrust death icons into fine art salons. Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo (1955), a literary journey to his mother’s hometown of ghosts, not only changed Mexican literature but also presaged magical realism. Most recently, the Disney film Coco emerged as the most popular film in Mexican history and introduced the death celebration to a global audience.
Yet no one has been more influential in the Mexican death narrative than essayist and poet Octavio Paz. The 1990 Nobel laureate identified, justified, romanticized, and spiritualized the death fixation into a state of celebratory otherworldliness. His words gave every Mexican permission to believe, articulate, own, be proud of, and so go out and live this national death canon. The Mexican, he wrote,
is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.
Paz’s characterization of “Mexican death” also embodies the traditional Mexican machismo: “If they are going to kill me tomorrow, let them kill me right away.” Just as Uncle Sam represents the United States, the death skeleton and skull have become Mexico’s national icon. Anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz has argued in his Death and the Idea of Mexico that “the skeleton is so pervasive in Mexican popular culture that it deserves to be recognized as ‘Mexico’s national totem.’”
These death rituals are constantly refashioned to contemporary events. Returning late from a raucous Oaxacan día de los muertos parade, I happened upon a quiet placita with the loveliest of memorial altars. Encircling a planter were neat rows of luminaria, brown paper bags, each with a flickering votive candle inside. In the tree above was a makeshift cardboard sign that read, “En memoría de los 129 mígrantes Qaxaquenos que murieron en el 2015 en busca del ‘Sueño Amerícano.’ (In memory of the 129 Oaxacan migrants who died in 2015 in search of the ‘American Dream.’)” Alone now in this ancient place alive with recently departed spirits, I prayed wordlessly, not wanting to disturb the silence of the dead.
In the last three decades, Mexico has been devastated by narco-violence and a rising death toll, transferring Mexico’s death obsession from the ritualized merriment of día de los muertos to the bloody city street battles and rampant murders in its outlying regions. Now that the narco-industry permeates nearly every level of the Mexican way of life, what is a narco-related death and what is not has become sometimes impossible to determine. Amid this funerary blur, Mexico’s 2019 National Public Security System reported 34,500 homicides, setting the record high. Since 2007, there have been an estimated 73,000 disappeared persons, with 9,000 of those persons disappeared in the first year of AMLO’s presidency. Alarm resounds throughout Mexico as bloodbaths increase and the discovery of mass graves proliferates. Father Alejandro Solalinde, a Roman Catholic priest and human rights activist, once whispered to me, “All of Mexico is a graveyard, all the way from the southern to the northern borders.” The narco-industry killing machine stalks the entire nation, as deaths now prevail not only in the Mexican consciousness but also in the quotidian of narco-violence.
From this milieu rises the macabre Santa Muerte (Saint Death or Holy Death) as another present-day manifestation of Mexican death. She reigns as a cowled and scythe-wielding skeleton, a death effigy who looks very much like a female rendition of the grim reaper. Her seduction began sometime in the mid-20th century as an object of devotion for the fringe, like gritty street evildoers and narco-traffickers. Though condemned by the Catholic Church, this folk saint has become a cultic phenomenon with a following of millions, not only in Mexico but also around the world. What is Santa Muerte’s allure? Ask what you may of Santa Muerte, and she will intervene: for instance, a good narco run across the US-Mexico border, the revengeful death of a rival or enemy, healing of a physical malady, and even newfound affection from a once unrequited love. Santa Muerte makes no distinction between good and evil, thus her attractiveness to the underworld community and rank as the patroness of narco-traffickers. What Santa Muerte does demand is fidelity; once you petition a favor from her, you must remain faithful or suffer her eventual revenge. Indeed, the cadaverous Santa Muerte has proven worthy fodder for Mexicans’ death fervor. Her devotional shrine is located in the infamous Tepito District of Mexico City.
Mexican preoccupation with death makes it particularly curious that in 2020, not even the coronavirus furiously spreading in the global community could seemingly awaken AMLO’s and Mexico’s consciousness. In mid-March, AMLO dismissed the health crisis. As he waded through crowds kissing children and embracing supporters during a rally, he smiled and said, “Pandemics […] won’t do anything to us.” AMLO accused the media of exaggerating the situation. “These are my bodyguards,” he boasted, showing off his good-luck charms, which included a Catholic scapular and a US $2 bill. That day, even as the peso tanked and the threat of a global economic crisis loomed, AMLO remained defiantly aloof. Mexico’s nearly 130 million people reflected his inattention, packing sporting events and mariachi concerts. Finally, toward the end of March, the Mexican president began making cautionary recommendations, though with blunted conviction. He encouraged residents to continue normal life. “Don’t stop going out,” he said. “If you can afford it, keep taking your family out to eat. It strengthens the economy.” On January 24, 2021, AMLO announced that he had contracted the virus; the next day he posted a smiling photo of himself carrying on with his presidential business.
What can we make of AMLO’s response? Was the virus threat just another death wave to besiege Mexico and be endured? Or was AMLO’s aloof reaction some political ploy to quiet fears and salvage what he could of Mexico’s threatened economy? I believe AMLO’s public display reveals something about the workings of the Mexican mindset as well as a far more penetrating reflection of its preoccupation with death — something that cannot be dismissed as either doe-eyed panic or indecision.
Behind AMLO’s allusion to lucky-charm safety, I see both an instinctive Mexican spit-in-your-eye defiance and a surly expression of Mexican machismo, “If I get it, I get it.” This attitude is not naïve resignation to one’s fate. Rather, for Mexicans, it is better to raise one’s head and die proud, with one’s boots on and dignity intact, than to succumb to defeat — humiliation would be a fate far worse than death. When faced with insurmountable odds, self-respect and self-possession forge a shield of self-worth. After centuries of living in a society born of disease, colonialism, violation, and oppression — along with present-day abuses and bloodshed — dignity is nearly the last possession that Mexicans struggle to preserve. The other is a raw survival instinct that compels Mexicans to always endure.
All of this leaves one to reconsider the inner workings of Mexicans’ traditional defiant disposition. Does Mexico’s death narrative function as sublimation, that is, as a means of channeling rather than facing death? In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud noted that “[s]ublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development. […] [C]ivilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct.” As the current pandemic descended on Mexico, the voices of the tens of millions who perished in the Great Dying so oddly hushed into the great silence of 2020.
Mexico rose from an international act of rape. As Paz wrote: “The Chingada is the Mother forcibly opened, violated or deceived. The hijo de la Chingada is the offspring of violation, abduction or deceit. […] To the Mexican it consists in being the fruit of a violation” — as in rape.
A further complicated twist is at play: although Mexicans might point fingers at the historical Spaniards who created them, they can no longer point to a single culprit. Mexico’s violation has been disseminated within its own people and culture by blood mixing. Conquerors and the conquered were joined and rejoined into a new race of people with a mestizo identity.
How does a people forged in violation come to terms with past abuses that have long since joined assailant and victim in blood? How do the children of rape deal with those who begot them — and then become them? How are the perpetrators and victims identified, forgiven, and reconciled when they now share the same blood and identity? Perhaps these matters are too complicated to ponder, too historically distant, and altogether too convoluted to deserve attention. Or, in other words, denied. But herein lies the source of Mexicans’ present-day death narrative. Incestual guilt intertwines with death to create both explosive celebrations and submersed angst of the seismic push and pull.
The mestizo “fruit” is also a fount of fecundity and the basis upon which the Mexican life-saving narrative rises. The historical and cultural encounter between the Spanish and indigenous populations of what is now Latin America — and specifically Mexico — represents one of the most significant and enduring collisions between two peoples and cultures previously unknown to one another. Although they bore the psychic scars of their forebears, the bastard children of Moctezuma, the defeated Aztec ruler of Tenochtitlán, and Hernán Cortés, the Spanish tyrant-conquistador, also coalesced to create an unprecedented life-giving mix of blood. This blend of men and women has become nothing less than a celebration of polyculturalism and polyhumanism, and on a massive human level. Therefore, the evolution of what I have come to call Mestizox, as a new people, signified not only a turning point for Mexico but also a prophetic future for civilizations around the world.
Mestizox is the life narrative. Anzaldúa’s enduring voice lauded the mestiza: “She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode — nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else.” The character traits amalgamated in the Mestizox endowed a will to live that fostered a survival ethos based in flexibility. In a related achievement, Mexico has folded and refolded the histories of its many peoples into a collective narrative. Día de los muertos manifests this cultural, religious, and spiritual syncretism as a thread in the complex weave of the Mexican people’s evolution and their abounding culture.
Compared with Mexico’s fixations, ongoing US expansion has been grounded in a distinguishing national attribute: looking to the future — or looking to the next frontier, as Greg Grandin recently noted in The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. The future holds a cleansing optimism, suggests a life-affirming achievement, and implies certain domination and power. At its narrative best, the United States has emerged as the new Garden of Eden, a prelapsarian realm of limitless dreams that hard work can always make true. This vision has rendered the United States a so-called land of success, elevated its people to global inspirational status, and created a nation of dominant world power.
Yet the United States, like Mexico, also arose from the bloody ground of both pandemic and indigenous bloodshed. To overlook this violence, along with the systematic stealing of resources, particularly land, and to solely blame disease is to deny the genocide that the United States committed against its indigenous peoples. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, comments on the vast reduction of indigenous people. She writes that presently,
there are more than five hundred federally recognized Indigenous communities and nations, comprising nearly three million people in the United States. These are the descendants of the fifteen million original inhabitants of this land, the majority of whom were farmers who lived in towns.
Four hundred years later, we are still at one-fifth of the original numbers. Americans have denied this mass death event that foretold the present-day society. Compared with Mexico, the national memory of these deceased Native American souls has vanished with the bodies that littered the landscape in the wake of both pandemics and war. There are no mainstream nationwide celebrations like día de los muertos to echo the United States’s lost indigenous peoples or carry on their traditional death rites. Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “The absence of even the slightest note of regret or tragedy in the annual celebration of the US independence betrays a deep disconnect.”
There is another key factor that may explain the divergent pandemic responses. Native and European blood did not intermingle in the United States so far as to establish a new race of people as it did in Mexico. In the United States, Native Americans were segregated by corralling them onto reservations — rather than assimilated. Mexico’s far more widespread indigenous presence serves as a continuing reminder of its true origins, but US historical narratives have denied the histories of these peoples along with formerly enslaved African Americans and other minorities. The United States’s death narrative is a plot line of racist violence that is easily, purposely forgotten by mainstream America. To live with it in plain view would shatter both the American life narrative and its sublimation of death.
In late spring 2020, George Floyd’s cry for breath infused unexpected life into a populace already shaken by the pandemic. A newfound momentum demanded police reform and removal of offensive monuments. Whether such idealism can reform long-standing attitudes and institutions has yet to be seen. However, the veiled indigenous life forces have now been unleashed in the United States.
Contrasting these death enchantments in the collective psyche reveals more about the COVID-19 responses than any “fact.” In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud reminded us that, when referring to the vital processes of Eros and the death instinct of Thanatos, “the two kinds of instinct seldom — perhaps never — appear in isolation from each other, but are alloyed with each other in varying and very different proportions and so become unrecognizable to our judgment.” Paz believed that Mexico and the United States were two distinct versions of European civilization reincarnated in North America. Those civilizations also both brought lethal diseases to the so-called New World, which spread into pandemics that decimated millions and weakened the rest, clearing a path for European conquest.
Given their parallel paths, it would seem that the New World’s re-creations would also enjoy analogous evolutions of national consciousness. Yet this has not been so, and in many ways, Mexico and the United States remain unintelligible strangers to each other. Now as both nations battle the same virus, one might assume that fighting a common enemy might bring Mexico and the United States closer together in joint efforts. This also has not happened. In the face of the pandemic, authentic American narratives are unveiled. Or, as American investor and business tycoon Warren Buffet famously said about the stock market: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” The sickened groans of Mexico and the United States are sublimations of remembering, forgetting, and constantly inventing national narratives. These are the collective cries of our shared humanity.
Rafael Luévano, scholar and theologian, is completing a collection of essays for a book titled Cuentos y Gritos/Stories and Cries from the US-Mexico Borderland.
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