Thursday, December 31, 2009

Full moon: Moon of the Old Year

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----------Luna del año viejo


Visten casullas de invierno
los árboles, sacerdotes demacrados
por demasiado ayuno y penitencia,
alzan los brazos de sus ramas
y entre sus dedos delicados
elevan la hostia de la luna plena
----------fina y redonda
para celebrar la misa del año viejo.




----------© Rafael Jesús González 2009


(La musa lunática/The Lunatic Muse; Rafael Jesús González;
Pandemonium Press, Berkeley, CA. 2009;
derechos reservados del autor)





Luna azul* al fin del año

---------------------------------------------------- para Starhawk, hermana de corazón

Esta última noche del año, la última luna llena es azul. Por que azul no lo sé pues su luz no es más teñida de azul que la de otras lunas. Azul también se le llama al humor melancólico, a la tristeza que inspira a esa forma del canto Afro-Americana llamada blues, lamentos salvos de desesperación sólo por su belleza. Pues tal vez azul es la nota justa con que terminar un año cuyas esperanzas no se realizaron, abrir el décimo año de un siglo que empezó mal.

No es necesario alistar los muchos modos en que es herida la Tierra, sus cuatro elementos sagrados blasfemados y envenenados por el descuido y la codicia. No es necesario nombrar los lugares en todos los continentes donde arden las guerras, donde la injusticia es institución y costumbre, el sufrir innecesario corolario de las perversidades que llamamos codicia, hambre del poder, prejuicio, odio, temor al otro, falta de compasión más veces que menos sostenida por interpretaciones fundamentalistas de nuestros mitos, religiosos y seculares, a las que nos aferramos con credulidad ciega que erróneamente llamamos “fe”. No es necesario dar las muchas razones para sentirse uno triste.

Pero la luz del bendito Sol que la luna refleja no es azul sino blanca. Solamente cuando se quiebra a través de los prismas en mi ventana es azul - y todos los otros colores que celebran la inefable singularidad de todo lo que hace a la Tierra. Hay regocijo en esta multiplicidad de color, el regocijo que manifiesta nuestra habilidad de amar, la habilidad más grande de todas habilidades dignas de tenerse, la mayor parte de las otras falsas, perversiones de Eros de quien viene la vida y todo lo que es sagrado en ella. Azul será la luna esta noche y el año que acaba pero resuelvo otra vez tomar la bandera arco-iris colgada en mi ventana y seguir en marcha en la lucha por la justicia sin la cual no puede haber paz y por la Tierra sin la cual para nosotros no puede haber nada.

Venir, hagamos regocijo juntos - y justicia y paz y sanar; que crezca nuestra habilidad de amar y que la luna bendiga nuestros sueños.


© Rafael Jesús González 2009


*Se le llama a la segunda luna llena del mes.








---------Moon of the Old Year


Wearing chasubles of winter,
the trees, priests emaciated
by too much fast & penance,
lift the arms of their branches
and in their delicate fingers
raise the host of the full moon
----------thin and round
to celebrate the mass of the old year.




-----------© Rafael Jesús González 2009


(La musa lunática/The Lunatic Muse; Rafael Jesús González;
Pandemonium Press, Berkeley, CA. 2009;
author's copyrights)





Blue Moon at Year's End

---------------------------------------------------- for Starhawk, heart-sister


The last night of the year, the last full moon is blue. Why blue, I do not know, for its light is no more tinged with blue than any other moon's. Blue, too, is called a melancholic mood, the sadness that inspires that Afro-American song form called the blues, laments saved from despair only by their beauty. So perhaps blue is the right note with which to end a year whose hopes were not realized, to open the tenth year of a century that began badly.

No need to list the many ways in which the Earth is wounded, her four sacred elements blasphemed and poisoned by carelessness and greed. No need to name the places on every continent where wars rage, where injustice is an institution and custom, unnecessary suffering a corollary of the perversities we call greed, lust for power, prejudice, hatred, fear of the other, lack of compassion more often than not bolstered by fundamentalist interpretations of our myths, religious and secular, to which we hold with blind credulity we mistakenly call “faith”. No need to give the many reasons to feel blue.

But the light of the holy Sun the moon reflects is not blue but white. Only when it breaks through the prisms in my window is it blue - and all the other colors that celebrate the ineffable uniqueness of all that makes the Earth. There is joy in this multiplicity of color, the joy that manifests our power to love, the power above all powers worth having, most others spurious, perversions of Eros from which life comes and all that is sacred in it. Blue may be the moon tonight and the year that ends, but I resolve again to take up the rainbow flag of peace hanging in my window and to march on in the struggle for justice without which there can be no peace and for the Earth without which for us there can be nothing.

Come, let us make joy together - and justice and peace and healing; may our power to love grow, and may the moon bless our dreams.



© Rafael Jesús González 2009
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Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

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-

Luna navideña


La nochebuena en el desierto es repleta de estrellas recién pulidas pero ninguna luce tan ostentosa como la luna que acaricia el lomo de la montaña extendida como lagartijo dormido. Al costado, la montaña luce su propia estrella de luces eléctricas como joya de alguna orden masónica. A esta frontera donde casi se encuentran las puntas de la colas de la Sierra Madre al sur y la Sierra Rocosa al norte se le llama El Paso del Norte por donde se han colado por los siglos comerciantes del imperio mexica, conquistadores gachupines asándose en sus yelmos y corazas de acero, gringos aventureros, y refugiados de las dictaduras y del hambre. Ha sido puerta y puerto de peregrinos, de pobres en busca de albergo, de abrigo, de refugio, de trabajo.

En noche buena en otros tiempos se llevaban a cabo las posadas a tiempo para la misa de gallo en la catedral. Han llegado los santos peregrinos y nace el niño de la luz. Aleluya, aleluya, aleluya — y paz en la Tierra.

Pero no es sólo en esta noche que el Río Bravo y la montaña, la luna y las estrellas ven llegar a José (y Pedro y Pablo y Juan) y a María (y Chayo y Rosa y Carmen) y ven, en pesebre o no, nacer a Jesús (y Lupe, Arturo y Susana, Francisco y Cecilia) todos niños de luz. Pero aun no hay paz en la Tierra.

Para estas noches, desde que yo era niño, en la Plaza de San Jacinto (o de los lagartos) se ha decorado un árbol navideño gigante lleno de luces (y, a mi niñez, de maravillas) con una estrella encendida en la punta. Arriba, las estrellas del cielo están muy lejos y, aunque enormes más allá de la imaginación, aparecen muy pequeñas a la vista. Pastores o no, nadie espera que nos canten los ángeles y si fuéramos sabios nos contentaríamos con nuestra humilde luna, espejo de nuestra propia estrella el bendito Sol, lo bastante asombroso aunque chico entre estrellas, y nos daríamos cuenta de que la paz en la Tierra no nos llegará de los cielos sino de nosotros mismos, hechos todos de polvo de estrella.


© Rafael Jesús González 2009


(riverbabble, número 12 inverno 2008;
en
La musa lunática/The Lunatic Muse;
Pandemonium Press, Berkeley 2009;
derechos reservados del autor.)





Christmas Moon

Christmas eve in the desert is full of recently polished stars but none shines so brightly as the moon that caresses the back of the mountain stretched like a lizard asleep. On its side, the mountain wears its own star of electric lights like a jewel of some Masonic order. This border where the tips of the tails of the Sierra Madre to the south and the Rocky Mountains to the north almost meet is called El Paso del Norte (Pass of the North) through which have filtered merchants of the Mexica empire, Spanish conquistadores roasting in their helmets and breastplates of steel, gringo adventurers, and refugees from dictatorships and hunger. It has been the
door and port of pilgrims, of the poor in search of lodging, of shelter, of refuge, of work.

On Christmas eve in other times the posadas came to their close in time for midnight mass at the cathedral. The holy pilgrims have arrived and the child of light is born. Halleluiah, halleluiah, halleluiah — and peace on Earth.

But it is not only on this night that the Río Grande and the mountain, the moon and the stars see José (and Pedro and Pablo and Juan) and María (and Chayo and Rosa and Carmen) come, and see, in a stable or not, Jesús (and Lupe, Arturo and Susana, Francisco and Cecilia) born, all children of Light. But even so, there is no peace on Earth.

For these nights, since I was a child, in San Jacinto (or Alligator) Plaza has been decorated a giant Christmas tree full of lights (and, to my childishness, marvels) with a star lit at its tip. Above, the stars of the heavens are very far away and, though enormous beyond imagining, appear very small to the sight. Shepherds or not, no one expects the angels to sing to us, and were we wise we would content ourselves with our humble moon, mirror of our own star the holy Sun, awesome enough though small as stars go, and we would realize that peace on Earth will not come to us from the heavens but from ourselves, all made from the dust of stars.


© Rafael Jesús González 2009


(riverbabble, issue 12 winter 2008;
in
La musa lunática/The Lunatic Muse;
Pandemonium Press, Berkeley 2009;
author's copyrights.)

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice & Capricorn

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Winter Solstice & Capricorn


-


------Capricornio

La cabra, piel hirsuta,
---cuernos de turquesa,
---ojos de granate,
---pesuñas de plomo,
se arrodilla a Saturno,
planeta de sortijas,
en la noche larga
----y persevera, dura
----en su anhelo de cornear
el punto cardinal de la tierra.



----------© Rafael Jesús González 2009



------Capricorn

The goat, hirsute hide,
-----horns of turquoise
-----garnet eyes,
-----hoofs of lead,
kneels to Saturn,
planet of rings,
in the long night
---& perseveres, persists
---in his desire to gore
the cardinal point of the earth.




----------© Rafael Jesús González 2009
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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe

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-

------Rezo a Tonantzin


Tonantzin
---madre de todo
---lo que de ti vive,
es, habita, mora, está;
Madre de todos los dioses
------------------las diosas
madre de todos nosotros,
-------la nube y el mar
-------la arena y el monte
-------el musgo y el árbol
-------el ácaro y la ballena.

Derramando flores
haz de mi manto un recuerdo
que jamás olvidemos que tú eres
único paraíso de nuestro vivir.

Bendita eres,
cuna de la vida, fosa de la muerte,
fuente del deleite, piedra del sufrir.

concédenos, madre, justicia,
--------concédenos, madre, la paz.




---------© Rafael Jesús González 2009



anonymous, Mexico 1746


----Prayer to Tonantzin


Tonantzin
-----mother of all
-----that of you lives,
be, dwells, inhabits, is;
Mother of all the gods
---------------the goddesses
Mother of us all,
---------the cloud & the sea
---------the sand & the mountain
---------the moss & the tree
---------the mite & the whale.

Spilling flowers
make of my cloak a reminder
that we never forget that you are
the only paradise of our living.

Blessed are you,
cradle of life, grave of death,
fount of delight, rock of pain.

Grant us, mother, justice,
-------grant us, mother, peace.



--------© Rafael Jesús González 2009



by Robert Lentz
-

-
-

Monday, December 7, 2009

Earth from space

-

Luna en el espacio


Hojeando un libro de fotografías tomadas desde el espacio, volteo a las imágenes de la Luna. Yo que soy del desierto jamás he visto un desierto tan yermo, de tan uniforme un gris-blanco. Nuestra única parentela que constituye la Luna son nuestros hermanos los minerales, nuestras hermanas las piedras; pero ¿donde está el hierro que le diera una sugestión de sonroseado a esos cráteres precipitosos, el cobre que le diera un toque de azul-verde a esos mares vastos y áridos, el azufre que le diera un tinte de amarillo a esos llanos desolados, ese desierto de fantasía color de ceniza?

Aun los trajes de los buceadores del espacio son del mismo gris plateado mientras caminan laboriosamente sobre el suelo virgen dejando sus rastros incoloros, la única pizca de color el rojo y el azul en el retazo de tela que llevan para reclamar en nombre de su secta ese territorio gris de la Luna.

Volteando la página me asombra la imagen de una salida de la Tierra sobre el horizonte curvo de la Luna, una gran joya de turquesa y jade, lapislázuli, perla, cornerina redondeada en su rodar por las corrientes del espacio. La Himalaya, los Andes aplanados, los continentes borrados por el velo delicado de la atmósfera terrestre, no hay fronteras. Es de una pieza y es muy pequeña, muy frágil contra la totalidad del negro terciopelo.

No se oye el estruendo de las guerras que arden en la Tierra, los gritos de los heridos, de las madres desoladas. Ni el clamor, los cantos de las bodas y los carnavales. Son solamente nuestros. Nuestro es el herir de la Tierra. La luna no tiene agua para lágrimas.

Cerrando el libro, volteo a la Luna plena en mi ventana. Es más bella desde esta distancia, pienso, y suya es la belleza de los espejos, una belleza decidida por la luz que reflejan. Alumbra la noche con su faz desolada y es amada porque es testigo. Pobre Luna, allí no hay arcos iris; su grandísima ansia perturba todo lo que contiene agua en la tierra y en gran medida la amamos por la inquietud que nos causa en la sangre.



© Rafael Jesús González 2009


(riverbabble, no. 6 invierno 2005;
en La musa lunática/The Lunatic Muse,
Rafael Jesús González, Pandemonium Press,
Berkeley 2009; derechos reservados del autor.)



[El 7 de diciembre de 1972, unos hombres abordo de la nave espacial Apolo 17, tomaron una fotografía, una imagen que cambiaría profundamente nuestro sentido del planeta natal nuestro que llamamos la Tierra aunque en Noche buena de 1968 ya se habían tomado fotografías de la Tierra desde la Luna. Esta imagen despertó una nueva consciencia (nueva para muchos aunque ya algunas culturas, ya algunos de nosotros lo sabíamos) está por brotar. El viejo modo de pensar está en bancarrota y ahora es nuestro momento de verdad: o despertamos y vivimos o encadenados a mitos ya exhaustos, herimos gravemente a nuestra madre que nos amamanta y perecemos.]






Moon in Space


Leafing through a book of photographs taken from space, I turn to the pictures of the Moon. I who am from the desert have never seen images of a desert so stark, of so uniform a gray-white. Our only relations that make up the Moon are our brothers the minerals, our sisters the stones; but, where is the iron to give a hint of a blush to those precipitous craters, the copper to give a touch of blue-green to those vast and arid seas, the sulfur to give a tinge of yellow to those desolate plains, that fantasy desert the color of ash?

Even the suits of the space-divers are of that same silver-gray as they trudge on the virgin ground leaving their colorless tracks, the only speck of color the red and the blue on the little remnant of cloth they carry to stake claim for their sect to that gray territory of the moon.

Turning the page I am astounded by an image of an Earth-rise over the curved horizon of the Moon, a great gem of turquoise and jade, lapis lazuli, pearl, carnelian, rounded in its tumbling in the currents of space. The Himalayas, the Andes flattened, the continents blurred by the delicate veil of the terrestrial atmosphere, there are no borders. It is a whole and it is very small, very fragile against the total velvet-black.

The sounds of the wars that rage on the Earth are not heard, the cries of the wounded, of the mothers bereft. Nor are the shouts, the songs of weddings and carnivals. Those are only ours. Ours is the wounding of the Earth. The moon has no water for tears.

Closing the book, I look up to the full Moon in my window. She is more beautiful from this distance, I think, and hers is the beauty of mirrors, a beauty determined by the light they reflect. She lights the night with her desolate face and is loved because she is witness. Poor Moon, there are no rainbows there; her huge longing disturbs all that holds water on the Earth, and we love her in great measure for the disquiet she causes in our blood.


© Rafael Jesús González 2009


(riverbabble, issue 6 Winter 2005;
in La musa lunática/The Lunatic Muse,
Rafael Jesús González, Pandemonium Press,
Berkeley 2009; author's copyrights)


[December 7, 1972, some men aboard the space-ship Apollo 17 took a photograph, an image that would profoundly change our sense of our natal planet which we call the Earth although on Christmas Eve 1968 photographs of the Earth from the Moon had already been taken. This image awoke a new consciousness (new for many although some cultures, some of us already knew) is about to sprout. The old way of thinking is bankrupt and now is our moment of truth: or we awake and live, or chained to now exhausted myths, we gravely wound our mother who suckles us and we die.]




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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Full moon: The Lunar Smile

-

------La sonrisa lunar


Es siempre sonriente
la cara de la luna plena.
¿Será que la divertimos
a la madrina indulgente?
------O ¿será solamente
------lunática su sonrisa?




-----© Rafael Jesús González 2009



Fue en una noche de luna plena de marzo 2003 que George W. Bush invadió a Irak. Es bajo la luna plena en diciembre 2009 que Barack Obama anuncia el despliegue de 30,000 tropas más en Afganistán.

Apareciera ser perversión y si la luna sigue sonriendo ha de ser indulgente hasta la locura.

Pero siendo solamente la piedra que es, su sonrisa lo más probable es que sea únicamente reflejo de nuestra propia locura.

Y aparentemente los presidentes de estos Estados Unidos, no importa el partido, son todos locos por la guerra.


R. J. G.





------The Lunar Smile


It is always smiling,
the face of the full moon.
Could it be we amuse her,
the indulgent godmother?
------Or is hers only
------a lunatic smile?




-----© Rafael Jesús González 2009



It was on a night of the full moon of March 2003 that George W. Bush invaded Iraq. It is under the full moon in December 2009 that Barack Obama announces the deployment of 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan.

It would appear to be a perversion and if the moon keeps on smiling, she must be indulgent to the point of madness.

But being merely the rock that she is, her smile is most probably but a reflection of our own lunacy.

And apparently the presidents of these United States, no matter the party, are all crazy for war.


R. J. G.
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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving

-

-----------------Grace


Thanks & blessing be
to the Sun & the Earth
for this bread & this wine,
----this fruit, this meat, this salt,
---------------this food;
thanks be & blessing to them
who prepare it, who serve it;
thanks & blessing to them
who share it
-----(& also the absent & the dead.)
Thanks & blessing to them who bring it
--------(may they not want),
to them who plant & tend it,
harvest & gather it
--------(may they not want);
thanks & blessing to them who work
--------& blessing to them who cannot;
may they not want — for their hunger
------sours the wine
----------& robs the salt of its taste.
Thanks be for the sustenance & strength
for our dance & the work of justice, of peace.




----------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2009


(The Montserrat Review, Issue 6, Spring 2003
[nominated for the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Award];
author’s copyrights.)







-------------Gracias


Gracias y benditos sean
el Sol y la Tierra
por este pan y este vino,
-----esta fruta, esta carne, esta sal,
----------------este alimento;
gracias y bendiciones
a quienes lo preparan, lo sirven;
gracias y bendiciones
a quienes lo comparten
(y también a los ausentes y a los difuntos.)
Gracias y bendiciones a quienes lo traen
--------(que no les falte),
a quienes lo siembran y cultivan,
lo cosechan y lo recogen
-------(que no les falte);
gracias y bendiciones a los que trabajan
-------y bendiciones a los que no puedan;
que no les falte — su hambre
-----hace agrio el vino
-----------y le roba el gusto a la sal.
Gracias por el sustento y la fuerza
para nuestro bailar y nuestra labor
--------por la justicia y la paz.



---------------© Rafael Jesús González 2009



(The Montserrat Review, no. 6, primavera 2003
[nombrado para el Premio de la Poesía por la Paz Hobblestock;
derechos reservados del autor.)




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--- -

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sagitarius

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-

-
------------Sagitario

El arquero apunta a Júpiter,
----planeta de tantas lunas,
cuya luz se refleja en sus ancas,
y en la punta de topacio de su saeta
brota la llama inconstante del anhelo.
------En cadena de estaño
------lleva pectoral de turquesa
------bruñida de ensueños
---------y apunta
-------------------y apunta
---------y anhela herir al cielo.



----------------© Rafael Jesús González 2009



-------------Sagittarius

The archer points at Jupiter,
-----planet of many moons
whose light reflects on his haunches,
& on the topaz point of his arrow
bursts the inconstant flame of his desire.
------On a chain of tin
------he wears a medallion of turquoise
------polished by dreams
---------& he points
----------------------& he points
------& desires to wound the sky.




----------------© Rafael Jesús González 2009
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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Georgia O'Keeffe (November 15, 1887 – March 6, 1986)

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-----The Hole In The Bone

------------(for Georgia O'Keefe
------------on her 90th birthday)



Some times we fall into the sky
-----through a hole in the bone
----------or drown in a flower
or fly high on a shingle or shell —
----- sometimes we see
----------& make a life of it
where there are hills
------------------------& sky
-------------------------------& bones
---------& hills
-----------------& sky
------------------------& bones
& it all holds
together with laughter.



------------© Rafael Jesús González 2009


(The Montserrat Review, Issue 3, Spring 2000;
author's copyrights)






-----------El hoyo en el hueso

------------------(para Georgia O'Keefe
-------------en su nonagésimo cumpleaños)



A veces caemos en el cielo
-----por un hoyo en el hueso
----------o nos ahogamos en una flor
o volamos alto en una concha o tajamanil —
-----algunas veces vemos
----------y de él hacemos una vida
donde hay lomas
---------------------y cielo
-----------------------------y huesos
----------y lomas
------------------- y cielos
-----------------------------y huesos
y todo adhiere
con riza.



------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2009



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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans' Day

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-


-Veterans Day

When the First World War officially ended June 28, 1919, the actual fighting had already stopped the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the previous year. Armistice Day, as it was known, later became a national holiday, and in 1954 (the year I graduated from high school), the name was changed to Veterans Day to honor all U.S. veterans of all wars.

The only veteran of that war, “the war to end all wars”, I ever knew was my father’s step-father Benjamín Armijo, from New Mexico, an old man who seldom spoke and whom I would on occasion see wearing his cap of The American Legion. (He was also Republican.)

“The war to end all wars” was anything but that and when I was not much more than five, three of my uncles on my mother’s side (Roberto, Armando, Enrique) went off to fight another war, the Second World War.

I missed my uncles and remembered them by their photos on my grandmother’s home altar, very handsome in their uniforms; in the endless rosaries and litanies the women in the family regularly met to pray; and in the three blue stars that hanged in the window.

My uncle Roberto, tío Beto, did not last his second year; he came home and ulcers and los nervios, nerves, were mentioned. My uncle Armando, tío Pana, in the Infantry division or the Cavalry Division (though not one horse was ever ridden into battle in that war), served in the Pacific Theater, and Guadalcanal is a name that in some way sticks in his history. My uncle Enrique, tío Kiki, the youngest, in the Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles,” served in the European Theater and parachuted into the taking of Germany.

After that war ended, they came home, tío Pana into a hospital, sick with malaria which affected him throughout the rest of his life; tío Kiki with a malady in the soul not so easily diagnosed, hidden in his quiet humor, gentle ways. All my uncles were gentle men, in all senses of the word. And Beto, Pana, Kiki spoke not at all about their experiences of war in spite of my curiosity and questions which they diverted with a little joke or change of subject. What they had seen, felt was apparently not to be spoken and the family sensed this and respected their reticence. Neither of them joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars that I ever knew.

The Korean War “broke out”, as they say, as if it were acne, not long after. But as for me, I have never fought in any war, though I joined the U. S. Navy upon graduating from El Paso High School to become a Hospital Corpsman and obtain the G.I. Bill with which to enter Pre-Med studies upon my discharge; two of four years in the Navy I spent in the Marine Corps with the rank of Staff Sergeant. The Korean War had already ended. And though I served closely enough to it to be given the Korea Defense Service Medal and am legally a veteran and eligible to join the VFW, I never did nor do I intend to.

If I consider myself veteran of any war, it would be of the Viet-Nam War, not because I fought in it, far from it, but because I struggled against it. (I counseled conscientious objectors, picketed recruiting offices, marched in the streets.) The war veterans I have most intimately known are from that war, many, if not most, wounded and ill in body (from bullets, shrapnel, agent-orange), wounded and ill in the soul (terror, guilt, shame, hatred putrefying their dreams, tainting their loves.)

I am leery of being asked to honor veterans of almost any war, except as I honor the suffering, the being of every man or woman who ever lived. I am sick of “patriotism” behind which so many scoundrels hide. I am sick of war that has stained almost every year of my life. Especially now, in the midst of yet another unjustified, immoral, illegal, untenable, cynical, cruel war our nation wages in Iraq, in Afghanistan. I am impatient with fools who ask whether I “support our troops.”

What does it mean to “support our troops”? What is a troop but a herd, a flock, a band? What is a troop but a group of actors whose duty it is not to reason why, but to do and die? In the years I served in the Navy and Marine Corps as a medic, I never took care of a troop; I took care of men who had been wounded and hurt, who cut themselves and bled, who suffered terrible blisters on their feet from long marches, who fell ill sick with high fevers. If to support means to carry the weight of, keep from falling, slipping, or sinking, give courage, faith, help, comfort, strengthen, provide for, bear, endure, tolerate, yes, I did, and do support all men and women unfortunate enough to go to war.

Troops, I do not. If to support means to give approval to, be in favor of, subscribe to, sanction, uphold, then I do not. The decision to make war was/is not theirs to make; troops are what those who make the decisions to war use (to kill and to be killed, to be brutalized into torturers) for their own ends, not for the sake of the men and woman who constitute the “troops.”

I honor veterans of war the only way in which I know how to honor: with compassion; with respect; with understanding for how they were/are used, misled, indoctrinated, coerced, wasted, hurt, abandoned; with tolerance for their beliefs and justifications; with efforts to see that their wounds, of body and of soul, are treated and healed, their suffering and sacrifice compensated. I never refuse requests for donations to any veterans’ organization that seeks benefits and services for veterans. I honor veterans, men and woman; not bands, not troops.

If you look to my window on this day, the flag you will see hanging there will be the rainbow flag of peace. It hangs there in honor of every veteran of any war of any time or place. Indoors, I will light a candle and burn sage, recommit myself to the struggle for justice and for peace. Such is the only way I know in which to honor the veterans of war, military or civilian.

Berkeley, November 11, 2007


© Rafael Jesús González 2009



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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cover to Cover/Open Book - KPFA 94.1 FM

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Cover to Cover/Open Book

Friday, November 6, 2009, 3:00 PM (PST),
KPFA 94.1 FM


Producer, Nina Serrano continues her Poet-to-Poet series. Friday, November 6 she interviews Rafael Jesús González, recently honored by the City of Berkeley for his poetry, scholarship and activism. González reads from his work and discusses his artistic evolution.

May also be heard then or any time on
http://www.kpfa.org/
on Cover to Cover/Open Book,
Friday,
November 6, 2009, 3:00 PM (PST)

Listen Live

Pasta a Pasta/Libro Abierto

viernes, 6 noviembre 2009, 3:00 PM, KPFA 94.1 FM

Directora, Nina Serrano continua su serie Poeta-a-Poeta. El viernes 6 de noviembre entrevistará a Rafael Jesús González, recientemente honrado por la Ciudad de Berkeley por su poesía, investigación y activismo. González leerá de su obra, español e inglés, y discutirá su evolución artística.

También se podrá escuchar entonces o cuando sea en
http://www.kpfa.org/
en Cover to Cover/Open Book,
viernes 6 de noviembre 2009, 3:00 PM
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Monday, November 2, 2009

Full moon: Moon of the Dead

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------------Luna de los muertos


La luz de la luna plena
en la ofrenda de la noche
atrae las mariposas nocturnas,
----las almas de los muertos
--------los luceros.
Vienen con sed y hambre,
buscan las flores amarillas del otoño.
Y piden cuenta de nosotros:
----¿Qué han hecho en voto a la vida?
¿Han, aun un poquito, menguado el sufrir?
¿Han cuidado de las aguas, de la tierra?
¿han cuidado los unos a los otros?

Agachamos la cabeza:
lo que sabemos de la virtud es por vosotros,
también lo que sabemos del pecado, del temor.
Pero no por eso somos menos culpables.
Les rendimos homenaje por la vida,
gracias por lo bueno que enseñaron,
----perdón por lo malo.
Y en el humo del copal van nuestras gracias,
----nuestras disculpas,
--------nuestras promesas para vivir mejor.

Y la luna que nos ha vigilado siempre,
----que ha sido víctima de nuestra locura,
madrina indulgente intercede por nosotros
----y suaviza la luz inexorable
--------de los luceros.



----------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2009








---------------------Moon of the Dead


The light of the full moon
on the altar of the night
attracts the night moths,
----souls of the dead
--------the stars.
They come with thirst & hunger,
they seek the yellow blooms of fall
& ask accounting of us:
----What have you done for the sake of life?
Have you, even a little, lessened suffering?
Have you cared for the waters, for the earth?
Have you cared one of the other?

We bow our heads:
what we know of virtue we have learned from you,
also what we know of sin, of fear.
But not for all of that, are we less failing.
We rend you homage for life,
thank you for the good you taught,
----forgiveness for the bad.
& in the smoke of the copal go our thanks,
----our promises to live better.

And the moon who has watched over us always,
----who has been the victim of our madness,
indulgent godmother intercedes for us
----& softens the inexorable light
--------of the stars.




----------------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2009




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Día de muertos (Feast of All Souls)

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--

--
--Consejo para el peregrino a Mictlan

------------------------(al modo Nahua)


Cruza el campo amarillo de cempoales,
baja al reino de las sombras;
es amplio, es estrecho.
Interroga a los ancianos;
son sabios, son necios:

— Señores míos, Señoras mías,
¿Qué verdad dicen sus flores, sus cantos?
¿Son verdaderamente bellas, ricas sus plumas?
¿No es el oro sólo excremento de los dioses?
Sus jades, ¿son los más finos, los más verdes?
Su legado, ¿es tinta negra, tinta roja? —

Acepta sólo lo preciso:

-----lo que te haga amplio el corazón
--------lo que te ilumine el rostro.



------------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2007




-----Advice for the Pilgrim to Mictlan

------------------- (in the Nahua mode)


Cross the yellow fields of marigolds,
descend to the realm of shadows;
it is wide, it is narrow.
Question the ancients;
they are wise, they are fools:

— My Lords, My Ladies,
What truth do your flowers, your songs tell?
Are your feathers truly lovely, truly rich?
Is not gold only the excrement of the gods?
Your jades, are they the finest, the most green?
Your legacy, is it black ink, red ink? —

Accept only the necessary:

-----what will widen your heart
----what will enlighten your face.



------------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2007




Descent to Mictlan, The Land of the Dead

(Trance Poem in the Nahua Mode)

[Descent to Mictlan, Land of the Dead: Trance Poem in the Nahua mode (commissioned by the Oakland Museum of California while the author was Poet in Residence under a Writers on Site award by Poets & Writers, Inc. and a grant from The James Irvine Foundation in 1996) was written as a performance piece for voice, drums, didgeridoos, and movement intended to guide the audience upon an introspective journey of the imagination down into the kingdom of Death.

It is not so much entertainment as it is ritual art which, with the consent of each person in the audience to give himself or herself to their imagination, would induce the heightened perception of trance to descend into our collective and personal past to examine the legacy of our ancestors. What they have given us, we have become. It may be read by the attentive reader in the same way.

The times demand that we take stock of who we are, for our great Mother the Earth is wounded and, to heal her, we must heal ourselves, learn from the wisdom of our forebears and discard their mistakes. And in return for what each brings back from the store house of the past, each must make a commitment, in good faith, to change and to heal ourselves; and to care for and protect the Earth, all that she bears, and each other in brotherhood and sisterhood of the spirit and of the flesh. It is a gift and a blessing. Any less and we risk our own extinction on the Earth.]




Cruzad el campo amarillo de cempoales.
Cross the yellow fields of marigolds.
Bajad al reino de las sombras — es amplio, es estrecho.
Descend to the realm of shadows — it is wide, it is narrow.

We come to the mouth of the cavern of caverns,
realm of Mictlantecuhtli, Mictlancihuatl,
Señor-Señora Muerte, Our Lord, Our Lady of Death —
It is wide, it is narrow;
pasad, enter this chamber of yellow blooms,
--------the cempoalxochitl, the shield flower,
------------flor de muertos, flower of the Dead.

We step, we walk;
-----we walk the sacred;
---------every step is sacred.
We walk in the tracks of our ancestors,
we step in the tracks of the old ones,
----our grandmothers, our grandfathers,
----the ancients:
--------the people of the drum
--------the people of the canoe
--------the people of the pyramids
--------the people of the spear
--------the people of the shuttle and loom
--------the people of the sickle and plow,
------------our ancient ones, all of the clans.
They taught us to see;
they taught us not to see;
-----from them we learned to see;
-----------we learned not to see.
They taught us to dream;
------they taught us to fear;
-----------much to learn, much to unlearn.
We step in their tracks, we step on the sacred.

We walk, we step in the tracks of our ancestors,
----our relations:
---------the ocelot
---------the buffalo
---------the coyote
---------the bear
---------the salmon, the serpent, the eagle, the hawk,
---------monkey, turtle, frog,
---------the owl and the bat.
Further, further we walk:
the spider, the moth, the fly, the coral, the mite,
ameba, paramecium, germ, virus - all of the clans.
They taught us to see, to live in the now,
------to smell, to taste,
------to hear, to live in the now.
We step in their tracks,
-----we walk on the sacred —
---------all our relations, all of the clans.

We walk, we step in the tracks of our ancestors,
our relations:
-----the fern, the redwood
-----the pine, the oak
-----the cactus, the mesquite
-----the violet, the rose
-----the fig, the grape-vine, the wheat
-----the corn, the thistle, the grass
-----the mushroom, the moss, the lichen, the algae,
-----the mold — all of the clans.
They taught us to touch, to fully delight in the here,
------to find contentment on the here.
We step in their tracks,
-----we walk on the sacred —
---------all our relations, all of the clans.

We walk, we step
-----in the tracks of our ancestors, our relations:
--------the granite, the sandstone
--------the jasper, the serpentine
--------the turquoise, the flint
--------the opal, the crystal
--------the agate, the jade
--------the gold, the iron
----the silver, the lead, the copper, the tin,
----boulder, pebble, sand, dust — all of the clans.
They taught us silence, quiet;
------they taught us to stay, to be.
We step in their track,
-----we walk on the sacred —
---------all our relations, all of the clans.

------It is dark; it is light —
here the roots of the Tree of Life,
------árbol de la vida, tree of Tamoanchan.
Look: wealth, treasure, our inheritance.
Look: teocuitatl, oro, gold, shit of the gods
-------chalchihuitl, jade, jade, the green stone
-------quetzalli, plumas, feathers, the precious things
-------xochitl, flores, the roots of flowers —
gifts and burdens,
------the useful, the hindering,
----------the dark medicine, the glittering poison.
Pick and choose: empowering joys there are,
--------------------useless sorrows there are;
needs true — clear and lovely as water
desires true — ruddy and joyous as wine;
--------needs false and deadly as arsenic
--------desires false and deadly as knives;
swords of jewels, plows muddied and dulled by stones;
--------dazzling powders, herbs rich in visions.
Choose and sort — it is not much you can carry.

Our ancestors, our relations make council; listen:

Much have our mothers, our fathers
-------our grandmothers, our grandfathers
-------our ancestors left us:
-----------gifts are there for our blessing
-----------debts are there for our curse.

Interroga a los ancianos — son sabios, son necios.
Question the ancients — they are wise, they are fools.

Señores míos, Señoras mías — my Lords, my Ladies,
---------¿Qué verdad dicen sus flores, sus cantos?
---------What truth do your flowers, your songs tell?
---------¿Són verdaderamente bellas, ricas sus plumas?
---------Are your feathers truly lovely, truly rich?
---------¿No es el oro sólo excremento de los dioses?
---------Is not gold only the excrement of the gods?
---------Sus jades, ¿son los más finos, los más verdes?
---------Your jades, are they the finest, the most green?
---------Su legado, ¿es tinta negra, tinta roja?
---------Your legacy, is it black ink, red ink?

They offer gifts, they give teachings:
------precious, worthless
------healing, dangerous —

sort, choose — choose the precious, the healing;
-----------------discard the worthless, the harmful;
------there is much to learn, there is much to unlearn.
Choose - each offers gifts, our ancestors, our relations —
---------human, animal, plant, mineral —
------------------they are us, our relations.
Choose and sort, sort and choose
---------these gifts are of the Earth, la Tierra
---------these gifts celebrate and nurture her
---------these gifts blaspheme and destroy her
---------------------These gifts are of the Earth.
Sort and choose, choose and sort.
-----The ancients are wise, the ancients are fools;
----------riches they gathered, garbage they hoarded.
Acepta sólo lo preciso; accept only the necessary:
--------lo que te haga amplio el corazón
--------what will widen your heart
--------lo que te ilumine el rostro
--------what will enlighten your face.
Pick and choose —
------hush —
--------------in silence sort and choose, sort and choose.

Hush —
----------Look carefully - have we chosen well?
the way back is hard, full of dread
----and much have our ancestors left us.
---------What of their gifts is worth the sharing?
----------------Consider well —
------------------------the gold and the jeweled sword
--------------------is not more than the work-dulled plow.
Consider, test your choice —
---------------------------------hush —
Tasks await us on the Earth for our healing, for hers —
-------difficult, great.
---------------Choose well for the journey, for the work.
hush —
---------remember:
----------------------joy is the root of our strength,
------------- the roots that feed us come from the heart
---------the science most wise disturbs least —

-----hush — hush — hush

So, we choose what we choose.
Remember: from these gifts we make our own;
--------------we add to the hoard.
-------Do not burden the children.
Do not carry so much we cannot hold each other’s hands.
----Remember: the most precious treasure
-----------------is that which we take for the giving.

We choose what we choose —
-----make ready — take up your bundle,
-----the seeds of our making - it is light, it is heavy;
-----precious are the bones of our ancestors;
-----leaving them buried makes them no less precious;
they are of the Earth, Madre Tierra, Coatlicue,
-----------------Pachi Mama, the Earth needs them.
------ehecatl, aire, air
------tletl, fuego, fire
------atl, agua, water
------tlalli, tierra, earth.

Make ready to leave the store house, the treasure;
walk round the cavern once as the clock turns
------from the East, red and gold with knowledge
------to the South yellow and green with love
------to the West black and blue with strength
------to the North white with healing.
You are now at the threshold — it is wide, it is narrow
-----------------------------------it is dark, it is light
-----------------------------------it is steep, it is plain.
Do not look back;
leave Mictlan, reino de la muerte, realm of the dead;
-------leave the cave of the ancients,
--------------the cave of our treasure;
------------------begin the way back.
What you bring back from the land of the dead,
-------from among the bones of the ancestors,
-------------is your gift to life.
---------------------Pray the gods you choose well.

Vuelve, vuelve, return.

It is your commitment,
-----the healing of yourself and the Earth.
What will you do?
-------How will you honor the ancestors?
-------------What will you say to the children?
--------------------What will you do for justice and peace?

Vuelve, vuelve, return.
Go, vete —
------------lleva la bendición de la vida;
------------------carry the blessing of life.
------------Go, vete —
form a face, form a heart.
forma un rostro, un corazón
in ixtli, in yollotl

Go, vete, go —
que los dioses te tengan, may the gods keep you.

In whatever you do, bendice la vida,
--------------pass on the blessing of life.

Vete y bendice la vida;
-----Go and pass on the blessing of life.

Vete, ha acabado; Go, the journey is finished —

Vete y empieza un día nuevo,
-----Go and begin a new day.

-----Vete, Go.



© Rafael Jesús González 2008


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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Feast of All Saints (to make an ofrenda)

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El corazón de la muerte ~ The Heart of Death

-------ofrenda a los difuntos --------------- offering to the dead

---------al modo nahua------- / --------------in the Nahua mode



---Le hacemos, formamos
---el corazón a la muerte —

---We make, we form
---the heart of death —


de flores
de flores amarillas,
del cempoalxochitl —


of flowers
of yellow flowers
of marigolds —





de agua
de agua clara,
consuelo de la sed —


of water
of clear water
comfort of thirst —





de pan
de maíz, de trigo
nuestro sustento —


of bread
of corn, of wheat
our sustenance —




de comida y bebida
de nuestro alimento
que da deleite al paladar —

of food & drink
of our nutrition
that gives the palate delight —




de luz
de luz que alumbra el camino
anhelo de mariposas
-------------------nocturnas —
of light
of light that shows the way
desire of night moths —



de calaveras de azúcar
de calaveras dulces
como la vida fugaz —

of sugar skulls
of candy skulls
sweet as fleeting life —




de copal, artemisa,
incienso, humo perfumado
que invoca a los dioses —

of copal, sage,
incense, perfumed smoke
that invokes the gods —






de flor y canto
de flor y canto le hacemos
el corazón a la muerte.


of flower & song
of flower & song we make
the heart of death.




-------------------------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2009
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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween

-
- - ---------Trick & Treat


Death at the door,
----or lurking among the leaves,
death itself is the inevitable trick;
the only treat worth the having,
----to love fearlessly,
------------------------and well.



-------© Rafael Jesús González 2009



(The Montserrat Review, Issue 7, Spring 2003;
author’s copyrights)

-----------Chasco y Regalo


La muerte a la puerta,
----o en emboscada entre la hojas,
la muerte misma es el chasco inevitable;
el único regalo que vale la pena,
-----amar sin temor,
------------------------y amar bien.




---------------© Rafael Jesús González 2009



Friday, October 30, 2009

Mexico's Día de Muertos through the centuries

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--
*-------*------*

Pre-Hispanic Mexico


Awed by the eternal cycle of life and death and the need of sacrifice to assure the continuation of life, ages before the Spaniards came to the Americas, the peoples of ancient Mexico, particularly the Nahuas, of which the Mexica (generally called Aztecs) formed a part, celebrated the dead in a great feast quite different from the one we know today. It began on August 8, by the European calendar, and they called it Micailhuitontli, Small Feast of the Dead, to honor their dead children. On that morning, the people went to the forest and cut down a tall, straight tree which they brought to the gates of the city. There, for twenty days, they blessed the tree and stripped it of its bark.

During those twenty days, they did ritual, sacrificed, feasted, danced, and made offerings to the dead of cempoalxochitl flowers, fire, copal, food, and drink. Then, on August 28, which they called Huey Micailhuitl (Great Feast of the Dead), in honor of their adult dead, they made a large figure of a bird perched on flowering branches out of amaranth seed dough, painted it brightly, and decorated it with colorful feathers. They fixed the dough bird to the end of the tree trunk, raised it in the courtyard of the Great Temple, and honored it with more offerings, singing, copal, dances, sacrifice, and bloodletting.

One hour before sunset, the young noblemen climbed the pole to bring down the figure of the bird. The youths who reached the top first and brought down the dough figure were much honored. They broke it up and passed it out among the people to eat; they called it “flesh of the god.” Then they brought down the pole and broke it up, and everyone tried to take a piece of it back to their homes because it was holy.

The pole and its god-bird on flowering branches must have stood for the mythical Tree of Life that grew in the earthly paradise of Tamoanchan. The blood of sacrifice nourished the Tree of Life, just as Quetzalcoatl, Plumed Serpent, God of Life, shed his blood to create humankind. The ritual of the pole and the flesh of the god honored the fact that life cannot be separated from death; we live and die, and our deaths are the price of living.

Composed of both joy and pain, life is brief and uncertain, its end a question that disquiets the heart. Many poems addressing this sad truth were composed by the Nahua poets, the most famous of whom was Nezahualcoyotl, King of Texcoco, who said:

------------------Is it true that one lives on earth?
------------------Perhaps forever on the earth?
------------------Only a brief instant here!

------------------Even the precious stones chip away,
------------------even the gold falls apart,
------------------even the precious feathers tear.
------------------Perhaps forever on the earth?
------------------Only a brief instant here!

The peoples of ancient Mexico created wonderful pieces of sacred art in which life and death are united. The greatest, perhaps, is the great Coatlicue (now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City), who was at one and the same time terrifying and life-giving, the goddess of life and death, Earth-Mother of the gods, of humankind: mother of all. They carved statues depicting Quetzalcoatl, God of Life, on one side, and on the other, Mictlantecuhtli, God of Death. They painted pictures of the gods of life and death indivisibly joined together, such as the ones in the Borgia Codex, one of the very few of their marvelous books that survive.


When someone died, a piece of green-stone was placed in his or her mouth to take the place of the heart. The people believed that most of the dead went to a gray region of shadows called Mictlan (Land of the Dead), led by a little dog through nine levels of trials. Only the warriors killed in battle, the victims of sacrifice, and the women who had died in childbirth went to the realm of the Sun. Suicides and those who drowned, or were struck by lightning, or died of certain illnesses associated with water went to the place of Tlaloc, God of the Rain. Children who died young went to the realm of Ometeotl, Lord/Lady of Duality, to be nursed by a tree in a place called Chichihualcuauhco.

Mexico under Spain

These were the beliefs and the customs of the natives when the Spaniards came to Mexico and conquered Tenochtitlan and the Mexica empire in 1521. Along with the horse, the gun, and disease, the Europeans brought a new religion, Christianity. They called the people Indians and forced them to convert.

Some of the Christian beliefs were similar to the ancient ones: the Sun had demanded bleeding hearts torn from sacrificial victims to pay for life; God the Father required the bloody sacrifice of his only Son to pay for salvation. Coatlicue had conceived the god Huitzilopochtli without intercourse with a man; the virgin Mary had also miraculously conceived Jesus. The Indians ate the “flesh of the god’’ in a piece of amaranth dough; Christians ate the flesh of Christ in a piece of unleavened bread. Indians did penance; so did the Christians.

But some of the Christian beliefs were entirely new to the natives, such as the notion of a place where the dead went as either reward or punishment for how they had lived their lives: a happy heaven, with angels, saints, and gods (as they perceived the Trinity) and a painful hell, full of demons and evildoers. The new Mother of God was not terrible, as Coatlicue was, but sweet and demure as she stood on the black obsidian moon in front of the sun and wore the starry night sky for her cloak. Tonantzin, Mother of Us All, was now called Our Lady of Guadalupe, an Arabic place-name of Moorish Spain.


In spite of their conversion, the native people kept their ancient customs as best they could by adapting them to the demands of the new religion, transferring the old celebrations to the holidays of the Christian calendar. They were forced to change the rituals of their days of the dead but kept as their core the ofrenda (the altar with offerings to the dead). And they still grew (and do to this day) the yellow cempoalxochitl, the cempoal, marigold, known popularly as flor de muerto (flower of the dead), which they used especially to honor the dead. They transferred the two Feasts of the Dead to the Christian Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. (Long before, between the eighth and eleventh centuries, the Christian Church itself had set the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls on the first and second of November, converting the ancient European Celtic feast of the harvest and of the dead, Samhain [sá-win], into a Christian holiday.)



The melding of two cultures

Spanish art offered images of death, similar to those the natives knew, in the martyred Christ and saints, and memento mori (“remember that you die”) images of skulls from the medieval tradition of the Dance of Death. The conquered people merged their old symbols with those of the conquerors. The indigenous cross of the four cardinal points became the Christian cross. The Tree of Life came to refer to the Garden of Eden as well, and eventually gave rise to the beautiful clay árboles de la vida with birds on flowering branches that we know today. The amaranth-dough offerings were replaced by the popular wheat pan de muerto (bread of the dead).

One great change in the Spanish colonial period was the evolvement of humor and whimsy that we today associate with los Día de Muertos and that make the holiday so uniquely Mexican. The Spanish may have brought these elements from the medieval tradition of the Feast of Fools (associated with Carnaval, carne vale, farewell to the flesh), where everything is equal and open to criticism, ridicule, and frivolity. “We are all equal in death and nothing is beyond mockery,” this tradition said. And humor became a part of los Día de Muertos that we know today.

In the latter part of the colonial period, the people began making sugar-candy skulls, brightly decorated with names spelled out in colored sugar, to exchange as tokens of affection among family and friends. They placed them on the Día de Muertos altars along with the image of Guadalupe, the flowers, the water, the bread, the food and drink, the candles, and the copal that the old ways demanded. They also made toys in the shape of skeletons and little skeleton dolls of clay and papier maché that made fun of people and every sort of human activity. They made playfulness part of the tradition and took from death a little of its sting.


Another thing that the Spaniards brought was the pasquín (mocking verses scrawled on walls to which passing readers added their own lines and comments). Between 1535 and 1539, the first printing press in America was established in Mexico City, and soon pasquines printed on broadsheets were being pasted on the walls of public buildings. These eventually gave rise to the funny verses called calaveras (skulls, also popularly meaning empty-headed fools), often illustrated with caricatures, through which the people freely criticized and mocked the rich and powerful who ruled their lives. The calavera became a part of the Día de Muertos.

Corridos (ballads in the oral tradition whose themes often focus on current events) had grown to be the popular form of political expression by the time Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, and by the late nineteenth century, the corrido and the calavera had almost completely replaced the pasquín. Small print shops throughout the country published the most popular corridos and calaveras on broadsides of colored paper, disseminating information and ideas against the authoritarian Porfirio Díaz regime. The best-known of these presses was that of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo in Mexico City, made famous by the witty poet Constancio S. Suárez and by José Guadalupe Posada, a talented engraver. Posada illustrated the verses written by Suárez, who succinctly put the truth which is the soul of the calavera:

--------------------It is a most sincere truth
--------------------that this adage makes us see:
--------------------only one who was never born
--------------------can never a death’s-head be.

Día de Muertos in the Twentieth Century

These are some of the elements of los Días de Muertos inherited by the twentieth century. With the Revolution of 1910, modern Mexican art exploded into its own, and the young artists repudiated not only the French orientation of the Díaz era (1877–1911) but their own Spanish heritage, idealizing their indigenous past. For the young artists of the Revolution (José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and David Alfaro Siqueriros among them), Posada was the father of modern Mexican art and quoted his images in their own work. Indeed, many of Posada’s images (such as his Calavera Catrina) took on the nature of icons that are now hard to separate from los Días de Muertos.

Rediscovering and reclaiming their Indian roots and folk arts and festivals, modern Mexican writers, musicians, dancers, and graphic artists created works that burst with images, sounds, colors of dazzling brilliance and originality. But for the Indians, Mexico was a country colonized for four hundred years, its dominant language and culture European; what the writers, musicians, and painters accomplished was to foment a new respect for, even to romanticize, indigenous custom and form, not adopt them as an integral part of their own lives. The artisans of the people continued to produce the ever popular Día de Muertos sugar skulls and toys, of course—and the artists and the new and growing educated middle class avidly collected them as arte popular (folk art.
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To simply see the tradition of the Mexican los Días de Muertos as a quaint folk custom does it little justice. It has always been a religious practice alive with its own cosmology, vibrant with spiritual and emotional meaning for the people who participate in it. At its center, Día de Muertos is full of reverence, sorrow, and prayer; the levity is more peripheral, an aside. Without their core of belief, of spiritual and emotional power, Día de Muertos would hardly have survived to our day, much less inspired such art.

After the revolution, Día de Muertos lived on in Mexico among the indigenous populations close to their pre-Hispanic roots; thus it was a holiday of the poor, and most especially the rural poor. The urban middle class rarely put up Days of the Dead altars except as quaint displays of “indigenous” art. On All Souls Day, they might visit the cemetery and place flowers on the grave, perhaps attend Mass, but Día de Muertos was not modern, and the tradition was certainly more Indian than they would ever want to be. It was one thing to show off indigenous art, another to be Indian. That the urbanite Frida Kahlo affected Tehuana dresses and wore strings of heavy, pre-Hispanic green-stone about her slender neck did not make her Indian.

As Mexico became more urban and more industrialized, at least in the major cities, Día de Muertos became more secularized. Were it not for the indigenous communities faithful to their traditions, Día de Muertos might have gradually become merely a colorful Indian custom, a quaint though cherished symbol of national identity.

Día de Muertos in the United States

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, there flared up a new interest from an unexpected quarter. United States intervention in Viet-Nam had flared into a full-blown war in which many citizens of Mexican descent saw the U.S. invasion of Mexico (1846-48) reflected. At the same time, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, the Farm Workers Movement led by César E. Chávez under the banner of Guadalupe went into full strike in the vineyards of California. These two events galvanized the identity of the young U.S. citizens of Mexican descent who began calling themselves Chicanos.

The quest for and formation of an identity is always a spiritual matter, a moral matter, a matter of empowerment, especially in a society which exerts such pressures to conform and assimilate. In 1970 the Chicano Moratorium against the Viet-Nam War coalesced a political and cultural movement with its own music, literature, and graphic arts, especially the mural. Walls in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities throughout the U.S. blazed into color and images that drew inspiration from the mural movement of Mexico. They extensively quoted the work of Posada, Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros, and Kahlo, and incorporated such indigenist images as Sun Stones, eagles devouring serpents, plumed snakes, Guadalupes, and Zapatista campesinos. Chicano art, rooted in Mexican culture but of the United States, was something all its own.

In the late 1960s, some teachers of Mexican descent with ties to Día de Muertos tradition began to introduce it in the classroom. Also in the early 1970s, the Galería de la Raza, the Mexican Museum of San Francisco, the Mission Cultural Center of Latino Arts, and other galleries in San Francisco began to mount Día de Muertos exhibitions, inviting artists to create ofrendas. The same occurred in Los Angeles and quickly spread to other cities, such as Chicago, that have large Chicano and Mexican immigrant populations. And in the mid 1970s, El Teatro Campesino performed satirical skits with calavera characters for the workers in the fields. The richly layered Día de Muertos customs that were traditionally practiced in that area to the south known as Mesoamerica, where the high cultures flourished, were not familiar in Aztlan (northern Mexico and what had become the U.S. Southwest), where native cultures were more nomadic. There the ofrenda was not customary, and up to this point only appeared when people who had immigrated from the south put them up. But now Día de Muertos ofrendas and exhibitions began to appear in New Mexico, Texas, and elsewhere in the Southwest.

New Expressions for Día de Muertos

Avid to reclaim their Mexican—especially Mexican Indian—roots, Chicanos took the ofrenda, the element at the core of Día de Muertos, from its original matrix and made it into a new art form. Very few of the artists participating in these exhibitions had lived Día de Muertos traditions, though some elders and recent immigrants from south-central Mexico were drawn upon to create “traditional” ofrendas. These, even if they may not have included all the elements prescribed by tradition—the image of Guadalupe, the flowers, the water, the bread, the food and drink, the candles, the sugar skulls, the copal—did include an altar bearing offerings of some sort, as well as traditional incidental decorative elements like papel picado and streamers, and, if the ofrenda honored a particular person, photographs and personal mementos.


Though “traditional” ofrendas were occasionally exhibited in Mexico in museums and public spaces, often under the auspices of FONART (the National Fund for the Encouragement of Crafts) as samples of arte popular, the ofrenda had been, up to this point, solely a sacred and private expression of devotion and memorial created for the home, sometimes for the family tomb, occasionally for the church.

The intimate and devotional family ofrenda now became a point of departure for more conscious works of art, giving way to public statements, often political in nature, incorporating the sociopolitical function of the calavera with the religious form of the ofrenda. It is true that many artists considered their work sacred art; they often created ofrendas to honor dead family, friends, or public figures, and they ritually consecrated the gallery space and the ofrenda by smudging with copal or sage. But the religious, sacred aspects became more broadly defined; the emphasis was on fine art. This was a new art form, a variation of installation art. In the context of the gallery, the term “ofrenda” is now popularly used for any installation on the theme of death. The intent of these ofrendas as works of art is often not so much to comfort as to disquiet.

This new interpretation of the traditions of Día de Muertos as art for the public very soon exerted its influence in Mexico, and ofrendas of a political nature, honoring public figures and commemorating political events, started to appear with more frequency in such public spaces as galleries, museums, libraries, community centers, and even government buildings. Furthermore, though Día de Muertos in such places as Michoacán, Morelos, Oaxaca, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz had always attracted visitors, popularization of the holiday in the U.S. tremendously increased the number of tourists to Mexico during these days so that the cemeteries were overrun with urbanites and foreigners toting cameras.

Processions were another notable development in the United States. A procession sponsored by Self-Help Graphics in Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles that started in the 1970s, and another, sponsored by Galería de la Raza in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980s, both became so popular that, with the novelty of costumes and samba bands, they were more like Halloween events or carnaval parades than traditional honoring of the dead. Interestingly, in the city of Oaxaca since the seventies, comparsas, skull-masked and skeleton-costumed bands, probably influenced by the U.S. Halloween, began to gain prominence in Día de Muertos celebrations, adding an element of carnaval to the feast.

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In Mexico, the Days of the Dead are still observed with deep emotion and spiritual devotion by the many who are heirs to the tradition, as well as others who are taking up the practice. In the United States, whose mainstream culture lacks a holiday devoted to the dead, many are borrowing Día de Muertos traditions, respectfully adapting them to their own needs and circumstances, putting up altars every year to honor their dead in the privacy of their homes . . .

Los Día de Muertos tradition, as it is practiced in Mexico, comes down to us from the shades of our pre-European past, a vital tradition laden with historical, religious, and spiritual meaning. It will change as it continues to be popularized and as the cultures that nurture and maintain it struggle to keep their identities in the face of the demands of the twenty-first century with its push towards globalization not only of economics but of culture . . .*

* Some U.S., Canadian, and other foreign artists in such centers as San Miguel de Allende are now producing los Días de Muertos “folk art” for export to the U.S. and abroad. Stores of arts and crafts from around the world, such as Global Exchange in the San Francisco Bay Area, now sell little death-figures and glass boxes from Perú and Bolivia painted with Posada images, bamboo curtains from Viet-Nam painted with Posada images, wood stamping-blocks from Nepal with Mexican milagro images, and skull-shaped glass votive-candle holders from China. And of course more and more artifacts, calendars, and books with los Días de Muertos themes are being produced in the United States.
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