Monday, November 30, 2015

UN Paris Climate Talks


In Paris the United Nations meet to discuss the fate of the Earth and the streets are filled with throngs protesting in her favor as were the streets of cities throughout the world during this last week. In the halls of power the nations will discuss whether it is to be one or two more degrees Celsius that the Earth will bear as her fever rises ever more dangerously and threatens life itself. The powerful will discuss whether it is politically feasible to contain the fever and who will bear the cost.

But little is heard of confronting the ill at the roots of its cause, an economic/political system whose most basic premises have proven toxic, the economics and politics of empire formulated in the 17th century for which the Earth is but a source of wealth, a world-view and economics “extractive” to their core, not only of oil and gas and coal and metals and the trees of the forests, but of people themselves, slavery by whatever modern term we call it. I speak of Capitalism grown lethal.

Whatever the United Nations decide, it will be for naught if we allow the Trans Pacific Partnership treaty to become fact, for it and such “Free Trade” treaties are but the global imposition of an unbridled Capitalism, treaties reached not by nor for the benefit of nations, but by the wealthy who control the governments for the benefit of themselves. These wealthy banded together in juggernauts known as Corporations override governments who may oppose their extractive “rights”, force populations to work for slave wages, and curtail civil freedoms.

In the current most powerful empire, our own United States of America, “our” government, long pretending to democracy, is “owned” by corporate interests, the taxes we pay (precious little by the wealthy) are consumed by continual war to protect “our interests” (meaning the interests of the corporations.) Perpetual war of which the general population is but vaguely aware because it is now mostly waged with technological weapons not by citizen soldiers but “outsourced” to private corporations at huge cost to ourselves the ordinary citizens (paid for by our tax-money) and for huge profits to the corporations. (The old term for soldiers for hire is mercenaries.) War against “terrorism” they call it, while U.S. foreign policy is nothing less than terror.

And in the civil sphere we are denied the benefits of our labors: medical care, decent housing, adequate education, healthy food, leisure even in age, an imposed “austerity” they call it; “austerity” something the rich never impose upon themselves. The costs of living rise ever more; our public schools are in shambles (more and more becoming “privatized”, read owned by corporations); our public health coverage meager (and resented by the insurance corporations); our food unhealthy, grown and molecularly modified and brought long distances at great expense and much pollution by corporations; an outrageous number of our citizens (overwhelmingly black and brown and poor) are imprisoned in jails (privatized and hugely profitable to the corporations who run them); we are spied upon by our government (mostly by “outsourced” investigative corporations, many linked to the very corporations that control our means of communication, the telephone and the Internet); and our freedoms grow more and more curtailed.

Our political system is bought and public discontent is used by wealthy demagogues from those very corporations for their own ends by fanning the fires of racism and hate (inherited from the very economics of empire) against “the other”, the “immigrant”, the people displaced from their homelands by our policy of economic plunder and war.

I leave unspoken the effects of our government/corporate policies in other countries who have their own bought governments in league with ours. The wealthy, I am afraid, have more in common with each other than with the poor of their own land.

If you expected a poem, you may feel cheated, but the moment is dire and truths must be faced. We cannot speak of climate change, of the health of the Earth, of survival without speaking of justice founded in compassion for we have come to that point in our evolution that nothing, nothing short of love for each other and the Earth that births and sustains us can save us from ourselves. Many of my friends are now in Paris speaking for life and even more are in their respective lands trying to tip the balance toward survival. Against great odds I still hold faith that love and reason will prevail.

Rafael Jesús González

Berkeley, California


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving Moon


Se alza la luna llena
disco de abulón
del mar de la noche —
preciosa ofrenda en gracias
a la Tierra por su don de vida.

---------------------------------------- © Rafael Jesús González 2015


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 2015

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

The full moon rises,
abalone disc
from the sea of night —
precious offering of thanks
to Earth for her gift of life.

------------------------------------------- © Rafael Jesús González 2015

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

Thanks and blessing be
to the Sun and the Earth
for this bread and this wine,

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

-------------------------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2015

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

--- ---


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving Day — a U.S. holiday


Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930)


Preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving, favorite U.S. holiday (for we must always be thankful for blessings), it is well for us to recall the history and myth in which it is clothed and reflect upon it.

If in 1621 "Tisquantum" or "Squanto" of the Wampanoag nation, who as a boy or youth was taken as a slave to England fifteen years before the “Pilgrims” came to America, helped the ill-provided colonists and with his tribe celebrated thanksgiving with Miles Standish and the colonists of Plymouth Plantation, it was because the Algonkian tribes were generous and held six thanks-giving festivals during the year (that one being their 5th one of the year.) They brought most of the food, including four wild turkeys, for the feasting.

But it seems that, as William B. Newell, a Penobscot Indian and former chairman of the Anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, points out, the first officially declared Thanksgiving Day by the Governor of the then Massachusetts Bay Colony was the day following the slaughtering of a Pequot village of 700 men, women, and children who were celebrating their annual Green Corn Dance, in June 1637 executed under the command of one John Underhill and documented by William Branford.

In fact, a proclamation of such a holiday recorded in Charlestown, Massachusetts, thirty-nine years later, June 20, 1676, refers to the indigenous peoples of this land as “the Enemy” in “the present Warr with the Heathen Natives of this land.” And the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts set June 29 to thank the god of the Puritan “pilgrims” for “giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them [the indigenous people],” thankful “when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed.”

It first became a national holiday declared such by George Washington in 1789 for November 26. Abraham Lincoln revived the custom in 1863, and Congress decreed the holiday should fall on the fourth Thursday of November in 1941. And so it is, a holiday with antecedents in the remotest times of human history and burdened with national myth and fact, piety and villainy more often than not inextricably intertwined.

Since 1969 or 70 on San Francisco Bay, the day is begun at sunrise with American Indian ceremony at the gathering of the tribes on the island of Alcatraz as reminder of the history of this land — and as rededication to changing its course for the better.

Feasting with family and friends in thanks for the blessings of life, Thanksgiving is a holiday of celebration whose joy is marred by a consciousness of our nation in continual war and destruction of the Earth. The government (we, if we tolerate it) not only wages war unjustly, unlawfully, justifying itself through lies and deceit, but violates the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights so that our civil rights and liberties are less and less guaranteed. The wealth of the nation is concentrated in the hands of the one per cent rich and powerful, and most of our people will celebrate this day with less wealth, less security, less freedom, less learning, than thirty-four years ago. And the struggle to create a democracy continues.

In the midst of this pain and exasperation, we must give thanks for the gifts of life and the sustenance of the great Mother the Earth. And for each other, and all our relations the other animals, the plants, the minerals. We give thanks mindful that in our gratitude we must also raise our voices in the name of justice and peace resolved to make amends and undertake healing knowing that gratitude for that which we enjoy at the expense and suffering of our brothers and sisters is blasphemous and unacceptable.

© Rafael Jesús González 2015
Alta California


Saturday, November 21, 2015




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 2015


The archer points at Jupiter,
-----planet of many moons
whose light reflects on his haunches,
and 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
---------and he points
----------------------and he points
------and desires to wound the sky. 

----------             ------© Rafael Jesús González 2015


Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Call


--------------La llamada 

¿Qué puedo decir para incitarte
-------a defender la Tierra?
¿Recordarte como se siente el sol?
¿el sabor de la sal, el olor del laurel?
¿El chirrido de grillo en noche de verano,
el arco iris después de lluvia?
--------¿Lo que es amar?
¿Imploraré a tu goce
-----o a tu pavor?
Puede ser terrible la Tierra
en sus tormentas y sus temblores
pero es la medida de cual paraíso
------imaginemos jamás.
Tú y yo moriremos demasiado pronto
-----pero que no siga la vida
----------es más allá de aceptable.
¿Qué puedo decir para que ames la vida
suficiente para que actúes y alces la voz
-----------en su defensa?

---------------------------------- © Rafael Jesús González 2015

(Berkeley Times, 19 noviembre 2015;
derechos reservados del autor)

--------------The Call 

What can I say to entice you
------to defend the Earth?
Remind you how the sun feels?
The taste of salt, the smell of bay?
a cricket's chirp on a summer night,
the rainbow after rain?
-----What it is to love?
Shall I appeal to your joy
------or to your fear?
Earth can be terrible
in her storms & in her quakes
but she is the measure of any paradise
---------we will ever imagine.
You & I will die all too soon
------but that life will not go on
-----------is beyond accepting.
What can I say to make you love life
enough to act & raise your voice
----------in its defense?

-----------------------------© Rafael Jesús González 2015

(Berkeley Times, November 19, 2015;
author's copyrights.)

We are most urgently called to bring our art, 
our healing, our joy, our passion, to the 

NorCal Climate Mobilization
in advance of the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris (COP21)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

10:30 AM - Gather at Lake Merritt Amphitheater

12:00 PM - March

1:00 PM - Rally at Frank Ogawa (Oscar Grant) Plaza

Oakland, California

The very Earth and the life she bears are at stake and we must bring all our art, and heart, and healing to save her/us. It is urgent that we gather in huge numbers, that our unified voices be loud and clear, that our fierce love for the Earth and for life be manifested in joy and beauty and clear commitment and determination. The crisis is so dire that nothing less will do. Our mobilization must be huge!

Please share this call widely with all whom you know.

website: to volunteer:

Please endorse as individuals or groups, which you can do from the website, it is free and helps increase social media activity.

So does 'Liking' NCCM on Facebook: 
and Twitter: @CAclimatemob

Se nos llama urgentemente traer nuestro arte, 
nuestro sanar, nuestra alegría, nuestra pasión a la

NorCal Movilización Climática
en anticipación de las negociaciones de las Naciones Unidas en París (COP21)

sábado 21 de noviembre 2015

10:30 AM - unirnos en el anfiteatro del Lago Merritt

12:00 PM - Marcha

1:00 PM - manifestación en la Plaza Frank Ogawa (Oscar Grant)

Oakland, California

La Tierra misma y la vida que lleva están a puesta y tenemos que traer todo nuestro arte y corazón y sanar para salvarla, para salvarnos. Es urgente que nos reunamos en números inmensos, que nuestras voz unida sea fuerte y clara, que nuestro amor feroz por la Tierra y por la vida se manifieste en alegría y belleza y compromiso y resolución claros. La crisis es tan seria que nada menos servirá. ¡Nuestra movilización tiene que ser inmensa!

Por favor compartir esta llamada ampliamente
con todo mundo que conozca.

website: para ayudar:

Por favor endose como individuos o grupos. Lo podrán hacer en el  website, es gratis y ayudará a aumentar la actividad de los medios sociales.

Tal como lo hará 'Liking' NCCM en Facebook: 
y Twitter: @CAclimatemob


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

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.

Enrique González Prieto

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. Given that almost every war the U.S. has waged and wages are invasions of other countries justified with thin pretensions of "defense," 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 ours, certainly not for the sake of the men and women who constitute the “troops.”

Indeed, I find the question whether I "support our troops" offensive, cynical, hypocritical given that we care so little for our veterans: so many are homeless; find no work; have little care for their wounds, physical and psychological; little for their addictions; many are in prison; a great many commit suicide. This acknowledged, the "patriotism" the question pretends is hollow and blind.

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 women; 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 (and victims
military or civilian) of war.

Berkeley, November 11, 2007

© Rafael Jesús González 2015

Universal Justice & Peace Flag
  Universal Justice & Peace Flag is licensed under a  
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Día del Veterano

Cuando la Primera Guerra Mundial oficialmente acabó el 28 de junio 1919, la lucha actual ya había cesado en la oncena hora del onceno día del onceno mes del año anterior. Día del Armisticio, como fue conocida, más tarde se hizo fiesta nacional, y en 1954 (el año en que me gradué de la secundaria), el nombre se le cambió a Día del Veterano para honrar a todo veterano estadounidense de todas las guerras.

El único veterano de esa guerra, “la guerra para acabar con toda guerra,” que jamás conocí era el padrastro de mi padre, Benjamín Armijo, de Nuevo México, un hombre anciano que raras veces hablaba y a quien en ocasión veía llevar la gorra de La legión Americana. (Era también republicano.)

“La guerra para acabar con toda guerra” fue todo menos eso y cuando yo tenía no mucho más de cinco, tres de mis tíos maternos (Roberto, Armando, Enrique) salieron a pelear en otra guerra, la Segunda Guerra Mundial.

Echaba de menos a mis tíos y los recordaba por sus fotos en el altar hogareño de mi abuela, muy guapos en sus uniformes; en los rosarios y letanías sin fin que las mujeres de la familia a menudo se juntaban a rezar; y en las tres estrellas azules que colgaban en la ventana.

Mi tío Roberto, tío Beto, no duró su segundo año; regresó a casa y se mencionaban las úlceras y los nervios. Mi tío Armado, tío Pana, en la División de infantería o la División de caballería (aunque ni un solo caballo jamás fue montado en ninguna batalla de esa guerra) sirvió en el Teatro del Pacífico y el nombre de Guadalcanal de algún modo se pega a su historía. Mi tío Enrique, tío Kiki, el menor, en la División Aérea, “las águilas chillantes,” sirvió en el Teatro Europeo y se lanzó en paracaídas en la toma de Alemania.

Después de que acabó esa guerra regresaron a casa, tío Pana a un hospital enfermo de malaria que le afectó por el resto de la vida; tío Kiki con dolencia del alma no tan fácil de diagnosticar ocultada en su humor suave, modos amables. Todos mis tíos fueron hombres gentiles en todo sentido de la palabra. Y Beto, Pana, Kiki no hablaban nada acerca sus experiencias de la guerra a pesar de mi curiosidad y preguntas que distraían con una pequeña broma o cambio de tema. Lo que habían visto, sentido aparentemente no era para decirse y la familia lo percibía y respetaba su reticencia. Ninguno de ellos se juntó a los Veteranos de Guerras Extranjeras de que yo sepa.

La Guerra Coreana reventó, como dicen, como si fuera el acne, no mucho después. En cuanto a mí, yo nunca he peleado en ninguna guerra aunque me ingresé a la Marina estadounidense graduando de la Escuela secundaria de El Paso para hacerme enfermero y conseguir la beca militar con que empezar mis estudios de medicina cuando acabara mi servicio; dos de los cuatro años en la marina los pasé en la Infantería de marina con el rango de Sargento del personal. La Guerra Coreana ya había acabado. Y aunque serví lo suficientemente aproximado a ella para ser otorgado la Medalla de defensa de Corea y soy legalmente veterano y elegible a juntarme a los VFW [Veteranos de Guerras Extranjeras] nunca lo hice y jamás lo intentaré.

Si me consideraría veterano de ninguna guerra sería de la Guerra de Vietnam, no porque haya peleado en ella sino porque luché en contra de ella. (Aconsejé a objetores de conciencia, puse piquetes a oficinas de recluta, marché en las calles.) Los veteranos de guerra a quien he conocido más íntimamente son los de esa guerra, muchos de ellos, si no la mayor parte, heridos y enfermos de cuerpo (de balas, de metralla, de productos químicos), heridos y enfermos del alma (terror, culpa, vergüenza, odio pudriéndoles los sueños, envenenándoles los cariños.)

Soy sospechoso de que se me pida que honre a veteranos de casi cualquier guerra, excepto como honro el sufrir, el ser de todo hombre o mujer que jamás ha vivido. Estoy harto del “patriotismo” detrás del cual tantos canallas se esconden. Estoy harto de la guerra que ha manchado casi todos los años de mi vida. Especialmente ahora en medio de una guerra más sin justificación, inmoral, ilegal, insoportable, cínica, cruel que la nación hace en Irak, en Afganistán. Soy impaciente de los bobos que me preguntan si no “apoyo a nuestras tropas.”

¿Qué significa “apoyar a nuestras tropas”? ¿Qué cosa es una tropa sino un rebaño, una manada, una banda? ¿Qué es una tropa sino un grupo de actores cuyo deber no es razonar el porque sino cumplir y morir? En los años que serví en la marina y en la infantería de marina como enfermero, nunca cuidé de una tropa; cuidé de hombres heridos y dañados, que se habían herido y sangraban, que sufrían ampollas terribles en los pies debidas a largas marchas, que enfermaban con fiebres altas. Si apoyar significa llevar el peso, impedir caer, resbalar o hundir, dar valor, fe, auxilio, consuelo, fuerza, abastecer, cargar, tolerar, sí, lo hice y apoyo a todos hombres y mujeres tan infelices como para ir a la guerra.

A las tropas, no. Si apoyar significa aprobar, estar en favor, suscribirse, sancionar, entonces no. La decisión de hacer la guerra no es de ellos para hacer; las tropas son lo que esos que hacen las decisiones de guerra usan (para matar y ser matados, para ser brutalizados en torturadores) para sus propios fines, no los nuestros y ni mucho menos los de los hombres y mujeres que constituyen las “tropas.”

En efecto, encuentro la pregunta si "apoyo a nuestras tropas" ofensiva, cínica, hipócrita dado que tan poco cuidamos de nuestros veteranos: muchos están sin techo; no encuentran trabajo; tienen poca atención a sus heridas, físicas y psicológicas; poca a sus adicciones; muchos están en cárcel; muchísimos se suicidan. Reconociendo esto, el "patriotismo" que la pregunta pretende es hueco y ciego.

Honro a los veteranos de la guerra solamente del modo en que sé honrar: con compasión; con respeto; con comprensión de cómo fueron/son usados, engañados, indoctrinados, obligados, desperdiciados, dañados, abandonados; con tolerancia de sus creencias y justificaciones; con esfuerzo para que sus heridas, de cuerpo y alma, se traten y se sanen, su sufrir y sacrificio se recompensen. Nunca me niego a las peticiones por donación a las organizaciones de veteranos que buscan beneficios y servicios para los veteranos. Honro a los veteranos, hombres y mujeres; no a bandas ni a tropas.

Si buscas a mi ventana este día, la bandera que encontrarás allí colgando será la bandera arco iris de la paz. Allí cuelga en honor de todo veterano de cualquier guerra en cualquier época o lugar. Dentro, encenderé una vela y quemaré artemisa y me dedicaré de nuevo a luchar por la justicia y la paz. Tal es el único modo en que sé honrar a los veteranos (y víctimas militares o civiles) de la guerra.

Berkeley, November 11, 2007

© Rafael Jesús González 2015

bandera uiversal de la justicia y la paz

Thursday, November 5, 2015

NorCAl Climate Mobilization, November 21


Op-ed, "NorCAl Climate Mobilization, Nov. 21", Berkeley Times, Nov. 5, 2015
by Rafael Jesús González

We are called to gather on Saturday, November 21st in Oakland, at 10:30 in the morning at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater, and at noon march to Frank Ogawa Plaza for a rally at 1:00 in anticipation of the CO21 United Nations talks in Paris the following week. The name of the UN Paris talks hardly tugs at the heart, NorCAl Climate Mobilization is hardly better. The climate when I was young was hardly something to become impassioned about. We took it for granted and hardly thought about it; it was good or bad when we planed a trip or had a ball game to attend — unless of course, it was a matter of a storm, a tornado, a hurricane, or a drought so long that it turned the ground to dust and withered the plants. Now the storms, the tornados, the hurricanes have become so disastrous and so frequent, the droughts so hot and prolonged that it is only ignorance and denial that can keep us indifferent to climate change.

Had I my druthers, I would call the November 21 event the NorCal Mobilization for the Earth or Mobilization for Life, for it is the very Earth itself and the life she bears that climate change direly threatens, and we should be terrified and enraged. Enraged because it is human folly and perversion that have brought us to this point and that resist the changes that would correct it.

Let us be clear that the human folly and perversion to which I refer is that of the Western mind-set, the arrogance of empire, greed and lust for power made virtues. It is the mindset best put forth in the 16th century by Francis Bacon who saw the Earth (as female to be sure) with enmity and as only an object to be mastered and plundered, raped if you will. We see the result of this in the forests razed, the Earth torn apart in open-pit mines, mountains leveled, rivers dammed, the remains of ancestral forests siphoned and spilled, burned polluting earth and sea and skies, all to feed a frenzy of consumption.

Climate Change — the ultimate symptom of the abuse of the Earth that includes the attendant plagues that haunt us still: not only poisonous violation of the Earth, but endemic racism, root of the genocide of indigenous peoples and of slavery that made a commodity of human beings, the disempowerment and belittling of women, the displacement of people forcing them to migrate and persecuting them for doing so, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few while the many starve without shelter or medicine or education, wars without end,

So much for the listing of evils that we already know; what now? That capitalist mindset ravenous for profit at all costs is institutionalized and immense in its power. The saving of the Earth and, let's say it, our sweet asses, is in our hands or not at all. What we need is a revolution, not of guns, for the tools of destruction are all in the hands of those in power and we cannot fight oppression with the tools of the oppressor, but a revolution of consciousness and of heart and of will. We begin by coming together and together demanding the changes that will restore the Earth and ensure the continuation of life. It must be a revolution of love, a fierce love and a bright joy, a focusing of intellect and will to take local community possession of our sources of food, creation of community-owned sustainable energy, control of our schools and (for those who truly need them) our jails, our health care, extend our commons, create a just and equitable economy based upon care and not obsessive consumption.

We begin by taking to the streets and demanding this be so, together, in joy and celebration and dance, in beauty, in determination, and above all in a fierce love of life, of the Earth, of one another, for the age of the warrior must be brought to an end and the age of the healer must be birthed.

Will you join me? Will I see you on November 21 that we may party together in the streets and together raise our voices, loud, and clear, and committed to changing the world and restoring the Earth to the paradise from which we were never expelled? Let us see each other then. I look forward to it.

© Rafael Jesús González 2015

Columna de opinión, "NorCAl Movilización Climática, 21 noviembre", Berkeley Times, 5 de noviembre 2015
por Rafael Jesús González

Se nos llama reunirnos el sábado 21 de noviembre en Oakland a las 10:30 de la mañana en el anfiteatro del Lago Merritt y a mediodía marchar a la Plaza Frank Ogawa para una manifestación a la 1:00 en anticipación de las negociaciones de las Naciones Unidas CO21 en París la semana siguiente. El título de las negociaciones de las NU apenas toca el corazón. Cuando era joven el clima no era cosa que apasionara. La tomábamos de por si y apenas pensábamos de ella; era buena o mala cuando se planeaba viaje o hubiera juego de pelota a que asistir — a menos de que por supuesto se tratara de una tormenta, tornado, huracán o sequía tan larga que volviera el suelo a polvo y marchitara las plantas. Ahora las tormentas, los tornados, los huracanes se han hecho tan desastrosos y tan frecuentes, las sequías tan calientes y prolongadas que sólo la ignorancia y negación nos pueden mantener indiferentes al cambio climático.

Si preferencia tuviera llamaría al evento del 21 de noviembre la NorCAl Movilización por la tierra o Movilización por la vida, pues es la Tierra misma y la vida que lleva lo que el cambio climático tan grave y directamente amenaza y deberíamos estar aterrorizados y furiosos. Furiosos porque son la necedad y perversión humana que nos han llevado a este punto y que resisten los cambios que lo corrigiera.

Seamos claros que la necedad y perversión a la que me refiero es de la mentalidad occidental, la arrogancia de imperio, de la codicia y hambre de poder hechos virtudes. Es esta mentalidad más bien plantada en el siglo 16 por Francisco Bacon que vio a la Tierra (como hembra por supuesto) con enemistad y sólo como objeto para ser dominada y saqueada, violada si gusta. Vemos el resultado de esto en los bosques arrasados, la Tierra destrozada en minas a cielo abierto, montañas niveladas, los ríos represados, los restos de bosques ancestrales extraídos y derramados, encendidos contaminando tierra y mar y cielos, todo por alimentar un frenesí de consumo.

Cambio Climático - el síntoma sumo del abuso de la Tierra que incluye las plagas concomitantes que nos persiguen aun: no solamente la ponzoñosa violación de la Tierra sino el racismo endémico raíz del genocidio de gentes indígenas y de la esclavitud que hizo mercancía de seres humanos, despojo de derechos y hacer menos a la mujer, el desplazamiento de personas obligándolas a emigrar y luego persiguiéndolas por haberlo hecho, la concentración de la riqueza en manos de los pocos mientras los mucho mueren de hambre sin abrigo o medicina o educación,

Tanto por enumerar los males que ya sabemos ¿ahora qué? Que la mentalidad capitalista voraz por la ganancia a todo costo está institucionalizada e inmensa en su poder es dado. El salvar de la Tierra y, digámoslo, de nuestros dulces rabos, está en manos nuestras o de ningún modo. Lo que necesitamos es una revolución, no de armas pues los instrumentos de destrucción están todos en manos del opresor sino de consciencia y de corazón y de voluntad. Empecemos por reunirnos y unidos exigir los cambios que puedan restaurar a la Tierra y asegurar la continuación de la vida. Tendrá que ser una revolución de amor, de un amor feroz y un regocijo reluciente, un enfoque del intelecto y de la voluntad para tomar posesión local de nuestro abastecimiento de comestibles, creación de energía sostenible en posesión comunitaria, control de nuestras escuelas y cárceles (para l@s que verdaderamente las necesiten), de nuestra asistencia médica, extender nuestros comunes, crear un sistema económico equitativo y justo basado en el querer y no en el consumo obsesivo.

Empezamos por tomar a las calles exigiendo que así sea, unidos, en goce y celebración y danza, en belleza, en resolución y sobre todo en amor feroz a la vida, a la Tierra, a un@s a l@s otr@s, pues debe ponerse fin a la edad del guerrero y debe hacerse nacer la edad del/a sanador@.

¿Me acompañas? ¿Te veré el 21 de noviembre para juntos festejar en las calles y juntos levantar la voz fuerte y clara y resuelta a cambiar al mundo y restaurar a la Tierra al paraíso del cual jamás hemos sido expulsados? Veámonos entones. Lo espero.

© Rafael Jesús González 2015

Monday, November 2, 2015

Feast of All Souls (Día de Muertos)

--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 2015

-----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 2015

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 —
----------------------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 2015


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Feast of All Saints (Mexico's Día de Muertos through the centuries)


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 Siqueiros 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.

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 urbane 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 Ángeles, 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 carnival 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 carnival to the feast.

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

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 . . .*

by Rafael Jesús González

* 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.

[Excerpted from the introduction of the book
El Corazón de la Muerte (English & Spanish),
Oakland Museum of California
and Heyday Books 2005;
copyrights of the Oakland Museum of California.

Reproduction in any form for commercial use is prohibited
without explicit permission of the Oakland Museum of California]