an essay by Fer de la Cruz
A fascinating non-Western tradition, Hanal Pixan (the week-long Mayan “Day of the Dead”) loses meaning when its “celebration” is imposed by the government to public schools and institutions throughout the State of Yucatan, in a reductionist version turned political. Indeed, the 20-year-old encouragement that not only public offices and schools but also private schools of all levels set up a Hanal Pixan altar is now a de facto mandate by the State Secretary of Education. Setting up altars is fun, yes, and pretty, but it´s also meaningless when institutionalized, when removed from its context as a private, religious observance in the family and turned into a display.
The argument is: Hanal Pixan is part of “our Mayan heritage” and it´s preferable to foreign traditions such as Halloween and the practice of central Mexico imports such as eating pan de muerto or sugar skulls. This assertion implies an outdated, essentialist definition of being Yucatecan, which is to be expected of any given populist, local regime. The contradiction is: How can the State tell a Yucatecan family of third generation Lebanese descent, for instance, that its roots are Mayan? The same goes true for Yucatecans of Korean or Chinese descent, or those from straight Spanish heritage who lack the honor of rightfully calling the ancient Maya their ancestors.
A plural entity, Yucatan is a “tossed salad” of various forms of Western and non-Western components. Many Latino (Western) Yucatecans grew up observing the Catholic rituals of All Saints Day and All Souls Day (Western imports) in the morning, while throwing Halloween private parties (another Western import), at night, having never been exposed to the Mayan observance of Hanal Pixan before the 1990s. Similarly, Yucatecans who are Mayan or of Mayan descent, many of them fully bicultural, many of them Catholic themselves, maintained the observance of Hanal Pixan in its full, meaningful beauty, by faith and to honor not only the memory but also the living souls of their beloved ones who passed away.
Another issue is that of the many Yucatecan families who belong to various denominations of Christianity, and find both Hanal Pixan rituals and Halloween parties equally conflicting with their religious faith. It is mandatory that all professors, without consideration of their religious belief, stay in the school during the Hanal Pixan activities, since they have to clock in and out. Failure to do so is retaliated by a deduction from their paycheck.
My call here is against the subtlety of an imposition under the false pretense of honoring a “minority”, while flying a banner of political correctness. My call is also against a politically motivated sentiment of regional pride that flirts with xenophobia. I sure enjoy eating the delicious Mucbilpollo (a large tamale traditionally baked underground during the season), which has been a cultural feature shared by Mayan and non-Mayan Yucatecans for generations. I also enjoy seeing the altars on display and have enjoyed setting them up, as a professor myself. But I do so for the mere like of it and because it doesn´t conflict with any personal religious belief or disbelief, not because I have to, by mandate. In addition to that, I also enjoy a good Halloween costume party which, as a Westerner, I can also call my
own, same as Carnaval, Easter, and Chirstmas. What I most celebrate of today´s Postmodern era is such diversity of Latino-Western, Anglo-Western, and Mayan as well as other non-Western cultural features, among the different manifestations of autumn traditions, in Yucatan´s ever growing plurality. No one can rightfully tell me that the Halloween parties I grew up attending, or that the bluejeans I grew up wearing, make me less of a Yucatecan, when even a Mayan Jmen priest will wear Western trousers and a baseball cap as everyday attire, without it making him less of anything.
Hanal Pixan has been distorted from an ancestral tradition carried on with a sense of honor and faith in the private homes of the Maya, to mere folklore imposed, along with a Melting pot-like sense of identity and roots that reveals blunt ignorance among Yucatan´s elected or appointed civil servants. One thing is to promote a cultural feature original to one´s native or chosen land; another, to impose it from above in support of a fabricated sense of pride. This distinction marks the difference between a thoughtful defense of a local tradition before an omnipresent globalitarism and a reactionary embrace of totalitarian tactics, a constant danger in a country whose public universities have their presidents imposed from the State Governor´s office.
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Fer de la Cruz is a Yucatecan poet born in 1971. He has received two national, two regional, and one state-wide poetry awards in Mexico and is a member of the founding faculty at the School of Creative Writing of the State Center of Fine Arts, in Mérida. He is also coordinator of the Historic Mérida branch of Centro de Idiomas del Sureste, where he was a teacher for 20 years. He holds an MA in Spanish from Ohio University and a BA in Philosophy. As an independent editor, writer, translator, and cultural promoter, he has participated in cultural festivals, conferences, and book fairs in Mexico, Cuba, France, and the United States. His poems appeared in the books “Redentora la voz” (Ayuntamiento de Mérida, 2010) and “Aliteletras. De la A a la que quieras” (Dante, 2011), as well as in the chapbooks “La cuenta regresiva. Radiografía urbana mesozoica” (El Drenaje, 2012) and “Seven Songs of Silent, Singing Fireflies” (JKPublishing, 2008): firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Artist Samuel Barrera
2 thoughts on “From Faith to Folklore: Yucatan´s Banalization of Hanal Pixan”
Fascinating comments. We attended Hanan Pixan events for our first time this year while in Merida. I find this discussion relevant to a parallel discussion now ongoing in Albuquerque New Mexico concerning the annual Marigold Parade there and how it has grown from a local South Valley event into a hugely attended but perhaps unfortunately changed gathering. I would like talk with the author.