Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Walking with the Deathly Queer

More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in what they perceived to be the “New World” (México), they encountered the indigenous peoples practicing a ritual that appeared, to them at least, to be creating a mockery out of death. They would keep skulls as trophies that symbolized not only death, but also rebirth. It was a ritual the indigenous people had practiced at for thousands of years. A ritual the Spaniards would try to unsuccessfully to eradicate. A ritual known today as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

November 2 is celebrated as el Día de los Muertos in México and various parts of the United States. It is a day that is very close to my heart as I reflect on the lives and legacies of my own deceased loved ones.

We remember our dead, not as gone and lost forever, but a commemorate a day when they can cross into our plane of existence and be in fellowship and memorial with us. Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake. And that is what we celebrate today. What a way of queering the dead—and the living.

As a Chicano, I think about the ways in which I turn to my Mesoamerican past as a ceremonial center of knowledge to reintroduce these rituals in a new way today. But also, as a queer person, I think about the ways I can draw on the myth and ritual of the Day of the Dead to also reflect on our queer.

Last week I participated in a Queer Día de los Muertos ritual that opened a space to reflect on our queer dead. I thus offer some of our reflections in conversation with my own thoughts to think about how we are remembering our queer in relation to death today in light of the this historic religious ordeal.

As I reflect on the ordeal of Day of the Dead, I think about it within the context of the borderlands. In our celebrations and the telling of the historical myth of el Día de los Muertos, we emphasize how our dead cross the borders that separate the living and dead through our representations of the calacas, calaveras, altars, etc. But I am reminded, however, of how our queer are forced to cross these same mythological borders of life and death every day. Queers certainly cross borders in the metaphorical sense, but we need to also remember how they cross them in the physical sense.

This past January I spent time with a group of my colleagues at the U.S./México border in Nogales, right along the Sonoran desert. We were constantly reminded of the high number of deaths that occur in the desert because of the treacherous and harsh conditions of the terrain and climate. The entire idea of border crossing begs the question: “Why did you cross?” As I’ve reflected on this trip before the answer becomes para sobrevivir. Survival becomes the factor by people are motivated to cross. Survival is a term very close our queer experience. I think about the number of LGBTQ individuals that are crossing to escape violence, persecution, condemnation—that are crossing out of necessity in order to survive. But many of them don’t survive. And they go unnamed. Unremembered.

I think about the queer dead that have lost their lives in the pursuit of survival. I think about the queer youth that join the dead as a result of bullying. And I also think about how each of us cross that border of life and death in our own lives and in our own communities. I stand in remembrance of those that are forced to carry the marker of death in the closet, in their churches, in their homes, and in their schools. I think about our HIV-positive brothers and sisters that are stigmatized and overlooked: How are we giving them a death-dealing category? Being queer we sometimes carry that part of us that is dead, even though our bodies are alive. Queer becomes a death-dealing category.

Day of the Dead is not meant to be a solemn ritual. Although, admittedly it is an emotional ordeal as we recall our loved ones, many of whom their deaths were tragic moments in our lives. But we celebrate the living through this ritual—death as a living category. I raise as reflection the question of how we do make queer a living category? How we keep those queer people that couldn't physically survive as living bodies and memories?

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