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Is Globalization Changing Mexico's Relationship to Death?

After the Mexican Revolution ended in 1920, the country began the construction of one of its founding myths: an ideology of death, exemplified in Día de los Muertos, “the day of the dead.” The idea of Mexican death fulfilled a particular function within the framework of the new regime’s official ideology: hiding, through a process of sublimation, the real collective trauma provoked by that mass experience of revolutionary violence.

In recent years, however, two substantial phenomena have opened a deep gap between this official mythology and the concrete reality of death as a collective experience for Mexicans.

First is the global diffusion and appropriation of the Mexican iconography and mythology of Día de los Muertos, in a process led by the US. This process has taken multiple forms, from the rise of “Catrina makeup” among young people around the world to the transformation of the Day of the Dead festivity, as in the Pixar animated film Coco, into an object of the global entertainment industry.

The second reason for the transformation of Día de los Muertos is the massive and unprecedented expansion of crime and violence—especially murder—throughout the national territory over the last 15 years. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared a new “war on drugs” in 2007, actively involving the armed forces in the fight against drug cartels, the rates of violence in Mexico have continuously increased. This unstoppable wave of terror has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. To date, there have been about 400,000 homicides and 100,000 desaparecidos (missing or disappeared persons). The violence has disrupted the cultural meaning of death for millions of Mexicans and broken the key assumptions that legitimized its national mythology.

In the aftermath of this catastrophe of collective suffering, death in Mexico no longer means the same thing as before. The ideology of “Mexican death,” with its festive and scathing overtones, simply no longer corresponds to the reality of the daily horror, immediate or latent, in which a major share of the national population now lives, constantly threatened by the possibility of being murdered or disappeared.

Over the past 15 years, then, Mexico has been plagued by violence without a narrative, alongside the internationalization of Mexican iconography of the dead. And these twin phenomena have put, so to speak, the final nail in the coffin of the Mexican idea of death.

Read entire article at Public Books